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Cheat Day: Is It Good For Your Body?

Someone following a restrictive diet may decide to “cheat.” They break the rules by eating foods not permitted in the diet plan. Sometimes these events are planned, but not always. Cheating in the heat of a moment can happen when emotions are running high, like stress or sadness. How does swinging between a restrictive diet and a cheat day affect your body? Unfortunately, it can have an impact on some people's metabolic health and their relationship with food.

Key takeaways:

Why are foods labeled good or bad?

The diet industry is obsessed with labeling foods as good or bad. These lists change depending on the rules of the diet. For example, a person on a calorie restricted diet might decide to have a take-out meal one night a week, filled with refined carbohydrates, processed food, red meat, and desserts. Or they might eat a snack of soda and chips, instead of fruit or vegetables.

Sometimes carbs are considered to be “evil”, but at other times, whole grains are recommended. It’s confusing, and for some people, these rules can go against the eating practices they’ve grown up with.

“I thought whole grains are good for me?” They are. Whole grain carbohydrates are high in vitamins and fiber, which lowers cholesterol, stabilizes blood sugar, and fiber reduces your risk of several forms of cancer.

Cheat day – is it good or bad?

A cheat day offers people relief from these restrictive diets. Once a week or once a month, people cheat on the rules to enjoy the foods they are missing the most.

Some people will thrive on this model. Most of the time, they consume high-quality, nutritious foods, but they find balance by adding an opportunity to indulge.

This is important because we know nutrition is more than just vitamins and minerals; leaving space for the foods you love is also important for the quality of life!

Others may use a cheat day as a pass to eat whatever, and however much, they want. This eating type can potentially be more hazardous to your health. It may lead to binging and increased chances of choosing ultra-processed foods, which have been linked to poor health overall.

Metabolic changes

Your metabolic health includes metabolism, which is how your body converts food into usable energy to fuel your muscles and vital organs. It also contributes to weight regulation.

Other elements of your metabolic health include:

  • Blood pressure
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Blood sugar levels
  • Waist circumference

One cheat meal may affect your triglyceride levels, a type of cholesterol sensitive to alcohol and refined sugars in the diet. Elevated triglyceride levels can overload your liver and increase your risk of fatty liver disease.

Meals high in added sugars may spike your blood glucose levels. If you do not have diabetes, your body can stabilize these spikes. For people on the borderline of having diabetes or who have already been diagnosed, these sugar spikes can further damage your kidneys and heart health.

Binge-eating

Restricting foods can enhance your desire and cravings. This heightened desire can make it harder to stop eating when there is an opportunity to eat. For some people, this can lead to a full-blown binge episode.

After a binge, you may feel physically uncomfortable. It can feel hard to breathe because your clothes feel tighter after eating. Sometimes the squeeze on your stomach can trigger acid reflux, which can be painful.

Most people who are binge-eating are not practicing mindful eating. Instead of taking the time to savor every bite, they are more likely to eat quickly and swallow extra air. This can lead to bloating and gas after a meal, which further adds discomfort.

If you need help recognizing when you are full, there may be better options than a cheat day model. Instead, try to sprinkle your favorite foods regularly throughout the week in smaller portions.

Frequent binging can lead to unwanted weight gain. There are known health risks of gaining weight. The CDC has confirmed weight gain increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and different types of cancer.

How to deal with a cheat day

Allowing yourself to enjoy the foods you like from time to time is not necessarily bad. However, so-called cheat days are not always so innocent, especially if they turn into a full-scale binge-eating episode. Below, we discuss ways on how you can avoid the negative effects of a cheat day.

Planning may help

Having a plan may help you moderate your intake. Knowing what meals are coming your way can help you build a grocery list, plan for leftovers, and help you build a balanced diet.

Your level of planning will depend on how organized you are. It may be overwhelming if you dive right in, so consider focusing on the biggest meal of the day. For most people, this will be dinner or the evening meal.

Schedule a takeout night (cheat night) to alleviate cooking demands, and remember to slow down and enjoy the experience! One night of indulging will not significantly affect your weight.

Be kind to yourself

Labeling foods as good or bad can strain your relationship with eating. When you eat “bad” foods, usually called junk foods, you may experience feelings of shame, failure, or disappointment. You may turn to food for comfort in these moments, and the cycle can repeat.

Using food to cope with negative emotions is very common. Once in a while, it’s normal to seek a treat after a bad day. However, turning to food every time you have a bad day isn’t sustainable.

Food is required to nourish the body, but it can’t cure stress! If you need help learning new coping strategies, seek a mental health counselor or a registered dietitian. They can teach you how to take a gentler approach by implementing intuitive eating practices.

Key themes of intuitive eating include listening to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. Approach these moments with curiosity instead of criticism or judgment. If you want another serving of food, permit yourself to eat, but if you are satisfied, move on from your meal.

Do I need a cheat day?

A couple of cheat days won’t significantly affect your metabolic health, but ask yourself a very important question: why did I feel the need to cheat to begin with? Shouldn’t I be eating foods I love every day that nourish me?

If your diet is too restrictive, you should loosen up your routine. Constantly thinking about food, or worrying about food, is unhealthy. Adding a cheat day may help some people achieve balance in their diet, but it’s not a guaranteed practice for everyone.

Finding a routine that makes you feel your best can take some time. The best approach you can take is to implement baby steps instead of making drastic changes overnight.

The more you move forward in your journey, the more you will learn about yourself, and you can use this data to make the best choices for your health.



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