Are Cheat Days Good for Weight Loss?

Why Cheat Days Are Doing You More Harm than Good

In health and fitness subculture, “cheat meal” and "cheat day" are colloquial terms that refer to eating whatever foods you want — usually "junk foods" like pizza, burgers, and ice cream — ad libitum. A cheat day is essentially an entire day of going overboard on empty-calorie foods that you normally wouldn't eat as part of a healthy diet plan; a cheat meal is just one meal where you "indulge" in the foods you've been craving.

Naturally, weekly cheat days tend to be more consequential than a single cheat meal. However, there are insidious ramifications of both cheat days and episodic cheat meals, especially in terms of distorting healthy eating behavior and body image.

People who follow a stringent weight-loss diet with "clean" foods are most liable to the vicious cycle of restricting themselves during the week, then binging as a "reward" on the weekend. After all, who wouldn't want a break from eating the same handful of predefined "healthy" foods over and over again?

But is it really prudent to eat a high-calorie cheat meal or have a full-blown cheat day just because you stick to a "clean diet" for an arbitrary amount of time?

How Often Should You Have a Diet Cheat Day?

For those following a strict diet, cheat days are often a weekly ritual. But are the psychological merits of these food frenzies worth the potential physiological consequences? Let's take a deeper look at cheat days and cheat meals to see if they’re helping or hurting your weight-loss diet plan.

To start, we must consider what it means to be healthy. In biological terms, "health" is defined as the prospect of our survival. Therefore, anything conducive to extending our lifespan is healthy. 

On the contrary, anything that threatens our survival is unhealthy. Thus, things like carcinogens, toxic substances, and noxious chemicals are seen as categorically "unhealthy." But not so fast...

All chemicals that enter the body abide by the same principle that the dose makes the poison [1]. Even the most dangerous toxins can be harmless in small enough quantities, just as seemingly healthy chemicals, like water and vitamins, may be dangerous in excess.

Vis-à-vis diet, food is nourishment that helps sustain us physically and mentally; we cannot discount the fact that food serves more of a purpose than merely changing the shape of our body.

As such, a “healthy” diet is relative, and there are no unanimously "unhealthy" or "healthy" foods. The amount that you eat is what determines the healthfulness of food. In other words, any food can be healthy in appropriate quantities.

Yes, even a slice of pizza or a few pieces of chocolate candy can be completely healthy for someone who is regularly active and controlling their overall calorie intake. It might take some time to wrap your head around this concept, especially if you've been a diehard "clean eater" for years.

So, how does this circle back to the topic of cheat meals and cheat days? Well, once you acknowledge that there are no "off-limits" foods, you start to realize that you don't need to be so restrictive about what you eat on your diet.

You can eat some "junk" foods and still lose weight/be healthy. The key is moderation and portion control, both of which are ironically the antithesis of cheat meals and cheat days.

Can One Cheat Day Make You Gain Weight?

Many people scoff at the notion that having just one cheat day per week will ruin their fat-loss efforts, but it absolutely can. Consider the example of a 170-pound individual with an estimated daily energy expenditure of 2,250 calories; this person sticks to a weight-loss diet — 1,800 calories per day — from Monday to Saturday, and then has a cheat day on Sunday with 5,000 calories.

Will they lose weight or gain weight?

Let's do the math and see:

  • 6 days x 450 daily calorie deficit = -2,700 calories
  • 1 cheat day x 2,750 calorie surplus = 2,750 calories
  • 2,750 calorie surplus - 2,700 calorie deficit = 50 calories above weekly energy expenditure = slight weight gain/no weight loss

So, yes. A single cheat day can completely nullify all your effort during the week to lose weight.

Why Do "Clean Eaters" Crave Cheat Meals?

Here's an example of a traditional “clean” diet:

  • Meal 1—Egg whites and cooked oats
  • Meal 2—Grilled chicken breast, rice, and broccoli 
  • Meal 3—Same as meal 2
  • Meal 4—Whey protein shake
  • Meal 5—Same as meal 2
  • Meal 6—Casein protein shake

The first things that come to mind after looking at that diet should be monotony and restriction. It really shouldn’t need much elaboration as to why such a meal plan will lead most people into turmoil psychologically; there’s not much to look forward to when you eat the same five to six uninspired foods over and over again, every single day. 

The irony is that most gym-goers would look at that diet and contend that it's "very healthy"; the reality is that it’s far from that, especially for the average Joe/Jane just looking to get in better shape and lead a healthier lifestyle. 

Hence, it’s no surprise that people feel the desire to have a gratuitous cheat day or cheat meal every week when their weight-loss diet is exceedingly restrictive.

So how do we fix this issue? Let’s reconstruct the above diet to make it not only more sustainable but also healthier:

  • Breakfast—Egg omelet and a bowl of oatmeal with sliced strawberries and Greek yogurt mixed in
  • Lunch—Roasted turkey breast on top of whole-wheat spaghetti with tomato sauce and mushrooms
  • Post-Workout—Protein smoothie made with grass-fed whey protein, banana slices, and almond butter
  • Dinner—Tacos made with lean ground beef and a side of black beans and grilled asparagus
  • Dessert—Small bowl of ice cream

Notice how much more variety the sample diet above has compared to the previous one. Also, note the inclusion of a small treat at the end of the day helps avoid the desire for “cheating” on this diet. Remember, the best diet is the one you can stick to while reaching your personal goals.

We omitted portion sizes as your specific goals and energetic needs determine those. Again, how many calories you consume on your diet plan is the most important variable for bodyweight regulation [3]. Food certainly has a qualitative component, but quantity is ultimately what makes something "healthy" or "unhealthy."

The Best Diet is the One You Stick To

The sustainability and flexibility of your weight-loss diet is the most important factor for long-term results [2]. Very few things in life are healthy if you only do them for a relatively short period of time, especially when it comes to nutrition and exercise.

Someone who decides they want to get in shape for their upcoming wedding might aggressively cut calories and run five miles daily for a few weeks. Lo and behold, they lose 15-20 pounds.

While they may be happy with their short-term results, what happens after the wedding? A honeymoon full of binge eating, most likely. Then it's back to square one and a return to old habits because of how miserable they felt on a crash diet with tons of cardio.

Cheating, for many individuals, is not psychologically healthy. Repeatedly subjecting yourself to yo-yo dieting tends to affect eating behaviors negatively. Over time, the guilt of "giving into" temptation can lead to full-on eating disorders.

You must approach a new exercise regimen and diet with the big picture in mind, even if you have near-term goals (which you should). As they say, good things take time. If you have 20 pounds to lose, you might need 3-4 months to do it healthily. And by healthily, we mean not following a yo-yo diet with cheat days.

Stick to Your Diet and Enjoy the Food You Eat

The key takeaway is that recurring cheat meals and cheat days may not be healthy for everyone. Most people respond better to dieting when they allow for foods they genuinely enjoy in moderation. Eating nothing but "clean foods" is needlessly restrictive. 

Rather than viewing your diet as a short-term fix or a means to an end, start looking at it from a more holistic, mindful point-of-view. Individuals who can’t handle the mental anguish of cyclical restriction-overeating typically thrive when switching to a flexible diet plan. Even one small treat here and there throughout the week can have major psychological benefits for those looking to stick to a healthy, sustainable diet. 

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