We all like to eat high-calorie foods that are not nutrient-dense once in a while. It’s human, we enjoy good food and crave it after not having it for a period of time. But eating too much on your cheat day or cheat meal can offset some of the progress you’ve made in that same week.
Many maintain a diet that’s so strict that they have to cheat once in a while to remain sane. In this post, we’ll discuss how cheats days can affect you and why you would want to approach your diet differently if you feel the need to constantly cheat.
The Big Downside of Cheat Days
Fat loss is dictated by something called the ”Energy Balance”. If you consume fewer calories than you burn (caloric deficit), your body will have to tap into its fat stores to balance out this energy deficit. If you eat at a moderate deficit for the first 6 days of the week and then devour every snack you see on Sunday, your weekly caloric deficit will be affected.
Let’s take an imaginary person named Bob as an example.
Bob has been sticking to his calories and macros all week. It’s Sunday and he feels like he deserves to eat whatever he wants. After all, 1 day of clean eating won’t get him ripped, so how can 1 cheat day ruin his progress?
With a bit of simple math, I can show you exactly how it can ruin Bob’s progress.
So let’s say Bob:
- Burns 2700 calories a day.
- Maintains a calorie deficit of 20%, this is a daily calorie deficit of 540 calories (2700*0.2 =540).
- Maintains this deficit from Monday till Saturday. So far, this puts Bob in a weekly deficit of 3240 calories (540*6=3240).
Now Bob goes ahead and eats whatever he wants on Sunday (I’m talking ice cream, pizzas, french fries, all that good stuff) and ends the day with 5500 calories consumed.
Believe it or not, Bob just undid almost all of the progress he has made the last week.
This cheat puts Bob in a caloric surplus of 2800 calories on Sunday (5500-2700=2800). So Bob went from a weekly deficit of 3240 calories to a weekly deficit of 440 calories (3240-2800=440) in just one day.
Let’s assume it’s true that we burn 1 lb. of fat with a weekly deficit of 3500 calories (research shows that this is not always true, it depends on the person, but it’s close enough). Then the amount of fat Bob has lost in that week is minimal, even though he’s been so strict all week.
This is what happens to a lot of people. They feel like they’re stuck because even though they eat “clean” all week with just one cheat day, they just won’t burn a noticeable amount of fat.
But My Cheat Days Aren’t That Bad
Research shows that an average restaurant dish in the US contains around 1200 calories. Chocolate covered donuts contain around 330 calories a piece. So if you just eat 2 restaurant dishes and 3 glazed donuts, you’re already at 3400 calories. As you can see, the calories add up quickly.
So, if you’re not tracking what you eat on a cheat day (most don’t), there’s a great chance that you’re eating way more than you’re supposed to. Especially if you’ve been craving high-calorie food all week.
However, if you are tracking what you eat and making sure you’re eating around or slightly above maintenance, then such a cheat day will not have an impact on your weekly calorie deficit. But let’s be honest, usually, we just stuff ourselves with whatever we crave on cheat days.
What To Do Instead
If you feel like you need a cheat day to stay sane and enjoy foods you like, your diet is probably too restrictive. For most people, there is plenty of room in your calories to consume a few snacks you enjoy. You just have to plan correctly so you stay in that caloric deficit.
There’s no need to restrict yourself from all the foods you like during a fat loss phase. There’s not a single type of food or macronutrient that will make you fat. Overeating makes you fat. A funny experiment by a nutrition professor at the Kansas State University showcases this quite nicely.
The professor went on a two-month diet. In this diet, he was mostly eating Twinkies, Nutty Bars, Oreo’s, and lots of other snacks. While doing this, he maintained a caloric deficit of about 800 calories and lost 27 pounds.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you should mainly eat snacks to burn fat, but it means that you can consume snacks you enjoy and still burn fat if you fit them into your calories.
This is essentially ”flexible dieting.” The benefits of flexible diets are simple: you have a healthier relationship with food and you enjoy what you eat.
This helps explain why research shows that flexible dieters don’t experience as many symptoms of eating disorders, mood disturbances, and excessive concerns with body shape when compared to “rigid dieters.”
Cheat days are not the answer if you want to have an enjoyable fat loss phase. Consuming foods you enjoy is key in every fat loss plan. It ensures you enjoy the process towards your goal, which is important if you want to sustain your healthy habits.
In this post, I discuss ”refeed” and “diet breaks.” These are superior alternatives to cheat days and have some benefits for fat loss. If you like to (slightly) overeat once in a while and still burn a significant amount of fat, then short diet breaks may be what you’re looking for.
Free Fat Loss Checklist
If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about effective nutrition for fat loss, check out my free “Fat Loss Checklist.” It covers the most important points you need to consider prior to embarking on a fat loss phase. You can get instant access to the checklist by filling in the form below.