Why Sometimes It’s OK to Cheat (On Your Diet)

I’ve always been a fan of “cheat days”. Not the “take a day to eat anything and everything just because you can” cheat day, but a day planned into your week that gives you the freedom to enjoy some of the foods you enjoyed before you went Paleo or started a new diet. I started really thinking more about the idea of “cheat days” a few months ago when a coworker asked me if I’d heard of the “Four Hour Body” by Tim Ferris (he also wrote the “Four Hours Work Week). Apparently, he encourages dieters to take one day and cheat to the extreme, eating as much “restricted food” as possible, almost to the point of sickness. His reasoning is that this will make that bad food unappealing all week and the bump in calories will keep your metabolism from slowing down due to calorie restriction. While I don’t (and probably never will) encourage anyone to go to that extreme, cheating – when done right – can be good for you both physically and mentally. This can be especially helpful around the holidays, which provide plenty of opportunities to “cheat”. Having a scheduled time or day allows you to plan accordingly, stick to your diet, and then really enjoy something delicious on your “day off.

Physical Benefits

Following a lower calorie or restrictive diet (like a strict Paleo diet) typically results in an energy deficit, meaning you burn more calories than you take in. This will lead to weight loss, but over time it also causes your metabolism to slow down. This is why people following low calorie diets (1200 calories or less) over an extended period of time eventually stop losing weight.

But having a cheat day can have beneficial effects on two important hormones that regulate appetite and energy balance: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is stored in fat cells and regulates long term energy balance. Low levels of it tell the body you are in a state of starvation and need to eat more. Ghrelin, a fast acting hormone produced by the stomach, stimulates your appetite. Ideally, you’d want to have higher leptin levels and lower ghrelin levels. Studies have shown that leptin levels increase and ghrelin levels decrease after short periods of over eating. This increase in leptin helps boost the metabolism, and leptin is thought to also help improve motivation and mood.

Basically, our bodies are still programmed for a world where food could be scarce and short periods of famine were a fairly regular occurrence. Eating a little extra of indulgent foods from time to time reminds the body that food is readily available, and prevents it from compensating with energy storing mechanisms like hormonal changes and decrease in metabolic rate.

Mental Benefits

This one is easy. Following a restrictive diet, especially in a food environment with delicious creations (bacon milkshake anyone?) wherever you look and abundant food advertisements, can be difficult. For some, dieting can be stressful. Stress raises another hormone, called cortisol, which tells the body to increase blood sugar and store fat. Giving yourself a break once in a while can help you stay motivated and increase the likelihood that you stick to a healthy nutrition plan.

The take away…

A cheat day can have beneficial effects on appetite-regulating hormones, metabolic rate, mood, motivation, and help reduce the stress of dieting. But not all cheats are created equal. According to the research, over eating on a high protein diet increased resting metabolism but doing the same on a lower protein diet did not. In addition, indulging in higher carbohydrate foods increased leptin levels, but higher fat foods didn’t, and drinking a lot of alcohol (more than 1-2 drinks) negated any benefit. Also, in people who are currently obese, research shows that leptin doesn’t have the same effect on appetite as it does in normal weight people. Finally, if you are following a specific diet for a medical condition like diabetes or high blood pressure, use common sense and avoid foods that will exacerbate those conditions, as it could be dangerous, and having very high blood sugar or a reaction to your gluten allergy will counteract anything good that a break from your diet might have provided.

So enjoy a cheat day every now and then, but try to choose high protein, higher carb, lower fat foods while avoiding alcohol to reap the biggest benefits. Indulge in some “bad” foods, but don’t over do it. And be ready to get right back to your plan the next day!

Sources

Redman LM, Heilbronn LK, Martin CK, de Jonge L, Williamson DA, Delany JP, Ravussin E; Pennington CALERIE Team. Metabolic and behavioral compensations in response to caloric restriction: implications for the maintenance of weight loss. PLoS One. 2009;4(2):e4377. Epub 2009 Feb 9.
Robertson MD, Henderson RA, Vist GE, Rumsey RD. Plasma ghrelin response following a period of acute overfeeding in normal weight men. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 Jun;28(6):727-33.
Dirlewanger M, di Vetta V, Guenat E, Battilana P, Seematter G, Schneiter P, Jéquier E, Tappy L. Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Nov;24(11):1413-8.
Jéquier E. Leptin signaling, adiposity, and energy balance. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2002 Jun;967:379-88.
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