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Learning to say no
People diet for many reasons, including to lose weight, gain muscle or improve sporting performance. The requirements of these diets can be worlds apart, but there’s one thing they often share: ‘cheat days’.
A cheat day is a scheduled break in a diet. The concept emerged around the same time as ‘clean eating’, and is based on the idea that a dieter can ‘cheat’ for one day a week as long as they eat to their diet plan for the remaining six days. Social media has increased awareness of these days off, notably among those dieting to gain muscle.
A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders analysed a sample of 600 Instagram images from 1.6 million tagged with #cheatmeal. More than half of these contained “very large quantities of calorie-dense food”, providing an insight into the types of meals considered a cheat. Hamburgers, chips, pizzas and ice cream were commonly featured.
The study also found #cheatmeal is often featured alongside muscular bodies.
Two main motivations for #cheatmeals are identified.
First is the theory that cheat days boost your metabolism, causing you to burn more calories. The logic goes that when you restrict your calorie intake, your body eventually adapts and resets your metabolism to your new lower intake.
Second is the theory that cheat days help you stick to your diet. Your levels of leptin fall when you diet, and this can make it harder to resist eating. The theory goes that cheat days help keep your leptin levels up.
Both these ideas suggest that cheat meals should be planned into a diet rather than being a spur-of-the-moment thing.
Big cheat meals may not be a big deal for the Rock, as he is an ex-wrestler who has built up a diet and exercise routine over decades and is already in the shape he wants to be in. But that does not mean they’re not a big deal for the rest of us.
A cheat meal can be more of a psychological tool than a physical one. It’s something to look forward to.
Can cheat days actually keep your levels of leptin up and therefore suppress your feelings of hunger?
Whether leptin has a role to play in controlling body weight is still a subject of debate among scientists, and the evidence that leptin actually increases after a cheat day is inconclusive.
Wanting a cheat day can also be a “reflection of a very restrictive and unenjoyable diet. The more you restrict some foods, the more you’ll think about them.
A moderate weight-loss diet that doesn’t leave you craving cheat days is likely to be more beneficial for physical and mental health than a very restrictive diet with cheat days.
One version of the ‘cheat day’ is the ‘treat day’, which sounds more positive, but it still alludes to some foods being good and others bad. No one food is bad, it is how much and how often you eat it that counts.
Some foods are more nutritionally dense than others but food isn’t just good or bad. It needs to be “repackaged” to add other elements, such as enjoyment.
The most effective strategy for long-term weight-loss and heart health is a healthy dietary pattern that’s compatible with what you like to eat and your lifestyle. It’s about finding what works for you.
Cheat days can have a psychological effect, and it can be positive or negative – for some people it can be easier to stick with a restricted diet if you have a cheat day to look forward.
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