Does Your Diet Need a Cheat Day?

The cheat day is a convenient tool in many a dieter’s toolbox.  The psychological (and potentially physiological) benefits of cheating on the diet can offer a bit of reprieve in what can be an otherwise difficult process.  Is it necessary though? Or are cheat days just another selling point by savvy marketers?

I’ve written before about why I don’t believe in a single dietary approach.  Heck, I don’t even like the term “diet” because it implies a short term change that’s become synonymous with restriction. Each person’s physiology is highly unique and thus requires a unique dietary approach.  I am constantly tweaking different principles, but I don’t follow a diet per se.

In the past I have though, and I had relatively decent success with weight loss by employing a structured weekly cheat meal. Often times this included downing an entire take and bake pizza with extra cheese and eating ice cream until I couldn’t force another bite down. Somehow it worked, so I can’t demonize the approach and say it shouldn’t be taken. You just need to be careful how you employ them.

Cheat Meal vs. Cheat Day

If you are going to cheat try to limit it to a meal or a small time window.  You can do far less caloric damage if you indulge in your favorites for just one meal versus dragging out the gorge fest for an entire day.  Extending the cheat period could even reinforce bad habits enough that a multi-day binge goes down before you can even say the word “sabotage.” Furthermore, you should carefully….

Consider Your Psychology

If you have an addictive personality a cheat meal can spell bad news. Binging can easily get out of control. At certain points during my dietary journey, even though I was eating plenty of good, healthy, whole foods during the week, I found that I was stuffing myself silly during my cheat meal. I almost felt obligated to shove as much food down my gullet as could because I had that free pass. Eventually, after enough cheat days that ended with me lying on the couch, barely able to move and questioning why I had eaten so much, I decided to give up on the structured cheat meal.

If you can handle it though, and can eat just that one piece of cake that you’ve been craving all week, by all means go for it. The cheat day can serve as a structured outlet to satisfy the cravings that have slowly been building up over the course of the week.  It can even make getting through the week easier. You’ll find you can say no to certain foods when the temptation arises, knowing you get to indulge later in the week.

Reward Yourself

The cheat meal does not have to be weekly. Instead you can consider using it as a reward for good behavior.  This could be adhering to your diet for a specified amount of time, hitting a milestone on the scale, breaking a PR in the gym, or any other personal goal, like finally getting that raise at work. You’ve accomplished something good, let loose and reward yourself. The only downside to this approach is that you are essentially rewarding good behavior with a bad behavior so if you’re going to go this route make sure you’re not rewarding yourself for easily attainable goals that require little effort.  That could lead you to allowing a cheat every single day if you are not careful.

Reframe your Cheat

The word “cheat” implies a wrongdoing.  As a society we don’t allow students, athletes, or spouses (usually) to cheat. There are rules against it, so allowing a cheat on a diet seems to contradict the meaning of the word.  From a psychological perspective it may help to use a different term.  When you cheat you feel guilty because of the negative connotation associated with that word. When you enjoy your “free” meal, on the other hand, you’ve got nothing to worry about.  So even if you overindulge a bit the stress involved with cheating on the diet becomes less or nonexistent even because you have reframed it in your mind. Other suggested terminologies: earned meal, reward meal, or refeed meal

Physiological Benefits

There is some scientific evidence that there may be positive physiological benefits to a periodic cheat meal. This centers around the hormone leptin, which is one of the body’s primary hunger controlling hormones. Leptin is produced by your fat cells and is responsible for signalling your brain that you are full. The problem is the more fat you accumulate, the more leptin you produce, and much like insulin, your body can become resistant to the signals so you eat more and accumulate more fat.

On the flip side as you start reducing calories and losing fat you can start reversing that resistance, but you will also be producing far less leptin so your brain will still not be receiving the “I’m full” signals it should.  With prolonged caloric restriction leptin will continue to drop, but a high calorie refeed of primarily carbohydrates can stimulate leptin production. This is particularly useful if, after the refeed, you go back to restricting calories where the extra leptin can alleviate that “hungry all the time” feeling for awhile.

Refeeds are my usual go to cheat.  Instead of eating a bunch of crap like I used to I’ll just eat a boatload of good carbs in the form of sushi, multiple sweet potatoes, a smoothie made with real fruit or some kefir, and occasionally some dark chocolate.  I stuff myself, get that potential leptin boost, and don’t suffer from that nasty food hangover that would seem to weigh me down for an entire day afterward.

The 80/20 Rule

Another popular approach to cheating is to follow the 80/20 rule.  This is a simple approach that allows 20 percent of your meals to go off the plan, provided you stay on track the other 80 percent of the time. This really only works as long as you are not binging during that 20 percent, and such a ratio may be more suitable to maintenance approach once you’ve reached your goal weight. Personally I find that I need to be closer to a 90/10 and that’s typically my approach these days.

I don’t have to schedule a cheat day, I just allow them to happen naturally when the opportunity comes along. Last weekend I was visiting family and I had some fare that I typically would not have eaten for a couple of meals. This included one massive dinner of ribs, a sweet potato dish (with bacon!), and some fruit and veggies. Not particularly bad for me, but I’m sure the sheer quantity added up.  Knowing that I employed….

Some Additional Tricks

I made sure I got a workout in beforehand.  This included some sled drags across the backyard and kettlebell work.  By lifting some weights prior to the feast you deplete glycogen, making your muscles primed uptake some of those carbs to replenish that glycogen rather than immediately spill it over into your fat stores.

The second thing I did was fast from the end of that meal until after the following day’s workout. If you can’t fast at least have a lighter breakfast than normal the following day.  By restricting calories following a cheat you can still easily hit your required calories over a 24, 48, or week long period. I’ve stopped thinking in terms of daily calorie totals. In fact, I don’t think about calories at all.  I eat more on days I work out, less on days I don’t, and I’ll fast a little bit longer after a cheat meal. It’s a simple approach that’s kept me in the 12-14% body fat range without much effort.

Final Thoughts

Cheat days are by no means necessary. So while some diets market them as a sexy selling point you really need to figure out if they work for you.

If you need that mental break, go for it.

If it doesn’t slow your fat loss (or reverse it), then go for it.

If it allows you to visit Grandma’s house and eat a couple of guilt-free chocolate chip cookies, then absolutely go for it.

Life’s too short to completely restrict yourself all of the time.

Swing, Squat, and Hold - A Friday "Fun"isher
RKC Training Log: Week 7

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *