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How Many Days a Week Can I Cheat on My Diet?

All weekend long would be the preferable answer

Level-four Bally Total Fitness trainer Chris Hoffstetter once advised me that cheat days were harmless because the body of a healthy person would have grown so accustomed to nutritious foods that it wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to absorb the junk scarfed down on that day of cheating. 

With all due respect to Chris, who made this statement 20 years ago at the tender age of 19, and who still had plenty of time to learn otherwise, this declaration was wholly untrue. A Saturday full of Pop-Tarts, Chips Ahoy! cookies, Papa John’s pizza and Pringles potato crisps is going to be just as cataclysmic to your digestive system and midsection as it sounds, irrespective of how conscientiously you audited your food choices in the six days preceding your caloric meltdown.

Natural bodybuilding legend Ron Williams once told me that there’s no such thing as a cheat day, because anything that’s built into your nutrition plan as an ordinary component isn’t cheating. In one sense, this is correct: You’re only cheating if your actions are in violation of a rule that’s been clearly established. In another sense, this logic proves precisely why the classic definition of a cheat day stands up to scrutiny, inasmuch as the rules of fitness progression and maintenance have been fairly well established, and a cheat day is a day in which the cheater is clearly deviating from continuing their steady progress. 

In effect, the cheaters are willfully cheating themselves out of achieving positive outcomes through the most accelerated means possible. 

But what if instead of a full-blown cheat day I decided to enjoy cheat meals? How many of those could I have each week?

We can play that game if you want to, but you’re not going to like how it ends.

So let’s say you’re accustomed to absolutely going all-out during your garden-variety cheat day, which we’ll define as eating three full meals of 1,200 calories or more, which is much easier than it sounds. You woke up at 8 a.m. on a Sunday and scurried off to McDonald’s to order the Big Breakfast with Hotcakes and a medium Iced Caramel Coffee. Bam! You’ve got more than 1,500 calories in your belly in the blink of an eye. 

You start to feel peckish again around 1:30 p.m., so you decide to split a large Brooklyn-style Wisconsin Pizza from Domino’s with your significant other. If you wash down your half of the pizza with a standard can of Mountain Dew, you’re over 1,500 calories for the second meal in a row. Finally, 8 p.m. rolls around, it’s halftime during the evening NFL playoff game, and your crew wants to make a run for the border. You order six Doritos Locos Tacos to munch on during the entirety of the second half, washing it down with a pair of Dos Equis. That’s nearly 1,300 calories, pushing your daily caloric consumption well over 4,300 without breaking a sweat, save for the hypoglycemic sweats you’ll probably experience during your slumber.

That day sounds amazing

Yup. But if you piece together too many days like this, it’ll also be hell on your body and health.

So now let’s presume that you eat like a responsible adult, and you segment your snacks and meals so that your three meal total caloric average is around 2,100 calories, and you make allowances for two daily 200-calorie snack sessions, which enables you to maintain an average weight of 200 pounds through a seven-day average of 17,500 calories.

On Friday evening, however, you go into cheat-meal overdrive. Cheesecake Factory is your grazing ground, and it’s your self-bequeathed reward for being such a dietary goody-two-shoes during the other six agonizing days of the week. You get a whole appetizer to yourself, plus a sugary-sweet adult beverage, one full entree and a dessert. 

You decide to eat only half of the Hot Spinach and Cheese Dip, which means you leap out of the gate by adding 885 calories to the scoreboard. A short time later, the server drops off a Piña Colada, leaving you to sip down another 530 empty calories. You also eat only half of your Old Fashioned Burger, along with only half of the fries that accompany them (another 760 calories combined). Now it’s time for the real reason you run to the Cheesecake Factory every week: the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake, half of which boosts your caloric total by a further 700 calories. You rise from the table about $60 poorer, and 2,875 calories richer in energy potential.

“Oh, wait!” you tell your server, as you gesture toward the half-eaten comestibles that decorate your table. “I’d like to-go boxes for all of these.”

The good news: Tomorrow night’s dinner is taken care of. The bad news: It alone will consist of 2,345 calories. Or better put, without even thinking it through, you’ve got cheat meal number two already racked into the chamber.

If we assume that these two self-contained smorgasbords would otherwise have amounted to two 700-calorie meals, you’ve created a weekly excess of 3,820 calories over the nightly norm that was holding your body weight at a steady 200 pounds. Your weekly caloric total is now 21,320 calories, or an average of 3,045 calories per day. Over time, if you’re moderately active, that caloric average can land you in the 250-pound range

That’s crazy! And just from two cheat meals?

You’re always going to reflect the average of everything you do in life, and that includes what you eat. Your cheat meals matter just as much as any other meal, and the more cheat meals you factor into that average, the more they’re going to sabotage your progress. 

Your brain may know that those are your cheat meals and make concessions for their admission into the colosseum that is your body, but your body doesn’t care. Below your neck, they’re just meals, and your body is going to usher them into the same seating areas that the healthy foods are granted access to — even if the components of those cheat meals find themselves taking up a little bit more space. 

In the end, you can cheat your diet, but you can’t cheat the laws of physiology.