Cheat Day: Yay or Nay?

By Justinne Lou Go


MANY people know about the 80-20 rule of “dieting” — 80% healthy meals, 20 percent unhealthy meals. That 20 percent is often translated into “cheat meals” or “cheat days,” but are cheat days really necessary or permissible for one who is trying to build healthy eating habits?

The word “cheat day” is a favorite vocabulary for fitness buffs because it’s that time of the week when appetites are liberated and one can splurge on their favorite foods and cravings; the most awaited day of the week. However, one must be careful not to go overboard and slip off the track of their health or weight goals. You wouldn’t want to throw away a week’s worth of progress for one day of going crazy at the buffet station, feeling guilty afterwards, and finding that the scale has not moved a notch down, or worse, racked up three increments higher, would you?

The problem with cheat days is that we all have different definitions for this. For some, it can mean erasing any idea of healthy eating and chomping down whatever craving or idea of comfort food pops up in the mind, or it could mean eating three bags of Cheetos and a whole pack of beer “because you earned it.” According to Jessica Spendlove, accredited practicing dietitian, sports dietitian and nutrition consultant for the GWS Giants, Cronulla Sharks and Giants Netball, “…a cheat day or meal [is] a set period of time where the individual can eat more relaxed.”

If you really think about it though, when one does not think of having a cheat day and is eating meals with the right portions (a.k.a “eating everything in moderation”) and with mindfulness of nutritional quality every single day, who needs a cheat day, right? It’s all about the right mindset and relationship with food. Of course, discipline is involved but it does not necessarily involve obsessing over calories and restrictions.

However, if you think you’re the kind of person who needs a “cheat day” to stay sane throughout your healthy eating regimen because you can’t stop thinking about that bacon mushroom cheeseburger, that giant chewy chocolate chip cookie or that tub of Reese’s ice cream every single day, no worries. By all means, treat yourself for sanity’s sake.

It is actually recommended to refer to these cheating occasions as “cheat meals” rather than “cheat days,” because people tend to let themselves go throughout the day when “cheat day” is in mind. A “cheat meal” is a healthier term and conditions the mind to designate just one meal instead of a whole day to splurge on guiltful food choices.

So, if you must cheat, cheat wisely. Here are seven tips to do so:

1. Plan to cheat

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AP photo

Remember that this is actually a game between you and yourself, so you’d want to try not to be on the losing end as much as possible. Even when it comes to cheating, planning is a must, as much as you plan your healthy meals and exercise routine for the week. Be fully aware of the deed you are about to do; don’t dive into it without a game plan and back-up plans. All costs and risks must be calculated. Set the day, time, place, companion (if any), and most importantly, the choice and amount of your cheat meal. Review restaurant menus before even getting there. If you’ve been thinking about it all week, that’s more than enough time for you to strategize and negotiate with yourself.

2. Fast but don’t starve

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The science behind the benefit of cheating lies in the hunger hormone known as leptin. This is the hormone released by our fat cells which tells the brain when we’ve had our fill. We would want to increase the production and levels of this hormone in our body to keep ourselves from going into a binging spree.

The big mistake most people do when they know they’re in for a feast is that they skip all meals throughout the day to “save up space for the buffet.” However, this is actually counterintuitive to the principle of increasing leptin as mentioned above. When you’re starving yourself, you’re slowing down your metabolism and pushing your body to go on fat storage mode as a natural mechanism to conserve energy. Fasting by delaying a meal, such as moving lunch to a later time, can actually help increase the production of this hormone and help curb your appetite right before your cheat meal. So, don’t skip meals but instead, have a meal closer to the time of your cheat meal.

3. Stay real

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Just because you’re set on treating yourself, still try to choose healthier versions as much as possible. Always keep nutrient density in mind. Choose frozen yoghurt over ice cream or grass-fed beef burger instead of processed, commercial burgers, or a vegetable- and meat-loaded thin-crust pizza over thick-crust cheese pizza.

4. Earn the burn

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Set your cheat day on your heaviest workout day. This can make you feel the least guilt and maximum pleasure of your reward. Twenty minutes of circuit training is enough to keep your metabolism up well after your meal. After all, the point of a cheat meal is to reward yourself for your efforts. Earn it and burn it.

5. Savor the Moment

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Don’t forget to take it slow. You’ve been waiting for this all week. Chew your food properly and enjoy every single bite. This is for digestion and satiety cue purposes.

6. Purge

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Leave no evidence of your cheat meal. Get rid of any trace of your guilty indulgence—junk food, soda, ice cream, pizza, and cakes—from your fridge. They don’t belong there the rest of the week.

7. Forgive and Move Forward

Of course, we’re only humans thus, we’re not perfect. The 80-20 ratio is there for this reason. A slip-up doesn’t mean it’s the end of the game and you might as well drop the healthy eating plan. Don’t give up altogether over one slip-up, whether it’s as small as having two scoops of ice cream instead of one, or as big as going all-out binging like there’s no tomorrow. Just accept what you ate and get right back on your exercise routine and healthy meals. It’s never too late to start over or do better. Remember, what matters most is your health, not what people think of you or say about you for what you ate.

So, to cheat or not to cheat, you know yourself best; what you’re capable of — whether you’re the type to binge from long periods of strict restriction or you can guiltlessly get back on track with fresh motivation to exercise harder and eat healthy consistently. The most important thing is having a healthy relationship with food and not be too hard on yourself. Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

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