A client once told me a fantastic analogy about his weight loss journey that I often share with others. He said losing weight is like a road trip. He's the driver and all of the unhealthy food temptations are pit stops along the way. Everyone else in the car might be asking him to pull off the road for a bathroom break or to get something to eat, but he knows if he makes those pit stops it'll take him much longer to reach his destination. Repeating this scenario to himself when faced with cravings, he managed to eat on-plan the entirety of our time together and, in doing so, reached his goal weight quicker than most would think possible.
I absolutely loved this analogy because it symbolizes the power of choice. YOU are the driver in your journey to better health. YOU choose how quickly your goals will be reached by all of the decisions you make along the way. One of the most common choices individuals make while following a weight loss plan is to indulge in "cheat days". Often occurring over the weekend, cheat days are generally a time when "diet rules don't apply", and individuals allow themselves to consume unhealthy foods or ones that are not in their usual eating routine. There is still a lot of confusion regarding the true benefits to these indulgences and whether they will actually help you reach your goals or prevent you from reaching them. Below, we'll go over the science behind "cheat days", how they can be beneficial, and how they can potentially be detrimental to weight loss efforts.
Cheat Days for Weight Loss
Most people find diets difficult to stick to because they generally involve eliminating individuals' favorite foods, leading to feelings of deprivation. Many studies have shown that restrictive eating programs that offer little flexibility in food choices have low success rates long-term. One of the perceived benefits of "cheat days" is the thought that if you allow yourself to indulge in your favorite treats one day a week, you will be more likely to stick to your diet the rest of the time. Though this can be effective if executed properly, we'll take a look at how this mindset can actually be detrimental to weight loss later.
First, let's look at the science behind "cheat days". From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies have conditioned themselves to prevent starvation by regulating hormones and storing certain macronutrients for energy. One hormone that is affected by low-calorie diets is leptin. This hormone plays an important role in fat burning, so when our bodies are being fed less calories, the production of this hormone is lowered. Occasionally eating larger amounts of food than usual (as you would during a "cheat day") has been shown to increase the production of leptin and, therefore, increase fat burning. The trick to these studies, however, is that leptin levels vary depending on what kind of food is eaten and how much of it is consumed. For example, eating high fat foods has not been shown to produce more leptin and drinking alcohol has been shown to actually have the opposite effect, reducing the production of leptin. Additionally, the potential metabolism-boosting effects of "cheat days" are fairly minor, which makes it easy to negate the small number of extra calories burned.
The other side of this equation is what to eat on your cheat days to prevent an onset of junk food cravings throughout the rest of the week. Consuming nutrient dense protein and carbohydrate sources can have a beneficial effect on leptin production without increasing cravings. One of the ways cheat days can be harmful is highlighted in the name itself. Dedicating an entire day to splurging on your favorite foods can majorly slow down or even halt weight loss altogether. A smarter way to activate your leptin production is to have a "cheat meal" instead, or something that feels like a splurge without containing an extreme amount of low-nutrient calories.
Looking at the numbers, it is easy to see why "cheat days" and even large meals can hinder weight loss efforts. Let's say you're trying to lose a pound a week, which requires roughly a 3,500 calorie deficit, and you're burning an extra 500 calories per day. Consuming a couple of beers and a few slices of pizza can easily rack up 2,000 calories, bringing your deficit to 1,000 (or not even 1/3 of a pound). Add a high-calorie breakfast, lunch, or dessert throughout the day and you've eliminated the caloric deficit entirely. Now, this doesn't mean if you're trying to lose weight you can never have pizza or beer again, but you can see why it's important to use moderation every day of the week, especially during indulgences.
Cheat Days for Weight Maintenance
Though "cheat meals" can be detrimental to weight loss, they can actually have quite a few benefits for someone trying to maintain weight. The differences between "cheat meals" when you're trying to lose weight versus maintain weight can be summarized in the following phrases:
Losing weight: "The sacrifice is worth the reward"
Maintaining weight: "Balance is key"
While you're losing weight you may be sacrificing your favorite foods, but doing so will eventually lead to an achievement of your goals. It is important to look at the big picture when losing weight and avoid negative self-talk, such as, "I can't live without pizza" or "I'll never be able to eat ice cream again". You WILL be able to enjoy your favorite foods again and you CAN eat those foods at any time, but you're choosing not to because you know it will slow down your weight loss and make it more difficult to reach your goals.
While you're maintaining weight, however, calorie deficits are no longer necessary. Staying within a deficit when you've reached a healthy weight can actually lead to yoyo-dieting, suppressed metabolic function, and unhealthy eating habits. It is important to establish a healthy balance while maintaining weight by eating foods that provide energy and nutrients most of the time, but allowing yourself to enjoy your favorite treats in moderation as well. This kind of balance can look different for everyone, but a common approach is the 80-20 principle, which suggests eating healthy, wholesome foods 80 percent of the time and allowing yourself to indulge in some less nutrient-dense foods the other 20 percent. This allows for flexibility in your life without leading to weight gain. Eating lean protein, vegetables, and wholesome carbs 80 percent of the time allows for the occasional dessert with date night, popcorn at the movies, and a couple beers with friends.
Discover the foods that love you back!
Whether you're trying to lose weight or maintain weight, making room for occasional indulgences all comes down to moderation. It can be difficult to know how to cook healthy, satisfying meals while staying within your calorie goals, and that's where All-Inspired Wellness comes in. Through a completely customizable approach to weight management, AIW provides you with the tools you need to take the guesswork out of improving your health. Once you've trained yourself to look at food as fuel, not comfort or therapy, your desire for unhealthy foods will lessen. Learning how to create healthy, delicious meals is the other key to eliminating cravings and the desire for "cheat days" you've longed for in other weight loss plans.
Make the choice to improve your health today by following the link below: