Cheat Days: Do They Help or Hurt Your Diet?

junkfoodThere seems to be a never ending stream of articles online and in print touting the benefits of cheat days: days, or parts of days, where individuals take a break from their healthy diet and eat or drink whatever they want. The popularity of this topic is easy to understand – this is low hanging fruit in the health and fitness publishing world. People are always happy to hear that they can eat or drink whatever they want with little or no negative effects – some articles even suggest that cheat days help people lose more weight. But I wondered, what does the science really have to say about cheat days?

The Good
One of the biggest claims about the benefit of cheat days is that they can boost the metabolism by elevating levels of the hormone leptin, which tells the brain that it’s okay for the body to burn more energy. I looked for actual research to back this claim up and could only come up with two very old studies that showed small to moderate, very short-term increases in leptin following a re-feeding period (that’s the fancy science term for “cheat day”). Based on this, I would not rely on a cheat day to “reset” your metabolism after a week of restrictive dieting. It would be much more effective for you not to restrict calories so much that your leptin levels drop in the first place. In other words, skip the very low-calorie diet and opt for a smart, sustainable, long-term nutrition plan instead.

Another benefit attributed to cheat days is the psychological break it offers. The assumption is that for most people, knowing there’s a little wiggle room in the diet, or something to look forward to at the end of the week makes the rate of adherence much higher. While there is no shortage of quotes from psychologists claiming this all over the internet, I could not find a single study to back them up. I will throw my hat in with the PhDs on this one, though, and say that it does make intuitive sense that it’s easier to stick with a program that includes occasional, scheduled breaks. So let’s assume that there is a slight psychological benefit to occasional, planned cheat days. Then the question becomes: how does that slight mental benefit stack up against the mountain of calories a typical cheat day can add to an otherwise productive week of weight loss? More on that in a minute.

The Bad
Unfortunately, cheat days can be psychologically bad for your dietary efforts in a different way. The mere fact that you feel you need a cheat day strongly suggests that your current diet is not sustainable over the long term. It’s also a likely indicator that you have some emotional issues around food or drink if you need to “reward” yourself by consuming substances that are bad for you. Why can’t  taking care of your body be a reward in itself?

Realistically, though, in our culture today food has evolved into nearly as big a social role as a nutritional one. We associate food and drink with experiences and memories and traditions, and giving all of that up on top of the fat/salt/sugar taste extravaganza might be too much to bear. So maybe allowing small deviations from a healthy diet here and there is more than okay; maybe it’s necessary. The trouble, of course, is our tendency to overcompensate ourselves when we’re convinced that we deserve a treat. Human nature does not tend toward moderation, so even on cheat days, it’s important to exercise restraint.

The Ugly
The ugly truth that many articles don’t mention is this: You can undo a week’s worth of dieting with a single cheat meal. Seriously, if you don’t put some constraints on your cheat day, you might as well not bother trying to lose weight in the first place. There are a couple of ways you can successfully cheat. Your cheat days either need to be (1) very few and far between – once a month or less frequently; or (2) they need to consist of only small departures from your usual way of eating. Here are examples of what each of these options might look like.

How to Do It Right
In the first case, you toe the line and stick to your sensible, healthy eating plan day in and day out. It’s not overly restrictive and doesn’t leave you feeling hungry and cranky at the end of every day, so this is pretty easy. But every few weeks, most likely on special occasions, you eat or drink whatever you want for one whole day. Maybe it’s a friend’s wedding; maybe it’s your 50th birthday; maybe it’s Thanksgiving. Celebrate, enjoy, and then wake up the next morning and return to your sensible, healthy eating plan.
In the second case, you stick to your sensible, healthy eating plan six days a week. Maybe you’ve decided to go plant-based or gluten free, and you’ve reduced calories slightly for weight loss, too. It’s nothing weird or extreme, but you still experience cravings for those “forbidden” foods you used to eat fairly often. Maybe you can’t live without having potato chips or fried chicken every once in awhile. So you pick one day each week and you have one or two things that aren’t on your healthy eating plan. This should not constitute a binge session or even an entire cheat meal. It’s simply a reasonable portion size of that one thing you’ve really been missing lately.
No matter which route you go, it’s important to pre-plan your dietary interludes so that you remain in charge. Emotions and cravings shouldn’t dictate what you put into your body, your rational brain should. Plan your cheat day, look forward to it, and enjoy it when it arrives. Then go right back to your healthy eating plan and enjoy that too.

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