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Why your cheat day is holding you back.

  • Is your cheat day stopping you from getting healthier?
  • Sam Whitaker looks into how this could create a “terrible relationship with food.”
  • His advice is to stop seeing foods as “good” or “bad”
  • Take a flexible approach to dieting and don’t be so rigid

I sometimes get asked, 'What do you have on cheat day' or 'What's your favourite cheat meal?’ My answer is often met with surprise... I don't have one.

The concept of a cheat meal is pretty common in fitness circles (often just acting as disguise for a massive food binge).

I've spoken about previously how I used to fall into the 'cheat day' camp. I'd 'eat clean' all week and have a cheat day on Saturday (you can read more about this here - and here).

Eating in such a way commonly ends up creating a terrible relationship with food.

You see the foods you have on cheat days as bad, and therefore you can't eat them on non-cheat days.

So when cheat day does come around, you binge on these 'cheat' foods you've had to go without all week. You're craving them really bad because you've completely cut them out all week.

If you think to yourself that you're not allowed any of these foods, then it's going to make you want them even more.

What I propose is to stop thinking of foods as good or bad.

Yes, you should eat whole, nutrient-dense, 'healthy' or 'clean' foods most of the time.

But there's no reason why you can't allow a small part of your diet to be made up of processed, 'unhealthy' foods.

This will not only improve your relationship with food, but research shows that taking a more flexible approach with food choices leads to greater weight loss maintenance over the long term.

Therefore, this approach helps prevent the yo-yo dieting affect so common with a rigid, on/off diet approach many people take.

My aim when I coach people, and also with my company Body Target is to change the way people approach dieting & eating healthy.

The concept of fitting small amounts of 'cheat' foods into your daily calorie intake seems totally alien to some people.

Yet these same people think it's perfectly fine to avoid these foods like the plague all week, until cheat day rolls around of course.

Then they try to cram in as much 'cheat' food as possible.

OK, I admit it - I'm sure not every 'clean eater' takes it to this extreme, but I'd bet its more common most people think.

And there is a time & place for letting go of the reigns a little an enjoying life. I'm not saying you need to stick to your calories & macros every single day.

But the way I see & hear people approach cheat days/meals is just encouraging development of an eating disorder and increased anxiety around food.
Going back to my own personal experience, this is something I struggled with and it wasn't pleasant.

My cheat days started out as cheat meals, and weren't really that extreme.

But gradually, they just got more and more out of control, until I was just eating crap for the sake of it.

It got to the point where I stopped getting results.

Now I realise why - I was probably putting away between 5000-6000kcal on a Saturday, sometimes more!;

It doesn't matter if you're in a calorie deficit during the week, if you undo it by overeating a lot of 'cheat' foods on a Saturday (like I did).

Let me put it into numbers to explain…

By 'eating clean' Sunday - Friday, I was averaging 2000 kcal per day, which works out to be a 3000 kcal deficit over the 6 days Sunday - Friday.

So far, so good.

However, on Saturday, my cheat day, say I ate 5500 kcal, which is 3000 kcal over my maintenance calorie requirement.

So, over the course of a week, I was actually at maintenance calories. (3000 kcal deficit during the week, 3000 kcal surplus on Saturday)

Which is why I stopped getting results.

Greater Results

You see, it's what you do on average that counts.

Granted, the above is vastly over simplified, but hopefully you get my point.

So this is why your cheat day could be stopping you reach your weight loss goals.

It doesn't matter how 'healthy' or 'clean' you eat during the week, if you go to town on Domino's pizza & Ben & Jerry's ice cream, you can easily eat yourself out of any calorie deficit you created during the week.

As I've touched on already, eating this way can lead to a terrible relationship with food. 

For any degree of long term diet success, your relationship with food plays a bigger part than the actual food you eat, in my opinion. 

Just to clarify before I sum up, I'm referring to cheat days/meals and not refeeds. Refeeds, while they aren't too dissimilar, are different to cheat days/meals. 

In short, a refeed is a period, usually 1-2 days, during which calories are raised to at least maintenance with the aim to reverse some of the negative physiological, (and psychological) effects of dieting.

It is not an, 'eat as much and whatever you want' kind of thing, like cheat meals/days are. 

Another thing I want to add is that I'm sure some people do incorporate cheat meals into their week and still get great results.

Maybe they're the 1% of people who can eat pretty much anything and look like a Greek God(ess) Maybe they eat so little during the week, their cheat meal doesn't take them out of a deficit.

And maybe they've got a terrible relationship with food that makes them miserable when cheat day is over.

Summary

  • Don't view foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, as this will lead to a poor relationship with food.
  • A flexible approach to dieting & food choices highly correlates to greater long term weight loss maintenance.
  • There's a time & place to let go of the reigns a little and enjoy life. But doesn't mean it should be an all-out binge.
  • You can easily eat yourself out of a weekly calorie deficit during a cheat day
  • It's what you do on average that counts. So it's your average daily calorie intake over a week or month that determines body composition changes.
  • Cheat days & re-feeds aren't the same thing
  • Just because your favourite fitness model has a cheat day, doesn't mean it's necessarily a good idea for you to have one each week as well.
Sam Whitaker

About Sam

29-year-old Sam Whitaker is a Fitness & Nutrition Consultant and Co-Founder & Director of Body Target Ltd.

Over the past 5-6 years, he has been self-educating on all things health and fitness by reading textbooks, online articles and books by people such as Lyle McDonald and Alan Aragon. He has also just started The SBS Academy - an evidence based online training and nutrition course.

You can find out more about Sam by checking out his Facebook and Twitter feeds, or Body Target’s Facebook and Twitter.

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