Everyone loves the idea of a "Cheat Day" but there is often confusion about what they are and who benefits from them.
What are Cheat Days and Should I Have One?
I love pizza.
It's one of the only foods I get strong cravings for.
All it takes is someone saying the word. Or driving by one of my favorite pizzerias.
So when it's time for a cheat meal, I almost always choose pizza.
Do you use cheat meals or cheat days as part of your diet? If you have thought about the idea but aren't sure where to begin, this post is for you.
This will help you decide if you should try cheat meals and if so, how to go about it.
Leptin is Kind of a Big Deal
What Happens When You Restrict Calories? You mess with leptin.
Leptin is the anti-starvation hormone; it functions to slow down the metabolism and conserve fat during times of famine.When leptin levels are high, you can lose fat quickly; when leptin levels are low, fat loss slows down. And, as you may have guessed by now, leptin levels drop when you’re dieting.
Leptin levels are influenced by the amount of fat on your body, and your caloric intake. Your total fat mass influences leptin because leptin is produced in the fat cells; more fat equals more leptin.
So in a nutshell, leptin is kind of a big deal. This is where cheat meals/days come into play. So how do you go about using cheat meals/days to burn more fat and build muscle? Here are 3 simple steps
3 Steps to Use Cheat Meals to Burn More Fat
1- Put yourself in a caloric deficit throughout the week.
To lose a pound of fat you need a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories. That's 500 calories less than your body requires per day for 7 days. Obviously you need to track your food intake but even with meticulous food logs it's not a perfect science.
Even though it's not perfect don't use that as an excuse to just wing it. Tracking your calories will make a huge difference if you've never done it before.
Before you can reduce your calories you need to know what your maintenance level is.
There are some different ways to determine your maintenance calories. My general recommendation is to multiply bodyweight by 15. This will vary depending on activity level, age, training history, weight but it's a good starting point.
From there you can subtract 250-500 to be at the deficit needed to lose fat. Remember it's 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat. Start at the lower end before cutting calories into an extreme deficit. Give yourself time to adapt. If you go to an extreme right away you may have quick results but they won't be lasting as you won't be able to sustain it for long.
So be smart about it. You're in it for the long haul, not just a month.
2- Stick to the Diet
People hate the word 'diet' as it represents restrictions and cravings. Call it an eating plan if you want. Or a nutritional strategy. Same idea, different wording. If there's a way to trick your mind to help you stick to it, then use it.
Before you embark on reducing your calories and worrying about cheat meals, be sure you have some consistent nutritional habits first.
Have you stuck to a diet in the past/present? Are you familiar with food portions and have a good sense of how many calories are in a meal and the macro-nutrients? Do you read nutrition labels?
Make sure you have a decent understanding of nutrition and some experience sticking to a diet before worrying about cheat meals.
3- Choose Cheat Meal or Cheat Day (depending on individual psychology)
I've done both.
Nowadays I prefer the cheat meal. Sometimes two cheat meals. When I did the cheat day (always on the weekend) I enjoyed the freedom of having a whole day to eat whatever I wanted. No tracking calories. There were no forbidden foods.
The problem was the next day. I felt like garbage. Maybe at age 19 you don't feel this way but at age 36 I prefer not to feel like junk for a whole day or more.
It's just not worth it to me. Same thing with hangovers, a little bit of fun is not worth a day of misery.
Having one or two cheat meals is the happy medium for me. Maybe it is for you too. You still get to eat your favorite foods (pizza!) and reap the rewards of a good nutritional plan the rest of the week.
How do you choose between a cheat meal and a cheat day? Try each one and see how you feel the next day. Energy levels, training intensity, If you get headaches, joint pain, upset stomach etc.
There is no right or wrong here. You need to experiment and take notes. Find what works for YOU. And remember what works right now, may not work next month or next year.
One final tip-
If your diet is low in carbs and you are training hard you may need a cheat day. Low will be different for everyone but if you're hovering around 100 grams of carbs per day then you may want a whole day to feast on pizza, pasta, sponge candy, burgers and mashed potatoes.