What Are “Cheat Days”? Do Cheat Days Work?
How Cheat Days Work for Diet and Exercise
Generally, cheat days only make sense for those who stick to a strict diet or exercise regime and have thus earned a small break before going back to the strict regiment. The trick is understanding the difference between binge eating (which is awful and science shows doesn’t work) and shocking the body in smart healthy ways (which increases metabolism and prevents the body relaxing into a weight loss or exercise routine). Like with most things, cheat days are nuanced, so if you want to use them effectively you need a nuanced understanding of how dieting and muscle building works. If you think “cheat” means eat a gallon of ice cream, then you should refer to the articles that say “cheat days don’t work for dieting” and keep your life simple. If you want the more nuanced view, keep reading.
- Diet Rule #1: Despite a number of other important factors like nutrition, exercise, and metabolism, the bottom line with weight loss is always calories in versus calories out.
- Diet Rule #2: The right balance of micro and macro-nutrients (and liquids) is what will enable your body to get through an intense diet. If you lack nutrition you can’t lose weight in a healthy way.
- Diet Rule #3: You need to eat frequent and small meals. This prevents too many calories from being stored as fat and keeps metabolism up.
- Workout Rule #1: Mix cardio and weight lifting, but make sure to give your muscles time to heal (i.e. cheat days for working out).
TIP: Most of what I know about cheat days working comes from personal experience losing 80 pounds, working with trainers, and being a person who researches general and popular science in all its related fields for a living. I am not in any way denying the science that shows the ways in which cheat days don’t work, i’m pointing out the ways in which they do. If you want research to back this up, some rather heady studies have been published that both confirm and deny cheat days working. See a great breakdown on Reddit: What the research says on cheat days and why it’s, from a nutritional point of view, plain wrong to simply mindlessly binge eat.
Summary of Cheat Days in Diet and Exercise
- Cheat days work, for diet and working out, but only in moderation and with a solid understanding of what it means to “cheat”.
- A cheat day for dieting means eating a “maintenance” level of calories about one day a week.
- A cheat day for exercise means taking a break and giving your body a chance to heal.
- Cheat days have mental and physical benefits, but beware falling back into bad habits and undoing hard work.
How Do Cheat Days Help With Dieting?
Cheat days help with dieting because they prevent your body from settling into a routine. The longer you maintain a specific caloric intake, the more your body adjusts to it. “Cheat days” “shock” your body helping to prevent your body from adjusting to a diet and can reintroduce some of the food groups you may be cutting out of your diet.
This video discusses cheat days in regard to dieting.
Clarification on Cheat Day Versus Binge Eating
Binge eating (eating whatever you want in large amounts) can undo a weeks worth of work in a short period of time. Again, weight gain or loss is calories in versus calories out. Nothing can change that.
Cheat days are simply days where you increase your caloric intake by small amounts with a diet typically consisting of low fat, moderate protein, high carbohydrates.
How Many Calories Should I Eat on a Cheat Day?
You should increase your calories up to your “maintenance level”. For example if you maintain your weight at 2000 calories, and are on a 1500 calorie a day diet, then on your cheat day you should intake about an extra 500 calories.
Example of cheat days and calories:
Imagine you are on a diet where you are going to lose 1,750 calories (one half pound) every week. You’ll do this by creating a 250-calorie deficit each day of the week.
Each Sunday you eat an extra 1,500 calories (your cheat day). However, your body can only use about 500 of those calories, the rest are stored as fat. This would net you a total calorie deficit of 750 calories rather than 1,750 each week cutting your gains by more than half and essentially nullifying 4 or the 7 days of hard work you did.
If you had eaten a healthy 500-calorie meal on your cheat day you would have still lost the 1,750 and would have helped ensured your diet could be kept up longer.
Do Cheat Meals Work?
Cheat meals (like having a cookie one night) are fine as long as they are done in moderation. They don’t do all to much for losing weight and can easily cause weight gain, but they like cheat days, can have positive mental health benefits that can help you stick to a long term diet.
This video discusses cheat meals in regard to dieting.
How Do Cheat Days Help with Working out?
“Cheat days” with working out are days where you would normally exercise but don’t. Not only are cheat days good, but “cheat weeks” can be as well for a person who exercises regularly. Not only does your body get accustomed to a workout like it does with food (limiting potential gains), your muscles also get tired and need time to heal. Cheat days can give your body the break it needs to heal and can give you an opportunity to “shock” your body.
It should be noted that you can still exercise during a cheat day, or cheat week, you just need to do so in a manner that allows the parts of your body that are being worked during your non-cheat days to rest.
Cheat Day Mental Health Benefits
Cheat days can also have mental benefits, giving you a break from the grind of dieting or sticking to a workout schedule.
The Dangers of Cheat Days
Cheat days may be smart, but they are also very tricky to execute correctly. They can take just as much, if not more willpower; actually cheat in a healthy way. A few big drawbacks are:
- With dieting a cheat meal is more appropriate than a cheat day. You can easily end up losing all your gains for the week in one day. Remember it’s calories in versus calories out, period. If you would regularly eat a 500 calorie meal, consider a 750-calorie meal. If you would normally avoid fat, eat an avocado. A little cheating goes a long way.
- With exercise and diet a cheat day can turn into a slump. Watch out for the negative mental aspect, where your body and mind acclimate to not dieting or exercising and you lose the willpower to push forward.
- When you eat simple carbs (like sugars) it can spike your insulin levels making you feel hungry (the munchies). This is an evolutionary thing that helped our ancestors to fill their bellies when they happened upon easy to process and digest fruits, which contain sugars your body can store as fat very easily. When you have a cheat meal, you should avoid binge eating due to insulin spikes. Weigh out your food, count out your calories and give yourself time to feel full.
So, is There Actual Scientific Evidence Cheat Days Work?
Science essentially backs up the idea that when you create a calorie deficit for long enough your body acclimates. Having a “re-feed” day where you eat healthy foods at a maintenance level can ward off some of the acclimation. With working out the science is also clear that your body needs time to heal, this is much more true with heavy weight lifting and high impact cardio than it is with light cardio and light weight training.