What are the facts about using cheat days when you are dieting to lose weight?
What is a cheat day?
Treat days – or “cheat days” as the weight loss industry calls them – are a strategy used in some diets. Here’s how it works: you stick to your diet for 6 days of the week, creating that calorie deficit so necessary for weight loss. Then on the 7th day, you eat off your diet. This can be one meal, a few hours, or the entire day. There are no rules about how to eat on this cheat day. Some people go all-out. They pack in as many treats, takeaways, and off-plan foods as possible. Others do it in a more controlled way. These folk will still track or plan the food but get in a lot more calories, fats and carbohydrates.
Why do people use cheat days?
The idea of cheat days stems from the concept of strategic refeeds on a diet. People who are dieting to get very lean use refeeds towards the end of their fat-loss diet. Refeeds can rebalance key hormones. Dieting for a long time affects the hormones responsible for metabolism, hunger, and satiety. If you want to carry on dieting and losing body fat, you need to keep those hormones (and your mind set) happy.
But cheat and treat days are not the same as refeeds.
A refeed is tracked and calculated. The extra calories will come mostly from carbohydrates, and food choices will be mostly clean. A refeed day is not a chance to have takeaways, ice-cream, doughnuts, and other high-sugar, high-fat items. A refeed raises calories from sensible foods so the mind and body can carry on with another week or two of dieting.
The idea of cheat and treat days has come from the concept of refeeding, but the two approaches are different.
The pros and cons of cheat days
A strategic cheat can boost your leptin hormone, lift your spirits, and give you enough energy to tackle your workouts. But if you haven’t been dieting for very long or if you still have a lot of weight to lose, a cheat day or cheat meal could be detrimental. To understand why, we’ll do some maths. Let’s say you create a calorie deficit of 500 calories every day for 6 days. So far you have a 3000 calorie deficit. That’s great! But then on your cheat day, you eat 3,500 calories. Easily done if you have a sweet tooth, a big appetite, or feel you “deserve it” after a week of dieting. One day of eating a few sweet treats, a 3-course dinner, and lunch at a cafe would exceed 3,500 calories. And, just like that, you haven’t just eaten back all the calories you cut during the week. You’ve actually put yourself in a calorie excess for the week. 6 days of dieting undone in one day. You’re further back than a week ago.
Would you benefit from cheat days in your diet?
Have you been dieting for a while? Are you lean, (within 5-10lbs of your goal)? Have you been feeling low in energy, exhausted, moody or emotional? Have your workouts been affected? Then a proper refeed might help you push on.
The best way to cheat
Plan your food for your refeed day. Aim for maintenance calories or TDEE (this is your BMR multiplied by your activity). Keep your protein and fats the same as it is on your diet, and raise your carbohydrates. Get your extra calories from potato, sweet potato, root vegetables, fruit, breakfast cereal or bread. If you can fit a healthy pizza or low-fat takeaway-style dish into your refeed day, go for it. But aim for nutrient-dense foods which nourish your body and give your mind a break from the strict rigours of your diet.
For your diet to be successful you need to stick to it 90% of the time. Dieting for a few days is no reason to have a cheat day. And if you cheat on your diet every week, it will take you much longer to reach your goal – or you could end up further back than when you started. Remember, dieting is a case of calories in vs calories out over the long term.