One of the most popular ideas in the weight loss world is the idea of "cheat days." It’s such a well established concept that I feel like I don’t even need to explain what cheat days are, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock, I will. You eat what you consider a perfect diet for six days a week -- either a diet you're following, counting calories, or just trying not to eat what you consider "bad" foods. Then, for one day -- usually on the weekend -- you go crazy eating whatever you want. Pancakes and mimosas for breakfast? Check. Mexican for lunch? Check. Take-out and ice cream in the evening? Yes, please.
Now, I’m all for moderation in diet and exercise, living by the 80/20 rule -- super healthy 80 percent of the time, and more lenient (ahem, ice cream) 20 percent of the time. But I just can’t get behind the concept of cheat days.
And here’s why:
Cheat days work for lots of people -- maybe it’s easier to stick to a strict way of eating for six days if you know you can indulge all your cravings on that one day off. But I worry that it sets you up for thinking about food in a black and white way: some foods are bad, some foods are good. You feel guilty for eating one thing, and virtuous for resisting.
Definitely some foods are better for your body and overall health than others. I wouldn’t argue that a hot dog is as good for your body as a plate of veggies, for example. However, when you tell yourself the hot dog is bad, and wrong, and you should feel guilty for eating it, you’re setting yourself up to want it more (we want what we can’t have, right?), and when you do eat it, even if it is on a planned cheat day, you're kidding yourself if you think those negative emotions surrounding the hot dog will magically disappear. I’ll have a hot dog with ketchup and spread a little guilt and regret on top as well, thanks.
Having a set cheat day may also set you up to actually eat more calories during the week than you would if you just ate a moderate, healthy diet, with a few treats spaced out over the seven days. Here’s when we can finally prove our math teachers right about using math every day: If you’re sticking to a 2,000-calorie diet, for example, and on your cheat day, you eat 3,500 calories (surprisingly easy to do), then the difference is 1,500 calories. But what if instead of the cheat day, you stuck to your regular diet, and had four 300-calorie treats spread out during the week? Adding those treats comes out to a 1,200-calorie difference, so by allowing yourself occasional treats, you are saving calories in the long run. And that’s the best way to lose weight or maintain your weight -- over the long run. And what might be a 300-calorie treat? Two glasses of wine. A croissant. A whole milk latte and a piece of biscotti. A small ice cream cone. Sounds pretty good, right?
Also, the acute effects of overeating, even if it is just one day a week, are kinda scary. You can rewire your brain chemistry, causing your dopamine receptors to actually crave the sensation of overeating as well as making your brain develop insulin resistance, which is a precursor to developing type 2 diabetes. Overeating can also make you less likely to realize when you’re full and even change your body clock -- making you feel hungry at times when you normally wouldn’t need to eat. Those are some pretty serious effects on your body, which really set you up for a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting.
What do you guys think? Do you have cheat days? Do they work for you?
Image via Carly Pizzani