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Are Cheat Days Worth It?


By Heather Kiddoo, Live Active 563 Nutrition & Wellness

If you have ever been on a “diet,” or tracked your food using a food logging app such as My Fitness Pal, Lose It or a FitBit, you probably know what a cheat day is. If not, here we go.

What is a cheat day?
A cheat day is a day that you eat whatever you want with reckless regard. Typically, people who allow themselves a cheat day are currently dieting, or are carefully controlling their intake to foods that are only considered healthy. We know that the word healthy can mean different things to different people.

Why do people cheat?
The psychology behind this cheat day is that it allows people to satisfy cravings who are on somewhat of a restrictive diet, thus increasing the probability of adherence long term.

The theory behind the cheat day is that as you reduce your caloric intake, your metabolism slows down. When your metabolism slows down, you burn fewer calories. This process is called metabolic adaptation. Eating more food will increase your metabolic rate, but for some more than others. In addition, as you increase the amount of food you eat, Leptin, the hormone responsible for signaling hunger to the brain, also increases, thus making you feel full. These are all theories in support of the cheat day.

Is it all worth it?
Despite a couple positive points I listed above, I don’t think cheat days are worth it. Regardless of your metabolic response to this cheat day, and the short term increase in Leptin you may experience, studies have shown that if you overeat by let’s say, 3000 calories above your caloric need on your cheat day, on average you will have boosted your metabolism by a mere 100-350 calories. This is hardly worth the mass amount of extra food you consumed that will now be stored as fat, thus working against your goals and hard work. In addition, the likelihood that you will experience extreme gastric discomfort from this massive intake of foods you don’t normally eat is quite probable.

One other thing that I feel is important for me to draw attention to is the word cheat itself. I have a hard time feeling good about this word. These 3 thoughts come to mind:

  1. Never has the word cheat been associated with anything positive, ever!
  2. I question what is being cheated on by having a cheat day. Is it the healthy lifestyle you are trying to cultivate so you can have the best chance at living a long life, or is it the physique you are trying to maintain so you can look your best? Is it something else?
  3. Labeling foods as cheat foods classifies them as being bad, which will ultimately cause guilt and shame if you eat them on a non-cheat day, causing a negative relationship with food. Food labeling is something that can cause long-term adherence to a wellness program extremely difficult. Eating foods, accepting the choice and moving on, is much more healthy than labeling foods as good or bad.

Finally, I feel like cheat days put the focus on the wrong thing. Typically, cheat days revolve around dinner or events with family and friends. Rather than having a cheat day on these occasions and being worried about getting in all the “bad” stuff before the next day rolls around and you know you are back to the diet, focus on the people you are with. Focus on the experience of being with them, rather than making the food be the experience. Be present rather than worrying about stuffing the last piece of chocolate cake in your mouth because you won’t get it again for a week.

Enjoying an ice cream cone with your kids or some pizza with your friends, regardless of what day it is, is a much more healthy approach than binging for a day, only to restrict the next. Keep your goals in the forefront of your mind, and know that one cookie is not the same as the whole sleeve of cookies. Take in the conversation, the moment and the food, and leave knowing you had a great time without overindulging to the point of guilt. Let yourself enjoy the experience, without calling it a cheat day.

To learn more about healthy eating and overall fitness, contact Heather Kiddoo at heather@liveactive563.com.  Live Active 563 Wellness and Nutrition is located at 983 40th Ave., Bettendorf, IA.