If you're trying to eat healthier, you might be wondering what the deal is with cheat days. Is it really okay to have cheat days, or will cheat days undo your progress? If weight loss is your goal, you might be wondering if occasional cheat days will make it significantly harder to reach your goal weight. If you’re on a very strict and specific diet like the Keto diet, what impact will cheat days have on ketosis?
Sticking to a healthy meal plan 100% of the time is quite the challenge, and a diet that is too restrictive has a greater chance of failure than a diet that allows cheat days. A lot of people who include cheat days in their daily meal plan do it because it gives them the incentive to stick to their healthy meal plan every other day of the week. Having a cheat day to look forward to makes it easier to resist sugary, salty indulgent snacks on regular days.
On the other hand, if you’re really struggling to eat well, a cheat day can be detrimental to your goals. If it’s not planned out properly, one cheat day can quickly spiral out of control, and you might end up consuming way more empty calories than you meant to, destroying your confidence and setting you back days or even weeks.
Not only that, cheating on very restrictive diets like Keto and Atkins can have longer-lasting consequences, kicking you out of ketosis and causing major blood sugar spikes.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of including a cheat day in your meal plan, how to plan for a cheat day, and how to recover if you decide to have one.
Pros of Having Cheat Days
As mentioned, including cheat days in your meal plan can actually help you stick to your healthy eating plan in the long term. No matter what your goals are, most healthy eating plans cut out or severely restrict a lot of foods that were biologically wired to crave.
Millions of years of evolution have left humans craving foods that are high in sugar and carbs, like pastries, chips, chocolate, and bread. In prehistoric times, fruit was the main source of sugar, and those who managed to find and eat it had a major advantage over those who didn’t. The carbohydrates in fruit gave prehistoric people more energy, and they were less likely to starve and were more likely to pass on their genes. So, humans evolved to crave sugar because of the evolutionary advantage that we associated with it. We are genetically hard-wired to seek it out.
This is why it’s so hard to resist eating foods that are high in sugar even though we know that excess sugar consumption is extremely bad for us, especially refined sugar, the type that’s added to nearly everything from pizza dough to ketchup. That craving is still there and unfortunately, we have easy access to seemingly limitless amounts of sugar. Sugar is one of the worst things a person can eat in high amounts, and it’s the first thing that most healthy meal plans advise that you cut out or drastically reduce.
Sugar is addictive, and eating it releases dopamine and opioids, brain chemicals that make us feel good. Cutting it out can leave us feeling depressed and anxious, and can alter our sleep schedule and cognitive function. At the same time, cutting it out completely is next to impossible, and those who try might be less likely to stick to their long-term healthy eating plan.
According to Carolyn Williams, a registered dietitian and Ph.D., in an interview with Cooking Light, a cheat day can reduce the likelihood of binge eating and give you a mental break from the constant struggle of resisting your cravings. Plus, giving up the foods you crave takes a lot of the joy out of eating, and a weekly cheat meal gives you something to look forward to
Cons of Having Cheat Days
Cheat days may not be for you if you have a history of binge eating or emotional eating. We know that sugar is addictive, so it’s important to treat it like any other drug. Just like some people can’t have the occasional cigarette or drink without falling back into addictive behaviour, cheat days can cause significant setbacks in certain folks who struggle to maintain a healthy diet.
Habit is a major component of diet, so if you get in the habit of healthy eating, you could inadvertently break this great habit by throwing in a cheat day.
Before you decide to include cheat days in your healthy eating plan, ask yourself the hard questions about why you want to have one. Are you sticking to your healthy meal plan for the rest of the week? Are you exercising? Do you really believe you can stop after just one cheat meal or snack? Do you have a support system in place?
For some people, having at least a set period of time without cheat days can help them form healthier eating habits, get their blood sugar levels back on track and develop the discipline they need to maintain their healthy diet long-term. If you are someone who lacks self-control in this area, a cheat day may not be for you, especially if it was hard enough to begin with to get into the habit of healthy eating.
Would One Cheat Day Per Week Significantly Slow Down Your Progress?
Again, this is entirely subjective. If your cheat day is monitored and controlled, does not include any binge eating, and includes lots of water, it might be okay to have cheat days. If you’re sticking to your healthy meal plan every other day of the week and including moderate exercise at least 4 days per week, a cheat day isn’t likely to significantly slow down your progress.
If, on the other hand, your cheat day consists of binge-eating whatever it is you’re craving, and two slices of pizza turns into eating an entire large pizza, then the consequences of all those excess calories might be days of lethargy that can be hard to bounce back from. What started as a cheat day can quickly spiral into days of sluggishness and immobility as you try to get yourself back on track, and if that’s the case you are likely to see a halt in your progress, both in weight loss and feeling healthier.
How to Plan Your Cheat Days
If you want to include cheat days in your meal plans, the first and most important step is to go over it with your doctor or dietitian. They can help you decide what a healthy and controlled cheat day looks like for you. Cheat days shouldn’t be a free for all, especially if you’re experiencing serious health consequences of a poor diet. Decide what you want to indulge in on your cheat day and have it ready. If you go in without a plan, you run the risk of binging on whatever you come across.
It’s a good idea to plan out your cheat day and have a healthy meal plan in place for the day after your cheat day to help you recover. Prep healthy meals and snacks that are easy to grab and go, and be sure that they contain plenty of protein, and fibre and are relatively low-carb. Soup or bone broth, smoothies, oatmeal, and salads with quinoa are good options.
Secondly, make sure that your cheat day includes plenty of water. It’s very likely that whatever you’re eating on your cheat day will contain ingredients that will make you retain water, so drinking at least 2.5-3 litres of water can help you flush it out of your system.
Cheat Days on the Keto Diet
Some diets are more tolerant of cheat days than others. If you’re following the Keto diet, you need to be more careful of your cheat days in order to stay in ketosis.
As part of the Keto diet, carb intake is restricted to get your body to switch from using carbs as an energy source to fat. Unlike a simple healthy eating plan, which places an emphasis on restricting unhealthy carbs and sugar, the Keto diet also restricts vegetables and fruits that are high in carbs. Potatoes, peas, carrots, corn, apples, bananas and peaches are just a few examples of otherwise healthy fruits and vegetables that Keto followers need to avoid in order to stay in ketosis.
People are different when it comes to how many carbs they can consume before they are knocked out of ketosis, so you would need to really know your body and/or work with your nutritionist to find out what your limit is. Once you fall out of ketosis, getting back into can take days or even weeks, depending on how many carbs you consumed, your metabolism and how active you are.
For some people, cheating on their Keto diet is no big deal. They have their cheat day, then do the work to get back into ketosis and life goes on. For others, especially folks who have trouble controlling their blood sugar levels, staying in ketosis is something they are adamant about. If that’s the case, cheating while in ketosis may not be worth the effort of getting back into it.
The Bottom Line
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to whether or not to allow cheat days. It all comes down to your health goals, your self-control, and where you are on your wellness journey. However, if you’re struggling to maintain a healthy lifestyle, it’s important to make the decision to have cheat days or not with the guidance and support of a trusted medical professional and a good nutritionist who can keep you accountable and help you get back on track if and when you decide to have a cheat day.
Your DNA can also determine if you should have cheat days. An at-home DNA test from CircleDNA can tell you more about what type of diet will work best for you, based on your genetic makeup.
Just How Bad Is Sugar For You, Really? | Right as Rain by UW Medicine.
Why do humans crave sugary foods? Shouldn't evolution lead us to crave healthy foods?