If you’re trying to cut calories, create lean muscle, or stick to a strict regime for athletic purposes, creating those new habits and adjusting to a lack of cake can be tricky. You might even find yourself craving things you have deliberately left out of your plan, which can make sticking to it really hard.
Enter the cheat day!
We see superfit celebrities with giant plates of food, and #cheatday all over social media, and the arguments are persuasive. If these people can maintain their health and fitness, but still eat huge plates of whatever they want once a week, then it has to be a system that works, right?
This article is going to take a look at the psychological and physiological effects of cheat days and meals, and whether or not there are any benefits to including a cheat day in your regime!
What is a cheat day?
A cheat day is exactly what it sounds like. You have a certain day where you don’t have to stick to your plan, and can eat and drink whatever you like. Cheat meals work in the same way, but just for a specific meal, not for a whole day.
The theory behind this is that by knowing you have a cheat day coming up, you’re more likely to be motivated to stick to a restricted diet for the rest of the week. If you have a party or big event coming up, then you can even tailor your cheat day to fit around it.
Of course, cheat days aren’t suitable for every person, or every regime, but any plan which allows for some levels of flexibility can incorporate a cheat day or cheat meal into the mix!
Do they help with weight loss?
In order to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. The theory behind cheat days is that they allow for an overall calorie deficit, but with a little flexibility to help with motivation. However, weight management and overall body composition are very complex and very individual, so what works for one person may not be the right solution for another.
There is evidence to suggest that cheat days can improve our metabolism, due to the hormone leptin.
Leptin is the ‘hunger hormone’. Specifically, it is responsible for suppressing our feelings of hunger. Some theories suggest that when you lose weight your levels of leptin decrease, which can lead to overeating and re-gaining weight, because the signals that tell you you’re full just aren’t there. Whilst there is ongoing research into whether or not there is a direct link towards cheat days and leptin production, the theory is that a cheat day can increase the body’s leptin production temporarily, and prevent the desire to eat and eat and eat (Strohacker et al., 2013).
Using a cheat day as motivation:
Let’s talk psychology. Using a cheat day, or cheat meal, as a planned indulgence can make it easier to stick to your plan most of the time.
For some people, knowing that there is a planned cheat day coming up can help to keep them on track, but this doesn’t work for everyone. Cheat days need to be planned out, and excessive overeating on cheat days may have negative effects on rebound weight gain (Forman and Butryn, 2015).
The best plan that you can have is one that you can stick to, and one that doesn’t strip all the joy from your world!
Any downsides to cheat days?
Cheat days may encourage the development of unhealthy eating behaviours and even eating disorders, such as binge eating and bulimia. By encouraging the cycle of restricting and bingeing, it might be difficult to break that habit, leaving you unable to enjoy meals at all.
There is also the way that you associate the foods you’re eating with certain feelings and emotions. The word ‘cheat’ itself can have negative implications, and can lead to feelings of guilt associated with foods. Some studies suggest that by turning this on its head and having treat meals instead of cheat meals can go a long way to encouraging a positive relationship with our diet (Kuijer, Boyce and Marshall, 2015).
What else can I do?
If you don’t think cheat days are right for you, there are lots of other ways to create a healthy balance between your fitness and weight goals and the enjoyment that comes with food.
For example, whether you’re incorporating cheat days or not, being mindful and present when you’re eating is important. By recognising hunger and satiety cues, research indicates that you can better enjoy your diet and may also reduce weight gain (Warren, Smith and Ashwell, 2017).
My advice is simple: A well balanced whole foods plant-based diet alongside exercise is the best way to maintain your health and fitness. If you’re looking to lose weight or tone up, then creating a calorie deficit by swapping one of your meals with WHOLE, Vivo Life’s plant-based nutritional shake, can help to create that calorie deficit whilst providing all the nutrition you would usually get from a full meal. Plus, because there are fewer calories than other types of meal replacement, you can add your own flavours and textures!
Strohacker, K., McCaffery, J.M., MacLean, P.S. and Wing, R.R. (2013). Adaptations of leptin, ghrelin or insulin during weight loss as predictors of weight regain: a review of current literature. International Journal of Obesity, 38(3), pp.388–396. doi:10.1038/ijo.2013.118.
Forman, E.M. and Butryn, M.L. (2015). A new look at the science of weight control: How acceptance and commitment strategies can address the challenge of self-regulation. Appetite, 84, pp.171–180. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.10.004.
Kuijer, R.G., Boyce, J.A. and Marshall, E.M. (2015). Associating a prototypical forbidden food item with guilt or celebration: relationships with indicators of (un)healthy eating and the moderating role of stress and depressive symptoms. Psychology & Health, [online] 30(2), pp.203–217. doi:10.1080/08870446.2014.960414.
Warren, J.M., Smith, N. and Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews, 30(2), pp.272–283. doi:10.1017/s0954422417000154.