Stuck eating chicken and brown rice when all you are craving is some chocolate? However much we want to lose weight and enjoy the healthy lifestyle, there seems to always be that desire for unhealthy food. For years dieters have been avoiding any slip ups on their clean eating regime, but there is, perhaps, evidence that sticking religiously to a clean diet can actually impact your weight loss journey negatively. Are cheat days, days where you allow yourself to indulge in your cravings, the route to dietary success? There is growing evidence from psychologists and nutritionists that allowing a cheat day into a diet is beneficial. This is because periods of break from your diet regulate hormone levels, aid motivation and curb cravings. Sounds good, right? However, many still disagree and others feel a cheat day can work, but it’s not as simple as spending 24 hours completely neglecting your diet. So, let’s see just how much truth there is behind cheat days being the road to dietary success.
The psychology around ‘Bad’ and ‘Good’ food
Although it’s certainly not true for everyone, for many of us, sticking to a diet and training regime can be very hard. Clean eating can lead to dieters suffering from cravings and general unhappiness brought on by a lack of calories. There are also connotations of boredom and lack of motivation, which face long-term dieters who can’t see the end of the tunnel through a sea of green veg, salad and lentils. So perhaps a cheat day is the way of satisfying these cravings, keeping you from feeling deprived and motivating you to stick to your diet during the week. That end of the week pudding could therefore be the trick to your dieting success! Incentives to stick to your diet have been shown to be beneficial however, psychologically, there can be problems with labelling your day of dieting freedom with phrases such as ‘cheat day’ and ‘bad food’. The guilt associated with this can lead to reduced motivation and feelings of self-loathing. So, try not to think of the time spent eating traditionally unhealthy food as ‘bad’. Instead think of it as a reward for the hard work of sticking to your healthy lunch break snack or avoiding that extra glass of wine at a work dinner. Cheat days should be a reward, not a guilty binge.
Leptin to the rescue?
Motivation isn’t the only aspect of long term dieting that can be put under scrutiny from a harsh schedule. Leptin is the ‘satiety hormone’ produced by adipose (fat) tissue in response to the body having enough energy to function and therefore not needing food. Higher levels of leptin reduce hunger and, if circulating levels tend to be higher, people are less likely to overeat and become obese. Due to its effect on appetite control it is, therefore, essential to the science behind gaining and losing weight. But what does it have to do with cheat days? Well, prolonged caloric restriction and weight loss causes leptin levels to fall, which means that, as leptin decreases hunger, you crave food. The idea of cheat days is to regulate these leptin levels, reduce your hunger and speed up metabolism and fat burning. Leptin has also been shown to increase motivation, which is a bonus for those of you lacking dietary incentive! However, there are also arguments against the leptin based benefits of cheat days. This is due to the benefits felt from the metabolic changes not balancing out the cheat day caloric binge. There are also arguments that leptin rises after food binges will soon level out meaning the benefits to hunger may not be as large as first believed. So, it is good to treat yourself, but don’t consume too many calories on your day off the diet and don’t let one day off trigger long term diet neglect. Overindulgence could still negatively effect your long term dieting goals so make sure you still moderate!
Cheat days are all about eating (or drinking!) whatever you want, right? Well there might be a slight problem. The benefits of cheat days towards leptin control could be cancelled out by the negative effects of alcohol. Alcohol decreases leptin levels by suppressing leptin secretion from adipose (fat) tissue. Lower circulating leptin levels have been linked with an increase in hunger and increased obesity risk. This is not all, a 2001 paper has suggested that leptin may modulate withdrawal-induced cravings in alcoholic subjects, meaning that these reduced leptin levels may also increase the want to consume alcohol. Alcohol is also a known depressant so can also decrease your motivation and general happiness. So, steer clear of booze, even on your cheat days, unless you want to feel hungry, sad and crave alcohol over the next few days. Sorry guys!
Quench cravings but don’t go overboard
The take home message is whatever you do, do it in moderation. Overindulging on your cheat day can throw you off your regime but being too strict with yourself can lead to a lack of motivation and getting diet bored. Use moderation! Enjoy the pleasures of cheat day foods and use this as an incentive to work hard the rest of the time. At the end of the day, you need to have a break for a little bit of enjoyment from most things in life but, don’t forget your goals and most importantly, don’t forget why you made them!