A quick peek at a health nut’s food journal may reveal pizza, ice cream, or mac ‘n’ cheese. These not-so-healthy items may come as a surprise, but “cheat” meals have become a hot topic in the health world, for both popularity and scrutiny.
A cheat day is a designated time (a full meal, an entire day) where you eat whatever you want—with no guilt. Theoretically, allocating one day a week to unhealthy foods makes the other six days of lean meats and veggies more tolerable. There’s also some science that supports the health benefits of cheat days. Some studies suggest cheat days can boost metabolism by increasing certain hormones that help regulate appetite levels.[i]
But can cheat days end up in unwanted results and unhealthy habits? We’ve untangled the confusion about the calculated free pass. Read on for the pros and cons of cheat days, along with smart ways to incorporate treats into a healthy diet.
There’s no denying it: Eating healthy all the time can be hard. Cheat days are a great option because they give people something to look forward to. And after a week of healthy choices, it’s easy to enjoy a burger and fries—no sweat.
Without cheat days, some people may restrict all foods they deem unhealthy, which can result in binging or compulsive eating.[ii] Foods labeled “off-limits” can become even more coveted. Without any wiggle-room, a small indulgence—like a handful of potato chips—may lead to finishing the whole bag in one sitting.
Many diets that restrict calories can actually have an adverse effect on health: Cutting calories can lower leptin, a hormone that contributes to hunger and increases the chances for a binging episode. Cheat meals that are higher in calories, especially protein, can raise leptin levels, which can ultimately suppress appetite.[iii]
It can add shame to food
By labeling certain foods as “cheats,” you may feel ashamed when you eat them outside of a cheat day. And who wants to skip dessert at a wedding? Plus, fixating on the calorie count or ingredients in a brownie or slice of pizza can lead to nagging cravings.
You could crave more sugar
Going all in on a cheat day and overdoing it on sugar and fat leads to a spike in insulin, which is the hormone that helps us absorb nutrients from food.[iv] This is followed by a deep dip in insulin levels the next day, which increases hunger and even the temptation to reach for the cookie jar on non-cheat days.[v]
You could over-do it
When the cheat day finally arrives, you may chow down on foods you wouldn’t ever really want to eat. Plus, too many trans fats, simple carbs, and sugar in one sitting can lead to bloat, guilt, and discomfort.[vi]
A Healthier Approach
The bottom line: There are good and not-so-good elements of cheat days. If you’re considering a day or meal devoted to indulgences to balance your healthy lifestyle, try some of these tips.
Know the difference between a cheat day and a binge
Treat yourself to your favorite sweet treat or an extra serving. A binge—stuffing yourself beyond the point of fullness—is a different ball game.
Savor meals, whether it’s a fresh salad or a creamy bowl of pasta. Chew slowly and enjoy each bite. Avoid eating at your desk, in front of the TV, or on the fly in the morning. Carving out time for your food will make it more enjoyable and decrease the chance of overeating.[vii]
Enjoy good food more often
Whatever your goals may be, it’s okay to include some treats even if you’re trying to lose weight, get healthier, or increase your strength. If an ice-cream sundae is a part of your cheat day, try eating a small piece of dark chocolate after dinner to keep your sweet tooth at bay all week long.
Re-frame your thinking
With a name like cheat day, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong. Think of it as treating yourself to a delicious comfort meal for all your hard work throughout the week. A cheat meal or day, when done with intention, will not derail your health goals.
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