If your goal is weight loss, you’ve probably been following a healthy eating program full of nutritious, low-calorie foods. And if you’re normal, you’ve probably been tempted to cheat on your diet. In fact, you’re probably tempted to cheat on your diet every time someone near you starts to indulge in one of your favorite foods. The good news is that many sources now support the practice of intentionally cheating on your diet. Some experts say that enjoying a cheat day will help you lose weight faster. The bad news, however, is that you can’t necessarily cheat as much as you’d like if you’re serious about weight loss; and you may need to reframe your thinking if you want to maintain lasting weight loss.
Why Cheat Days Work
Dieting is really hard. Very few people can stick to a perfect eating plan, even when the eating plan includes plenty of high-quality, delicious foods. Let’s face it, we all get cravings for less-than-healthy snacks or meals once in a while.
While you may be able to white-knuckle your way through a few weeks of restriction and denial, many well-intentioned dieters reach a breaking point. They throw up their hands in frustration and either binge on unhealthy food, give up on their diet completely, or both.
For this reason, many popular diets include a cheat day. The theory is that if you eat well and stick to your plan six days of the week, you can afford to enjoy a few indulgences on the seventh day and still end up with a weekly calorie deficit that results in weight loss. By having a “day off,” many diet experts believe that you will stick to your eating plan longer and be more likely to reach your weight loss goals.
Why Cheat Days Don’t Work
The argument for a cheat day is a strong one. But there’s a problem. If you overeat on your cheat day, you can easily undo a week’s worth of dieting and end up with no weekly weight loss. Or worse, you gain weight instead.
To understand why that might happen, just do a little math. Let’s say that you’ve worked hard all week to stick to an exercise program and eat a nutritious diet to reach a 500-calorie-per-day deficit. Done consistently, this daily deficit should help you to reduce your weekly calorie intake by 3500 calories and lose roughly one pound.
But let’s say that on your cheat day, you choose to go to your favorite Italian restaurant and enjoy a plate of fettucine alfredo, your favorite dish. You pair the meal with an appetizer, a glass of wine, a few slices of bread and butter, and tiramisu for dessert. That single meal can easily total 2000-4000 calories depending on your portion sizes. So guess what? You just erased an entire week’s worth of weight loss success in a single meal.
The Bottom Line: Are Cheat Days BS?
Cheat days are not BS, because they work for some people. However, they work better when the goal is weight maintenance, not weight loss. When your goal is weight loss, you need to be more careful.
So what should you do when you’re trying to slim down? There are three ways to handle cheat days and weight loss.
- Take a cheat day no more than once per week, but choose a single meal during that day when you want to indulge. Then, eat the foods you enjoy but serve yourself a smaller portion. That way, your cheat day won’t undo all of your hard-earned weight loss efforts.
- Evaluate what you are eating during the other six days of your eating plan. If you feel that you need a cheat day, you may not be eating enough. Diets that are too restrictive do not work. Your “diet” needs to be an eating plan that you can stick to for life. Make sure that you eat enough high-quality fat, energy-boosting carbohydrates, filling-fiber and muscle-building protein each day so that you feel satisfied and happy.
- When many people think of the term “cheat day,” it conjures up feelings of guilt and shame. For that reason, it may be helpful to get rid of the word “cheat” altogether when considering your diet. Replace the concept of cheating on your diet with the 80/20 rule: aim to eat healthfully 80% of the time. This moderate philosophy allows for 20% of what you eat to be “imperfect,” which still lets you see results without creating an unrealistic diet—one that requires you to “cheat” on it in the first place.
As you change your eating habits during weight loss, your taste buds will adjust and you won’t feel strong cravings for foods that are less healthy. Your “diet” should feel satisfying and enjoyable enough that you don’t feel the need for a cheat day. With your new healthy eating plan, you’ll be not only able to reach your weight loss goal, but maintain the results for life.