Dieting is hard. It’s as simple as that. You are depriving yourself of the things you love and if you are new to dieting, there is a chance that you could be suffering withdrawals from sugar and processed foods too. If only there was a way to maintain a healthy diet and eat the things you love. Well perhaps there is. Many now argue that having a ‘cheat’ meal or even a whole day can actually help rather than hinder your weight loss goals. What this means in real terms is that whilst you continue your dieting struggles, you can still indulge in your favourite things on a regular basis, albeit once a week rather than once a day! Some go on to argue that not only is a cheat day enjoyable, but it’s also vitally important to the success of your regimen. Carolyn O’Neil, co-author of The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous, explains that “sensible splurging is really the key to being able to achieve a healthy lifestyle.” Sounds good right? But is it too good? Can a cheat day really be good for your diet or is it all just wishful thinking?
Perhaps one of the most obvious benefits to a cheat day whilst dieting is a psychological one. It can be tough when you are stuck eating things that perhaps you don’t enjoy whilst seeing everyone else tuck into your favourite foods. The idea of never getting a taste of that delicious treat again can be devastating – and could potentially de-rail even the most determined dieter. So the possibility of a motivational donut or other treat at the end of the week could really help keep you on track. Joe Vennare, creator of Hybrid Athlete, says just that. “It’s a reward for hard work in the gym and adherence in the kitchen,” he claims. Jillian Guinta, professor of Health and Physical Education at Seton Hall University agrees with him, stating that “oftentimes, it may take several weeks to see the scale budge, so knowing that a cheat day is coming up can help keep up motivation.”
Is it purely a psychological response though? A great deal of research suggests that actually, having a cheat day will have a physiological effects too, meaning that your end of week treat is as good for your body as it is for your mind. It’s all to do with the hormones that control your appetite and your metabolic rate. After regular and continued dieting, your body begins to realise that it’s no longer getting the steady supply of calories that it was before. The body then makes itself more efficient and as a result, your metabolic rate will drop. This is bad news if you are looking to lose weight, but a cheat day will help to trick your body into believing this isn’t happening and that there isn’t a huge drop in calorie intake.
Fitness Competitor Brandy Segura explains that “a scheduled cheat meal can actually help optimize our body’s hormones to avoid weight-loss plateaus,” and there is science to back-up this claim. Leptin is one of the hormones that can be optimized. It is secreted by your fat cells and it’s the key to maintaining your energy levels. When you have a good supply of leptin, your brain stops sending hunger signals but when your leptin levels drop, your brain screams out for sustenance – and that can lead to uncontrolled binge eating. This is exactly what happens to your leptin levels on a sustained calorie-restrictive diet. Have a cheat day though, and your leptin levels will balance out, meaning that rather than uncontrolled binge eating, you can have a controlled and conscious uptake in your calories. The appetite-stimulant ghrelin works in the same way – the more extreme your calorie restriction, the more stimulated your appetite becomes, and the more likely you are to overeat.
Dieting also effects thyroid reactions. Thyroid hormone T3 is responsible for controlling metabolic rate, modest weight changes, and energy levels. Dieting can reduce T3 levels and as a result, it can decrease metabolic rate and thus slow or even stop weight loss. A controlled cheat day can help to stave off this potential outcome and lead to a steady and successful weight loss program.
With science backing-up temptation like that, it’s hard to look at the negatives but is it all just too good to be true? It can be. In fact, even advocates of cheat days admit that it won’t work for everyone. Psychologically, it can be difficult, especially for those just starting out or for dieters who struggle to make the switch from unhealthy foods to healthy foods. There is a danger that one treat will lead to another and then another until eventually, your cheat day has turned into a cheat week and then a cheat month and you’ve given up all together. In this instance, temptation is just too much to resist. There is even a name for this phenomenon: the abstinence violation effect.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Melanie Greenberg further suggests that the need for a cheat day in order to push you through a difficult week is exactly what you don’t want. “Ultimately, you have to find something that can work for the long run,” she argues. “It’s not what you can do – it’s what you can keep up.” In other words, if you need the prospect of a cheat day to get you through your week, chances are that your lifestyle is not sustainable in the long term.
There are other problems too, like what’s going to happen to all those extra calories and how easy it is to undo all your own hard work. After all, junk food is still bad for you, even if you’ve eaten well all week, and you could potentially be feeding an addiction to sugar and processed foods. Perhaps your body won’t fully adapt to the healthy lifestyle that you strive for as it knows its next treat is just a few days away. And as for metabolic rate, there are ways to improve it that don’t involve indulging in potentially hazardous foods, such as with exercise and weight training.
Compromise is Key
Despite the dangers, it’s clear to see the benefits of a cheat day, so perhaps what’s needed here (like everything in life) is compromise. Have a cheat meal rather than a cheat day, and even then, avoid processed foods; have a home-cooked burger with bacon and cheese rather than hitting the drive-thru. Accept your cravings as they are because chances are, they’re never going away. So allow yourself that thing you love once in a while, but savour it rather than wolfing it down mindlessly. Eat filling foods, and go for foods with big flavours so you feel like you’re getting something great. Jillian Michaels of Biggest Loser fame suggests that rather than binging on 5,000 or 6,000 calories, simply up your calorie intake to 2,000 for the day. Don’t cheat too often and plan around those special occasions so you can truly enjoy that birthday party or wedding breakfast. Most importantly though, don’t let it turn into a landslide of bad eating and don’t let the guilt get to you. Perhaps, despite all the science, a cheat day isn’t so good for you after all – but maybe a treat day is instead!
 Cited by Kathleen M. Zelman, 2016, How to Cheat on Your Diet and Still Lost Weight, Available at: http://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/features/cheat-on-your-diet-and-still-lose-weight#1
 Jeremey DuVall, 2014, When is it OK to Cheat? The Pros and Cons of Cheat Days, Available at: http://dailyburn.com/life/health/pros-and-cons-cheat-day-diet/
 Justin Caba, 2015, The 90/10 Rule: Cheat Meals Actually Boost Your Metabolism and Help You Lose Weight, Available at: http://www.medicaldaily.com/9010-rule-cheat-meals-actually-boost-your-metabolism-and-help-you-lose-weight-327212
 Brandy Segura, 2016, 5 Ways Cheat Meals Can Improve Your Body, Available at: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/5-ways-cheat-meals-can-improve-your-body.html
 Jeremey DuVall, op cit.
 Brandy Segura, op cit.
 Jeremey DuVall, op cit.
 Kris Gunnars, 2016, 7 Reasons Not to Have Cheat Meals or Cheat Days, Available at: https://authoritynutrition.com/7-reasons-not-to-have-cheat-meals-or-days/
 Jason Maxwell, 2016, How to Rock a Cheat Day (Without Feeling Bad or Getting Fat), Available at: http://breakingmuscle.com/nutrition/how-to-rock-a-cheat-day-without-feeling-bad-or-getting-fat
 Kathleen M. Zelman, Ibid.
 Jillian Michaels, 2015, Cheat Days: Good or Bad?, Available at: http://www.jillianmichaels.com/fit/lose-weight/cheat-days
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