No, the headline isn’t a typo—it’s a fact. Bodybuilding pros, dieticians, and doctors all know that a planned cheat day can improve the results of most diets. It might seem counterintuitive to encourage someone who has been trying to lose weight to indulge in “real” food on a regular basis but hear us out. There are benefits to cheating, especially if you do it right. That’s great news, particularly at this time of year when extra temptation is everywhere.
The Leptin Factor
Low calories are one of the reasons diets fail. Cutting the number of calories you eat often results in hunger which, in turn, causes leptin levels to drop. Leptin is the hormone that informs your brain that you have plenty of energy in reserves, but when the levels drop, your brain thinks that you’re starving. The result is that your metabolism slows down, and you end up burning fewer calories. It’s a vicious cycle that typically causes frustrated dieters to quit dieting altogether.
Toss a cheat day into your dieting schedule, however, and, according to EatThis, your leptin levels will go up, notifying your brain that all is well. It will keep your metabolism set to burn calories instead of conserving them.
Avoid Feeling Deprived
Another reason it’s tough to stick to a diet is that you usually can’t eat many of your favorite foods, and you end up feeling deprived before you start seeing results. Consequently, working a cheat day into your diet will make you feel like you’re not being deprived at all. Bodybuilders like King Kamali tell Muscle & Fitness that cheating gives them a mental break. Knowing that you’ll be able to treat yourself on a specified day will make it easier to stick to stricter meal plans the rest of the time. What’s more, you might notice you perform better in the gym or TargitFit class the day after you cheat. Those extra calories will give you the energy to power through a beast of a workout, which will benefit your weight loss goals in the end.
Tips for Cheating the “Right” Way
Make a plan. If you want to use cheating as a dieting strategy, you can’t just randomly decide that “today’s the day” and then go back to dieting tomorrow. Having a plan is always the best bet. Decide if you’re going to allow yourself one cheat meal every 10 meals or an entire cheat day every 10 days. There’s nothing magic about the number 10, so don’t get hung up on that. The point is to pick specific times for cheating and stick to that.
Don’t over-restrict your calories before your cheat day. You’re already cutting back by being on a diet, so it’s not necessary to cut back extra right before a cheat day. Eliminating additional calories will only result in binge-eating on your cheat day—which is unacceptable … and it’s the next tip.
Don’t binge! Allowing yourself a cheat day is not the same as getting permission to eat everything in sight. You’ll still need to eat reasonably on your cheat day; it’s just that you’re allowed to have foods typically off limits. Eating slowly can help. Not only will you get to savor every drop of silky Alfredo sauce or delicious crumb of chocolate cake, but eating slowly will give your stomach enough time to signal your brain when you are full.
Keep working out. You should have rest days worked into your exercise schedule, but it’s a good idea to manage them so that they don’t coincide with your cheat days. Resting on a day when your caloric intake is low will help keep your body from thinking it’s starving, and working out on a day when you indulge will help work off those extra calories before they’re stored in fat cells.
Be strategic with your cheat meals. Dr. Oz advises that having structured meals on a cheat day can minimize some of the cost of going off your diet. The Good Doctor’s plan even allows for you to eat three meals plus two snacks: have your “cheat fat” at breakfast, “cheat salt” during your morning snack, your “cheat carbohydrate” at lunch, your “cheat sugar” in the afternoon, and your “cheat protein” at dinner. This plan still has you eating foods that you might consider to be diet foods, so you’ll hardly feel like you’re cheating at all. If Dr. Oz’s plan isn’t for you, another cheat day strategy is to cut down the number of eating hours on your diet day off—kind of like daylight savings time for your diet.
The way to do that is to eat a high-protein meal for dinner the night before your cheat day, so you’re not starving by the next morning. Then, push your first meal of the day to lunchtime. That doesn’t mean skipping your morning meal altogether, but unless you are living for pancakes with syrup and bacon, have a protein shake or granola bar for breakfast and indulge in your cheat foods for lunch and dinner. Alternatively, have that big breakfast but be sure to include fiber and protein so that you can skip lunch and won’t be famished to the point of gorging yourself when dinnertime rolls around. Yet another choice could be to have the big breakfast and one other meal in the late afternoon that takes the place of both lunch and dinner.
You really have nothing to lose but pounds, so why not give cheating a try? It might feel a little naughty, but you may be surprised at how easy it is to stick to a diet and lose weight when you know you have a reprieve coming.