There seems to be much debate within the fitness and wellness industry about using cheat days while trying to achieve weight loss. There are quite a few reasons for this, but I am going to break this topic down and review through an objective lens. So, what’s the debate?
The number one concern when it comes to cheat days is that it implies restriction during the remaining days or that you are doing something wrong. When you think about it, that makes total and complete sense. Typically, when people are trying to lose weight the first instinct is to cut calories and the second instinct is to cut carbohydrates. Both are problematic in their own right, but the common theme here is restriction. Such restriction can lead to binge eating or over consumption. Essentially, when you leave yourself feeling restricted and deprived most days of the week, you look forward to your cheat days and are, therefore, at risk of going overboard and setting yourself up for unnecessary weight gain. According to (Raman, Smith, & Hay, 2013), “a negative mood state can be a trigger for overeating in people who are overweight of have obesity. Furthermore, it can lead to an all-or-nothing thinking style that may be at odds with healthful, moderate eating practices.” Additionally, according to (Symptoms & Causes of Binge Eating Disorder, 2016), “dieting in unhealthy ways – such as skipping meals, not eating enough food, or avoiding certain kinds of food – may contribute to binge eating disorder.”
A second concern with cheat days is social isolation. What does that mean? Simply put, when you are restricting your calories and are following a strict diet you may find it difficult to go out to eat and socialize with friends and family. For instance, if an outing falls outside of your planned cheat day it may cause undue stress and anxiety, which can ultimately lead to emotional eating if you aren’t careful. When this happens, you may feel a sense of isolation and a feeling of not belonging. While your friends and family are enjoying beer and shared appetizers, you deny yourself that indulgence and stick with foods that don’t quite cut it for your taste buds for the situation you are in. You may be offered some of that delicious food, and while you may feel tempted to partake, you continue to deprive yourself. That naturally leaves you thinking about your cheat day even more and puts you deeper at risk for binging on all of the things.
The final concern with cheat days is the practical use of cheats into your lifestyle, which is a debate within itself. I personally implement cheat meals vice cheat days, but let’s break this down to allow you to make the best decision for you, your goals, and your lifestyle. In my view, cheat days essentially gives you the green light to eat whatever you want for the entire day with little to no boundaries or rules. Because of the lack of rules, cheat days is most definitely not one for everyone for that reason. Basically, with cheat meals you can set yourself back from the progress you have made up until that point in just a single day. Again, this may work for some people and this is not to say it is all bad, but it is person and situation dependent. But that’s not to say it is all bad. Now that I laid out the arguments against cheat days, allow me to provide some tips and alternatives to allow yourself the ability and freedom to release some of the restriction form your diet to make it more sustainable.
The first tip I want to provide is to implement cheat meals vice cheat days as I previously stated. A cheat meal a week is what I utilize in my daily life and routine. I find a cheat meal allows me to throw caution to the wind for a meal without the unnecessary risks that come with cheating for an entire day. For example, although I don’t leave myself feeling deprived or restricted during the rest of the week, I enjoy the one day a week I have a nice dinner with my husband. This is the meal I let myself indulge a little bit with a beer or two and allow myself to order whatever I am craving at that moment without the guilt. In my opinion, cheat meals are the way to go and are a better option for those trying to lose weight. The one piece of advice I want to provide if you want to start implementing cheat meals into your diet is to plan ahead. By that I mean, when you know that your cheat meal is planned on a specific day and you know where you are going to eat, look at the menu ahead of time. Get an idea of what you think you might order and factor in those calories to make the appropriate adjustment during the days leading up to that meal. By conducting this exercise of preparation, you will find that you will be able to balance out your week and limit the unnecessary weight gain from that one meal. The key is to create a plan that you can stick with long term and is sustainable.
The last tip I want to give is to rethink your current nutrition plan. Thinking about the foods you look forward to most during your cheat meals and then consider the different ways to incorporate those foods into your daily diet. For instance, if you are following a diet that restricts carbohydrates as I alluded to earlier, then you might have a tendency to over consume foods such as dessert foods during your cheat meals. To alleviate this risk of over consumption, consider adding foods into your daily diet such as dark chocolate, fruit, whole-grain cookies, etc. Consume sweet treats that are healthier alternatives as part of your regular diet. For example, ss part of my daily diet, I enjoy chocolate almost daily to curb my sweet tooth. I indulge in a couple piece of Dove Dark Chocolate each night for an after-dinner treat. By allowing myself the freedom and permission to enjoy chocolate has helped immensely with controlling my portions of those foods, especially when going out to eat at restaurants when the cravings are at their highest. On the other hand, if you are restricting calories and use your cheat meals as the largest meal of the week, then consider eating low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods such as leafy green vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, cruciferous veggies, etc to boost your fiber and volume intake without the extra added calories. When losing weight is your main goal, my number one piece of advice I give almost all of my clients is to boost consumption of water, protein, and fiber. I like to call that the trifecta of weight loss. Bottom line here is to find what works best for you and a method you can stick with for the long haul. There is no one-size-fits-all plan when it comes to weight loss. The important thing is that you are happy and healthy with whatever you decide is best for you and your lifestyle.
Raman, J., Smith, E., & Hay, P. (2013). The Clinical Obesity Maintenance Model: An Integration of Psychological Constructs including Mood, Emotional Regulation, Disordered Overeating, Habitual Cluster Behaviours, Health Literacy and Cognitive Function. Journal of Obesity.
Symptoms & Causes of Binge Eating Disorder. (2016, June). Retrieved from National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/binge-eating-disorder/symptoms-causes