Why cheat day is everyone’s favorite day
Whether it’s a savory pizza or giving in to your sweet tooth, we all have the desire to indulge once in a while. That’s why the concept of a cheat meal is so appealing to most people. The question is though, are cheat days really helping you achieve your goals?
Cheat meals can be effective when done correctly
There are some stomach-churning examples of cheat meals out there – for example, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who will consume as much as 5000-6000 calories in one meal! However, not everyone is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson… and your cheat meal doesn’t have to (and most likely shouldn’t) be 5,000 calories. This isn’t even realistic for 99% of the population, especially since that one meal can be three times someone’s entire daily energy consumption.
Despite these extreme examples that create doubts for many of us, many trainers like David Higgins and Luke Zocchi, who train and prep celebrities for roles, are insistent on its benefits. That being said, there is definitely a right and a wrong way to do it.
So why is something that seems so wrong, so right?
The key principle behind the cheat meal’s effectiveness is metabolism. Your metabolism is a set of life-sustaining chemical reactions that convert food into energy, building blocks for macronutrients, lipids, and nucleic acids, and finally, eliminate metabolic waste. These reactions help you survive and thrive. Metabolic rates can vary significantly from person to person, but what we do know is that increasing the metabolic rate means your body consumes energy faster.
Keeping Your Metabolism Active
Many people who religiously stick to a low fat, low carb diet will probably notice a dip in the rate of effectiveness after a few weeks. This plateau is very common because as your caloric intake decreases, your body recognizes it’s getting less fuel. If your body consistently gets less energy than it is using over a longer period of time, it will slow down your metabolic rate. Yup – your body is such a smart, self-preserving machine, that it will literally start hoarding fat for you as “energy” for survival. This would be great in a situation with an actual scarcity of food but since that’s basically never the case in our lives today, it can be quite frustrating. At this stage of your diet, you’ll probably also start to feel more lethargic. On top of that, leptin hormone levels decrease, leaving you feeling hungrier – which usually also makes people quite irritable or “hangry”.
To outsmart your body’s survival mode, we can use cheat meals. The cheat meal will let your body know that, in fact, there is no shortage of food to store for. It will also increase your leptin hormone levels stopping that empty feeling during dieting.
What is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is the practice of trying to outsmart your body’s plateau response by alternating your diet between low carb + high fat days and low fat + high carb days. The foods you eat should be coordinated with your exercise routine, to perfectly optimize your body’s fat burn response.
How should I incorporate a cheat meal into my diet?
There are a few important things to pay attention to when it comes to cheat meals. Contrary to what you might have seen on the internet – it’s not a TOTAL free for all.
- PLAN your cheat meals into your weekly calories. Before you begin counting calories though, check out our blog post on the calorie. We explain the limitations of the calorie as a metric and explain how calorie counting can be done safely.
- Like with carb cycling diets, designate days where you eat your maintenance calories and then several days where you choose meals that create a low-carb caloric deficit. After your deficit days incorporate a “re-feed” day, where you have carb-rich high-caloric meals that make up for the deficit you developed before – exercising more on those days. At the same time try to avoid a high amount of fat on these days.
- Recognize that cheat meals are not one size fits all. Body composition, gender, diet restrictions, and health restrictions all play critical roles in finding the right plan. It’s important to track your results as you go to see if it’s effective for you.
- Cheat meals don’t HAVE to be ridiculously unhealthy. Just because cheat meals are mostly associated with large portions from cheap fast-food chains, doesn’t mean you have to run to a McDonald’s. If that’s what you’re craving – a one-off won’t destroy your progress. But if you can go without, or if the idea of a Big Mac and 2L of soda turns you off, you can also try a fresher, healthier alternative. For example, an organic meat patty or whole wheat pasta with fresh veggies. This will still contain more calories than a normal diet meal, but the ingredients will overall give your body more to work with than, let’s say, a Big Mac.
- Cheat meals aren’t appropriate for all kinds of diets. If you are practicing the ketogenic diet, for example, a cheat meal will bring your body out of ketosis and could set you back more than it helps you. If you’re already practicing a specific kind of diet, it’s best not to mix and match concepts unless you’ve done enough research or consulted a professional.
Cheat meals are good for the soul
Cheat meals also provide a psychological benefit. Those who engage in cheat meals are more likely to have longer adherence to their diets. It is something to look forward to during your week and can help prevent the weekend’s irresistible urges that tempt most of us!
The best diet is the diet you actually stick to, and if a cheat meal makes that difference – then, by all means, DO IT.