On paper, cheat days and cheat meals sound great. Simply stick to a strict diet for a couple of days then eat whatever you want? Not so fast. We're here to set the record straight.
But what, exactly, are cheat days and cheat meals? Cheat days are whole days where you'd essentially eat anything and everything you'd normally not be 'allowed' to eat under a strict diet plan – pizza for breakfast? Why not?
Cheat meals follow a similar concept but restrict you to just one meal outside of your prescribed daily diet. You could have pizza for breakfast, for example, but you'd need to eat like a regular human being the rest of the day.
In theory, it sounds like a great idea. But is this something that we should all be doing and is it realistic?
'Cheat meal' or 'cheat day' are not the best names because you’re not 'cheating on anything – the phrasing makes it seem like you’re doing something bad or wrong. There’s nothing wrong with consuming these foods or having a bit more than usual on occasion. One relaxed day, every once in a while, will not hinder your goals and for a majority of people who have cheat days, they are also scheduled ahead of time too [1-6].
Another dietary pattern you may hear that has a similar concept to a cheat day is alternate-day fasting or '5-2' diet. This is a dietary pattern where you follow a strict plan including a sharp decrease in calorie intake followed by days where you consume a greater amount of calories [2-4].
You might say you’re having a cheat day for a variety of reasons. It may be that you’re on a rigid plan to gain muscle or lose weight. As a result, you’re looking for one day during the week where you can take the stress off.
Online articles frequently refer to a paper from 2015 that looks at strict dietary patterns to meet goals [1,5-7]. The paper ultimately concludes that cheat days can be helpful in scenarios where you are following a strict plan, especially due to the fact that they are set ahead of time .
A 'day off' from your diet during the week might keep you from feeling like a strict diet plan is totally unmanageable, but is this sustainable?
Another paper from 2016 looked at differences in two weight-loss strategies between two groups of participants . One group followed an extreme version of alternate-day fasting where participants alternated between days where they consumed zero calories and days where they consumed as much as they wanted.
The other group of participants followed standard weight-loss recommendations with a calorie reduction of 400kcal per day. The researchers found that the alternate-day fasting group consumed significantly fewer calories per day on average (by over 300kcal) when compared to the standard weight loss group. However, the alternate-day fasting group only lost slightly more weight than the standard weight loss group, likely indicating they lost more muscle.
In the quest for nutrition or health-related goals, we may impose a bunch of restrictions on ourselves to get there quickly. These drastic restrictions can be hard to follow long term. This is the main reason why cheat days are added into a routine (5). It gives you a bit of room to breathe following a very strict period of time with many “dos and don’ts.”
Don’t get us wrong, a day where you can eat whatever you wish sounds really inviting. Problems might arise, however, when you go back to a very restrictive intake...
Cheat days work for some people, especially as a short-term solution to nutrition and health goals. In some cases, they may work in the longer term too. How often you choose to have cheat days depends on how you are disbursing your calories throughout the week. Once you have an idea of how many calories you wish to consume each day, you can then work out how many meals you wish to have.
First, you have to figure out how you want to eat. How often will you want a break from your diet? Is this something you can do long-term?
When there is success in the long-term with this, it likely takes a lot of planning, money, time, access, and effort to follow (insert The Rock) [1-6]. We don’t suggest it as cheat days will likely be difficult to maintain without access to resources, accountability, and the consistent time to plan it all out each week.
What are the alternatives to a cheat day?
Our approach differs from The Rock when it comes to nutrition. More specifically with regard to building muscle, our approach takes away the cheat day and gives you back time too.
Generally speaking, no matter your nutrition/health-related goals, the first thing you should do is assess your intake as it is now and what you’re trying to achieve. How often do you like to eat, what kinds of things do you enjoy, what might you want to add a bit more of, what might you want to limit?
After you’ve figured out your baseline, then start to think about your goals and what small changes you can make to get there.
Know that if you have a day every once in a while where you consume more calories than usual or expected or have foods you don’t typically consume, even if it’s not planned, it won’t destroy your goals or your progress . This isn’t a cheat day, this is life.
We like to look at it this way - rather than focusing on what you have to take out of your intake or what you are doing wrong, focus on what you should consume more of or what you should do more of throughout the day.
Maybe you want to add some additional fruits and vegetables, Huel, or lean protein to your intake - and maybe through that, you start to consume less fried food or less red meat because you’ve filled your plate with better options. Don’t make the initial goal restrictive - try to start it with what you’re going to add.
Changing your mindset around food/nutrition can bring about a fun and exciting experience and is one you are more likely to sustain.
If you're starting to worry that there's no such thing as a healthy cheat meal, worry not – look no further than our naughty-but-nutritious Huel vegan Mac & Cheeze.
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