The Problem With Cheat Days & a Possible Alternative

The Problem With Cheat Days & a Possible Alternative

 

The Problem with Cheat Days & a Possible Alternative

Cheat day – the term sounds a bit devious, doesn’t it? However, it’s fairly common in the fitness world to have a day each week where you increase your calorie intake and eat foods you wouldn’t normally eat when you’re trying to stay lean. You might not gobble up an order to French fries on an average day, but on a cheat day, that order of fries is fair game.

What’s the purpose of a cheat day? One reason you have them is to get a psychological break from eating only healthy foods and it gives you a chance to indulge in your favorite high-calorie and not-so-healthy treat. It’s mentally reassuring to know you don’t have to completely give up comfort food favorites, like macaroni and cheese or pizza.

Another reason a cheat meal has potential benefits is your body can adapt to a low-calorie diet. When you restrict calories on a consistent basis, your metabolism slows. Makes sense, doesn’t it? When you supply your body with less energy, it compensates by burning less fuel. Plus, chronic calorie restriction lowers leptin, an appetite hormone that when it drops stimulates hunger. A reduced leptin level leads to cravings and makes it harder to stick to a lower calorie diet. In addition, leptin slows your resting metabolic rate. When your leptin level is low due to chronic calorie restriction, it’s harder to lose weight.

As fitness trainers point out, easing up on dietary restrictions on some days can boost your leptin level and give your metabolism a boost. Plus, you get the satisfaction of knowing you can still enjoy your favorite foods, just not every day.

The Downside of Having a Cheat Day

A day where you can eat what you want is certainly compelling. However, taking this approach could also stall your weight loss attempts, depending on how you go about it. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight and cut your calories back by 500 per day, you’ll have a 3,000-calorie deficit by day #6. If day #7 is a cheat day and you triple your calorie consumption by eating 1,500 more calories than usual, you’ve undone half of the calorie deficit for the week.

It’s not hard to eat 1,500 additional calories on a cheat day, especially when a single fast-food meal or restaurant splurge can set you back by 2,00 calories. Business Insider photographed various fast-food meals and their calorie content. A bacon clubhouse fried chicken sandwich, mozzarella sticks, a large order of fries, and an Oreo McFlurry clocked in at 2,010 calories! The sad truth is it’s not unusual for a fast food meal to top 2,000 calories. Plus, if you have a cheat day and eat what you want ALL day, you can do some serious damage. Sure, the extra food fires up your metabolism a bit, but not enough to make up for the extra calories.

Portion Distortion

Most of us underestimate the calorie content of the foods we eat and how much we eat of that food. Plus, restaurants and fast food joints super-size portions and make it harder to gauge how many calories you’re eating. Fortunately, there’s more transparency now that calorie counts are on the menu at many fast food and chain restaurants.

Another benefit of a cheat day is you replenish your bodies glycogen stores. When you do your next workout, you’ll probably feel stronger and perform better because your body has more glycogen to draw from for energy. However, you may also notice a sharp rise in body weight. Glycogen holds onto water, causing your weight to rise. Combine that with the extra sodium in most restaurant meals and your weight could rise substantially. Of course, it’s not fat gain, but water weight. However, this weight gain can make you feel bloated and you might find it takes up to a week to lose the extra water weight.

Alternatives to Cheat Days

Some people compromise by having a cheat meal rather than an entire day of splurging. Yet, as you can see, even a single fast food or restaurant meal can undo your hard work. Another approach is to do a “refeed” day. A refeed day differs from a cheat day in that you’re not completely throwing caution to the wind and eating everything you want. Rather, you increase your calorie and carb intake by a pre-determined amount to give your body a break from the calorie deficit.

For example, if you reduce your calorie intake by 500 calories daily six out of seven days to lose weight, you increase your calories back to baseline or even higher, depending on how far you want to take it. Rather than disregarding calories entirely, you do a planned calorie/carb increase one day a week as a break. A refeed day is a planned entity while a cheat day is a “free for all” where you eat what you want without regard for how many calories you’re taking in.

The refeed approach has advantages and disadvantages over an all-out cheat day. The advantage is you don’t do as much damage but still get the satisfaction of eating more and enjoying foods you wouldn’t normally eat. The disadvantage? You still have to track how much you take in, so you don’t get the satisfaction of a day of complete freedom.

One thing to note: Carbohydrates are what boost your leptin level and your metabolism. You won’t get the same bump-up in leptin if you consume lots of fatty foods on a cheat or refeed day.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of which approach you take, schedule your cheat or refeed day on a day where you’re doing your hardest workout and, if possible, eat the cheat/refeed meal before a workout. The extra glycogen you store in response to the refeed/cheat will help maximize your performance. Also, you don’t have to have a cheat/refeed day or meal once a week. You can have one every 10 days or even every 2 weeks. If you choose the cheat approach, make it a meal rather than an entire day of splurging. You can do too much damage over a 24- hour period. Plus, you might find it’s harder to get back on track after an entire day of indulgence.

 

References:

International Journal of Obesity, 5(3), 287.
J Clin Invest. 2003 May;111(9):1409-21.
Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Oct;102(4):807-19. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.109173. Epub 2015 Sep 23.
Business Insider. “What 2,000 calories looks like at every major fast-food chain”
Am J Physiol. 1999 Nov;277(5 Pt 1):E855-61.
Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2015.16955

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