Can a Cheat Day Help You Lose Weight?
A cheat day can be a beneficial tool to help you lose weight. It’s one of the few times you can eat not-so-healthy food and still see fat loss as a result. By taking a preplanned approach towards eating “bad”, you have the potential to accelerate your weight loss.
Cheat days boost your metabolism and satisfy you psychologically. Knowing you can be a little looser with your diet, and be able to eat some of those forbidden foods will help keep you motivated the rest of the time to stay on track. Take the time to understand what a cheat day is, what it does to your body, and how to implement it, and you’ll soon be able to harness a nice little weapon in the fight against fat.
It Boosts Your Metabolism
Having a cheat day boosts your metabolism in many ways. One way it boosts your metabolism is by increasing leptin levels. Leptin is a hormone that influences hunger and body fat levels. When you diet and cut your calories, your leptin levels also drop. This causes those extreme hunger signals, and as a result, your body will hold onto body fat thinking that it’s going to need it to survive in the future. Leptin levels are directly correlated with your total caloric intake. Low calories lower leptin levels. By having a cheat day, you give your body a chance to “reset” your hormone levels – leptin included.
Cheat meals keep your body guessing. You don’t want your body thinking that it’s going to be getting low calories forever. Throwing in a high calorie day sends your body a signal that food is plentiful, and that it’s OK to shed some fat reserves because there’s not a famine on the horizon.
How Often Should You Have a Cheat Day
While having a cheat day can be beneficial, you don’t want to overdo it. Until you get the hang of your body I recommend that you have a cheat meal once per week. In the very beginning when you first start your diet, wait two weeks before having your first cheat day. This serves two purposes.
- It gives your mind and body a chance to get over your withdrawal symptoms of processed food. Waiting just one week at the beginning for your cheat day can keep the bad cycle of unhealthy eating going. Read more about overcoming your food addiction.
- It gives you a chance to deplete some of your glycogen stores. More than likely your muscles are full of glycogen. You probably haven’t been eating carbohydrates sparingly, so it will take a little longer for your muscles to deplete themselves of glucose. This will make your cheat day more effective.
As you start getting leaner, the frequency of your cheat days may actually increase. The lower your body fat levels, the more your body wants to hang on to the energy reserves (fat) it has. You have to do a few tricks to get rid of that last bit of fat. Increasing the cheat day frequency to twice a week is not unheard of, although, depending on the person, they may need to keep the processed food out of their diet, and instead use calorie cycling.
Cheat Day or Cheat Meal?
So you’re all excited about this cheat day. You’re dreaming of eating pizza, ice cream, chips, and fast food all day. Let’s take a step back for a second. Remember, a cheat day is a preplanned approach to help you lose fat. You don’t want to go and blow a whole week’s worth of dieting by eating an insane amount of calories one day a week.
I recommend that at first you limit your cheat day to a single cheat meal. This way you can gauge the effects the cheat day has on your fat loss progress. If you see that you are losing weight at an extreme rate, you can either be a little looser with food choices during that single cheat meal, add a second cheat meal to your day, or add another cheat meal at some other time during the week.
“Cheating” guidelines should look like this:
- Limit fat intake. Carbohydrates are going to have the biggest influence on your leptin levels. In addition, by eating a large amount of carbohydrates, your insulin levels will be high, so you don’t want to be combining fat with a storage hormone.
- Eat more calories this day than other days of the week. Try eating 500-1000 calories more than what you would need to maintain your current weight. If you need help determining this number, see how many calories should I eat.
- Your food choices can be looser than normal. They don’t have to be 100% healthy foods. However, not everyone can get away with eating 5 bowls of cereal. If you find that having a dirty cheat meal isn’t working for you, try keeping your carb choices healthier, but eating a lot more of them. This in effect turns your cheat meal into a carb up, but what can I say…not everyone’s genetics allow for dirty cheat meals.
- Be mindful of your calories! Cheat days are not free-for-alls. Remember what your ultimate goal is and keep your eye on the prize. The best way to track calories is through a combination of a calorie tracker app and a digital food scale. Here is the scale I personally use.
When Should You Have a Cheat Meal?
The are a few different times that are more beneficial than others to have a cheat meal. This will depend on what your goals are and how they affect your lifestyle. Speaking from a strictly physiological standpoint, the best time to have your cheat meal will be when your insulin sensitivity is at its highest. When is this? It’s right after a good workout. After a high-intensity workout that demands energy from glucose, your muscles are primed and ready to absorb carbohydrates. It’s during this time that you will be less likely to store these carbohydrates as fat.
The other good time to have a cheat meal, and the time I actually prefer, is at a time when it is socially beneficial to you. As you might have noticed, when you try to lose weight, you become somewhat of a social outcast. Bad food always seems to show itself when you’re out with friends. I like to save my cheat meal for a Friday or Saturday night when I can enjoy going out to dinner or a party and not worry about having to say no to every temptation.
What do you think? Have you found cheat meals to be beneficial towards fat loss? What is your favorite cheat meal?