Diet Cheat Day: Is It A Good Idea?

A cheat day can be an effective tool to keep dieters motivated. However, it’s important to get back on track after the cheat day or cheat meal.

hipster girl drinking a coke and eating a burger on her cheat day

Should you be doing a cheat day while on a diet? This isn’t allowed on some diet plans like the ketogenic diet. However, others allow it and it’s been trending on social media in recent years. A diet cheat day gives the person a chance to temporarily break a strict diet’s rules. Sometimes it allows the person to “cheat” for the whole day, and sometimes it’s just allowed for a cheat meal. In both cases, it can help to boost the person’s motivation since it can be tough to stay on a strict diet especially if it’s low-calorie or restrictive, for example. In those cases, it can take a lot of self-discipline and willpower to stay on the diet.

The big question is whether or not a cheat day is actually a good thing while you’re on a diet. There are various factors. One of the potential problems is a whole day of eating high-calorie/carb/fat foods can make it tougher to stay on your diet. That’s why weightlifters/bodybuilders and others on strict diets often have a cheat meal instead. This allows the person to do some binge eating. However, it’s easier to get back on track since it’s one meal instead of three.


What’s a Diet Cheat Day?

A cheat day is one day when your diet plan allows you to eat any food you want. During this 24-hour period, you don’t have to worry about following the diet’s rules, counting calories, etc. This gives you the chance to eat foods like double cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza, which are usually a thumbs down on strict diets.

Sometimes diets allow a “cheat meal” instead of a cheat day. The concept is the same but it only allows one freebie meal instead of a whole day of binge eating.

There’s some science behind cheat day. In theory, it can help people stick to their diets during the rest of the weak and limit cravings for the one cheat day. You limit your binging to one day of the week.

In fact, while the term might make them seem sneaky, it’s interesting that pro athletes and bodybuilders use cheat days as part of their training. There’s some science that supports the use of cheat days.

When people start diets and especially low-carb eating plans it’s much easier to lose weight at the beginning. What happens is the body’s metabolism makes tweaks and slows down. This allows it to use fewer calories more efficiently. This can cause your weight loss to “plateau.”

The cheat day is used to trick the body’s metabolism so it thinks you’re going back to your regular diet. Studies show that shifting between high/low calories can boost weight loss. The same effects can happen when you do diets like intermittent fasting (IF).

The amount of food consumed during cheat days differs. For example, bodybuilders might have huge meals with total calories/carbs that several people might consume on a cheat day. However, the goals of tricking the body’s metabolic system and staying motivated are the same. The big question is whether cheat days/meals work.


Do Cheat Days Work?

While many dieters use cheat days you might be wondering whether or not they work. They’ve certainly become popular in the fitness world and when combining strict diets with a mini version of the Standard American Diet (SAD). For example, you might see pictures on Instagram or Pinterest of cheat meals and claims they can help people lose weight or make muscle gains.

In a nutshell, cheat meals can work but they also include some risks. The goal of weight loss diet is to achieve something called a “caloric deficit.” This involves burning more calories than you consume. The way you see food and deal with food cravings can affect how successful your diet is.

Let’s start with the term “cheat day.” This creates an idea that you’re doing something wrong or getting away with something while you’re on a diet. It even has the idea that somehow someone is losing self-control while on a diet.

It could be argued that the cheat day should be referred to as a “treat day.” That’s because the person is celebrating their ability to follow a strict diet all week. In fact, one study showed that people who linked chocolate cake to celebration had better success with their weight loss goals vs. people who connected the dessert food to guilt.

A better approach seems to be using the cheat meal as a reward instead of as a day of falling off the wagon. For example, linking the meal to guilt might cause issues for people who have problems with emotional eating. Instead of motivating them it might actually de-motivate them.

Another possible issue with a cheat day/meal is it could promote binge eating. If a person has eating disorders like food addiction then a cheat meal might actually encourage them to do binge eating. That’s something you’ll want to avoid if you’re trying to achieve weight loss.


Tips for Cheat Days

Have a plan

It’s important to schedule your cheat meal in particular. This allows you to take steps like planning smaller meals leading up to the cheat meal that day. You also might want to plan intermittent fasting after the cheat meal to get back on track faster. Even if you’re not on a fasting diet it’s a good idea as a type of detox.

Don’t watch TV

Fun Fact: Watching TV while eating causes people to eat 10% more.

Eat one high-protein meal before cheat day/meal

This should also include low-starch/high-fiber veggies so you can slow down your digestive system. A raw veggie salad with tuna/chicken prevents you from pigging out when it’s time for the main event.

Use it as a tool

It’s important to think about the big picture. The cheat meal/day should be used as a way to maintain balance in your dieting. This is one of the reasons it’s better to approach the meal or day as a treat instead of a cheat. The ultimate goal should always be to reach your weight loss/health goals.

Fast before a cheat day

This helps to get the most from your cheat day/meal. You could do this in different ways. For instance, you could fast from the previous day’s dinner or just during the day of the cheat meal.

Pick cheat meals over cheat days

The main issue when using a cheat day is to use it as a tool for helping you to stay on track while following a strict diet. It’s one reason why a cheat meal is often a better option than a cheat day.

This gives you the chance to enjoy some comfort food. Then you can get back on the saddle whether you’re doing the ketogenic diet, Military Diet, or intermittent fasting (IF) and enjoying a diet cheat day.

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