Is it Okay to Cheat?

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Now that I’ve gotten your attention with this provocative title, let’s talk about one of the hottest topics in nutrition today: cheat days. One of my clients recently asked my opinion on this topic (shout out, you know who you are :)), and I thought this would be a great subject to address.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this trend, a cheat day is a designated time (typically one day per week) in which worries about calorie-counting, macronutrient ratios, and protein intake take a backseat to indulgence. Although this may sound like a bad idea (or a good one, depending on your mood), there are viable arguments for incorporating cheat days into your diet. Research has proven adherence to a low-calorie diet can decrease metabolism. This occurs as a defense against starvation. Simply put, your body thinks there is a famine and is trying to protect you by conserving energy. (This reaction is most pronounced in people without adequate body fat stores). By taking a break from caloric restriction, your body realizes there is no danger and keeps the metabolism ignited.1 Furthermore, low-calorie diets can decrease your release of leptin and IGF (insulin-like growth factor), hormones that promote fat-burning and muscle utilization.1 Lastly, cheat days can be psychologically beneficial, as they lessen feelings of depravation.

Undoubtedly, there are convincing reasons to add cheat days to your diet. However, I have issues with this trend for the following reasons:

1. The Name: I don’t like the word “cheat”. It implies that you’re doing something wrong. Thinking of certain foods as “cheating” can lead to guilt and an unhealthy relationship with food.

*I should note that every food can be part of a healthy diet, in the right proportions. However, certain “frankengedients”, such as partially-hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and genetically-modified foods should be kept to a minimum. For example, if you want to buy a frozen pizza, look for one that has ingredients you can pronounce.*

2. The License to Go Crazy: While professional athletes and bodybuilders typically eat one “cheat meal” per week, the general population often takes cheat days to the extreme, forgoing any dietary considerations for an entire day.

3. The Slippery Slope: One unhealthy day can lead to another. It can be harder to return to healthy habits after a binge.

4. The Food Hangover: When you typically eat a healthy diet, a day of indulgence can cause lethargy, nausea, headaches, and even body aches the following day. This hungover feeling can also cause you to skip the gym.

From Cheat Day to Treat Day

I’m not saying we should never indulge. However, instead of a cheat day, pick a certain day of the week to indulge in a special meal or dessert. On the day of your “treat meal”, eat healthfully until your special splurge. For example, you could plan to go out for a cheeseburger on Saturday night. Instead of eating poorly the entire day, you can look forward to a big satisfying meal. Typically, one treat meal will not leave you with that gross, hungover feeling. I find that looking forward to a special treat keeps me from feeling deprived and causes me to work even harder in the gym. (“Just think about the chips and queso, Meg, earn ‘em!”)

“Treat days” can also (occasionally) be part of a healthy lifestyle. I have three treat days every year: my birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I look forward to them, but typically pay for them with a nasty food hangover! However, giving myself license to splurge keeps me from resenting my healthy lifestyle.

The concept of the cheat day is useful. However, eating a tasty meal should not be thought of as cheating, nor should cheat days become binge days. Allowing yourself to consume a less-than-healthy meal once or twice weekly will keep your outlook positive and your metabolism burning.

Reference:

  1. Aceto C. Lose more weight with cheat days. Muscle & Fitness. http://www.muscleandfitness.com/nutrition/lose-fat/do-what-pros-do-eat-more-lose-more?page=2.
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