Let’s face it, dieting isn’t always easy.
And if you’ve been eating at a caloric deficit for awhile, it can definitely be nice to have a break from it all.
In these situations, having what has become commonly known as a ‘cheat day’ can seem like a perfect solution to your dietary malaise.
A day where you can eat whatever you want, temporarily throwing notions of calorie counting and food restrictions to the wayside.
A day where you can truly stuff your face with whatever you please: pizza, pasta, junk food – leaving you in a happy stupor, slumped on your couch.
But while this all sounds good in theory – and has been advocated by various bodybuilders for years – let’s take a second to explore how this tends to play out in reality.
The Argument For Cheat Days
The upside of taking the occasional cheat day should be pretty obvious…
In theory, at least, it can help greatly with dietary compliance – making you feel less deprived and allowing you to stick with your diet successfully for a longer period of time.
I mean, who wants to eat chicken and broccoli all day, every day, with no light at the end of the tunnel?
The cheat day provides this light, and affords dieters a period of time to enjoy their favorite foods without the guilt.
The goal on cheat days, then, is to really get your fix, thereby reducing any cravings that threaten to derail your progress in the future.
Of course, this means that cheat days should entail an element of gluttony; after all, it is hard to think that you could satisfy your pizza craving with just a slice or 2.
As a result, cheat days typically turn into an outright feast – a 24 hour window where you try to cram as much crap into your body as possible.
And if this leaves you feeling kind of sick, all the better, right?
After all, the feeling of post-binge remorse will make you less likely to cheat on your diet in the coming week.
The Argument Against Cheat Days
Now let’s take a look at the other side of the picture here.
Despite the temporary dose of dietary euphoria that they can often provide, in my experience cheat days are not all they’re cracked up to be.
First of all, I want to get something straight: there is no magical 24 hour period where what you eat won’t impact your dietary progress.
This is simply a lie that we have been fed for years, but it’s just not true.
Let’s look at an example to help illustrate this point.
Imagine that you have a maintenance caloric intake of 2500 calories per day.
This means that in order to lose roughly 1 pound per week, you should be eating at about 500 calories below your maintenance level – which in this case comes to 2000 calories per day.
Now let’s also imagine that you are planning to have a cheat day on Sunday, after sticking to your diet religiously for the rest of the week.
Assuming that you do this, here is how it might look.
Monday – Saturday: 2000 calories per day on average.
Sunday: 4500 calories.
This means that, when you average it all out for the week, you would have taken in roughly 2350 calories per day, which is only slightly below your maintenance caloric intake.
As a result, you would be unlikely to lose any significant weight that week, and would have spent those 6 days eating perfectly for nothing.
Yup, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news here, but you can completely ruin your week’s worth of dieting with a single very high calorie day.
And then there is also the whole issue of tending to have these cheat days a little bit too frequently…
Do you have them once a month, once a week, or even once every few days?
Do your well-intentioned cheat days often bleed into the following day, once you’ve whet your appetite for the foods you love to eat?
As you can see, I feel that having these decadent cheat days are like needlessly playing with fire for many otherwise diligent dieters.
They can destroy your progress, leaving you frustrated, and actually less likely to stick to your diet…
I mean, who wants to deprive themselves the majority of the time if it doesn’t even produce satisfactory results?
What I Recommend Instead
At this point you’re probably not really sure where to go with this.
On the one hand, you want to lose weight, which is the whole reason you’re presumably dieting in the first place!
On the other hand, you hate the thought of never getting to enjoy foods you love for weeks, months, or even longer…
Thankfully, there are 2 viable solutions to this problem.
Both of these options will allow you to achieve your goals without the endless tedium of a boring diet.
Have A Cheat Meal
Cheat meals are in principle quite similar to cheat days, but the amount of damage that you can do is far more contained.
Basically, instead of giving yourself license to gorge all day, cheat meals offer a temporary reprieve from your diet in a more controlled way.
You pick one meal, say once per week, where you can eat whatever you want. For the remaining meals that day, you stick to your diet.
This will obviously result in you eating a higher number of total calories on the day you have your cheat meal – but far fewer than if you gluttenously feasted throughout the entire day.
In fact, if you are following your diet properly for the other days, it is highly unlikely that a single cheat meal can do any appreciable damage to your progress.
There are just so many calories that you can consume in one sitting – meaning that you’re more likely to be a few hundred calories over your allowed intake at the end of the day, instead of a few thousand.
Embrace Flexible Dieting
Now I want to go one step further and say that although cheat meals can be a viable component of your dieting strategy, they are still not the best option (at least in my opinion).
You see, if you choose to eat in a restricted way – even if you punctuate it with the occasional cheat meal – you are still likely to feel deprived.
Moreover, cheat meals are only effective if you don’t abuse them.
Just as with cheat days, it is easy to have them a little bit too frequently – especially once you get a taste for them – which can seriously jeopardize your progress in a similar fashion to what I discussed above.
Instead, the optimal strategy that satisfies all of the constraints – allowing you to make consistent progress without feeling restricted from foods you love – is to scrap the whole concept of ‘cheat’ meals or days and embrace flexible dieting instead.
This means you would learn to incorporate these so-called ‘cheat’ foods into your diet, instead of viewing them as foods that break your diet.
That’s right, even the most calorie-restricted diets can incorporate foods like burgers, pizza, pasta, and dessert, without sacrificing your progress – once you know what you’re doing.
And you want to know the best part?
You no longer have to feel guilty about anything that you eat, once you learn how to structure your diet accordingly.
However, this does require that you adopt a logging-based approach to dieting, as I discuss in this article.
And this type of strategy isn’t very compatible with rule-based diets, which tend to fundamentally restrict certain food groups, so if you’re following one of those then a cheat meal is probably your best bet.
Do you have cheat days? Do you find that they help or hinder your success while dieting? Let us know in the comments.