What exactly is a cheat day? What’s the physical effect of cheating? What’s the psychological effect of cheating?

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Eat healthily for six days, and on the seventh day, enjoy whatever you want. It sounds appealing, right? Well, not everyone agrees. The concept of a “cheat day,” where you take a break from strict dieting, sparks debate in the health community.

So, let’s get to the heart of the matter: Can having a cheat day actually be good for your health?

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What exactly is a cheat day?

A cheat day is a designated period, often occurring once a week, where individuals temporarily deviate from their regular diet or meal plan to indulge in foods they typically avoid. It’s a deliberate break from strict eating habits, allowing individuals to enjoy their favourite treats without guilt. The concept recognises that maintaining a consistent, rigid diet can be challenging and that occasional deviations might have psychological and physiological benefits.

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The idea behind a cheat day varies. Some view it as a strategic approach to reset metabolism by introducing a temporary increase in calorie intake. This may involve consuming foods rich in carbohydrates and fats, believed to stimulate the hormone leptin, which regulates hunger and metabolism. Additionally, cheat days are seen as a means to satisfy cravings, prevent feelings of deprivation, and enhance long-term adherence to a healthier eating routine.

However, opinions on the efficacy and frequency of cheat days differ within the health and nutrition communities. While some believe occasional indulgence can support overall well-being and weight loss, others caution against potential negative effects, emphasising the importance of moderation and mindful eating during cheat days.

There are three main beliefs about what qualifies as “cheating” on your diet:

  1. Focusing on a specific time frame: This means eating anything during a set period, like one meal or one day.
  2. Cheating on occasion: This involves eating things you’d normally avoid for health reasons, such as consuming fructose to prevent a glucose spike or having caffeine for an energy boost.
  3. Intuitive eating: Some argue that accepting cheating as a natural part of dieting means it isn’t really “cheating” at all, according to Lindsey Joe, RDN.

What’s the physical effect of cheating?

Now, let’s explore the physical effects of cheating. What happens in your body on a cheat day depends on what, how much, and how often you eat. Here’s a breakdown of the science.

For decades, researchers have known that restricting calories, as often happens when dieting, can cause a decrease in leptin. Leptin is crucial because it balances energy and signals to your brain when it’s time to stop eating.

Those in favour of cheat days claim that they can replenish your body with much-needed leptin and boost your metabolism. However, research on this topic is mixed.

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A study from 1986 suggested that overeating (or “cheating”) may not be worth it, as it only boosts metabolism by 3 to 10 per cent for no more than 24 hours. On the other hand, a later study showed that temporarily increasing calorie intake could increase leptin production by nearly 30 per cent for up to 24 hours.

While the leptin debate continues, recent research suggests that cheat days might not be all that bad physically and could even benefit your diet plan.

In a 2018 study, obese men were divided into two groups: one following a strict meal plan, and the other taking intermittent breaks from the diet. After four months, the intermittent dieters had lost more weight and regained fewer pounds post-trial.

However, it’s important to note that moderation is key. A 2017 study on rats found that three cheat days a week had the same impact on gut bacteria as a consistent diet of junk food. This is especially crucial for individuals with health conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure, as even small deviations from the diet can have significant health effects.

Keto dieters should also be cautious. A 2019 study revealed that even a single dose of simple carbs on a cheat day could damage blood vessels.

Overall, consider the balance of macronutrients in your food. While indulging in sweets might be okay, opt for those that are also rich in essential nutrients like protein and fibre instead.

What’s the psychological effect of cheating?

The psychological impact of having a cheat day is a significant aspect to consider. How does indulging in a cheat meal or day affect your mental well-being?

Experts in psychology and nutrition suggest that allowing yourself a cheat meal or day to satisfy a craving can actually help individuals stick to strict diets. According to Kalman, psychologists and nutritionists often support this approach.

Supportive evidence comes from a 2016 study, which revealed that individuals who occasionally deviated from their meal plans reported feeling better about the diet process and remained motivated to lose weight. It’s worth noting that even on cheat days, participants still controlled their portions.

Lindsey Joe emphasises the importance of reframing our perspective on food, moving away from labelling it as “good” or “bad.” Instead of turning a minor dietary deviation into a major setback, Joe suggests that individuals should accept what they’ve eaten and continue with their diet as planned.

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This perspective is backed by scientific findings. A 2014 study showed that people who associated indulgent foods, like chocolate cake, with celebration tended to lose more weight than those who felt guilty about consuming such treats. Perhaps it’s time to shift our language from “cheating” on days off to “enjoying” or “celebrating” food.

However, unrestrained binge eating can pose risks and trigger problematic psychological patterns. Designating only one day a week for consuming indulgent treats may lead to an “all or nothing” mentality. Knowing that you won’t have these foods for an entire week might result in overeating, not out of desire but because of the anticipation of scarcity.

In fact, a 2018 study suggested that the psychology surrounding cheat meals might resemble that of binge-eating episodes. Yet, more research is required in this area to fully understand these dynamics.

To eat without negative psychological consequences, it’s advised to listen to your body. Pay attention to what you truly crave and focus on satisfying one craving at a time instead of indulging in a full meal or day of unhealthy foods. This approach, known as intuitive eating or mindful consumption, has been associated with preventing weight gain, as indicated by a 2017 literature review.

In summary

  1. Cheat Days Come in Many Forms: There are various ways to view cheat days, ranging from indulging freely to making a simple shift in your mindset.
  2. Leptin Boost and Metabolism: A short period of overeating might increase leptin production, enhancing metabolism. However, scientific opinions on this are still mixed.
  3. Potential Weight Loss Benefits: Recent studies suggest that occasional cheat days could actually support weight loss. The key factors are how often and how much you indulge.
  4. Check Your Feelings: Be mindful of why you’re cheating. Are you doing it due to a scarcity mindset, or are you genuinely enjoying the food?
  5. Change Your Language: Instead of calling it “cheating,” consider framing it as a “celebration” to stay focused on your goals.
  6. You’re Human, Not a Robot: Find what works best for you. Stay aware of your body and mindset throughout the process.

So, whether it’s indulging in a bacon cheeseburger with sweet potato fries after a week of kale salads or another personal choice, enjoy it mindfully. Bon appétit!

Albert Roberts

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