Why I Don’t Believe in “Cheat Day”

There’s a ton of diet programs that suggest you take one day “off” from your diet program- a “Cheat Day”– when you can eat whatever you like.

I can’t count the number of personal trainers I’ve worked with who advocate this– it’s even a hallmark of the new best-selling book “The 4-Hour Body”.

It sounds good in theory. After all, you’re “deprived” all week, and if you know you can satisfy that gnawing urge for a Krispy Kreme on Sunday, it may make it easier to “stick with it” the rest of the week, knowing that relief is only a few days away.

Oh, that it were so simple.

If you’re perfectly healthy (metabolically speaking) and you simply put on weight because you eat a bit too many desserts, then allowing yourself a “treat” or two one day a week is probably not going to kill you and may- as the theory suggests- even make you more motivated to stick with the program the rest of the time.

And that’s fine if you’re one of those folks who can take a bite of chocolate and put the rest away “for later”.

I’m not one of those people. Maybe you’re not either. To me, the portion of ice cream is finished when the spoon hits the bottom of the carton.

I’m hardly alone. Many people- if not most- who struggle with weight year after year know exactly what I’m talking about. For us, “having a little” is like telling an alcoholic to drink moderately. And- to keep the analogy going- cheat day would be like telling that same alcoholic to go ahead and get wasted one day a week.

So that’s the first reason I’m not a fan of cheat day. It simply doesn’t work for a lot of people for whom certain foods are addictive. It whets the appetite for more, starts the whole craving cycle going again, and generally ends in disaster.

But there’s another reason I don’t like the concept of “cheat day”, and it has to do with metabolism.

As much as 25% of the population by conservative estimates have a condition known as insulin resistance which is at the root of both type ll diabetes as well as metabolic syndrome (a kind of pre-diabetes). These folks simply don’t process carbs well. Their blood sugar goes up too high when they eat them, and the pancreas oversecretes insulin—the fat storage hormone- in response to the increased levels of blood sugar. Low-carb diets correct this within a few days. One big “cheat day” will undo that good faster than you can say “supersize me”.

And- as many people know all too well—a “cheat meal” can easily turn into a binge.

And that ain’t good.

Some recent research seems to support the idea that a period of overeating can have some serious negative consequences. In a study published in Nutrition and Metabolism, 18 subjects were specifically told to consume way more calories than usual for four weeks, mostly from fast food. The researchers wanted to find out what effect (if any) such overeating would have on long-term body composition.

During the four-week intervention, folks gained weight (no big surprise). Six months later, they had lost about 50% of the weight gain. But a full year afterwards weight was creeping back up again. Measurements of body composition showed that the subjects had the same muscle mass (lean body weight) but that their fat mass had increased.

The scariest part is that after 2.5 years the increase in body weight of the subjects had gone up even further, compared to a control group who did not participate in the “overfeeding” part of the experiment. According to an interview given to WebMD by the lead researcher, Asa Emersson, a PhD candidate at Linkoping University in Sweden, the average weight at the beginning of the study was 149 pounds and rose to 160 after 2.5 years. Not only that but the increase in body fat was larger than predicted.

“Based on this, it can be recommended to avoid very high food intake that may occur during shorter periods”, Emersson told WebMD.

Now none of this means you can’t have an occasional dessert if you’re trying to lose weight. Nor does it mean you should swear off “recreational food” forever.

But in my opinion there are three very good reasons not to program regular departures from healthy eating into your weight loss program.

One, it can undo a lot of good in a very quick period of time.

Two, it can stir up the cravings you’ve tried hard to tame. (Think having just one cigarette after you quit for a week. Bye bye “non-smoker”.)

Three, it can lead to long-term consequences if you overdo it.

Four, telling an addict to have “just a little” is like telling someone who’s allergic to peanuts to “just eat a few”. It doesn’t work. (See cigarette example, above.)

Of course if you’re one of those lucky people who truly understands the word “moderation” and can put the rest of that ice cream back in the freezer after you’ve had your half-cup portion, then you can disregard my warnings.

If you’re not, maybe you should rethink the “cheat day” concept.