I’m involved in pretty much all health and fitness circles. Sports performance, fat loss, muscle building, education for coaches, course content creation, etc…
You name it, I’ve got my name somewhere in the hat.
One thing that’s common no matter what area of health and fitness you delve into is the idea that “if I eat well all week, it’s totally fine if I have a cheat day as a reward for being so good”
Although I would love to tell you that this is true, it’s just not.
How many people do you know that workout consistently every week and have been doing so for years, but still don’t look the way they want to look?
Yeah, nutrition is almost always the reason why.
People notoriously underestimate how many calories they eat and simultaneously underestimate how many calories they burn during exercise. In fact, the research demonstrates that people (when being measured in a lab) can be regularly off by as much as 50%.
Meaning, if they think they ate 1000 calories, they probably ate closer to 1500 calories. Or, if they think they burned 500 calories, it’s probably closer to 250.
Reasons for these terrible estimations people have vary dramatically from one person to the next and include everything from personal perception to poor technology tracking, but the research still stands true. Even for professionals.
Which brings me to the infamous cheat day, and why I think this is a strategy that is likely to crush your progress as opposed to support your progress.
Understanding Fat Loss
First off, in order for anybody to drop body fat, they must first follow the laws of thermodynamics. Meaning, in order to lose weight you are going to need to consume fewer calories per day than you are expending.
Nobody in over four decades of research has defied this law, and you are no different.
A typical calorie deficit one should start with in order to drop body fat should hover around 10%. So, if you’re currently eating 2000 calories per day and you want to initiate weight loss you should subtract 10% off of that mark to begin your weight loss journey—which would put you at 1800 calories per day.
Awesome, we’re off to a good start.
So if I’m the standard person, I’m probably going to follow my diet well from Sunday to Friday. This means I would be in a 200 calorie deficit for 6 days in a row, which puts me at a weekly deficit of approximately 1200 calories.
Now we know from the research that a pound of fat is roughly 3500 calories, so this week we likely lost somewhere close to this mark depending on our genetics and how hard we trained.
Here’s the tricky part, Saturday is the most popular cheat day.
So we go to the restaurant and order:
Appetizer: Chicken wings (1lb is approximately 900 calories)
Dinner: Pasta with meatballs (Meatball pasta dish is approximately 1400 calories)
Dessert: Slice of cheesecake (A slice of cheesecake is approximately 1000 calories)
If we ate this meal by our self this would net a 2300kcal consumption in one meal alone, let alone all the other food that you ate that day!
Doing the math, you created a weekly deficit of 1200 calories for yourself to drop body fat, but then in a single meal not only eliminated that deficit but added even more to it so you ended up in a weekly surplus.
Remember, this is also just one meal in one day. Lots of people take the whole weekend off. Or, have three cheat meals for the day instead of just one—you can easily see how this would destroy your progress at this point.
Not trying to be a villain here, just doing some math.
How To Approach “Cheat Days”
So, how should you approach your cheat day? We gotta live right?
This is a much bigger topic than most give credit to when you begin to consider all of the physiological and psychological myths and truths associated. Typically, the idea always stems from the thought:
“Hey I was pretty good this week, I deserve a cheat day”
This isn’t really how it works, as I’m sure many of you have found out the hard way by reading the above.
Following a strict, well-designed diet and training program you can expect to lose 1-2lbs per week and healthily sustain that.
Unless you have a very fast metabolism (For the nerds, this is really just high levels of NEAT) this “go wild” strategy on Saturday can stop your results in their tracks.
This becomes especially worse if you’re bulking and then still go wild on the weekends, expect to gain a lot of unnecessary body fat and end the bulk earlier than you expected.
What’s a smart way to go about cheating?
First off, it shouldn’t even be called cheating. I prefer the term that some coaches use more commonly now that is “free meals”, to take any associated guilt away from the occasion. It’s food, just relax. You’re not cheating. It is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, guilt-free.
Second, you have to start thinking of these occasions as free meals, and not free days. No sensible diet for baseball performance should ever include an entire day of crap eating on a weekly basis. Eat like an athlete, not a couch potato.
Third, if you’re planning your cheat meal days or a week in advance, posting online about your ideas and asking/telling your friends what you’re going to eat, you have an unhealthy relationship with food. Don’t be that guy.
Fourth, if one of the first questions you ask when you start a diet is “when can I have cheats?”, odds are you’re not ready yet. Get back to the drawing board and remember why you’re here.
But, a single day of overeating can be advisable when you’re dieting to lose weight. This meal gives you a nice little psychological boost that can keep you happy and motivated, which in the long term ultimately makes the dieting process easier.
Then there is also a physiological boost associated as well, but it’s really not the big metabolic boost you’ve heard in the gym locker room.
Sure, studies on overfeeding show that doing so can result in an increase in metabolic rate, but it completely negates itself when you have to eat anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand extra calories a day in order to achieve this metabolic effect, which then balances out the increased metabolism (which is largely coming from additional TEF anyways, this shouldn’t be surprising).
No net-gain here, unless you’re counting body fat.
The temporary physiological and psychological effect we can attain is a boost in a hormone called leptin which regulates hunger, your metabolic rate, appetite, motivation, libido, and lots of other cool things. Leptin levels drop as a result of dieting which in turn causes the metabolism to slow down and your appetite to increase.
If you give leptin a temporary boost, we can temporarily reverse some of these associated negative implications. Eating carbohydrates is the most effective way to raise leptin, protein does an ok job, fats do almost nothing, and alcohol can actually decrease leptin; making the whole process even worse.
Therefore, a well structured free meal should ideally come in the form of a high protein, high carbohydrate meal with no alcohol, that also doesn’t put you in a dramatic state of overfeeding for the day/week (remember that weekly deficit, we need that). It’s fine to end the day a little over your recommended diet intake once a week, but it’s not okay to try and justify being 1000+ calories over. This is especially true if you add some alcohol to the meal and have been struggling to get ripped for a long time.
It should also be noted here, that the myth of eating junk food to “keep the metabolism high cause it’s so used to clean food” is absurd. This is 100% untrue and has no basis in science. But, following my rules above is a science-based approach to having your cake and eating it too.