Those are all questions that may circle your head, all the while being terrified that a cheat day will derail your progress. Every coin has two sides and there is information out there that will point cheat days in the direction of utter failure.
So, which is it?
Will a cheat day totally ruin your progress or is it something that can find a place in your routine? Is this something you need to consider or is it totally off the table for you?
We’re going to dive in here and explore some of the ins and outs of the cheat day to clear the water for you. Let’s begin.
The Cheat Day Cycle
The idea of the cheat day is based on hard work and getting a reward for it. You’re going to be super strict on yourself up until this day and then you get the opportunity to let loose. This perpetuates a whole cycle that could act as nothing on your continued progress or completely derail you. This all comes down to who you are and how you handle things like this. For some, it’s totally detrimental and leads to a slippery slope. For others, it’s a fun time that gives them something to look forward to.
In the worst-case scenario, a cheat day follows a cycle of yo-yo dieting. You’re all in and extremely strict on yourself up until your designated cheat day. On that day you cheat on your diet, and not in a small sense of the word. It’s an all-out feast. You eat all of the things that you’ve held off on for the past dieting phase. So much so, that you eventually feel sick. Once the day is over, you wake up feeling awful and regretful. This leads you to continue this cheat even further. You have more of those foods that you held off on and really cut loose. Over time this behavior snowballs until you’ve knocked back your progress to where you started. You then start over with the same restriction that ends with a cheat day. Thus, starting the cycle over again. Keep note that it’s not the food had on the day of the cheat that is starting you over. It’s more so the psychological effects that can come along with this.
Best case scenario, you’re someone who has a solid grip on your mindset, and you’ve developed some solid behaviors. With this, you can be strict and approach the cheat day with some more mindfulness. You know that it’s going to bother your stomach some or make you feel a little sluggish, and you can accept that. You also understand that once the cheat is over, you’re going to resume your routine like nothing happened. Thus, you repeat a healthy and beneficial cycle that rewards hard work in a healthy way.
These are two totally different situations that all come down to how you handle things like a cheat day. The cycle is going to be based on your mental clarity and your grip on your behaviors.
That’s the cycle that a cheat day can mimic, all depending on psychological factors.
Now, let’s discuss if those cheat days actually have a physiological effect on you.
Is a Cheat Day Really Going to Make You Gain Weight?
The biggest fear surrounding a cheat day is the gained weight. The fear is that you overeat calories so much so that you end up packing on a ton of body fat. However, this isn’t necessarily how this works. Think of it like this. You didn’t wake up one morning with more body fat than you started with. It took time for those tissues to develop and that weight to increase. Therefore, an excess in calories for one day won’t pack on the weight. Just like losing weight won’t happen with one day of eating in a deficit. These things take a little more time.
To make this even clearer, let’s talk about the differences in weight you might see when partaking in a cheat day.
Fat weight is what can be considered extra weight due to an increase in fat or lipid tissue. Body fat has weight to it, and when we start to increase this on the body, how much we weigh follows. This tissue takes time to create, just like it takes time to burn off. With that being said, any weight that may be gained after a cheat day, is almost guaranteed not to be fat. It just doesn’t happen that fast.
On the other hand, there is water weight. You’ve probably heard of this before as the reason behind any weight gained after a big meal. Your body pulls water into your tissue when you eat something high in sodium or carbohydrates. This is also what cheat day meals typically consist of. Therefore, cheat days often lead to a ton of water weight. It’s not that you have any more tissue than before, but more so that you’ve got some extra water retention going on. Water weight isn’t an increase in body fat percentage, but just an increase in fluid retention. It’s not uncommon to gain between 5 and 10 pounds of water weight during something like a cheat day. Water weight can be super defeating as you think this gain is reflected in your actual body composition. It’s not, so long as you pick back up where you left off with your routines you’ll level back out to your normal weight.
If water weight is a huge problem for you, consider lowering the amount of carbs on cheat days and upping your water intake. This will minimize what gets pulled in, while also helping to flush the retained fluid.
Can a Cheat Day Be Helpful?
Hopefully, at this point, a cheat day doesn’t seem so daunting. The good news is that cheat days can actually be of benefit for weight and body fat loss if used correctly. This involves a hormone called leptin, which helps to decrease your appetite as well as helps to regulate the burning of fat and how much you store. If you’re dieting, you won’t be stimulating as much leptin, which is why you often feel hungry during a dieting phase. You’re in turn, “leptin sensitive”. When you consume something higher in calories and even carbs, you’ll stimulate insulin, which will also stimulate leptin at a high level. You’ll get a spike in this hormone which can play roles in your mental state during dieting phases and will also give you a boost in burning calories. Yes, you might gain water weight, but you may notice that your muscles look fuller, and you feel leaner a few days after. This is due to the sudden boost in calories spiking your leptin levels.
Now, if you were to continue with these higher intakes of food, you would essentially dull your sensitivity for releasing this hormone. This in turn could make you leptin resistant, which would nullify its beneficial effects. Thus, it’s important that you just roll right back into your plan afterward.
This is how to effectively use your cheat days as a “refeed” to gain an advantage.
Cheat days aren’t required. They’re something that you can totally succeed without, but they can also really help you when things get tough. There are some psychological components to cheat days that need to be considered, but if you feel up to it, they can really give you something to look forward to.
The cheat day isn’t going to cause sudden weight gain. The process of actually storing body fat takes much longer than this, especially if you’ve been dieting. In reality, it will cause a short-term influx in weight that is due to water retention. This will level back out so long as you resume what you were doing before your cheat day. If a cheat day rolls into a longer stint of excess consumption, it then could become true body fat. Keep this in mind if you wish to pull these into your routine.