Cheat Day | Is It Really Necessary?

Cheat day has become a regular feature in many nutritional plans and diets. The concept is pretty simple; one day a week the rules you have been sticking to regarding your food and drink intake are suspended and you can indulge. It is an appealing aspect of a diet plan, and for many, it’s a finish line to reach each week. But does it actually do you any favours?

Encourages “All Or Nothing” Approach

This is a considerable issue with the cheat day format. Some people find it easier to follow a nutritional plan that has strict boundaries. However, for many people, a more balanced and flexible approach is key to establishing a sustainable healthy lifestyle.

This means that if you stray from your set plan (for example, if you have some of your colleagues birthday cake, or can’t find a healthy snack while travelling somewhere) you haven’t “cheated”. You can just work it off when you get to the gym and not give great thought to it. It does not have to ignite a cheat day whereby all following foods should be unhealthy or high calorie to make the most of that one day of the week.

Cheat day can encourage a “binge” type mentality. If you buy a pack of doughnuts for cheat day, you’ll feel as though you should eat them all because they’ll go to waste once tomorrow comes around.

cheat meal

It Can Leave You Feeling Worse

If you have been eating nutritious, homemade food all week and then load up on processed junk, your body will have a hard time processing it all. You’ll likely feel lethargic, if not a bit queasy.

This is especially problematic if it leaves you with a “food hangover” that affects your workout performance the next day.

Spreading out treats will help your digestion stay in check, and avoid overloading your system in one 24 hour stint.

You may also find it very beneficial to perfect a homemade, nutritious version of your favourite cheat meal. For example, you could make your own burgers from lean mince meat, eggs, spices and flour. Bake thinly sliced sweet potato and you’ll have made an easily digestible and balanced version of a fast food treat.

It Makes it Harder to Beat Cravings

Particularly in the case of sugary carbs, cravings can be tough to beat. Avoiding those types of foods dulls the reward centre in the brain that sends out these cravings. It may be hard going at first, but the less you have them, the less you’ll want them. Unfortunately, cheat days can stop that process from happening effectively. You can be doing great work “starving out” the craving, and then cheat day comes and puts you back to square one. Your reward centre will be ignited and cravings will be at full steam.

It Does Not Encourage Mindful Eating

Reaching a state of mindful eating takes time and effort. However, once it is reached it makes it much easier to have a healthy and satisfying diet without strict plans. Mindful eating centres around being aware of what your body wants and needs, and appreciating your food to the full.

Cheat days disrupt efforts to reach this mindset. In the first instance, it stops you from appreciating the food you are fueling your body with. Some days you may feel all you need is your classic diet foods, but if this were to fall on a pre-designed cheat day it would encourage you to avoid those foods for fear of wasting your potential treats.

Does it Help to Ignite Your Metabolism?

If you are on a calorie controlled diet, your body will eventually adjust to that level so your fat burning potential will drop.

Having a cheat day will, in theory, reignite your metabolism so it can continue to burn fat effectively. However, this can also be achieved through eating the occasional high-calorie snack or one-off meal. If anything, this is a more sustainable way to “cheat” because it is more intermittent.

It is also worth noting that many supplements and healthier food choices can help to boost your metabolism. For example, coconut oil and chillis have metabolism boosting properties.

When is the Best Time To Cheat?

Cheat meals are best post workout. This is because your body is primed to make use of any calories coming into the body – whether they’re from kale and chicken to a cheeseburger. If you have a guilty pleasure food, then would be the time to have a portion. As with any aspect of your diet, this should be in balanced measures. Your approach should still be mostly healthy and not in a routine of exercise/indulge.

Studies have shown that a 90/10 approach works best in keeping your motivation up and your fat burning potential high. 90% of the time you should stick to your nutritional plan, with 10% allowance for treats. That works out at a few meals and snacks a week outside of your plan, depending on the format you prefer. Spread these out over the week as you feel you need them to keep your diet flexible, sustainable and enjoyable.

Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you’re concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.

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Faye Reid

Faye Reid

Writer and expert

Faye Reid has a Bachelor of Science in Sport and Exercise Physiology and a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition. Faye has worked with numerous high-profile organisations, such as Men's Health, Sky Sports, Huddersfield Giants, Warrington Wolves, British Dressage and GB Rowing, providing her expert sports science support. Find out more about Faye's experience here: She puts her passion into practice as goal attack for her netball team, and in competitive event riding.

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