Mythbusting: The Truth about Cheat Days

We’ve all heard of cheat days or cheat meals right? Nowadays they seem to be a staple part of almost every diet – some people choose to have one cheat day a week where they binge out on all their favourite foods for a whole day whereas others choose to spread it out and have a few periodic cheat meals. Most people look at this as a way to keep spirits high whilst dieting as chicken breast and broccoli day in day out can break even the most dedicated of us… we’re only human after all.

Well, first of all and most importantly let me clear this up right now – it is never okay to have a full day of bad eating habits especially not as frequently as once a week. Why? For arguments sake let’s say your daily calorie allowance is 2000 and you’ve been on a calorie controlled diet with a 500 calorie deficit per day – that’s 3000 calories deficit in 6 days, enough to lose just under half a kilogram of fat. Not bad. Now you get to day 7 and the cheat day comes into play. So you wake up in the morning and decide to go all out with a McDonald’s breakfast (you earnt it after all!) – double sausage and egg McMuffin, hash brown and a  latte to wash it down – 843 calories. At lunch you meet a friend at Starbucks and grab a chicken and bacon panini with a chocolate chunk cookie for dessert and a delicious frappucino – 1264 calories. Then that evening it’s movie night and of course no movie night would be complete without Dominoes and a bottle of wine! You split a large stuffed crust meat lovers pizza three ways with garlic & herb dip and a side of garlic bread, and of course a tub of Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream – 2537 calories plus the wine at roughly 600 calories. This gives you a grand total of 5244 which is 3244 calories over your daily limit… more than the deficit you worked so hard all week to achieve!! Because of this one ‘cheat day’ you’ve now got a surplus of calories large enough to more than wipe out the week’s efforts.

The above is obviously an extreme example but calories on so called cheat days can tally up very, very quickly and seriously hinder if not completely halt any progress you’ve made.

Now this leads me on to my next point and again this is very important – cheat days are not to be confused with strategic re-feeds. If you’ve ever done a google search on cheat days you’re guaranteed to have come across lots of claims they are necessary in order to boost the body’s metabolism, these claims usually talk about the hormone Leptin. These claims are false and come from a misunderstanding of an advanced dieting strategy called re-feeding. Re-feeding is almost never to be used in the first several months of dieting. Whilst it is very effective and necessary when used at the right time it only comes into play when you have a very small amount of body fat left to lose.

So what is re-feeding?
Re-feeding is a deliberate period (usually one day) of higher calorie overfeeding during a caloric deficit – sounds like a cheat day but there are several big differences. Re-feeds are strategic and calculated. A re-feed is not a day where you can eat whatever you want. In a diet the amount of calories and macronutrients to be consumed on a re-feed day are different than those on a regular day (more on this in a moment) however they are still to be carefully planned and accounted for.

Why, when and how to use re-feeding  
Why: When on a calorie restricted diet for an extended period of time the body makes adaptations to prevent further fat loss (survival instinct), your metabolic rate goes down and your appetite goes up – this is where the bit about Leptin comes in. Leptin is responsible for controlling satiety and metabolism. Restricting calories causes levels of Leptin in the body to drop – this drop is what causes the above adaptations and grinds your weight loss to a halt. The idea behind the re-feed is to hack the body into normalising Leptin levels so weight loss can continue.

Re-feeding has benefits for your training too. Continuous dieting causes your muscle glycogen stores become depleted and on top of this your body goes into a catabolic state making your workouts more difficult and slowing progress in muscle building. The additional calories and carbohydrate consumed on a re-feed replenish this glyogen and temporarily push your body back into an anabolic state giving you more energy in the gym and allowing your muscles to grow a little faster for the duration of the re-feed.

The hormone changes that occur during prolonged dieting also have a negative impact psychologically. You begin to lose motivation, find yourself unable to concentrate and often feel moody or irritable. Balancing your hormones with a re-feed acts as a ‘pick me up’ to make you feel more human again and give your mood a much needed boost.

When: Re-feeds are only necessary in the final stages of dieting when body fat is already fairly low. This is because while the body has plenty of stored fat, as long as you are not restricting calories too much and pushing it into starvation mode and you are controlling your macronutrients, and your hormone levels are not going to change significantly enough in the ways described above to justify a re-feed. Think about when you first start a diet and the fat drops off just like that, spirits are high, your workouts are full of energy and you feel that you could keep it up for ever! Then you hit a wall.

Whilst you are still sticking to your strict diet and pushing yourself to keep up with your training plan the weight loss grinds to a halt and you’re having trouble motivating yourself to walk up the stairs never mind a killer session in the gym… it’s at THIS point it is necessary to start incorporating re-feeds into your diet. And I assure you when you get there you will know about it! It’s not just sluggishness and waning motivation – your body literally feels like you’ve been hit by a bus. Taking a bath is exhausting and pretty much ALL you can think about is binge eating a kilogram of chocolate (DON’T!).

If in any doubt whatsoever whether you are ready to start incorporating re-feeds into your diet you most likely aren’t there yet. As for how often you should have re-feeds once you start incorporating them, this really is on a personal basis and will need to be worked out through experience. Have your first one, record how long the positive benefits last and when you’re once again depleted have another. You will eventually figure out a pattern that works for you and if done carefully and correctly you can use this as a powerful tool to maintain your weight loss and prevent poor performance in the gym as well as keeping you motivated throughout.
How: So here’s how to set up a re-feed:
1. Only consume calories up to or slightly over your calculated maintenance (BMR multiplied by your activity factor – you should already know this if on a calorie restricted diet)
2. Carbohydrates have the most impact on Leptin so adjust your macronutrient split to around 1.5 – 2.5 times your regular carbohydrate intake. This will mean you will need to take away from your protein and fat intake to accommodate this increase. So for example if your regular diet has a macronutrient split of 20% Carbohydrate, 45% Protein, 35% Fat increase carbohydrate to between 30-50% and take from the others accordingly.

The increased calories and carbohydrate will give you a much welcomed chance to eat some of your favourite foods which will do wonders to keep you motivated psychologically whilst the control over the amount consumed and the macronutrients will prevent you from going over-board and undoing all your hard work as discussed above. Also having this control on a re-feed will mean you are far less likely to slip back into bad eating habits in the days following the re-feed which is a massive danger of the ‘cheat day’.

And if you’re thinking “but I need cheat days or cheat meals to get me through the diet – I just can’t be that strict all the time”, the golden rule to remember is that to be successful on any diet you need to follow the 90/10 rule – which means as long as you eat clean 90% of the time you don’t have to beat yourself up for having a little treat every now and then. This equates to one or two times a week when you can say yes to something outside of your diet. This does not mean you can have a large pizza for dinner but it does mean you can treat yourself to a small chocolate bar, a croissant, glass of wine etc… once or twice a week without feeling guilty as long as it is just that – a little treat.

By Katy Veldre