Often the biggest challenge with a new diet is having the willpower to stick to it. This has contributed to “cheat days” becoming a popular part of many diets, but it can be difficult to know whether they’re doing more harm or good. Here’s our take.
Cheat meals, cheat days or cheat weeks
The most important thing to remember when you’re on a diet is that one mistake doesn’t have to ruin everything. If you do slip off your plan for a meal, a day, or even a week, it doesn’t mean all your efforts have been ruined. Try your best not to feel disheartened and to restart your healthy habits when you can.
What are cheat days?
Cheat days are days when your normal dieting rules don’t apply. They can be factored into a diet plan to give you a break and allow you to eat some of the foods you may have been craving. The idea is that allowing yourself to indulge for one day only will make it easier to stick to the plan the rest of the time. The most common cheat strategy is to allow one cheat day a week, but other plans also work on one cheat meal only, or one cheat day a month.
Is it OK to have a cheat day once a week?
Whether a cheat day works for you will depend both on the type of diet you’re following, and your personal preferences.
Some diets are more restrictive than others, for example, if you’re following a keto diet there’s no wiggle room for a cheat day because it’ll take your body out of the state of ketosis. This can make you feel worse as your body has to readjust to burning carbohydrates so, cheating keto by eating carbs may be a significant set-back.
The other potential downside is that if you do have a cheat day, you’ll have to be stricter and eat slightly less the rest of the week to make up for it. So, if you prefer a slow and steady approach then a cheat day may not be the right thing. But on the other hand, if knowing that you can go all out on Saturday means you find it easier to eat less from Monday to Friday then a weekly cheat day may be a great option for you.
Will cheat days help me burn calories?
Some diet plans have claimed that having a cheat day puts your body into “fat-burning mode” and that the large intake of calories tricks your metabolism into working harder for the rest of the week. Unfortunately, there’s no good scientific evidence to support this claim. For that reason, at the moment we’d only recommend a cheat day as a motivational tactic.
Not cheat days but treat days.
Dieting is hard and there's no shame in needing a bit of extra motivation. We think it’s better to factor “treats” into your healthy lifestyle, instead of having to feel like you’re “cheating” the system.
A cheat day comes with an idea that there are no consequences, and you can binge eat as much as you like. A study analysing cheat meals on social media found that the majority of photos were large, calorie dense meals that would definitely fit in the binge eating category. However, after several days of careful eating, overindulgence can make your body feel rough, with bloating, and exhaustion as common side effects. If your cheat day includes a lot of processed food, you may also feel some sugar cravings afterwards.
In our experience, it’s better to reframe your cheat day as a “treat day”. Just pick a couple of treats that aren’t part of your diet plan but will help you stay on track. We also recommend lining up your treat days with meals out or socialising when it can be hard to stick to a strict regimen (especially if drinking is involved).
Will one cheat day make me gain weight?
No. Slipping for one day, whether it’s planned or unplanned, won’t ruin all your efforts. It’s very hard to eat a week’s worth of calories in a day and even if you do your body won’t absorb them all.
It’s worth noting that you may see a swing on the scales after a cheat day. This can partly be due to your body storing more water than it was while you were dieting. It doesn’t mean that you’ve gained all the weight back. Just try and return to your healthy habits and instead of weighing yourself every day focus on longer term changes over several weeks or a month.
How many calories should a cheat day be?
Part of the point of a cheat day is to give yourself a mental break as well as a physical one. So, we don’t recommend counting calories on your cheat day! That said, you should also never treat it as a day to go wild and eat as much as you can. We recommend just picking one or two treats that you’ve been craving or going out for a meal with friends and ordering what you want.
The pros and cons of cheat days:
Cheat days can be a great motivator if you’re struggling to stick to a diet plan.
Cheat days can make socialising easier, if you struggle to stick to diets when you’re out with friends.
If there are any foods that you’re really craving, you can enjoy them in a structured way as part of your diet.
You will have to make up for a cheat day by eating less for the rest of the week.
Cheat days aren’t compatible with restrictive diets such as a keto diet.
Cheat days can encourage binge eating and mean you end up feeling worse.
If factoring some treats into your week will help you stay motivated and stick to your goals, then a cheat day (or “treat day”) may be a great option for you. It enables guilt-free socialising and means you can enjoy some of the foods you’ve been craving. But remember that a cheat day is not a mission to eat as much as you can. Instead, focus on getting the encouragement that you need.
Looking for help to lose weight?
At Powermeals we believe in building healthy habits that last. Our weight loss meal delivery service focuses on real food with plenty of vegetables and protein that helps you feel full throughout the day. No sugary processed food in sight. Our ready-to-eat meals are pre-portioned and delivered direct to your door in a weekly box, anywhere in Switzerland.