Cheat Day: Is it a good idea?

cheat days

‘Cheat days’ is a concept that allows you to take a break from your diet and enjoy your favourite snacks and foods for 1 day a week. This is a great concept but often carried out incorrectly.

Did you know that it only takes 1 cheat day to destroy an entire weeks’ worth of hard work and dedication? Let’s take it from the basics. 

Energy balance and calories

Energy balance refers to calories-in vs calories-out, and it is a major factor that drives weight loss and weight gain. If you consume more calories than you expend, your body will start gaining weight. If you consume less than your body expends, then you’ll start losing weight. 

For example, if your maintenance calories (a number of calories that you need to maintain your weight) are 2,000, and one day you consume 2,300 calories. You can solve that overconsumption, by doing exercise and bring the calories back down to 2,000. Calories are just a unit of measurement for energy. They indicate how much food we should consume in order to stay healthy, lose weight or gain weight. Everything we consume contains a number of calories, hence why it’s important to keep an eye on what you’re eating. 

Another great read: 4 hormones that affect weight loss and fat storage

The problem with cheat days

Okay, now you know the basic concept of energy balance and calories, it’s time to take a look at how cheat days interplay here. 

Cheat days are commonly approached with a mindset of ‘I can eat whatever I want today and it won’t count’ which is where the problem lies. 

What most people don’t realise is that it’s not just daily calories that you need to watch: it’s the average calories you eat over 3-7 days. This is because weight loss occurs over a few days, rather than from one day to another. Scientists have discovered that in order to lose 1lb of weight, you need to be in a 3,500 calorie deficit consistently over 7 days (500 daily caloric deficit). Therefore, strategic planning is very important.

The best way to be strategic about cheat days is to plan them in advance. It is understandable that planning the whole week in advance can be hard, but if there is an event like a night out or a dinner out with friends at the end of the week, then some preparation can be put in place. 

When you go out with your friends, you are likely to grab foods that are calorie-dense or have a number of alcoholic drinks. The trick is to ensure that the average calories over the 3–7 days remain within the calorie deficit or your maintenance calories. 

This is where the strategy lies: out of everyone around you, you know yourself best, right? This means that you generally know how many drinks you can handle or what you are likely to eat as well. Knowing this information will help you figure out how many calories you need to budget for these events.

The structure of cheat days that cause weight gain

The best way to discuss the structure of cheat days and how they can lead to weight gain is with the use of visual examples. We will use a hypothetical lady called Brenda. 

Between Monday and Friday, Brenda follows a strict diet, but she has incredible cravings for sugar and calorie-dense snacks by the time it gets to the weekend. The cravings she’s experiencing cause her to step away from the strict diet at the weekend. This results in binge eating due to the unbearable sugar cravings. 

Let’s take a look at Brenda’s weekly food diary and her cheat days below.

poorly structured cheat day

Let’s presume that we have calculated her maintenance calories to be 1,800 per day but, because she is looking to lose weight, we have reduced her calories to 1,500 per day. As you can see from her diary, she was eating healthily from Monday to Thursday and remained within her caloric deficit. However, the weekend arrives and she decides to go out for dinner with friends on Friday and a night out on Saturday. She has alcohol and snacks which take her over her daily calories on both days. The following day she feels bad and goes back to her healthy eating habits.

However, by the time Sunday comes, her weekly average calories add up to 1,930. Therefore, the days on which she ate within her caloric deficit have just gone to waste. She has also exceeded her maintenance calories which means she may have gained some weight. So, as you can see, just one or two cheat days a week can ruin the whole week’s worth of healthy dieting. 

Another great read: How long does it take to recover from cheat days?

How to approach cheat days?

There are a couple of different ways to approach a cheat day and ensure you continue losing weight. However, once you break your healthy eating habits, it’s crucial you don’t turn the following days or weeks into cheats as well.

Many people eat a cookie or two and think their success is ruined, then enter the mode of ‘ah well’ and eat whatever they want as ‘it’s not going to make a difference’. This is an easy mentality to get into but it’s certainly not how it works. If they continue eating those cookies which are going to make them exceed the total daily calories then, yes, all progress may be lost.

One way that Brenda could approach her cheat day is to eat her maintenance calories on her cheat days, which will mean that the average calorie intake over the week will remain under her maintenance calories. Take a look at the food diary and cheat days below.

well structured cheat day

In this food diary, Brenda ate within her caloric deficit for five days and still had a good time at the weekend. However, this time she showed self-control and discipline by consuming her maintenance calories. This meant the average weekly amount was lower than her maintenance calories enabling her to lose some weight. The loss of weight won’t be as good as she expected, but at least she didn’t gain any weight.

Another strategy is to plan in advance, especially if the plan is to eat more calories than the maintenance calories. Take a look at the food diary below.

weekly schedule with cheat days

The diary shows that Brenda ate at the recommended caloric deficit for the first two days but, knowing that she was going to have a busy weekend, she prepared herself by reducing her daily calories two days before the weekend and on the following day after the cheat days. This meant that her weekly average calories remained at her maintenance calories. So, although she hasn’t lost weight, she managed to avoid putting on weight. Alternatively, she could do intermittent fasting a day or two before, which would greatly reduce the average calories and give her more freedom for her cheat days.

For instance, if she decided to fast on Thursday and left her other days unchanged, her weekly average calories would add up to 1,630. Although she didn’t manage to remain within the specified caloric deficit, she still ate fewer calories than the maintenance calories and thus she’d still lose weight.

Summary

It is really important to understand that it is the strict dieting schedules that actually set us up for failure. These rules make us crave the things we can’t have and commonly lead to binge eating. 

If you are planning on having a cheat day, it is recommended to plan in advance and count your calories every day, especially if you have a night out planned. You need to set yourself a limit on how much alcohol you are going to drink and, if there is going to be a dinner involved, how many calories are going to be consumed. Check out the menu and plan in advance so you can reduce your calories a few days before or after to reduce the average calories. Set a plan to counteract the potential weight gain or lack of weight loss. If you’re looking for a proper nutrition guidance and weight loss, be sure to check out the Nutrition2change 12-week weight loss program.

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