If you have been on social media recently, chances are you have seen numerous posts of fitness enthusiasts showing a calorie dense meal, but saying it is okay because it is part of their “cheat day”. You probably either think the concept of a cheat day is beneficial, or you think that it will do more harm than good. Well, I am here to defend cheat days, to an extent.
A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that planned days of “cheating” may be beneficial in the long run (4). And, as I hope you know, the most important aspect of a diet is being able to follow it for prolonged periods of time. Cheat days can serve as a morale boost, help you stick to your diet, and they could boost your leptin levels.
What is a Cheat Day?
As the name implies, a cheat day is a set day or a single meal, usually about once a week, where it is acceptable to go off of your diet and indulge a little. Now, when I talk about cheat days, I am not going to be referring to refeeds, because that is a very specific and calculated caloric increase, namely with carbs, which has been shown to greatly benefit dieters. If you go onto social media, you might see some people posting pictures of burgers, pizza, or milkshakes and incorrectly labeling it a refeed day rather than a cheat day, but that is a topic for another day.
In my opinion, the average fitness enthusiast does not need to be as strict about their cheat days. Yes, you may benefit from a highly tailored refeed day, but unless you are dieting for a show or a competition, it is probably not necessary to be very accurate. A planned cheat day gives you the ability to go off of your diet without feeling guilty about it.
Cheat Day Benefits
A study was done to test the idea that goals which require a long period of dedication benefit from a planned detour. The study split subjects into two groups, one that ate 1500 calories per day and one that ate 1300 calories per day for six days, then ate 2700 calories on the seventh day, or 10,500 calories a week. After the two-week study, the group that had the planned cheat day maintained their self-control and were more motivated to continue the diet. The study also found that both groups lost similar amounts of weight during the experiment (4).
Another study done by Cornell University looked at the average person’s weight cycle during the week. The experimenters saw that most people had their heaviest weight on Sunday or Monday after a weekend binge, but the people who were able to stay focused on their diets during the rest of the week ended up losing weight overall (3). Gina Leinninger, who studies the neuronal regulation of body weight said that the chemical Leptin could be the reason for this trend (1).
Most of the leptin in your body is produced by your fat cells, or adipose tissue. After leptin is released into the blood stream, it sends a signal to your brain telling you to decrease your food consumption and to increase your energy output. Studies have shown a correlation between leptin level’s and a person’s BMI and body fat percentage (2). So, when you are losing weight and decreasing your body fat, your leptin levels will also decrease, which leads to an increase in appetite. Over-eating for a short period of time, about 12 hours, has been shown to increase leptin levels, which will help to suppress your appetite (2).
These studies show that if you are focused and consistent with your diet for the majority of the week, it is okay to have a little splurge and award yourself, within reason. For example, if the group, in the first experiment, with the planned cheat day would have eaten 5000 calories on their higher calorie day, then they would have gone over the caloric goal and they probably would not have lost as much weight. So, even though I think you should have a free day each week, that does not give you the freedom to eat everything in sight, just do not feel discouraged if you eat a few more calories than normal.
A lot of dieters fail when they eat too much, then get discouraged and stop their diets completely. If you do slip, you just need to get over the guilt you are putting on yourself and get back on track. A cheat day allows you the freedom to not worry about what you are eating at every single meal. It gives you a mental break from worrying about what foods are healthy or what the macros/calories of your meal is. In turn, this could help you to stay more motivated and be more consistent with your diet, which will lead to a much more successful diet. As the studies have shown, it could also raise your leptin levels and help suppress those craving that you are having.
If you take anything away from this, just keep in mind that a diet does not have to be a struggle all the time for it to be successful. Have a nice meal, go out with friends, and enjoy yourself once and a while, just be reasonable. This will help you to change from a dieting mindset to a healthier lifestyle, one that is sustainable for longer periods of time. I believe that a healthy lifestyle includes diet and exercise that fits into your life, not the other way around.