We all know someone who’s “cheat day” is every day, but it’s funny to think that this concept has some scientific backing behind it, when on a restrictive caloric diet. Let us now delve into the theory of cheat meals/days.
Cheat days on a diet are something that can provide you with added incentive to stay on your restrictive plan. On a restricted calorie deficit, cheat days refer to that meal or period in which you can deviate from your regular diet routine. Many dietary professionals will often recommend a day when you are allowed to eat an otherwise restricted food. Doing this can help boost your energy levels, and give you a psychological break from the strain of dieting.
Cheat days are of particular importance if you’re on a low-carb (ketogenic) caloric deficit diet. Keeping carbohydrates low creates an energy deficit in the body and helps control insulin (a hormone that affects hunger and plays a role in the storage of body fat). It’s been noted that lower insulin levels aid in the process of burning body fat. However, the downside of creating an energy deficit is that the body will adapt to the shortage of calories by burning fewer of them, thus decreasing your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Cheat days can disrupt this slowdown and reboot the BMR.
The most notable physiological benefit of having a cheat is the increase in serum leptin levels. Leptin levels tend to drop while in a caloric deficit. A periodic increase in leptin coming from a cheat day has various benefits including increased energy expenditure and BMR, increased thermogenesis, and increased thyroid output.
As stated above, there’s also a psychological benefit of cheating; you get to eat whatever you like and be confident in the knowledge that you'll still get lean. From personal experience, it’s this psychological benefit that provides me with the biggest value. You learn to stick to your diet more stringently when you know that a cheat day is just around the corner.
With that being said, here are some general guidelines to adhere to when deciding to have a cheat day:
- Assess your progress before deciding to binge out on a cheat day. If you go 2-3 weeks and begin to notice your fat loss is dropping off, then you may want to start incorporating a cheat meal/day into your dietary routine.
- Consider is your overall level of caloric deficit. If you're not in a huge deficit (e.g. only 200 calories below maintenance), you don't need to cheat very often. The more caloric restrictive your diet, the faster leptin levels will drop and thus the more beneficial a cheat day is for you.
- The lower body fat percentage you are, the more often you can incorporate cheat days. In most cases, if you're under 10%, you can cheat every once a week. If you're 10-12%, you can cheat every week and a half. If you're over 12%, you can cheat once every fortnight. If you’re above 18%, you’ll want to start by only incorporating a cheat meal, as opposed to a whole day. This is because the physiological benefits don’t apply as heavily to people in this range.
- If you're naturally prone to fat gain (i.e. endomorphic somatotype), you won't want to cheat unless you're pretty lean (below 12%). Much like above, you may want to start with incorporating cheat meals, rather than days.
- When incorporating a cheat meal or day, eat until you’re fully satiated. Pushing yourself past that level only brings about diminishing returns.
So there you have it! I wish you all the best in your fat burning endeavours and hope that you come to realise that dieting isn’t all bad when you’ve got things like cheat days to keep you sane. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below.
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