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Are Cheat Days Good Or Bad?

An excuse to binge, or a way to fire up metabolism?
Are Cheat Days Good Or Bad?
Are Cheat Days Good Or Bad?

The idea of cheat days -- and getting away with them -- is so splendid that it's almost enough to make you start a workout regime which actually justifies such a day.

Just imagine: eating whatever and in whichever quantity you want all day, be it doughnuts, pancakes, cake, pizza, burgers or fries (or all of the above). And then just returning to your healthy eating and exercise plan, and seeing the body composition results you want.

But is this a reality? Are cheat days and meals helpful, or simply pointless?

To find out, HuffPost Australia spoke to Jessica Spendlove, accredited practising dietitian, sports dietitian and nutrition consultant for the GWS GIANTS, Cronulla Sharks and Giants Netball.

What is a cheat day or meal?

"I would describe a cheat day or meal as a set period of time where the individual can eat more relaxed," Spendlove told HuffPost Australia.

"The idea is that the person can essentially eat what they like over an allocated time, be it a meal or a day. Choices during this time will tend to be higher in fat and/or sugar than how someone would normally eat."

Do cheat days/meals help to fire up the metabolism?

There is some good news -- eating meals which are different to what you usually eat can help to 'fire up' metabolism.

"Eating the same thing every day, or the same structure, over an extended period of time can blunt your metabolism," Spendlove said. "It won't actually slow it down, but your body will become used to the same intake, which will mean you won't continue to get the best results.

"In that context, a cheat meal essentially shocks the body, which is where the idea that a cheat meal helps fire up the metabolism comes from."

However, this doesn't mean cheat days are the best way to get the most out of your metabolism. Instead, Spendlove suggests food diversity as well as adapting your energy needs and intakes to your training.

I don't tend to encourage cheat days, but I encourage clients to spread out their 'choice' meals or snacks across the week.

"I definitely believe diversity with nutritional intake is key to optimising metabolism," Spendlove said.

"I believe this is best done by matching intake to output, which is known as a periodised approach to nutrition."

A healthy, balanced diet should always be the goal.
A healthy, balanced diet should always be the goal.

Are cheat days and meals good or bad?

The answer to this question is how you approach your cheat meal or day. If it's an opportunity to binge eat because you've over-restricted yourself for long periods of time, this may not be the healthiest approach. However, if it's a time where you can let loose a little but happily return to regular eating patterns, then you may be on the right track.

"I personally don't use the term 'cheat day' or 'meal', but I do encourage clients or the athletes I work with to have 'a meal of choice', which is essentially the same thing," Spendlove said.

"I don't tend to encourage cheat days, but I encourage clients to spread out their 'choice' meals or snacks across the week."

If you are going to have a cheat day or meal, Spendlove recommends doing so on an active day.

"With the clients I work with it is a lot about energy balance, and most people tend to leave their 'cheat day' until their rest day, which I believe is one of the worst things you can do.

"Instead I encourage people to aim for an 80:20 ratio, or if they are particularly determined or an elite athlete, they aim for 90:10.

"This means that 80–90 percent of the time they are eating nutritious foods which match their output and are filled with lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, which allows a more relaxed approach to their eating 10–20 percent of the time."

Aim for an 80:20 rule to eating.
Aim for an 80:20 rule to eating.

So, perhaps rather than blowing a whole day's worth of calories in one meal, or spending the entire day stuffing your face until you feel sick, indulge in small amounts of these 'sometimes' foods across the week.

"I believe people need to enjoy their food, so having a few choice meals or snacks spread out across the week is important for that. It is important for physical results and equally as important for the mind, mood and soul," Spendlove explained.

"I don't believe in structured eating 24/7, so I believe cheat or choice meals are very important to help someone find balance."

What exercise level/intensity warrants a cheat meal?

While we know now that a whole cheat day is excessive, you may be wondering: at what point can we have a cheat meal? Do we need to be following an intense exercise program?

"If you are looking to maintain body composition you can probably afford to have a slightly more relaxed approach than someone who is looking to alter body compositions," Spendlove said.

"In my experience, I find people can get good results if they are sticking to sound nutrition at least 80 percent of the time.

"If someone was looking to change their body composition, for example lose fat, I would encourage them to eat well 90 percent of the time to help them achieve their results. There is no hard and fast rule for everyone, but that is a general guideline which seems to work for most people."

For a healthier swap for ice cream, make a fruit smoothie bowl.
For a healthier swap for ice cream, make a fruit smoothie bowl.

Is there a healthier way to approach junk foods?

If you love chocolate, ice cream and burgers, there are healthier ways to enjoy these foods without giving them up.

"If you can choose a healthier alternative, that will always be a win. That doesn't mean not indulging or enjoying yourself, but making better alternatives can help you have the best of both worlds," Spendlove said.

"Many of these examples are not energy-wise less than their counterpart, but they are more nutrient dense which is important."

Some examples for healthier swaps include:

  • Swap a poor-quality burger for a good-quality burger made from grass-fed beef
  • Swap a large side of chips for a small
  • Swap a caramel slice for a raw treat
  • Swap ice cream for homemade banana ice cream
  • Swap a chocolate bar for some dark chocolate
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