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The Truth About Cheat Days

Dispel the noise around Cheat Days and have a plan for the holidays.

Are Cheat Days a good idea?

There are those who favour a totally linear dietary strategy - eating roughly the same each day with the view to keeping it simple.

On the flip side, there are plenty of people who actually prefer a non-linear dietary approach - implementing a planned high-calorie day or days to break things up, to allow for social flexibility, or simply to ‘switch off’ from keeping track of caloric intake.

When it comes to non-linear dietary approaches, we have a few options:

  • Refeeds
  • Diet Breaks
  • Cheat Days

All 3 options utilise short-to-moderate periods of time at higher calories.

A Refeed is usually 1-2 days roughly at maintenance calories.

A Diet break is usually 1-2 weeks roughly at maintenance calories.

A Cheat day is usually a single day of unstructured eating, more often than not above maintenance calories as a result of this lack of structure.

Off the back of high-days, we often observe blunted cravings, renewed motivation, and increased energy both day-to-day and in training.

No doubt for these reasons, in recent years we’ve seen Refeeds and Diet Breaks gain traction in the evidence-based fitness community, with research emerging to support their efficacy.

Refeeds and diet breaks are both controlled increases in calories.

The total caloric increase is relatively precise and intentional, usually with an emphasis on increased carbohydrate, whilst protein and fats are kept relatively steady.

Physiologically, both refeeds and diet breaks may offset some of the negative metabolic adaptation that occurs during a diet, and thus aiding long-term outcomes.

In the context of a diet, increased calories and carbohydrates can offset or blunt the magnitude of the effects of a diet: namely, issues around the hormones leptin and ghrelin (which influence satiety and hunger respectively) and cortisol (the stress hormone), all of which are unfavourably affected by a calorie deficit.

Behaviourally, refeeds and diet breaks can improve dietary adherence - if you have periodic flexibility to break up the restriction of a diet, they can serve as both a ‘release’ and something to work toward.

One downside of this methodical approach, though, is that we don’t necessarily get time to switch off from keeping tabs on our food.

It’s certainly not a free-for-all.

A cheat day, conversely, is by nature a very uncontrolled approach to increasing calories.

We can define a Cheat Day as a day of ad-libitum food intake, usually spanning 16-24 hours.

They were once a popular go-to for both the recreational and the more serious gym-goer.

Now, they are perhaps a more controversial tool.

There’s no denying, the idea can seem attractive - the concept of a totally ‘free’ day in which to address food cravings.

An opportunity to take a breather and scratch that particular itch after a stint of dietary restraint.

But are Cheat Days harmless, or problematic?

An uninhibited break from dietary restriction can certainly be a good thing - a total break from considering calories/macros can in theory blunt some of the mental fatigue of dieting, and certainly provides an opportunity to address food craving unencumbered.

There are a few potential downsides to Cheat Days, though. 

  1. Cheat days, depending on the magnitude, can be significant enough to offset at least some of the fat loss achieved whilst dieting, causing something of a ‘yo yo’ effect.
  2. Perhaps a more pressing issue with Cheat Days is found in the terminology.

    The term ‘cheat’ is inherently problematic.

    It implies that your decisions surrounding food somehow have moral implications.

    That eating something high-calorie or 'not clean' is bad, whilst eating something low-calorie or 'clean' is good.

    It encourages dichotomous thinking surrounding food, which can prove hugely problematic when it comes to the sustainability of a diet and our long-term relationship with food.

    The terminology in my experience has the power to create real long-term issues with food labeling at best.

    At worst, the process of routinely implementing wildly high-calorie meal(s) pushes us toward binge-eating tendencies:

    We restrict in the run-up to a calorie-dense ‘Cheat’, and we restrict in the wake of it, too.

    Over time, it’s common to observe the magnitude of the Cheat/restrict cycle grow more extreme until we stray into the territory of disordered eating.

    So, not only do we have a practically sub-optimal scenario: we can't say how many calories we've eaten, and thus we cannot predict the magnitude of effect...

    It's also potentially shady psychological ground. If during the context of a cheat day you:

    • Eat until uncomfortably full

    • Consume large amounts of foods whilst not physically hungry

    • Eat alone due to embarrassment

    • Feel shame, guilt, or disgust after the ‘cheat’ is over

    We’re actually straying into behaviours that fall under the conceptual definition of binge eating.

    3. Finally, we must consider the motives behind taking a Cheat Day.

      Does your current diet prohibit certain foods?

      Is this driving you toward an all-or-nothing mentality, in order to allow you to somehow incorporate restricted foods into your diet?

      If so, it’s worth considering the rigidity of your diet.

      It’s perfectly possible to include hyper-palatable items such as chocolate or sweets into your intake, and actually preferable in the long-term if it supports a healthy relationship with food.

      Non-linear dieting strategies such as refeeds and diet breaks are very valid.

      But there’s no denying that they fall short in that they don’t provide us with respite from dietary rigidity, something we might periodically benefit from.

      So, rather than defaulting to ‘Cheat Days’ to provide some relief from dieting and/or calorie tracking, I suggest a hybrid approach.

      By all means, take a hiatus from tracking, adopt a less controlled break from dieting - but simply opt to take the time as 'untracked'.

      In this way, we avoid employing problematic terminology which may perpetuate poor relationships with food, potentially setting in motion a problematic process that encourages a lack of dietary moderation.

      The desire to eat more on certain days is normal.

      The ability to deviate from your daily dietary routine is healthy.

      But when taking this necessary flexibility, it’s worth assessing whether or not your approach to a ‘day off’ is extreme in nature, and thus counterproductive if a long-term sense of balance is the goal.


      Lottie

      About the author Charlotte Tulloch

      Lottie is a UK-based online coach who works with clients all over the world and is passionate about sharing evidence-based content with the view to making the fitness space less of a minefield. Lottie specializes in strength training, improving body composition, and cultivating a balanced approach to exercise and nutrition.

      Instagram @LottieLifts

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