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The Truth About Cheat Days

In the pursuit of body recomposition, where the goal is to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously, many people turn to various strategies to optimize their nutrition and training routines.

Among these strategies, the concept of "cheat days" has gained popularity, fueled by influencers, YouTubers, old-school bodybuilders, and celebrity figures like The Rock, with his famous pancake cheat meals. Many YouTubers are showing 10,000-calorie challenges where they indulge in the biggest junk food items they would typically avoid.

However, delving into the science behind cheat days reveals plenty of physiological and psychological issues that may undermine your progress towards achieving your fitness goals.

But What Exactly is a Cheat Day by Definition and Its Origins:

A cheat day traditionally refers to a designated day within a dietary regimen where people indulge in foods typically restricted from their regular diet plan, such as donuts, pizzas, burgers, cookies, and ice cream.

A cheat day is a day in which a person goes off a dietary regimen: "Today’s my cheat day, so I’m eating pizza and ice cream."

cheat day

Physiological Problems That Occur from Excess Calorie Overconsumption

When you overconsume by 10,000 or more calories in a single day, as commonly observed on cheat days, several physiological responses occur. Firstly, excess calorie intake leads to a surplus of energy, which the body stores predominantly as fat, contributing to weight gain.

Even though not all the calories are immediately stored as fat, a cheat day can significantly increase the number on the scale. Learn more about how to distinguish between weight and fat in this article.

Moreover, the sudden influx of calories can disrupt metabolic processes, leading to temporary water retention and digestive discomfort. These adverse effects not only impede progress towards body recomposition but also compromise overall health and well-being.

"Cheat days may promise sweetness, but their aftermath often leaves a bitter taste of regret."

Reasons Why You Shouldn't Engage in Cheat Days

  1. You Destroy Your Diet Success: Cheat days sabotage dietary progress by derailing calorie balance and potentially reversing hard-earned weight loss. Consistently indulging in high-calorie foods undermines metabolic adaptations and makes it increasingly challenging to achieve sustainable fat loss. With one cheat day of, let's say, 15,000 calories, you can gain up to 4.4lbs of fat and destroy the deficit you've been in the previous weeks. Research indicates that after a cheat meal, the body's metabolism speeds up, leading to faster calorie burning. This happens due to increased levels of leptin, a hormone released by fat cells that helps regulate energy balance. After consuming a larger-than-usual meal, leptin production can rise by up to 30 percent for as long as 24 hours. Read more about how satiety works here. This technically means that not all the calories you overate are immediately stored as fat because your body is busy dealing with the overflow of energy. That's good news, but in my opinion, there are other reasons why cheat days might not be a great idea.

  2. You're Likely to Develop a Bad Relationship with Food: Regular indulgence in cheat days can cultivate an unhealthy relationship with food, blurring the lines between physical hunger and emotional cravings. This repetitive behavior of overeating, guilt, and restriction perpetuates a dangerous cycle detrimental to long-term adherence to a balanced diet. In the worst-case scenario, you can develop an eating disorder called binge eating disorder.

  3. Changes in Taste Perception: Frequent exposure to hyper-palatable foods during cheat days can desensitize taste receptors, diminishing the satisfaction derived from wholesome, nutrient-dense foods. Consequently, you may develop a heightened preference for indulgent fare, further craving more unhealthy eating habits.

  4. Healthy Foods Will Be Less Appealing: The allure of cheat days often eclipses the nutritional value of whole foods, leading you to perceive healthier, unprocessed foods as bland or unappealing in comparison. This skewed perception hinders the adoption of sustainable healthy eating habits. You are less likely to enjoy fruits and veggies after you just had the most flavorful and tasty fast food. It's not a problem if you eat cheat meals occasionally, but it becomes a problem if you do it too often.

  5. Psychological Implications: Over-reliance on cheat days as a source of gratification can increase psychological dependence on food for emotional comfort, thereby exacerbating disordered eating behaviors and compromising mental well-being. It can lead to an increased drive of emotional eating and having regular cravings.

  6. Black-and-White Thoughts about Food: The classification of foods into "good" and "bad" categories by the cheat day mentality can promote the tendency for an unhealthy mindset towards nutrition.

cheat days

A Better Option Than Cheat Days are Cheat Meals

Cheat meals offer a more balanced approach to indulge every now and then in something you usually won't have. It allows for occasional deviations from dietary restrictions without destroying overall progress.

Unlike cheat days, which promote excessive consumption within a narrow timeframe, cheat meals advocate for mindful indulgence in moderation, minimizing the risk of metabolic disruption and psychological distress. They can be planned ahead and not have a detrimental negative effect on your diet goals if planned right. This is also what we call "flexible dieting" - an approach where you allow yourself to eat fun food every now and then, while maintaining an overall healthy and balanced approach to dieting.

In cheat days, there's a risk of ruining weeks of effort with just one big splurge.

Say Goodbye to Cheat Days: Here's What to Do Instead

  • Flexible Dieting Principles: Adopt a flexible approach to nutrition, emphasizing portion control and dietary variety to accommodate occasional treats while maintaining overall dietary balance. Also called flexible dieting.

  • Develop Cooking Skills with More Whole Foods: Learn how to cook and develop basic cooking skills to prepare flavorful meals using whole, minimally processed ingredients, enhancing satiety and nutritional quality without compromising taste.

  • Plan a Slow and Steady Fat Loss: Prioritize sustainable fat loss through gradual calorie deficits and consistent adherence to a balanced diet, avoiding drastic measures that compromise metabolic health. Try to avoid common weight loss mistakes.

  • Incorporate Diet Breaks & Refeeds: Periodic breaks from calorie restriction mitigate metabolic adaptation and psychological stress associated with prolonged dieting, promoting long-term adherence and metabolic flexibility.

  • Smaller Calorie Deficit: Maintain a moderate to small calorie deficit tailored to individual energy needs, ensuring steady progress towards fat loss without compromising metabolic rate or nutrient intake. A slower weight loss is superior to fast weight loss!

  • Learn Emotional Coping Strategies: Develop alternative coping mechanisms to address emotional triggers for overeating, such as stress management techniques, social support, and mindful eating practices.

  • Don't Aim For Extreme Leanness: Strive for a sustainable body composition that balances aesthetic goals with overall health and well-being, avoiding the pitfalls of chronic dieting and striving for extreme leanness. Aim for a lean and healthy physique for which you won't have to make extreme sacrifices. You might also like to read my scientific guide to achieve a lean and healthy physique.

Your Take-Aways About Cheat Days

While cheat days may seem appealing as a temporary escape from dietary restrictions, their negative effects on both physiological and psychological health outweigh any short-term gratification, in my opinion.

By developing a more balanced and holistic approach to nutrition centered around mindful eating, diet breaks, some fun food and long-term sustainability, you can achieve lasting success in your goals for a better body recomposition while having a healthier relationship with food.

Achieve your fitness goals now through personalized guidance from your online nutritional and fitness coach. Book a call now!


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Sources Of Information:

  • Ganson KT, Cunningham ML, Pila E, Rodgers RF, Murray SB, Nagata JM. Characterizing cheat meals among a national sample of Canadian adolescents and young adults. J Eat Disord. 2022 Aug 6;10(1):113. doi: 10.1186/s40337-022-00642-6. PMID: 35933394; PMCID: PMC9357326.

  • Greenberg D, St Peter JV. Sugars and Sweet Taste: Addictive or Rewarding? Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Sep 17;18(18):9791. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18189791. PMID: 34574716; PMCID: PMC8468293.

  • Brownley KA, Berkman ND, Peat CM, Lohr KN, Cullen KE, Bann CM, Bulik CM. Binge-Eating Disorder in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2016 Sep 20;165(6):409-20. doi: 10.7326/M15-2455. Epub 2016 Jun 28. PMID: 27367316; PMCID: PMC5637727.

  • Adams RC, Sedgmond J, Maizey L, Chambers CD, Lawrence NS. Food Addiction: Implications for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Overeating. Nutrients. 2019 Sep 4;11(9):2086. doi: 10.3390/nu11092086. PMID: 31487791; PMCID: PMC6770567.


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