Cheat days on my diet- GOOD or BAD?
One of the most common questions I am asked is about the utility of a cheat day on a particular diet. Many people feel entitled to a cheat day because they have been very strict with their eating habits for many days prior. Incorporating a cheat day can also (arguably) help with dietary compliance-“I will eat good now and have chocolate this weekend!” Cheat days can also be centered around birthday parties or other social events lessening external pressure. In truth, I think cheat days have some utility for some people but they are definitely not for every person, every diet plan or every weekend.
In any event, the question remains, what is the true damage from a dietary cheat day?
The answer lies in these three questions: 1) What dietary approach you are taking, 2) How long have you been on that diet and 3) Why are you pursuing that dietary approach? Each dietary strategy has its own unique benefits and downfalls. Considering the specific dietary limitations of your preferred approach and the 3 questions above will allow you to determine the utility of a cheat day in helping you reach your fitness and health goals.
Are Cheat days good or bad when dieting? For example, let’s suppose you are in a ketogenic diet because you desire to have the beneficial effects of ketosis and have found that your energy and work performance are better when you pursue a low carbohydrate dietary regimen. When achieving ketosis, it is necessary to continuously limit your carbohydrates to reach the maximum benefits and to remain in a fat adapted state. Having a “cheat day”, where carbohydrates are consumed in excess would kick the dieter out of ketosis. Depending on the amount of carbohydrates and other macro nutrients consumed on the cheat day, the return to a ketogenic state could take several days or a week. Thereby, one cheat day has disrupted your entire dietary plan.
Lets look at another area, blood lipids. If we sat down and ate a burger and fries and a dessert, we would easily put away more than 1000 calories -consisting of simple sugars, inflammatory inducing Omega-6 fatty acids and high glycemic index carbohydrates. Within hours after eating this meal we would see changes in our blood chemistry-particularly lipids and these are not positive changes. It could take 5-7 days for the lipid abnormalities and inflammatory mediators to decline in your body after such a robust cheating episode. If you have a weekly cheat day, you can see where you are constantly bombarding your body with bouts of bad food never really allowing your body to heal or experience a steady state.
Are Cheat days good or bad when dieting? So now the answer, can I have a cheat day on my current dietary plan? The answer is- it depends. If you’re pursuing a ketogenic diet, cheat days are probably not a good idea. If you are doing a detoxification diet-No-don’t cheat-just do the detox! If you are pursuing a Paleo diet and you want to have a piece of birthday cake at a party or at a social event and you don’t have a gluten, egg or dairy allergy then indulging in non-Paleo foods occasionally can satisfy cravings, and often times help keep you on track. Likely this will have no long-term consequences. Also, keep in mind that there are different degrees of cheating. Having a small slice of birthday cake (occasionally) is likely less damaging than burgers, fries and beer every weekend.
Dietary plans used for weight loss, competition preparation and achieving optimal health can be broken from time to time.
However, please keep in mind that your diet is a tool to help you achieve your goals. Learn to use that tool to your advantage so you can win the game.