The ray of sunshine in the midst of dieting is the distant promise of that day when we reach our goal weight, and can eat whatever we desire. We push through the painstaking process of calorie-counting, carb-counting, and the dreaded weigh-ins, struggling to wipe the image of a Big Mac or Snickers from our memories.
However, many fitness experts argue that the worst thing we can do to our bodies during a diet is cut out meals that we've grudgingly dubbed 'junk food', stating that a cheat day might actually help you knock off those last few pounds! We've taken a closer look at the pros and cons of cheat days, and whether or not it's time for you to trade off one of your clean meals for something naughty!
The Pros: Research has shown that dieting (especially low-carb diets) creates an energy deficit. This keeps insulin levels low so that burning fat becomes the body's top priority. However, the body will eventually adapt to the new eating regime and the metabolism will start to adjust to conserve energy. Throwing in a cheat day occasionally will keep your metabolism guessing, which can ultimately help you lose weight. Also, long-term dieting can cause your levels of thyroid hormones, leptin, and a growth factor called IGF to decline, so a cheat meal helps keep them elevated and healthy. Diets lead to low muscle glycogen levels, which often cause feelings of fatigue or sluggishness during workouts. The infrequent boost in your calorie and carb intake from a cheat meal can actually improve your energy!
The Cons: Psychological ramifications of cheat days can be a strong deterrent. People can make themselves physically ill from either stuffing themselves with junk food, or fantasizing about cheat meals days in advance. Following a cheat day, some people experience guilt or shame, and the added stress can actually lead to weight gain as well as other negative side effects. Guilt can lead to symptoms like sleeping difficulties, digestive issues, anxiety and eating disorders. In addition, the high fat and sugar content in junk food can trigger cravings for unhealthy food, and resisting temptation may prove to be an impossible obstacle to overcome. Dieting is all about mind over body, so make sure that you can handle the stress.
- Try a cheat meal instead: In order to avoid the gluttony of a cheat day, try a cheat meal once or twice a week. It can be challenging to stay on track after a day of donuts, fast food, and ice cream, so keep your indulgence realistic. Limit that meal to 500-800 calories so it won't inhibit fat-burning processes - it'll just kick your metabolism into gear.
- Drink more water: While drinking water should always be a priority, try to down a couple extra glasses with your cheat meal. It will prevent fluid retention if you are consuming food that is high in sodium.
- Plan your meal: By regulating when and what you are going to eat, you will have more control over your cheat meal. If you splurge in the heat of the moment on a Big Mac, it's only going to get harder to mediate those cravings in the future.
- Cheat responsibly: Instead of heading for the nearest fast food chain, try to stock your cheat meals full of carbs instead. The body is fully equipped to break down carbs and use them for energy. Not so much with the chemicals in your favorite junk food.
- Cheat snacks: If you find that you have become obsessed with analyzing every detail of your cheat meal days in advance, consider cheat snacks a couple times a week instead. These will eliminate the anxiety, but still satisfy your cravings.
The benefits of cheat meals are hard to dismiss, but make sure that you are ready to take on the extra challenge. Indulgence often comes at a price!
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