Cheat days are popular among fitness enthusiasts. It’s where you stick to a strict diet for the whole week except for one day when you allow yourself to eat whatever your heart desires. Burgers, pizza, ice cream, chocolate, soft drinks, alcohol… sounds like fun, right?
Whether you’re trying to shed some weight or actively working towards gaining muscle mass, your diet has a big impact on your fitness goals. But are cheat days (or refeed days) really a good thing if you want to achieve your goals?
What is the difference between cheat meals and cheat days?
You have to decide how much you want to splurge:
- Cheat days: Pizza for breakfast, ice cream for lunch, and a burger and fries for dinner? On a cheat day, you are allowed to eat whatever you want. What this day looks like depends entirely on you: some devour everything they can get their hands on. It’s possible that you might consume twice as many calories as on a normal day. Others choose a less extreme version and increase their daily calorie intake with healthy, high-calorie foods.
- Cheat meals: Another option is to use cheat meals. The idea here is that you eat healthy the whole day except for one meal when you eat things that are not part of your prescribed diet (usually things like junk food).
Physical effects of cheat days
A cheat meal or cheat day is where you’re intentionally increasing your caloric intake to give your body and mind a respite from a restricted diet. Some studies have shown that alternating days of food energy restriction with greater food energy intake actually helped athletes reach their weight loss goals and did not result in backsliding.(1)
They also found that cheat days restore energy levels and “briefly stimulate the release of some regulatory hormones that play a positive role on fat loss and satiety and increase metabolic rate”.(2) The theory is that since cheat days increase the production of leptin, they boost your metabolism. This, in turn, should then cause your body to burn more calories after overeating. Leptin is a peptide hormone (consisting of amino acid chains) that is secreted by the body’s fat cells and heat day or a refeeding day is still being studied. Overeating is thought to boost your body’s metabolism by no more than 3-10% (over a maximum of 24 hours).
However, going overboard on your cheat day can, of course, also set you back a bit with your fitness goals. If you are indulging in cheat day treats too often, you’re body will not have the deficit in calories it needs to lose fat stores. Cheat days should be done in moderation, and noting what foods you are intaking those days can help you avoid losing your fitness progress.
Psychological effects of cheat days
Cheat days or refeed days can have both positive and negative effects on the human mind. It depends on the kind of person you are: many people feel that regular cheat days help them stick to a strict diet. It makes it easier for them to stop food cravings on the other days.
However, for other people, overeating can cause more harm than good. They eat so much on their cheat days that they feel guilty afterwards. Or the only thing they can think about is their next cheat day instead of focusing on healthy eating in general. This is definitely unhealthy behavior and can ultimately lead to an eating disorder.
So, should you cheat regularly?
It’s okay if you loosen up once in a while and treat yourself to something you’ve been dying for. There should be room in your diet for the occasional indulgence, even when you are trying to lose weight or working towards a fitness goal.
We are not big fans of restrictive diets anyway, and we definitely do not recommend scheduling regular days on which you eat everything you can get your hands on. Because what happens at the end of the day is you have consumed several thousand calories, are riddled with guilt, feel bloated, and maybe even a little sick to your stomach. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?
In this case, cheat meals are probably a better and healthier choice. Let’s say you’re craving pizza and decide to treat yourself to a cheesy and greasy slice. One slice of cheese pizza is about 300 calories — that’s not bad, right? But what if a whole pizza pie is sitting in front of you and you’re tempted to eat four slices? Now you’re indulging in a 1,200-calorie meal.
That’s still not a horrible treat that could prevent you from progressing. Still, if you were to turn that cheat meal into an entire day and allow yourself to indulge in tasty treats over 12 hours, you could easily indulge in thousands of extra calories you don’t normally consume.
This is why you should resign to treating yourself in moderation and still being conscious of the treats you’re consuming. It should be mentioned that people with diabetes, high cholesterol, or blood pressure need to be extra careful. Even small treats can have big, negative impacts on their health.
Our tip: Keep a food and exercise diary
Tracking your food intake, particularly macronutrients — carbs, protein, and fats — can help guide your cheat meals so that you leave room to enjoy the foods you love while still working towards your fitness goals.
With food tracking, you can simply plan your small indulgences: enter tonight’s ice cream in your food diary first thing in the morning. That way, you know how to make nutritional adjustments to your meals during the day without exceeding your goal. The secret is everything in moderation.
Also, keep an exercise diary to track your fitness progress and celebrate your achievements. We often experience small victories before reaching our big goals, but they can go unnoticed if we aren’t paying attention. Tracking your progress helps keep a record of your growth and keeps you motivated. Use the adidas Running app and adidas Training app to track your workouts.