Being on a diet for the first 6 days of the week – and then allowing yourself to eat anything on Sunday – is it really that bad? Hmm.. this might be tricky to answer, but let’s just say it’s not worth it. And I’m not saying this as a fitness coach but as a person who almost gave up my fitness regime due to one bad cheat day. This is not to say that ‘Cheating’ is inherently bad, but when you do it regularly, your efforts & your ‘Cheating’ cancel each other out. Not to mention the anxiety & the guilt-trip that haunts you the next day, Ugh! You know, these will all build a bad relationship with food, which then will make it impossible for you to stay on a diet.
Anyway, let’s look at this on a deeper level.
What even is a ‘Cheat Day’ Really?
Fairly straightforward, but cheat days are more of an intuitive thing where you eat anything you want to reward yourself. Pretty counterproductive. There’s actually 2 kinds of cheat days – the first one, is when your cravings overpower your will & you end up bingeing for the day. There’s also another kind of cheat day, which I’ve seen some of clients do – once they get to read the supposed ‘benefits’ of cheat days, they tend to have one intentionally. Kind of like a refeed day. Truth is, it’s really not that simple, let me explain.
The Theory Behind Cheat Days (refeed days)
Thing is, people who want to have an intentional cheat day, thinking that it’ll act as metabolic boost or re-fed tend to think cheat days as refeed days to break the ‘starvation mode’ while we’re dieting. This is simply because when you’re in a caloric restriction phase, our metabolism slows down a little (more on that in a minute).
When the body’s metabolism slows down, the way it burns off calories will also slow down. And so the supposed cheat days are meant to up your metabolism temporarily by increasing leptin (the hunger hormone which is responsible for sending ‘I’m Hungry’ messages to your brain) & when that happens you’re simply tricking your body that you’re not on a restrictive phase and that it’s okay to burn off more calories.
This is alright, theoretically at least. But let me cover the nuances here.
What Science Says About Cheat Days
See, the metabolic slow down is bound to happen as you lose weight. It is only natural as it’s a function of how much you weigh.
But hear me out, None of your cheat meals will negate this slowdown by giving you a metabolic boost.
But then, how can you manage this you ask? It’s pretty simple, all you’ll have to do is continue with your deficit, taking enough protein and nutrition-dense calories from whole food sources while strength training to preserve your muscle mass. This will also reduce the adaptive effects of hormonal functioning.
When you drop fat & build/ maintain muscle mass, your metabolism will naturally improve. Studies show that combining strength training while losing weight will help you retain muscle and inturn will reduce the drop in metabolic rate.
Plus, when you take in too many calories at once, it won’t proportionally increase your metabolism for long periods, and more likely, you’ll end up storing all the additional calories as fat!
So, a refeed day is not needed after all huh? But these are not the only reasons why an entire day of binge eating is bad.
Back to Me Almost Giving Up My Fitness Regime Due to a Cheat Day
This was when I was in Canada studying for my masters. Life was different there, it was snowing for months, always gloomy, and my everyday food on campus was pizzas, pasta’s and burgers. I had put on 10 kgs in 8 months and that’s when I decided to watch what I eat and eat in a deficit. It was tough when I started dieting and I could follow the plan well for a week. But my hunger was on the rise and being in a college around junk food all the time, kept making me wonder if I should just have a cheat meal. Few days later, I gave in, ate my heart out. And it was of no surprise, I felt the worst after doing that. There was a feeling of guilt, I felt bloated, low on energy and felt like I have ruined all the hard work I have done till now. That feeling was so powerful that I was almost at the verge of giving up my entire fitness regime based on this one incident.
Not only that, I used to eat in a deficit for 6 days, and one meal on weekend I used to eat whatever I liked and I wondered why my weight was not moving. Nobody told me at that time that this one meal which I am eating endlessly is undoing all the deficit I made in the entire week.
My Approach To ‘Cheat’ Days
I have never been a fan of the word “cheat day”, let alone the entire concept, because the word “cheat” implies that something negative or wrong is happening, like it’s a crime or an unethical behaviour which needs to be hidden from others. I call them “free-meals” for my clients.
Most people struggling to lose weight follow a plan very strictly on the weekdays. However, they need to look out for the weekend because that’s when they end up eating out as much as possible, which undoes their entire week’s progress. They are just left with feelings of guilt, and the sudden weight spike worries them and creates a bad relationship with food.
My advice to all my clients (& everyone) is to look at it in a different way and go prepared.
- Plan them out in advance: Make an account for the foods you would eat, in what quantities and budget for calories accordingly, before steeping out for your ‘free meal’.
- Be mindful of what you’re eating: I advise my clients to treat themselves with small portions of their favourite food within their calorie budget, that they have saved over the last couple of days. It’s all about making sustainable choices that are suitable for your lifestyle.
- Indulge in a Healthy Free meal: I suggest clients to have food that looks relatively healthy (without counting its calories), but till they are 80% full. Go with the flow, no stress, just eat until 80% full and be mindful of what and how much you are eating. Focus on chewing more, the environment, people around, essentially just enjoying the meal.
- Choose a 7/10 Meal: Here I mean, the palatability of food needs to be lesser than what a 10/10 is for you. You need to control how tasty the food is, because super-tasty food will hijack your brain in a way that you will want to keep craving for 10/10 meals and more. For me, I never go in for a death-by-chocolate donut as it is a 10/10 for me (maybe even a 11), rather I would eat a simple cinnamon donut that might be just a 7/10 for me.
- Reduce variety: Studies suggest reducing the variety of food you have in a meal helps you consume lesser calories. You only tell me, how many bites of a cheesecake can you keep having in a meal?
Willpower is something we all lack (just a fickle in our nature), especially when it comes to dieting. It’s more of a skill (than a power, obviously) that needs to be practised over time. You take about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions a day and it’s a no-brainer that we lose our will power at the end of it, leading to relapses & cheat days. So, whether you’re just starting out or already on a program, it’s good to start practising so as to not make frequent unhealthy decisions. Ultimately, it’s just a good combination of willpower and sustainable choices that’ll make us stick with our lifestyle in the long haul.