Do you find yourself “eating clean” by restricting “bad foods” during the week, but then binge on said “bad foods” on the weekend? Do you meticulously track your eating, training, and sleeping during the week, all the while longing for your one (or more) cheat day(s) or cheat meals on the weekend? For instance, you can’t wait until Saturday so you can eat whatever you want and as much as you want without guilt. A day filled with endless carbohydrates, grease, and alcohol. Just to be followed by another strict week of eating, training, and sleeping as soon as Monday rolls back around. Is this routine healthy? Can it negatively affect your training?
What are Cheat Days or Cheat meals?
Cheat days or cheat meals are often defined as a time when a person loosens up with food selections and eats whatever they want. These meals tend to be high in salt, sugar, and fat, which is often restricted during their normal routine. It’s also often the time when people will do most of their alcohol consumption. Most people reserve their cheat days and meals for the weekend days because they have worked so hard during the week to eat well and exercise, that they feel they have earned the opportunity to eat foods that they normally wouldn’t eat.
On one hand, science shows that eating foods that are different than what you typically eat can ignite your metabolism. Just eating the same things over and over can actually plateau your metabolism, which could inhibit your ability to achieve improvement and optimal success. Thus, a cheat meal could potentially “shock” the system, thus potentially inducing your metabolism to fire up. However, cheat meals that contain high levels of salt, sugar, and fat are not the best ways to boost your metabolism. Instead, your focus should be diversifying your diet throughout the week and not relying on the weekend cheat meals for diet change.
Waiting until the weekend to binge eat your cheat meals or cheat foods is a pattern of disordered eating. This type of behavior can lead to other disordered eating patterns. However, if you just use the weekend to loosen the strains and allow certain “unhealthy” meals, just to be dialed back in on Monday, that can be okay. However, be aware that routine can be a slippery slope for some people. We are creatures of habit and if you know you thrive from structure, cheat meals and cheat days on the weekend could become a gateway for a loss of control and may impede you from reaching your goals.
Personally, I don’t like using the term “cheat day” or “cheat meal”. By using the term “cheat” you give eating a negative connotation. For instance, cheating on your spouse, or cheating on a test are negative behaviors. Eating should never be deemed negative and should always be looked at as a positive and enjoyable experience. I prefer using the term “fun day” or “fun meal”. This gives eating a more positive and pleasurable connection and should derail guilty thoughts for eating “unhealthy” foods.
Most people reserve weekend days for all of their fun food consumption. However, waiting until the weekend to consume fun foods and alcoholic beverages can actually negatively affect your training and goals. Weekends tend to be filled with non-routine behaviors like over eating, drinking, and under exercising and sleeping. People often exercise less or don’t exercise at all on the weekends, which can compound the problem. If we consume all of our fun foods on the weekend without the built in exercise this will cause a surplus of caloric intake causing additional weight gain, which can inhibit you from reaching your goals. Binge drinking alcoholic beverages not only packs on extra calories, but a scientific review in 2015 found binge drinking has shown to increase liver damage, stomach damage, physical injury, alcohol poisoning and death. Furthermore, abstaining from alcohol consumption for 5 days didn’t affect outcome[i]. Additionally, alcohol has been found to reduce protein synthesis in recovery and adaptation after exercise[ii]. Weekends often include sleep deprivation as well. Lack of sleep has been found to decrease the ability to perform maximal exercise, self-selected walking pace and increase perceived exertion of exercise[iii]. Thus, combining fun foods, lack of exercise and sleep can make weekends a very detrimental party of any training routine.
I always recommend spreading out your “fun meals” throughout the week and making my clients earn those extra calories through exercise. Who ever said we had to wait until Friday, Saturday, or Sunday to have our fun meals? I always urge my clients to approach healthy eating following the “80-20 rule”. Eat healthy 80% of the time and allow fun foods the other 20% of the time and not to wait until the weekends to consume their fun foods. Most often, weekdays are much more structured and exercise is most likely included which makes them better candidates for fun meals because exercise will provide an additional caloric deficit that can account for the extra calories through fun foods or alcoholic drinks. Additionally, the work week also provides built in restraint because we know we have to work and workout the next day so we are less likely to eat or drink without abandon because of the negative effects it will have on our performance the next day.
Including fun foods and fun days can be and should be part of a healthy 80-20-nutrition plan. Life is too short to not enjoy our favorite foods and beverages. But, lets be mindful of when we are enjoying them and how much at a given time. Lets make sure all the work we are putting in during the week is paying off and not completely destroyed on the weekend due to over indulging in fun foods and drinks.
[i] Llerena, S., Arias-Loste, MT., Puente, A., Cabezas, J., Crespo, J., Fabrega, E. (2015). Binge drinking: burden of liver disease and beyond. World Journal of Hepatology. 7(27): 2703-27165.
[ii] Vary, TC., Frost, RA., Lang, CH. (2008). Acute alcohol intoxication increases atrogin-1 and MuRF1 mRNA without increasing proteolysis in skeletal muscle. American Journal of Physiology Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 294(6): R1777-R1789.
[iii] Himashree, G., Banerjee, PK., Selvamurthy, W. (2002). Sleep and performance—recent trends. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 46 (1): 6-24.