Our wonderful client Tony asked: Do cheat days make a big difference to your fat loss results, and are they worth it?
The philosophy of the cheat day goes like this: If you’re always eating boring “diet food”, you are going to get tired of it. And you deserve a reward for your discipline at meal times and hard work in the gym.
The suggestion is that if you restrict yourself too much you’ll eventually splurge and blow it (which I agree with). So if you instead PLAN your splurges you’re more likely to stay on the straight and narrow.
How your body responds to surges in food intake
From a purely physiological perspective, there’s a good reason for having periods where you increase your calorie intake, in particular carbohydrates.
When you restrict calories your leptin levels drop, and leptin is that important hormone that tells you when you’ve had enough to eat. (Isn’t it cruel then that the more you try to restrict calories, the more your body asks you to eat, eat, eat?! )
So by having planned days when you eat a bit more you help stop your leptin levels dropping. The theory is that this will help stop a binge in its tracks.
But we all know that what and how we eat is just as much psychological as it is physiological.
And this for me is the problem with having scheduled periods of “cheating” on your diet.
My biggest issue with the concept of a cheat meal or cheat day is that it suggests that you’re either on or off a diet. This all or nothing mindset is the enemy of lifelong healthy eating. (Read more on my thoughts about that here).
There is wiggle room within a balanced eating plan and no food that you love should be completely off limits.
I find that cheat days end up for most being an all out junk food binge, and people eat much more than you normally would to the point of discomfort.
A healthy eating plan shouldn’t be overly restrictive. And no food on its own is inherently good or bad.
There should always be room for enjoying your life. That’s why we never ask you to eat dry chicken breasts and steamed broccoli all day every day in the pursuit of weight loss.
You’ve got to know yourself
By now, you should have a pretty good grasp on your relationship with food. If you know that a cheat day in the traditional sense will set off a free-for-all that you can’t recover from, just don’t do it.
The nutrition plan we advocate at New Image really is flexible enough to be followed everyday and in any situation. So just because you’re eating at a restaurant or going on a holiday doesn’t mean you have to cheat.
But if a planned splurge helps you stay on track and makes you feel like you’re still enjoying your life and living with freedom, then I don’t have a problem with that.
I would say though that you don’t need a whole day of off track eating. Plan a special meal once a week or on special occasions, and then at the next meal get straight back on track.
At the end of the day, I want you to eat well forever and make good nutrition part of your lifestyle.
How you can “cheat” sensibly
Try one of these practices to get the psychological and physiological benefits of a “cheat” without completely derailing your efforts.
- A couple of times a week, do an overnight 16 hour fast and then return to normal, balanced eating.
- Pick your spot. If you’re out for a special meal, choose what you really fancy and enjoy it, but don’t go crazy for all the indulgences at once. So enjoy the bread, a cocktail, dessert or pasta, just not all at once.
- Do what naturally slim people do intuitively: balance your splurges with more careful eating. For example, if you have a big special lunch out with a few treats, give the eating a rest for at least four-five hours and have a light dinner of lean protein and leafy greens.
- Spoil yourself with treats other than food like a massage, a new outfit or a movie.
Reconsider what it means to treat yourself
If you’re just starting out your health and fitness journey, some of the changes you’re making might feel restrictive and punitive. It can feel like you’re cutting out a lot of your favourite things, and initially training regularly is going to feel like something you have to psych yourself up for.
But what if you could reframe these changes as less of a struggle and a punishment?
Taking care of your health,
Limiting your alcohol intake,
Nourishing your body with healthy foods,
Protecting your heart and joints with regular sweaty physical activity.
These are all a gift to your body. This is what it means to take care of yourself, and to indulge yourself with self care. To truly love your body and give it the respect it deserves.
So enjoy those special treats, but know that the best reward is being kind to your body.
Tony, I hope this answers your question about my thoughts on cheat days!
If you have a question for me, I’d love to hear from you! Please comment on facebook or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.