An Honest Look at the Cheat Day

Dr. Christopher McGowan
June 16, 2021

So, you decided to get serious about your health, and have been keeping to a strict diet. All that healthy eating is starting to show benefits, but as time goes on, you are starting to get a craving for carbs that just won’t quit. Is it ok to add in a cheat day without undoing the benefits dieting is starting to bring?

Are Cheat Days Good for Weight Loss?

The answer to whether cheat days are good for weight loss is, “it depends.” Cheat days are not good for weight loss programs in pure caloric or metabolic terms, but there can be a psychological benefit to knowing you are going to get the chance to splurge after a week of sticking to your meal plan. 

Some of the misconceptions about the value of a cheat day center around how much leptin your body produces. Leptin is the hormone that helps reduce feelings of hunger. Some research has suggested that significant weight loss may reduce leptin levels, but other studies have contradicted these findings. For those who subscribe to this lowered leptin theory, the thinking goes that you will be more prone to overeating the more weight you lose, possibly leading to a period of rebound weight gain. Where this theory meets the cheat day is by suggesting that a day of extra calories might trick your body into producing higher levels of leptin. 

There are problems with the cheat day leptin bump theory, though. First and foremost, there is not enough solid science to prove that periodically overeating will reliably increase your leptin levels. The second, and perhaps more obvious, challenge to this theory is that periodically eating large meals or binge eating for a day means you are adding more calories back into your diet that you will need to burn off through exercise if you are going to keep on track with your weight-loss objectives. In the end, there are probably better ways to curb cravings than tricking your leptin levels into helping you.

Can One Cheat Day Make You Gain Weight?

Similar to the question of whether cheat days are good for weight loss, the answer is “it depends.” Dieting is a long-term game, and the raw number of calories you take in day after day set against the number you burn is the main metric that will determine whether you lose weight over time. For most people, one cheat day treat will likely not impact this significantly, but if you have a history of overeating, that cheat day could put you back in touch with some of your favorite foods, possibly making it harder to stick to your diet. 

Keto Diets: The No-Cheat Diet

For most diets, and even the popular low-carb diets, having a cheat day or just a little treat to reward you for sticking to your meal plan is not going to necessarily hurt you. Ketogenic diets, often referred to as just keto, are a different story. Keto diets require a more exacting diet that eliminates virtually all carbohydrates and sugars to force your body into a state of ketosis where it can burn fat instead of the readily available glycogen your body creates when you eat carbs. Even a small amount of carbs can be enough for your body to drop out of ketosis, meaning the potential gains of your diet would be lost. 

Cheat Day vs. Cheat Meals

Since we have established there is no real scientific benefit for indulging in terms of changing your metabolism, that leaves us looking for other reasons breaking your diet might be helpful. The main reason is, of course, giving yourself an incentive to be good and a break from keeping it on the straight and narrow all week. 

Adding more calories back into your diet, especially ones from delectable but dangerous sugary treats or junk food, will not help your weight loss goals in any real sense. Since your body needs to burn more calories than you put in to lose weight, and keep doing so for long periods to lose a lot of weight, the cheat day is technically a step backward. 

Despite the lack of caloric benefit in real terms, the psychological benefit of giving yourself a break now and then might be enough to help you adhere to your diet the rest of the week, and that is what makes the difference in the long term. 

With this in mind, giving yourself the treat that will satisfy while paying the smallest penalty in extra calories is the best way to go. This is why some weight loss experts and dietitians will more readily advocate for a cheat meal or even just one dish, like an ice cream cone at the end of an otherwise healthy meal, rather than giving yourself free rein for an entire day. If you can keep your excesses limited to specific meals or foods, you can lower the chances of slipping into binge eating or bad food choices for an entire day that might undo the hard work you put in sticking to your diet plan the rest of the week.

The bottom line is that you need to keep your calorie intake at a level where a high-calorie cheeseburger now and again will not take you out of overall caloric deficit in the long term. For some people, this may not be a safe or healthy plan. If you have a history of over-eating or have had challenges with dietary habits related to mental health challenges in the past, there is a very real possibility one sugary treat could prove too tempting and could send you back to a path of overeating. 

Planning for Success with Cheat Days

One size never really fits all when it comes to clothes, and the same goes for diet advice. Cheat days, even when rebranded as “treat days,” are not going to be a good idea for everyone. Whether you should be letting loose at the end of a week relies on many factors of diet, exercise, and what your goals are for weight loss. How successful a cheat day might be for you will also depend on what led to your weight gain in the first place. If you suffer from mood-dependent eating habits that lead to binge eating, then pulling back on the limits, even once a week, may not be a safe plan. 

Social media is definitely not good for your mental health if you are contemplating a cheat day. Many people, including athletes and models who already maintain very active lifestyles, will post pictures of decadent foods they are supposedly enjoying on their cheat days. It is important to remember that these people are typically living very active lifestyles and their bodies are already tuned to burn higher amounts of calories. 

Making any lifestyle change is not easy, and changing your diet is one of the hardest changes to make. Eating only healthy foods if you have been used to a diet driven by the convenience of pre-packaged foods or high-carb treats will not be easy. The dangers of obesity are very real, though, and anything that will help you stay on the road to wellness is worth considering. 

Wherever you are in your weight loss or fitness journey, the same rules apply. If you burn more calories than you eat, you will eventually lose weight. Do the opposite for too long, and obesity could be around the corner. As simple as this is to say, it is much harder to maintain in real life. That is why many people who are serious about losing large amounts of weight will talk to a dietitian or nutritionist to help them come up with a diet that will work for them. 

At True You Weight Loss we know that losing weight, especially large amounts of body fat, is not easy. Establishing and sticking with new lifestyle and dietary habits is hard, and you will need all the help you can get. Our medical nutrition therapy program exists for just this purpose. We can work with you to help establish a meal plan you can stick with, and maybe even identify a few favorite treat foods to look forward to if that is healthy for you. 

If you are interested in learning more about how True You Weight Loss can help you, request a consultation today.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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