Ah, cheat days. The phrase rolls off the tongue quite easily this time of year. The holidays are like one big cheat day marathon, a pendulum swinging between “good” dieting and “bad” indulgences, hoping to balance each other out in the long run.
I have to admit, it theoretically makes sense: Deprive yourself of deliciously fatty and sugary high-calorie foods all week while you munch on salad and lose weight, then have one day where you let loose and don’t worry about a thing. It’s meant to keep you on track, prevent cravings, and protect your metabolism.
But does it?
There is a lot of research and science supporting the phenomenon whereby metabolism slows considerably during significant calorie restriction. Possibly the strongest argument for a cheat day is that having one higher calorie day per week can actually help “reassure” the body of an adequate energy supply, which in turn protects its metabolic rate. This strategy actually has a name: calorie cycling. If you’re trying to lose weight, especially vanity pounds, this could work in your favor.
Other research supports the metabolic benefits of a single high-protein, high-carb, low-fat, and alcohol-free cheat day. Foods consumed on this high-calorie day can promote the production of leptin, a hormone involved in hunger signals and “happiness” signals like dopamine, which encourages feelings of contentment.
More anecdotally, dieters often claim that the cheat day keeps them motivated. They don’t wind up “falling off the wagon” because they have that one cheat day to get it all out of their system, so to speak. There isn’t much research to back this up, but that doesn’t necessarily make it less real for the individuals who experience it.
A lot of critics find fault more with the name than with the concept, claiming that labeling these high-calorie days as “cheat days” or even “cheat meals” sets up the good-bad dichotomy with food that often leads to feelings of guilt and shame. This winds up doing more harm than good by distorting our relationship with food and creating more deeply entrenched emotional eating.
It’s also really easy to eat more calories than planned. It’s much easier to eat 500 calories of ice cream than it is to eat 500 calories of lettuce. (I’d argue it’s easier to eat 2,000 calories of ice cream than it is to eat 500 of lettuce, considering you would have to eat approximately 100 cups of those leafy greens to do so!) So setting out to have a moderate cheat day can easily spiral into an unintended binge on less-than-nutritious foods, especially if the rest of the week you’re engaging in significant calorie restriction. Think about Thanksgiving dinner and how quickly those calories add up.
Moreover, filling high-calorie days with popular “cheat day” foods (ice cream, pizza, alcohol) may not be associated with the aforementioned benefits of leptin production.
Plus, using food as a reward is pretty widely discouraged by both psychologists and dietitians, and that’s exactly what cheat days are when you get down to it. Rewards are extremely important components of goal setting and achievement, sure, but look for non-food options instead.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?
FLOP. Breaking up moderate calorie restriction with one high-calorie day may, in fact, support a healthy metabolism, but nowhere in the research is there a green light for eating tons of stereotypical junk food. As a Reader’s Digest article aptly points out, it’s one thing to eat a brownie on a higher calorie day; it’s quite another to eat 30. And some pizza. And a stack of pancakes.
I’m all for finding ways to fit the foods you love most into a well-balanced, healthy diet. I love brownies and pancakes and pizza! But eating them isn’t “cheating,” it’s just living life. A common rule of thumb is filling 80 to 90 percent of your diet with the most nutritious foods you can get your hands on, leaving 10 to 20 percent wiggle room for those birthday dinners and spontaneous outings with friends. But if you’re following a diet where you feel so deprived that you need to cheat to stay committed, then I hate to break it to you, but it’s not the right program for you.
You don’t cheat on your significant other once a week in order to “stay committed” the other six days, do you?
In the end, improving health isn’t about a crash diet kicking you into shape so you can return to your old habits; it’s about finding your place within the world of health and wellness and hunkering down for the long haul. No one said this journey to health would be easy, but boy is it worth it.