Cheating: It can be so easy, particularly if the only person you’re cheating on is yourself. And especially when, as the internet insists, it may even be good for you.
Browse the the web and you’ll find plenty of stories praising the benefits of a “cheat day” in your diet, where you break your regular restrictions and binge. The idea behind the trend is that, according to some studies, when you diet, your body adjusts to receiving fewer calories and starts burning fewer itself, so pumping yourself with extra calories every so often can interrupt this adaptation. It also supposedly decreases ghrelin (the hormone that tells you you’re hungry) and increases your body’s production of leptin (the hormone that tells your body when you’re full).
End result: Cheat day aside, you end up eating less.
Some people even go as far as to claim that cheat days are the key to a successful diet, both for the reasons listed above and for the fact that we all know it’s really, really hard to be good all the time, so you might as well build some room for error into your diet. Burgers? Pizza? Extra rounds of drinks? Whatever the indulgence is, there’s a line of thinking that a little regular sinning is good for you.
Not everyone agrees, though. We talked to two nutritionists — Jason Boehm and Matt Kadey — who believe that done wrong, cheat days can be downright disastrous. If you gotta cheat, they say, do it right.
Here’s what they recommend.
Don’t have a whole cheat day — stick to one or two predetermined cheat meals a week.
“If you partake in an all-day, no-holds-barred binge-fest, you might end up taking in such a huge amount of calories, fat, simple carbs and salt that it will take a number of days to recover,” Kadey says. “It’s not like your body just jumps back to normal on Monday after pigging out on Sunday.” He cites a study that shows people who splurged for two days didn’t reduce their calories enough in the days that followed — and they also felt hungrier. Planning a single cheat meal ahead of time, on the other hand, means you’re already planning when you’ll get back on track.
Do it on one of your workout days — preferably after your workout — and keep your splurging to less than an hour.
“Basically, if you keep the meal to an hour or less, you don’t get that second release of insulin that stores fat,” Boehm says, citing studies by Drs. Rachael and Richard Heller on biphasic insulin release. And if you eat after working out, your body will have created a calorie deficit for you to fill with your cheat meal. Just be sure to eat plenty of protein, healthy fat and fiber around your cheat meal, for nutritional stability.
Try incorporating a cheat side serving into your healthy plate of food, rather than having a whole cheat meal.
Kadey cites a study suggesting that a “‘vice-virtue bundle’ can trick your brain into thinking that the overall healthy meal is just as delicious as a meal dominated by indulgent items like a greasy pizza or a cheeseburger.”
Overall, the best advice for cheat days is just like any other kind of cheating: Proceed with caution. Cheating can be enjoyable — and psychologically satisfying, at least with food. But in the end, it comes down to you: Are you the type who can get right back on track?
If so: Go ahead and stuff your face with actual food instead of kale. However, if you can’t handle the pressure that comes with straying off the straight and narrow, it’s best not to take the risk at all.