“I can resist anything except temptation.” For most of us, that quote feels most applicable when we’re in the middle of changing our eating habits — also known as going on a healthy eating diet.
Let’s face it: cutting out foods like refined sugar, carbs and anything covered with cheese from our diet can be a challenge, particularly when you’ve first started a new eating plan or when you seem to have plateaued in weight loss efforts. It’s one of the reasons that cheat days have become so popular, including in phase three of the South Beach Diet.
What Is a Cheat Day?
A cheat day is a sneaky day that, while it may seem like any other, gives you license to eat whatever you want, without counting calories or sticking to your diet. Goodbye, plain chicken and broccoli. Hello, juicy hamburger. A cheat day can be any day of the week though most people will have theirs coincide with a weekend day.
The theory behind having a cheat day is that you’ll stick to your diet throughout the week and stave off cravings for those foods tempting you by reminding yourself that you have a cheat day coming up. And then, on said cheat day, you get to enjoy whatever food has been taunting and teasing you.
While the whole “cheat” bit makes it sound illicit, cheat days (or cheat meals) are actually something that bodybuilders and professional athletes often employ in their training programs. That’s because when you’re on a diet, such as the common low-carb diet, you’ve likely reduced the number of calories you’re eating. At the onset of a diet, you may even notice that the weight comes off quite easily.
But our bodies are smart. Over time, they wise up and realize that you’re eating fewer calories than what you’re burning. To offset this, your body adjusts its metabolism, slowing it down so that the body becomes more efficient. This is usually around the time when your weight loss stalls. By introducing a cheat day, the thinking goes, you’re introducing more calories for a limited amount of time, which is enough to trick the body into shifting your metabolism back into high gear. (More on this later.)
Some cheat days are epic. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s, for example, has cheat meals that could feed a small family, like these eight slices of French toast topped with apple pie. But even for us mere mortals, there’s something to the whole cheat day concept.
3 Proven Benefits of a Cheat Day, Including Weight Loss
Should you be introducing cheat day calories into your diet? Here’s why a cheat day could be right for you.
1. It can help you stick to your goals long-term.
Indulging in planned hedonic deviations — or cheat days to the rest of us — has been proven to help people stick to their diet goals.
One study comprised of three different experiments lends credence to the idea. (1) In the first part, participants were asked to imagine being on a 1,500-calorie diet each day or on a 1,300-calorie diet that included a 2,700-calorie “hedonic deviation” at the end of the week. The people who had the option of a cheat day thought they’d have more self-control by the time the cheat day came around, and could stave off temptation better, though they’d be on a stricter diet the rest of the time.
Next, it was time to put the theory to the test. The study participants who had the cheat day option reported feeling more motivation and self-control to stay on their diet the rest of the time. They also lost the same amount of weight as the people who didn’t have a cheat day.
Finally, at the end of the experiment, the people were asked about their tackling their personal goals with two options, with and without a cheat day. No matter what the goal actually was, the participants believed the cheat day path was more motivating.
Why was the cheat day so motivating? The researchers behind the study think that it’s because, with a cheat day, the “all or nothing” approach that occurs so often with dieting is gone. On a traditional diet, you might feel like you’ve totally bombed a week’s worth of healthy eating when you have that piece of chocolate cake. With a built-in cheat day, however, it’s acceptable and expected. You can have your cake, eat it (hey, I do hope it’s made with natural ingredients!) and then get back to your diet.
2. It can boost your metabolism.
As I mentioned earlier, when you’ve been dieting for some time, you might find your metabolism slowing. A lot of that has to do with leptin, the “starvation hormone.” This is the hormone that tells your brain when you’re full, helps regulate energy and suppresses our desire to eat more food. All good, right? When you decrease calories, however, your leptin levels are affected. This reduction in leptin levels can make it difficult to keep losing weight, even if you’re still eating less.
By incorporating a cheat meal or a cheat day into your otherwise healthy diet, you’re adding in more calories for a window of time which, in turn, should increase your leptin levels once again. One small study found that overeating carbohydrates increased metabolism and the amount of leptin in participants. (2) Another study found that, for both men and women, leptin levels increased after a high-carb meal. Interestingly, in women, a high-fat meal also increased the leptin levels. (3) Faster metabolism = more weight loss. Yes, please.
When trying to figure out how to lose weight fast, a cheat day can be part of the formula.
3. It can help you make the right choice, right now.
Making your goals easier to achieve long-term and increasing your metabolism sounds well and good eventually, but what happens when you’re at the office and that box of doughnuts is staring you in the face?
The beauty of a cheat day is that it can help you make smarter choices about food in the present, allowing you to tap into the concept of intuitive eating. For many people, it’s the “no <insert food here> ever again” that makes it tough to stick to a diet. Whether it’s all in your head or not, knowing that sweet relief is coming in the form of a cheat day can make it easier to say no to those doughnuts.
Dangers of the Cheat Day
Of course, like most topics in the health and fitness world, cheat days are highly debated. If you’re considering adding a cheat day or cheat meal to your diet plan, there are a few dangers to consider.
1. Gorging yourself on food “because you can.”
Cheat days are meant to help you avoid those mid-week slip ups and enjoy foods or a meal that you’ve otherwise eliminated from your diet. For some people, though, cheat days can become an excuse to gorge on everything and anything in sight, or to eat even when they’re no longer hungry or craving something so it doesn’t feel like they “wasted” their cheat day. If you are inhaling as many Big Macs or pizzas as you can get your paws on during your cheat day, even though what you’re really craving is a bowl of fresh fruit, it could be a sign of a deeper problem with food.
2. Making food an enemy.
Along those same lines, cheat days often have the effect of making certain foods out to be the enemy. Even the name “cheat” makes it sound like you’re being naughty by eating something. None of us is going to eat perfectly 100 percent of the time. Should we really be calling it a cheat day when a “slipup” is bound to happen at some point, or would we be better off with giving in to a small temptation and then moving past it?
What instead of spending a whole week thinking about chocolate chip cookies and then eating a box of them, we instead poured ourselves a glass of milk, sat down with a cookie or two, enjoyed it, and then continued with our regularly scheduled eating? For a lot of people, that makes a lot more sense.
3. You’re not as healthy as you think.
Cheat days make sense if you’re an athlete or someone like The Rock who’s constantly training. But many of us on a casual diet aren’t actually eating as healthily or working out as hard as we think we are. Eating more calories, burning less and then indulging could be the reason why you’re not seeing results from your diet.
In other words, if this describes you, you may choose to have the occasional cheat meal (such as only once a week if you’re on a strict eating plan like the keto diet) instead of an entire day cheating. A cheat meal may be all you need (or deserve!) to satisfy some cravings and then get back to your healthy eating plan.
How to Do Cheat Days and Cheat Meals the Right Way
I believe that cheat days and cheat meals can have their place in your diet. Here’s how.
1. It’s a treat day, not a cheat day. The whole idea of “cheating” with food makes me uneasy. It seems almost like a license to binge eat, which is definitely is not. Instead of a cheat day or cheat meal, think of it as a treat day or treat meal, where you’re allowing yourself something special. No shame or stigma, just a tasty treat.
For example, if you’re trying to keep your carbs low while working out plenty, but the body results have slowed down considerably while your energy levels are sagging? Then perhaps your body (and brain) needs a cheat day. Have those Paleo pancakes with real maple syrup, a big ole’ burrito bowl for lunch and home-cooked comfort food for dinner. Your muscles will soak up those good carbohydrates and refill with glycogen and prepare to see your energy go through the roof the next day … and return to your eating plan.
2. Don’t confuse a treat day or treat meal with a bad habit. If you’re having a chocolate “treat meal” each night, you have a nighttime chocolate habit. Be honest with yourself about whether you’re treating yourself a little too often and how that affects your long-term health goals.
3. Get a workout in. If you’re going down the treat day route, that doesn’t mean you must be a sloth all day. Go on a walk, practice yoga, throw some balls with the dog. You’ll feel better before and after eating.
4. Plan treat days around major events. If you’re attending a special event like a wedding or birthday dinner, build that into your eating plan. Perhaps you make that your treat day instead of your usual one, or you add in a sweat-inducing workout that day. The key here is to include these events in your diet and plan with them in mind, rather than abandoning your entire diet.
5. Eat what you want as long as it’s real food. Something that often happens on cheat days is that people eat a lot of junk, processed foods that does nothing for our bodies. So one of my favorite ways to counteract this is that I’m allowed to eat whatever I want, as long as it’s unprocessed.
That might mean grilling up my own hamburgers, enjoying brownies from the local farmers market or stopping in at a local farm-to-table restaurant and eating a larger-than-normal meal for me. This works really well in satisfying cravings without all the nasty side effects from processed foods and fast food joints.
6. Spice up your healthy food. If you’re eating the same plain “diet food” all the time, there’s no doubt that you’ll want something more exciting by the time the weekend rolls around. The key here is to make healthy meals that actually taste good.
It sounds obvious, but so often, we’re told that diet food is steamed veggies with a side of plain chicken. And no disrespect to steamed vegetables and poultry, but there are so many other things you can eat! I have tons of recipes that not only taste great, but are good for you. When you’re eating delicious, nutritious food all the time, you’ll find that you’ll feel the need for treat days less and less.
- Incorporating cheat days and cheat meals into a diet is a way to indulge in “off-limit” foods without breaking your diet.
- Cheat days help boost metabolism and leptin production, which slow down when you’re restricting calories.
- Having cheat days can help dieters stick to their long-term weight loss goals, boost metabolism and turn down foods and situations that might ordinarily derail their diet.
- There are some dangers in cheat days, however. They can create unhealthy relationships with food or have people binge eat really low-quality, processed foods. And if you’re not eating as healthily as you think you are otherwise, a cheat day might be holding you back from dropping pounds.
- Shifting the concept of a cheat day to a “treat day” can help us think about cheat days differently.
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