Cheat Days - Worthwhile or Worrying?

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The thought of a cheat day is great. There is nothing better than waking up, and knowing you can finally eat that entire tube of Pringles that has been in the back of your cupboard for a week. The possibilities are endless; pizza, chips, chocolate, a bagel with cream cheese and topped with flaming hot Cheetos, because, well, why not? It’s your cheat day, you can eat anything without repercussions.

Behind these imaginings, however, is a much debated reality. Are cheat days really beneficial ways to curb cravings, or are they actually damaging?

First of all, what actually is a cheat day? Cheat days are eagerly anticipated planned days of nutritional splurges in which individuals can take a one-day break from their intense diets. They have become a popular way to indulge, in a manner that is still in keeping with a healthy eating mind-set.

(photo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djUqaQez5vI)

What are the benefits of cheat days? First off, are the so-called psychological benefits: the cheat days act as a reward for tough dieting and exercise, giving mental respite for working hard. This can be highly beneficial if rewards act as a great motivator for you personally. Secondly are the physiological benefits; some doctors have noted benefits in terms of leptin production. Leptin is a hormone that helps regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger (opposed to the ‘hunger hormone’, Ghrelin). It can assist in the regulation body weight and fat mass, resultant of its impact on appetite and the body’s energy balance. Dieting will eventually lead to a calorific deficit, which, in turn, can lead to plummeting leptin levels. Therefore, a calorie bomb in the guise of a cheat day can kick leptin levels back up. Moreover, this provides you with an energy boost to help lift more in the coming days, which can eventually increase strength and muscle mass. 

However, could these benefits be masking a dangerous reality? The clean eating trend has come under fire recently, as mental health experts have warned the trend may have negative, and perhaps life-threatening, effects on vulnerable people. Experts have seen a rise in the number of admissions to eating disorder clinics, particularly from teenage girls, who claim to be following the clean eating trend when they are, in fact, endangering their lives. This is because the clean eating trend demonises certain foods, and advocates a strict level of control over one’s diet.

The demonization of certain foods - aren’t cheat days just that? By teaching yourself and your mind that certain foods are only allowed on a certain day, which can come as little as once every fortnight or month, the cheat day culture merely advocates the same strict control as the clean eating fad does. Demonising certain foods throughout the month until one day, in which many people will consume a vast number of calories that may be similar to someone with a binge-eating disorder certainly advocates unhealthy eating habits that could leave one’s mental health in disarray. Assigning ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tags to different types of food, which promote a culture of binging and control may set off a problematic psychological chain reaction.

This extension of damage beyond the cheat days themselves is also known as the Abstinence-Violation Effects (AVE). AVE has been defined as ‘the negative cognitive (i.e., internal, stable, uncontrollable attributions; cognitive dissonance) and affective responses (i.e., guilt, shame) experienced by an individual after a return to substance use following a period of self-imposed abstinence from substances’. Just as smokers who have gone weeks cold turkey may easily fall back into the habit after one slip-up, a cheat day may easily turn into a dangerous cycle of binging.  

Moreover, the cheat-day culture is not just about that one day in which the follower can eat whatever they want. Surrounding this one day is a strict regime of not only diet, but exercise. Fitness bloggers who promote cheat days are often unqualified, giving advice on the lifestyle often with no scientific background or evidence to support their claims of the elevated benefits of such a lifestyle.

In summary, a cheat day every fortnight is not realistically going to have detrimental effects on your physical health. If you are eating healthily and balancing your macros throughout the rest of the time, a cheat day might be a good way for you, personally, to curb cravings and even reward yourself for time in the gym or eating healthily otherwise. However, it is important to remember such attitudes resemble those of the clean eating trend, which can merely exacerbate a culture of demonising foods; even if you eat these foods once a month, a strict level of control is exerted the other 29 days. If it works for you, great. However, if you find yourself binging on your cheat day, and then feeling miserable the following days for your lapse in control, then stop. Do what works best for you, even if this means eating a biscuit with your tea in the afternoon, OR if it does mean having several biscuits in one planned day. Put yourself first, over troublesome trends, false fitness bloggers, and what the internet tells you is right.  

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