Can Cheat Days Work?

The prevailing argument for cheat days rests upon the role of one hormone in the body: leptin
Cheat Days

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For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; and for every piece of nutritional advice, there is an equal and opposing piece of advice. It’s an inescapable phenomenon in the world of nutrition.

Experts say you should eat more protein; they also say you should eat less protein. It’s healthier to eat multiple smaller meals throughout the day, but also healthier to eat just a few large meals and quit snacking in between. And, we’ve been confused for decades over whether to eat eggs or not.

Cheat days are no exception to the confusion. Some experts claim weekly indulgences take the pressure off your restricted diet and even temporarily raise your metabolism — making your diet more successful in the long term. Opposing experts argue that cheat days do more harm than good, creating unhealthy attitudes toward food and making it more difficult to hear and interpret your body’s hunger signals.

For the rest of us “non-experts,” we just want to know whether we can have cookies and potato chips on Saturdays, or not! Which experts are correct in the cheat day argument?

While the cheat-day-supporters have valid evidence — it is beneficial to take a rest day from your calorie-restricted diet — in the broader context of weight loss and nutrition, the science strongly supports the other side; your body will be better off if you focus on daily moderation, instead of a strict diet with cheat days.

Why Does the Cheat Day Argument Seem so Valid?

The cheat day seems like a logical strategy because it is — that is, the concept is backed by science. The prevailing argument for cheat days rests upon the role of one hormone in the body: leptin.

Secreted by fat cells, leptin is responsible for signaling to your brain when you’ve had enough to eat. When your leptin levels are high, you feel full; when they drop, you feel ravenous. The problem with dieting is that restricting the number of calories you take in causes your leptin levels to lower, making you more likely to lose control and binge — the longer you diet, the stronger this effect becomes.

Some research suggests that occasional binges, or cheat days, can temporarily raise leptin production by as much as 30% and for up to 24 hours, boosting your metabolism after these periods of overeating. Cheat days can thus trick the body out of slowing its metabolism after prolonged periods of perceived famine.

The science is valid, but what’s often left out of the explanation is that this concept works in very specific situations. The cheat day approach is only effective when you binge on carbs — not fatty foods, protein, or even alcohol. It’s also only applicable if you are on a restrictive diet that you follow consistently; not a moderate diet that you follow as a loose set of guidelines.

Psychology Spoils the Cheat Day Argument

Aside from having a very narrow application, the cheat day argument also overlooks the one thing that determines dieting success more than logic or nutritional science: psychology. While giving yourself a cheat day may help to trick your body’s metabolism, it can actually undermine your psychological strength and commitment to your diet. If you don’t factor in your mental and emotional state, the whole diet falls apart, no matter how strong the science behind it.

What We Resist, Persists

If you’ve ever attempted to cut a certain food out of your life, you know how emotionally challenging it is. More often than not, that one food suddenly becomes overwhelmingly enticing. It seems like the moment you decide to stop eating bread, you begin seeing baguettes and butter rolls everywhere! Even if you’ve read up on the science to understand how bread impacts your body, your brain finds it difficult to resist the pull.

Opposers of the cheat day method argue that cheat days encourage unhealthy attitudes toward food. When we label certain foods as “good” and others as “bad,” we set ourselves up for an endless cycle of guilt and shame around mealtime. While we may applaud ourselves for eating foods we perceive as virtuous, we will also berate ourselves for eating foods we perceive as sinful. We are primed to feel ashamed when we inevitably slip up and indulge in “bad food.” Feelings of shame, guilt, and regret lead us to seek comfort, which for many people lies in the junk food aisle — these negative emotions can drive us towards the very foods we’re trying to cut back on.

We also give psychological power to things we avoid; forbidden fruit excites us. We become obsessed with forbidden items and can develop intense emotional attachments to them — such that when we do finally eat them, we can’t help but overindulge. It’s why those baguettes and butter rolls seem especially alluring the day after you decide to cut back on bread. While cheat days will take some of the pressure off of abstaining from foods (which requires us to exercise our willpower — an easily-depleted resource — repeatedly), they also make us desire those foods more than we would if we simply enjoyed them in moderation.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Ironically, labeling foods as “good” and “bad” can also negatively impact our relationship with healthy foods. Studies show that when we perceive a food to be healthy, we stop worrying about portion control and therefore often overeat. (Yes, some calories are better than others, but too much food is too much food, no matter its nutritional value.)

Surprisingly, research suggests that when we believe we’re eating a healthy food — whether it is actually healthy or not — we feel significantly hungrier than when we eat foods we believe to be unhealthy. The black-and-white perspective on food makes us more likely to overeat in all cases, whether we’re having a veggie-filled salad or dipping regretfully into the cookie jar.

Consider Intuitive Eating

While caloric restriction can work in the short-term, it ultimately alienates us from our own bodies, diminishing our ability to hear the many signals our bodies send us. Diets — by definition — are temporary, and an astounding 95% of people regain the weight once they come off their diets.

People tend to find the most success, and the most happiness, in changing their diet rather than going on a diet. You deserve to derive pleasure from your food every day, not just on a designated cheat day! When we change our overall eating habits — eating minimally processed foods with a focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds — our taste buds change, too. Our bodies and brains learn to appreciate the sweetness of ripe fruit, the bitterness of dark greens, and the creaminess of beans and legumes. We learn to taste the subtleties of food, unmasked and unhidden by the overwhelming layers of sugar, salt, and fat that make processed foods so addictive.

When this happens, we learn to eat intuitively; to eat salad on hot days and warm soup on cool ones; to eat a grapefruit when we feel a cold coming on; to eat dark chocolate when we’re feeling low. We learn to stop eating when we feel full, because our food — full of vitamins and minerals, protein, and fiber — has actually satisfied our bodies and minds, on every level.

When we eat real food and learn to interpret our body’s signals, we can naturally eat the right amounts at the right times. When all food is good food, there is no longer a need to “cheat.”