by Jayson Hunter, RD, CSCS
Cheat days are being incorporated into more weight loss programs because of some of the success that certain programs have achieved with it in their program.
The idea at first was to give you a mental break from your strict diet. Some programs are very strict and, mentally, individuals would become tired and start to stray from the program. Ultimately they “fell off the wagon” so to speak because, mentally, it is too challenging for them to continue.
So many use the cheat day as a way to give you a break or a reprieve mentally. It allows you to eat some of those foods you have been avoiding while on your weight loss program.
What some have discovered with research is that something physically takes place when you incorporate a cheat day.
When you diet or restrict calories and nutrients, your body will start to deplete a hormone called leptin. Leptin is a powerful hormone that can influence your weight loss, or even cause you to gain weight if it is manipulated in the wrong way.
When you diet and start depleting your leptin levels, your brain gets sent a signal from leptin that you are starving yourself because leptin is dropping. This is what some call the “starvation mode,” and when this happens it triggers a series of other actions. Your brain will now send signals to other hormones to slow down your metabolism, shed energy costly muscle and cause your body to start storing more calories you eat as stored fat.
A cheat day is important in this situation because by allowing you to eat more calories, more sugar, more fat, etc. allows the hormone leptin to increase and calm down. By raising your leptin level back to normal, it starts to think “We are not starving,” and tells the brain to stop conserving and trying to protect the body.
This allows you to continue to burn calories and prevent extra storage of calories. Generally, it takes a few days for the body to recognize the calorie restriction and the leptin level to start to fall, which is why a cheat day is usually inserted somewhere between the 3rd and 5th day of a restricted-calorie weight-loss program.
One thing to be careful of with this method though is that 1 cheat day doesn’t turn into 2 cheat days and then 3 cheat days, etc, etc. There are some individuals that have a hard time getting back on the program the next day so if you use this type of program, be careful to not fall into this trap.
Most will look forward to this method and don’t mind getting back to the program the next day knowing that the next cheat day is coming in 3-5 days.
If you follow a strict calorie-restricted weight-loss program and don’t have a cheat day built in, you might want to insert one every 4 days and see if it doesn’t help you with your weight loss.