How often can you indulge in a cheat day and still lose weight? That’s exactly what you’re going to learn by reading this article. First, let’s get on the same page.
What Is A Cheat Day?
“A cheat day is defined as a day on which a person following a diet disregards restrictions on the amount or kinds of food they can eat.”
So basically a cheat day is a day where you eat more calories and more junk food than you’d normally eat.
Examples Of “Cheat Foods”
Here’s some of the mouthwatering foods you could expect to indulge in during a cheat day:
A juicy, colossal burger with oozing melted cheese.
Or maybe you’re going to indulge in the leaning tower of epic pancakes like Mr Johnson here. If there was a competition for the worlds greatest cheat day, he’d win.
Cheat Days And Losing Weight
To lose weight, the one thing you must master is being in a calorie deficit. A century worth of metabolic research proves this. As long as you’re eating fewer calories than you burn. You lose weight/fat.
If you’re in a calorie deficit you can induge in as many cheat days/ meals as you want and still lose weight/ fat.
But if you have a naughty all you can eat cheat day. Where you eat what you want, whenever you want. Doing this could easily destroy a few days worth of progress of being in a calorie deficit.
A Good Week Of Dieting Vs One With Excessive Cheat Days
I’ll use myself as an example to show you what I mean.
keep these things in mind:
- My total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) which is the number of calories I need to eat to maintain my weight is roughly 2500 calories.
- If I wanted to lose one pound of fat per week this would mean I’d need to be in a calorie deficit of 500 calories every day of the week.
- This is because there are roughly 3500 calories in one pound of fat. And a 500 calorie deficit over 7 days is equal to 3500 calories.
- I’d need to eat 2000 calories if I wanted to be in a 500 calorie deficit every day. I’d need to eat no more than 14,000 calories across the week to be in a weekly deficit of 3500 calories.
This is what an awesome week of dietary adherence would look like.
This would result in a total weekly calorie intake of 14,000 calories. Which equals a 3500 calorie deficit and 1 pound of fat loss.
But, if a week of dieting went like this:
This would result in a total weekly calorie intake of 17,500 calories. Overall I would have undone my calorie deficit.
So even though I would have been in a calorie deficit 5 days of the week. I would have lost zero weight/ fat because my total calorie intake was no lower than my maintenance calories overall.
These unstructured cheat days would have annihilated my weight loss progress.
Why Unstructured Cheat Days Are A Dumb Idea
If you just eat what you want, when you want on your cheat days. Without any idea about how it’s going to affect the rest of your week that you spent dieting. Is a surefire way to dieting misery.
Because the fact is, if you’re not careful, you can undo a whole week’s worth of dieting in a single weekend.
This is especially true if you look at how high in calories certain foods are. For example, if you had a maintenance calorie intake of 2500 (like yours truly). It can be very easy to go over your calories if you’re eating lots of high-calorie foods.
Here’s how an all-out hypothetical cheat day might go.
Hypothetical 5259 Calorie Cheat Day
Breakfast: A large breakfast fry up from Wetherspoons and a glass of orange juice = 1560 calories.
Lunch: A chicken and bacon ranch melt foot long subway with cheese, lite mayo, crisps and a coke =1712 calories.
Total daily calorie intake from only 3 meals = 5259 calories.
A day of eating like this would be enough to really thwart your weight loss efforts.
Eating whatever you want, when you want for a day or more is not a good strategy. And having a cheat day like this, in essence, is just you cheating yourself.
If I Have A Cheat Day Is It Okay To Compensate For My Caloric Intake On Other Days of The Week?
You can do this. For example, here’s what compensating for one day might look like using the example of my caloric needs.
If you had a cheat day and went over your calories by 1000 like in the example, you’d need to reduce your calories by 1000 the next day. This way you’d not thwart your progress and still be able to lose weight.
The problem is, reducing your calories by 1000 isn’t very comfortable. And eating 50% of the calories you’d normally eat in a deficit would leave you craving a juicy burger.
If you continue this habit of cheat days and then compensating. It’ll be hard to stick to many very low-calorie days. Yes, you’ll be indulging in more calories when you cheat. But it’s not going to be fun the next day having to compensate.
A week like this would probably be more disastrous than it’s worth. And would probably give rise to an unhealthy relationship with food. Because eating 1000 calories is not sustainable.
But as long as you compensated for the cheat days. You’d still lose weight. Losing weight, for the most part, is a numbers game. And if you maintain your weekly deficit then you’ll still make progress.
Why I Recommend Structured Cheat Meals 1-2 Times Per Week Instead Of Cheat Days
It’s a much better strategy to have a cheat meal 1 – 2 times per week compared to having many colossal cheat days.
This is because one cheat meal like:
- A thin crust pepperoni pizza.
- Or a juicy bacon and cheese burger paired with crispy french fries.
For one meal, is easier to fit into your calories than many cheat meals in one day. And this way instead of going over your calories. And bringing yourself out of a calorie deficit. You fit your cheat meal into the number of calories you need to eat while you’re in a deficit.
I have 2 strategies that you can use. The structured cheat meal and the structured refeed day. I don’t advocate the use of all-out cheat days. Because they’ll leave you spinning your wheels.
Strategy 1 – How To Set Up Your Cheat Meals And Still Lose Weight In 3 Steps
1. Do your due diligence to find out how many calories are in the cheat meal that you want to eat. You can do this by:
- Looking at the restaurant that you’re going to’s menu online. A lot of restaurants provide nutritional information.
- But if you can’t find the specific information. Pick a similar calorie value for the same or similar meal from somewhere else.
2. Once you know roughly how many calories are in the feast you’re going to be devouring plug it into your meal plan.
For example, if you were going to order a big mac meal (1,080 calories) from McDonald’s as a cheat meal.
You’d plug in 1080 calories into your meal plan or on your my fitness pal food diary. So if I was having this meal I’d have 920 calories left to eat for the rest of the day if I wanted to lose weight.
3. Plan your day around the cheat meal and only do this 1- 2 times per week. Here’s what a day of eating would look like for me if I was eating a big mac meal and trying to lose weight/fat.
Breakfast – 460 calories
Lunch – 460 calories
Dinner – Big Mac meal ( 1,080 calories)
Total daily calorie intake = 2000 calories which for me would be a 500 calorie deficit.
Strategy 2 How To Set Up Your Single Day Refeed For Weight Loss In 3 Steps
A single day refeed is a day that you spend eating at your maintenance calories once per week. The other 6 days are spent in a deficit.
1. Work out your calorie deficit and multiply it by 7. Again, a sustainable calorie deficit is a calorie deficit of 500 calories. Which for me, means I need to eat 2000 calories every day to lose weight.
I would then multiply this number by 7.
2000 x 7 = 14,000 calories.
2. Determine what day you want to eat at maintenance. Then subtract those calories from your weekly calories.
For example, If I wanted to have a higher calorie day where I ate 2500 calories on a Saturday.
I would subtract 2500 calories from my weekly calorie deficit of 14,000.
This would leave me with 11,500 calories left for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
3. Divide your remaining calories by 6 days.
I would divide 11,500 calories by 6 days. This means I’d be eating 1916 calories on each of these 6 days. Although on Saturday I’d be eating 2500 calories.
This is what a week of dieting with one refeed day would look like.
You can do this and eat at your maintenance calories 1-3 times per week. But make sure you’re in a total weekly 3500 calorie deficit for the best results.
What Are The Benefits Of Cheat Meals?
The main benefit of a cheat meal (especially when weight loss is your goal) is psychological.
It’s nice to know that 1- 2 times per week you can enjoy some junky goodness.
Dieting is tough (especially when you get below 12% body fat for males and 20% body fat for females). This is true even when you’re doing everything right.
Because dieting is essentially a mild form of starvation. And knowing you have more freedom with your food choices a couple of times per week helps you stay sane.
What Are The Benefits Of Refeed Days?
Having a refeed day/ days is a good strategy because it means that you’ll be coming out of a calorie deficit 1-3 days per week.
This can provide a nice psychological benefit of being able to eat more calories 1- 3 days per week.
If you want to use this strategy 2 or 3 times per week divide your deficit over 5 or 4 days respectively.
And eat at your maintenance calories 2-3 days per week.
The only downside of a refeed day/ days is that you’ll have to reduce your calories on the other 4-6 days, more than you may like. To maintain your calorie deficit.
But when the refeed day/days come around you could enjoy a bigger cheat meal. Because you’ll have more calories to spare for it.
Cheat meals/ refeeds can be saved up for when you’re going out with your friends or your spouse. This way you’re not sat there eating chicken and rice while others demolish pizza.
For example, if you normally get a take out with your spouse on a Saturday. Then you could save your cheat meal, refeed day or both for then.
Do Cheat Meals Boost Your Metabolism?
If you eat more calories than you normally do (by indulging in a hedonistic cheat day). You’ll burn more calories through the thermic effect of food.
Note: The thermic effect of food is the number of calories your body burns digesting and absorbing food.
So if you ate 2500 calories per day you’d burn roughly 250 calories of that through TEF. But if you have a colossal cheat day and eat say 5000 calories, then you’d burn 500 calories of that through TEF.
Your Body Has Different Hormonal Responses To Overfeeding And Underfeeding
For example, if you diet down, your body will become less active. And your metabolism (or metabolic rate) will slow down slightly.
Note: Your metabolic rate is the number of calories you burn at rest when you do absolutely nothing. It’s also referred to as your metabolism.
But if you have a gigantic cheat day and overeat. You’ll increase your levels of the hormone leptin which tells the body that you’re full by reducing hunger. And you’ll increase your activity levels slightly through Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).
Note: NEAT is the number of calories you burn from:
- Working, e.g. typing, cooking, manual labour, housework etc.
- Undertaking agricultural tasks.
This is because your body is like a thermostat. Just like a thermostat wants to maintain a certain temperature in your house. Your body doesn’t want you getting too lean or too fat. It wants you to maintain homeostasis (how you currently are).
So if you do overeat you’ll burn more calories through TEF and increase your activity levels slightly, knowingly or unknowingly.
But if you overeat some of those calories will go towards body fat storage. So the long-winded answer to this question is no not really. But it will increase the number of calories you burn from TEF and NEAT slightly.
The Best Way To Increase Your Metabolism Is To Build Muscle
Because the more muscle you build the more calories your body burns at rest. A cheat day will not do this by any meaningful amount.
And you’ll gain more fat because you’ll be eating a large surplus of calories.
For example, If I ate 5000 calories I’d burn 500 through TEF and maybe slightly more through increased levels of NEAT.
But I’d still be in a surplus of roughly 2000 calories give or take a couple of hundred calories because of increased NEAT.
So that’s potentially 4 days worth of being in a calorie deficit completely wiped out from one cheat day.
Why Cheat Days/Meals Don’t Work For Everyone
If you don’t track your calories and make sure you’re consistently in a calorie deficit. It’ll be hard to lose weight.
If you don’t track your intake and if you just “eat clean” then there’s no way of telling if your in a deficit or not.
Then if you add unstructured cheat days to this it’s going to be almost impossible to be in a deficit.
This is one of the reasons why I’m such a big advocate of calorie tracking. Because it’s a surefire way to ensure you’re in a deficit and losing weight.
The Bottom Line On How Often Should You Have A Cheat Day?
- I don’t advocate all-out cheat days. I recommend cheat meals instead because they’re much easier to fit into your caloric intake. Limit these to 1-2 times per week if your goal is weight loss.
- Cheat meals and refeed days provide a nice psychological benefit. It’s good to know that you don’t always have to stick 100% to plan. And that you can still enjoy your favourite foods and In the case of refeeds enjoy more calories.
- If you don’t track your caloric intake in general then having cheat days/ meals are probably doing more harm than good. If you’re not in a deficit you won’t lose weight.
Whats your favourite cheat meal? let me know in the comments below.