Cupcakes, ice cream, brownies — all treats you might not expect to find on your average healthy eater’s food log. However, for one eagerly anticipated day during the week or month, these no-no’s become the indulgences of choice for many of even the strictest dieters. “Cheat days,” or planned days of nutritional splurges, have become increasingly popular as a way for health-conscious individuals to enjoy their favorite foods without the guilt. The treats are seen as a way to keep spirits high and help dieters maintain adherence during the week.
But, is this “cheating” really beneficial in the long run? And if so, is it possible to “cheat” without feeling the effects or seeing them on the scale? We consulted with the experts to help you decide if you should bend the dietary rules occasionally and how to do it appropriately.
The Benefits of Cheating
Cheat days are often thought of as being strictly a mind-booster. Days and weeks of eating nothing but grilled chicken and vegetables can wear down even the most dedicated of individuals. Joe Vennare, fitness entrepreneur and creator of Hybrid Athlete, uses cheat days as “a reward for hard work in the gym and adherence in the kitchen.” However, there’s research to suggest that periodic, planned splurges could do more than just bolster your mental fortitude. There are physiological advantages as well.
One of the primary benefits of cheat days is their effect on leptin levels in the body. Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells that is key to maintaining energy balance in the body. When leptin levels reach a certain threshold, it signals to the brain that you have sufficient energy stored, allowing you to push away from the table when you’ve had enough. However, when leptin levels drop, hunger signals go through the roof, often resulting in overeating. The trickiest part? Caloric restriction has been shown to cause a drop in leptin levels, and so decreasing caloric intake for prolonged periods of time can lead to a greater potential for uncontrolled binging down the road. According to some research, upticks in eating, specifically with carbohydrates, could help to stave off decreasing leptin levels and prevent mindless noshing.
Caloric restriction has also been shown to have an effect on thyroid hormones, specifically T3. Thyroid hormones play many roles in the body, including regulating metabolic rate (how many calories you burn during the day) and growth in various systems of the body (like bones). Limiting your caloric intake can cause a decrease in T3 levels in the body, resulting in lower thyroid hormone production and a decrease in metabolic rate. Not exactly the adaptation you want to occur when you’re trying to lose weight.
Cheating — A Slippery Slope?
“Given our truly non-intuitive and hyper-caloric, hyper-palatable food environment, it’s easy with a cheat day, and even a single cheat meal, to blow multiple days’ worth of effort right out of the water.”
It turns out that periodic overfeeding can have some beneficial effects on hormone production and metabolism, but what about the psychological effects of splurging? Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, author and Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa, acknowledges that cheat days can be beneficial for certain individuals. “If there are folks out there for whom cheat meals and days allow them to live lives that they feel are both sustainable and enjoyable, and those same folks are happy with their health and weight, I certainly wouldn’t tell them to stop,” says Dr. Freedhoff. Indeed, cheat days do offer a mental reprieve for some individuals that spend the rest of their week counting calories or macros and saying “no” to the tub of ice cream in the freezer. However, “sustainable” might be the crucial word.
As Dr. Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, CA, explains, “Ultimately, you have to find something that will work for [the long-run]. It’s not what you can do — it’s what you can keep up.” That means if you’re relying on periodic indulgences to carry you through the week, your dietary approach may not be sustainable in the long run. The goal isn’t to eat perfectly all week then have your conscience turn a blind eye while you clear the buffet table on Saturday night.
Vennare adds that cheat days can occasionally do more harm than good. “Some people can’t make the switch from healthy to unhealthy. Once they get a taste of sweets, they binge and can’t go back. It throws off their entire diet plan, serving as a setback instead of a small break from the rules,” he explained.
The damage can even extend beyond the meal itself, Dr. Greenberg says. Also known as The Abstinence-Violation Effect, some individuals can feel an overall loss of control after going off the deep-end. Smokers, for example, who may have gone weeks without a cigarette could fall back into a habit after just one slip-up. By the same token, a cheat meal may turn into a cheat week — or worse, a cheat month — for dieters that push too hard. For this reason, it’s important to set sound guidelines for your cheat days to get the maximum psychological and physiological benefits without the adverse effects.
How to Make Cheating Work for You
Periodic high-calorie splurges can be beneficial both mentally and physically, but we’ve also seen how they can lead down a slippery slope and have lasting effects. For this reason, it’s important to observe the rules of moderation even when placing one foot off the diet wagon. According to Dr. Freedhoff, “Given our truly non-intuitive and hyper-caloric, hyper-palatable food environment, it’s easy with a cheat day, and even a single cheat meal, to blow multiple days’ worth of effort right out of the water.”
While straddling the fine line between self-control and dietary freedom can be hard, following these rules will allow you to indulge without sliding backwards on your diet and exercise regimen:
Don’t cheat too frequently. Having a nightly binge on ice cream and donuts doesn’t necessarily qualify as a cheat meal so much as a bad habit. Although cheat meals can be beneficial, spread them out through a month. Dr. Greenberg also indicates that the frequency of splurges can change depending on where you are in relation to your goal. Someone closer to their maintenance weight may be able to splurge more often than someone just starting a diet.
Plan around special occasions. Weddings, birthdays and other celebrations are infamously difficult for those watching what they eat. The high levels of excitement are often matched by high-calorie food and drinks. For this reason, Dr. Greenberg advises individuals to have planned cheat meals during special events. For example, if you find yourself a wedding, it’s OK to allow yourself to eat whatever is being served. However, limit yourself to one plate rather than adopting an all-you-can-eat mindset. According to Dr. Greenberg, it’s all about allowing some freedom without going overboard.
If possible, cheat on a big training day. While Vennare doesn’t have many guidelines for his clients as far as cheat days go, his one “rule” is to make an attempt to prelude a cheat meal with a big workout. “If you’re going to cheat, go for it and go big. The only recommendation I make is that they do it on a big training day. After their workout I suggest a meal that is high in protein, but no limit on carbs. After that, there are no rules,” says Vennare.
Don’t succumb to guilt. Like the Abstinence-Violation Effect mentioned above, once you slip up and overindulge, it’s easy to completely fall off the wagon. However, one little hiccup isn’t indicative of failure. According to Dr. Greenberg, “When people have a bad day and fall off the rails, they need to just get back on track the next day.”
Do you have a set cheat day during the week? What are your favorite nutritional splurges? How do you limit yourself so you don’t over-indulge?