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Are ‘cheat days’ a good thing?

Remember that you are staying healthy to live longer, to make it to the next weekend to have that treat again, to celebrate more holidays where you can indulge a bit.

Monica Therese Cating-Cabral, MD

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When I was in college my Biology professor once said this infamous phrase — “A moment on the lips, forever on the hips.” The class laughed and we thought it was a joke, but over the years I have found myself saying the same thing to my patients.

Indeed, bad eating habits can be detrimental to our health, and even short periods of binge eating on junk food can leave the body more prone to gain weight for years to come. Sugary drinks can cause abrupt spikes in your blood sugar and fast food can cause sudden elevations and in cholesterol levels.

But what if you follow a strict diet during the week and only cheat on the weekend? Some feel that eating healthy from Monday to Saturday allows them to eat anything they want on Sunday. And by taking a day off they can get back on track on Monday.

But there’s just one problem with this plan — if you don’t do it the right way, you could find yourself back at square one, losing all the benefits you gained from the past week of eating properly.

The same goes for being good the whole year, only to give in to excess during Christmas.

Cheat days do actually seem to help in the body’s metabolism. Fat or adipose cells in the body produce leptin, a hormone that is responsible for maintaining energy balance. Leptin is also sometimes called the satiety hormone. When the body has adequate energy stores, more leptin is made and this helps inhibit hunger and regulate energy balance, and the body does not trigger a hunger response when it does not need energy. If you’re not hungry, you won’t eat.

However, when levels of leptin drop, which happens when an individual loses weight, the lower levels can trigger increases in appetite and food cravings. This, in turn, can make weight loss more difficult. After being on a restrictive diet for most of the week, by eating a larger meal than usual as a cheat meal, leptin increases by as much as 30% for up to 24 hours and helps you stay fuller longer.
So can you cheat a little? Yes, but there are some rules to follow.

First rule — don’t think of it as cheating. Think of it as a reward, a celebration of food, and something to enjoy — without the guilt.

Next rule — don’t overdo it. If you cheat too often it will negate everything else. Nutritionists suggest the 80/20 rule, where 80 percent of the meals you eat should be healthy and within your eating plan and the other 20 percent allows you the flexibility to have some treats. Instead of a value meal, just get that burger a la carte without the fries and soda.
Don’t do whole cheat days where you just lose control. We all wish we could, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Instead, have a cheat meal and satisfy a particular craving, savoring every bite.

Plan your splurges. It can be difficult to stick to your diet when a birthday or the holidays roll around. Keep in mind that you can have a taste of the foods you usually avoid and you don’t have to go back for seconds. You are in control. Pace yourself and limit yourself to just one plate from the buffet.

Cheat on a training day. Although it’s really hard to out-exercise a bad diet, you can at least burn off a few more calories if you cheat on the day of a work-out. There is no such thing as a post-gym burn — you only really burn calories during physical activity. Working out doesn’t give you the license to binge right after.

Be mindful. When you have the mindset of packing everything in for one day because you know that you won’t be able to do it again for another week, the tendency is just to let go and eat everything in sight. Remember that you are staying healthy to live longer, to make it to the next weekend to have that treat again, to celebrate more holidays where you can indulge a bit.

And lastly, don’t give in to guilt. It can be easy get discouraged and fall off the bandwagon. You may say to yourself, you’ve gone this far with the junk food, you might as well keep going. But one bad meal or one bad day is not indicative of failure. Accept what you ate and move on.

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