The Truth About Calorie Splurges

If you're trying to eat healthy, yet panic every time you give in and have a "cheat day," science says it's not as bad as you think.

October 30, 2015
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When you decide to buckle down and eat healthy, you’re probably full of motivating thoughts and good intentions. You think, I am finally going to do this! Let’s go. (By “this,” I mean, drop the last 10 pounds, get your body in tip-top shape, cut out your sugar addiction, etc.)

And the first few days, you’re totally good. You start getting into a routine of taking healthy lunches to work with apples and lean turkey, instead of your typical bagel with cream cheese and leftover candy from the Halloween party. You’re choosing the salad at dinner instead of the creamy, cheesy soup. Basically: you’re slaying it (go you!).

Until the big, bad weekend rolls around. Maybe you have one too many drinks, and wind up indulging in an extra large plate of fries while out with your friends. Or perhaps you throw a birthday party for five-year-old son, and end up having a slice (okay, two) of that delicious chocolate cake. Or maybe you accidentally plan brunch with your BFF, late lunch with your parents and date night with your S.O. — all in the same day.

And then, you’re freaking out. Three restaurant meals in one day feels sets off the mental fire alarms. The double-dose of chocolate cake causes internal panic. The french fries (not to mention the alcohol) feel like you’ve just wrecked your healthy regimen in one fell swoop.

Before you contemplate falling off the wagon, I’d like to direct your attention to the science of the calorie splurge.

How We Think About Calories and Weight

Since we became aware of the “calorie,” way back when we were kids or teens, we’ve been taught that our bodies run on a “calories in, calories out” kind of formula.

You consume a certain amount of calories in a day. But your body expends a certain amount of energy at rest, just through normal internal processes, which is your “base metabolic rate” or BMR. From there, subtract the amount burned through exercise and movement, and you’ve got a positive or negative number.

So the logic goes, if you’ve created a calorie deficit, you lose weight. If you have a surplus of calories, you gain. If you break even, you maintain your weight. Fairly simple. But not exactly how the body works, likely, according to science

The Research on Calorie Splurges

Let’s take you back to the weekend dietary madness. (Simply choose whichever incarnation looks like something you might encounter.) What do you feel? A creeping sense of panic? A lurking sense of guilt? Here’s why you shouldn’t worry, nix the hopelessness and stay on that wagon.

In a study of 80 participants out of the University of Cornell, scientists discovered that those who splurged on weekends were more likely to lose weight over the course of about a year. Through daily morning weigh-ins, the researchers discovered that the group that lost weight generally saw their highest weights of the week on Sundays and Mondays and their lowest weights on Fridays and Saturdays. This means that the weekend splurges actually helped the participants drop pounds — as long as they hopped back on the healthy train for weekdays. The group that gained weight didn’t seem to have a noticeable high or low weight throughout the week.

This is supported by research from the National Institutes of Health. A couple awesome physiologists created a model to simulate how the body’s feedback system responds to calorie fluctuations. To summarize, they basically forced the model to consume calories like a normal person might, with fluctuations of 30 percent, and found that body weight remained relatively constant.

Over a period of roughly 10 years, the NIH researchers found that body weight only changed by about 2 percent. So in a 140-pounds woman, for instance, that might mean a fluctuation from 137 to 143 pounds max. The theory? If you try to eat generally healthy, and you occasionally splurge, your body will compensate. If you want to stick to 2,000 calories a day, and one day you see a 500-calorie boom, you’ll likely consume 500 calories less on another day. In the long-term sense, it all cancels out.

Bottom Line

There are a couple takeaways here. First of all, cheat days actually help your diet. If you continually deprive yourself of the foods you enjoy, avoiding them and mentally demonizing them, then you will not be able to sustain a long-term healthy regimen. You will begin to feel as though you’re cheating all the time, every single time you break down and take a bite of something remotely questionable, and your diet goals are just wishful thinking. This is the sort of approach that causes one to fall off that almighty wagon.

So indulge every once in a while. For instance, the WHO recommends keeping calorie intake from added sugars to under 10 percent (5 percent for optimum benefits). This totally allows for a mini splurge a day, within the context of your normal diet and regular caloric intake — so break out the post-dinner dark chocolate!

The other major point? When you truly “splurge,” break the bank and create a calorie surplus, it’s no longer acceptable if it’s frequent. Think about the research on weekend splurges. If you have the monster cookie or a serving of fries on Friday and Saturday, you might consume 2,200 calories on those days. But if you go back to greens and lean protein from Sunday through Thursday, then you might consume just 1,500 calories per day. Now, you’re looking at an average of 1,700 calories a day — which is still enough for weight maintenance, even steady weight loss with the right workout regimen.

So, “cheat days” aren’t cheat days if they are happening four or five days a week (then it’s probably just an unhealthy regimen) — but as long as you counter a day or two of higher calorie totals with otherwise healthy eating and exercise, you can still have your cake and eat it, too. Don’t sweat the small daily splurges or the occasional indulgent day. Science says it’s totally cool.

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