Could Cheat Meals be Cheating You?

Cheat meals - Burgers, pizza, ice creams, pop tarts, cake. Cheat days became popular in the fitness industry a few years ago with the rise of clean eating. A cheat day is defined as “a day on which a person following a diet disregards restrictions on the amount or kinds of food they can eat.” The idea behind cheat meals is to allow people the freedom to eat whatever they want to satisfy any cravings they might have.

Firstly, the term isn’t that useful. When you think of the term 'cheat', you think of negative situations. Cheating on an exam.. Cheating on your partner.. Cheating someone out of money.. It implies secrecy, shame and guilt; None of which should be associated with food!

So are there advantages to cheat days?

For some people, cheat days might be useful to allow them the freedom to enjoy whatever they please and to get rid of any cravings. It could also be argued however that this encourages a binge - restrict attitude.

Another argument for including cheat days is increased glycogen stores. As we diet, our intake of carbohydrates decreases over time as our calories decrease. This can lead to decreased glycogen stores which is our stored carbohydrate we utilise during exercise. It’s true that cheat days can help to fill up glycogen stores again. However, as only carbs and a certain amount of them are needed for this, it would be more beneficial to include a structured refeed or diet break of higher carbs to have the same effect without the excess calories.

The final argument for cheat days is that it can help boost hormones such as leptin and the thyroid hormones which typically decrease as we diet. Leptin is a hormone which is involved in helping us feel full after eating. The thyroid hormones T3 and T4 are involved in regulating our metabolic rate. Therefore, in theory eating more on a cheat day could help to increase leptin and the thyroid hormones due to increased caloric intake. The research on this suggests that although a cheat day can increase these hormones, the effects are only short lived to 24-48 hours which doesn’t translate into any long term benefits when dieting.