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.
So what are the disadvantages?
The main issue with cheat meals is that typically huge amounts of calories are consumed which pushes a person way past their totally weekly calorie goal. This can be especially frustrating when dieting. For example, a person works hard all week to stay in a calorie deficit. They don’t allow any flexibility and restrict all the foods they crave. Then the weekend come around and they have their cheat day. Due to feeling hungry and restricted all week, they go all out and overeat - Pizza, chocolate, doughnuts, chips and jellies. They end up consuming such a large amount of food that the calorie deficit they worked so hard to create all week is gone and they’ve been pushed into excess calorie consumption meaning they actually gain weight after all their hard work! Monday rolls around, their weight is up and they’re back to the low calorie, strict diet, creating a binge and restrict cycle and an unhealthy relationship with food. This binge and restrict cycle isn’t uncommon and it certainly isn’t ideal for fat loss let along someone’s relationship with food.
So what can you do?
It can be useful to bear a few things in mind when faced with a meal out or an event. If having an untracked meal out, then choose something you know you really want and will enjoy. Ask yourself - Do I actually want this, or am I just eating it because it's there? If it's something that you're genuinely really want and you know you'll enjoy then go ahead and most importantly, enjoy it! But if it's something like a bread basket that you're just eating because it's there, then leave it. You don't have to eat it just because it's there. When eating the meal, focus on our principles of mindful eating; Take a few deep breaths before eating, chew your food well, put your fork down between mouthfuls and most importantly, eat to a comfortable fullness - There’s no need to stuff yourself.
And with anything you eat, if you feel guilty after it, try to reframe your thinking from "Oh I wish I hadn't eaten that, it was so many calories!" to "I'm so grateful I was able to enjoy that delicious cake in the company of people I love - that's a memory I'll have forever."
Food is to be enjoyed, not to make you feel guilty.