I often get this question from people: “Do you think cheat days are a good idea?”
First off, I have personally used extreme and restrictive diets (far beyond what most overweight people typically engage in) for years in the past. And I caused myself a lot of health problems from them. In the past, I even went through periods where I put dozens of my clients on very restrictive diets (low carb, intermittent fasting, all liquid protein diets, raw vegan etc) that I now cringe at and deeply regret. I bring this up only so that you know that I’ve been through this stuff and done it all — cheat days, cheat meals, cheat weeks, carb cycling, cyclic ketogenic diets, carb days on low-carb diets etc.
So back to the question of CHEAT DAYS… yay or nay?
My answer (which has been shaped by many years of doing restrictive diets) is simple:
If you’re doing something which is so restrictive that you can’t wait for your “cheat day” to come around, the issue isn’t the presence or absence of the cheat day–it’s that what you’re doing is TOO RESTRICTIVE.
And whether that restriction is in the form of a low-calorie diet or intermittent fasting or low-carb, it’s not likely to be sustainable or healthy. Therefore, not only is it likely to end in failure, it’s even likely to be COUNTERPRODUCTIVE in the long-term. (I.e. it’s likely to cause metabolic and hormonal dysfunction and make you FATTER).
For example, one study found that “weight-loss attempts may be associated with subsequent major weight gain, even when several potential confounders are controlled for.” (1)
The notion of heavy restriction followed by a cheat day certainly makes sense on a logical level. And that’s why many diet authors promote this idea, and why we have books like “The Cheat to Lose Diet” and the “3-1-2-1 Diet: Eat and Cheat Your way to Weight Loss” and the latest cheat diet book “The Cheat System Diet.”
Like I said, a cheat day can perhaps seem logical–“constant restriction might end in failure because people can’t follow it, so if we add in a cheat day we can get a psychological release and allow for better adherence to the diet.” It is logical and does make sense.
Logic isn’t the issue though. Science is.
I could just as easily use logic to PROVE WRONG the notion of the cheat day. For example, do we say to crack and heroin addicts “ok, well, you can have your crack cocaine just one day a week, but be good the other 6 days of the week”?
Obviously not. Perhaps some could make it work. But for most, if they keep getting crack introduced to their body, they will continue to stimulate their cravings and will likely get re-addicted.
In fact, I know many people that weren’t able to change their diet habits UNLESS they went nearly 100% abstinent from their junk foods. If they cheated, it would actually stimulate them to cheat MORE, not less.
And by the way, there actually *IS* research to support that:
For example, according to a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation “What we’ve shown in this study is that someone’s entire brain chemistry can change in a very short period of time. Our findings suggest that when you eat something high in fat, your brain gets ‘hit’ with the fatty acids, and you become resistant to insulin and leptin. …Since you’re not being told by the brain to stop eating, you overeat. … Dr. Clegg said that in the animals, the effect lasts about THREE DAYS, potentially explaining why many people who splurge on Friday or Saturday say they’re hungrier than normal on Monday.” (2)
Perhaps for some people, doing the cheat day thing can help.
But for many people, cheat days absolutely do NOT help you get results in the long term–they just slowly SABOTAGE your efforts.
It can rewire your brain’s responsiveness to certain hunger-related hormones in ways that actually promote MORE CHEATING and BINGEING behaviors…until you’re no longer really adhering to your diet.
If you’re a Type A personality who wants to implement a SHORT-TERM heavily restrictive diet with a cheat day every so often in preparation for a physique competition, cheat days may work fine for you.
But if you’re NOT trying to get just temporary fat loss and you want to get lean and STAY LEAN, it’s very likely that the “restrictive diet plus cheat day” model is NOT a good approach for you.
Here’s my ALTERNATIVE solution to the “restrictive diet plus cheat day” model…
STOP TRYING TO FIGHT AGAINST YOUR BIOLOGY, AND START WORKING WITH IT!
1) Eat a diet that does NOT revolve around any sort of heavy restriction of either calories or any nutrient.
If you restrict either overall calories or some nutrient (low-carb dieting for example), you’re going to enter into a fight against your own biology–which is why you would need a “cheat day,” to have the things you’re body is craving. The issue isn’t whether or not you have a cheat day built in to your diet that allows you to adhere to this restrictive diet–the real problem is that you’re on a diet that has put you into a fight against your own biology!
(Note: Not only do I not promote calorie restriction, I promote RAISING the caloric baseline at which your body regulates energy balance. Think why elite athletes can eat 8,000-10,000 calories a day and still have a six pack. Being lean effortlessly isn’t about calorie restriction or low carb diets–it’s about tuning the metabolism and hormones in such a way that you get diet-independent abs).
2) The whole frame of RESTRICTION is just wrong on every level. Where your focus is MATTERS! Your food choices should NOT be about avoiding calories, or fats, or carbs, or sugars. Your food choices should be about INTENTIONALLY SEEKING OUT IDEAL SOURCES OF NUTRIENTS. Instead of framing your dietary approach as “I must avoid so and so devil foods,” frame it as “What are the best sources of nutrients and how can I focus more on eating those foods?” In other words, it’s not about restricting yourself in any way–it’s about progressively moving more and more towards the best sources of nutrients. The best sources of proteins, the best sources of fats, and the best sources of carbs/sugars. Don’t make your food choices focused on forcibly depriving yourself–make them about seeking out the best nutrients. If you don’t do that every single day or had a meal with lower quality nutrients, you don’t need to feel guilty about it. Relax. Breathe. And in the future, make a point of seeking out better sources of nutrients that you know are giving your body what it needs.
3) KNOW YOUR PERSONALITY TYPE!
One thing that is valuable is understanding whether your personality type (as it relates to emotional eating or junk food eating) is whether you are an ABSTAINER or MODERATOR.
So for example, one common piece of advice might be “Be balanced in your approach to changing your junk food eating habits. Don’t have ice cream and potato chips every night, but maybe once in a while, because if you try to restrict too extremely, you’ll fall off the wagon and binge.”
This kind of advice works really well for the “Moderator” personalities. But believe it or not, some “Abstainer” personalities actually find it easier to just abstain from the substance entirely.
If moderators try to abstain, they feel compelled to revolt and triggered to binge. If abstainers try to moderate their eating behaviors, they will often consume lots of psychological energy rationalizing to themselves about why they should indulge.
MODERATOR: does best with occasional indulges or “cheat days” and panics at the thought of having to “never” eat something again.
ABSTAINER: Has trouble STOPPING once they’ve started, and tend not to be tempted by things once they’ve decided that they’re off-limits.
Both approaches can work for some people, but it’s important to figure out the best strategy for YOU as a unique individual.
This matters! Know your personality! Your individual personality tendencies–whether you’re more of a moderator or abstainer–DO influence what strategies will work best for you.
4) Do NOT fight against your cravings! Instead, give in to your cravings by fulfilling those cravings with the healthiest food source of that nutrient. Crave fat? Have some cheese! Crave sugar? Have some fruit! By getting into the habit of GIVING IN to your cravings rather than trying to fight them–but satisfying those cravings with the healthiest version of that thing you’re craving–you can fulfill your cravings IMMEDIATELY (i.e. without having them build up over the week and then released in one big day or splurging). And you not only fulfill those cravings immediately, but you are FULFILLING them with sources of optimal nutrients instead of micronutrient-poor and highly rewarding processed foods that disrupt normal appetite regulation. This way, you actually entrain healthy habits all the time and make them NATURAL and EFFORTLESS rather than something you force yourself to do in anticipation of your weekly splurge day.
If you find yourself needing a “cheat day” (or constantly cravings ‘forbidden foods’) it’s probably because you are foolishly engaged in some sort of overly restrictive diet that’s causing you to fight against your biology the other 6 days of the week!
Having great health and a lean beautiful body doesn’t need to be about ANY KIND of forced restriction and deprivation. You don’t need to go all out with some crazy restrictive diet that requires you to binge once a week to deal with the suffering.
Instead of relying on willpower, suffering through hunger pangs and cravings, and waiting patiently for your cheat day each week, try building your approach around the central philosophy of my Forever Fat Loss Formula program, which is this:
Cultivate the daily habits that reliably lead to fat loss, and do them in a way so that they lead to steady fat loss WITHOUT relying on suffering, intense restriction, and cheat days.
That’s the smart approach to sustainable and lasting fat loss.
1 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10584040
2 – http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-09/usmc-icm091109.php