Is having a cheat day while cutting a good or bad thing? When I first started my fitness journey a few years back I didn’t take any cheat days, but during my more recent cutting phases this has changed and I now implement cheat days more regularly. In this post I’ll answer why I changed my approach surrounding cheat days.
Is it okay to have a cheat day while cutting? Implementing cheat days while cutting can not only be okay, it can actually be beneficial. A cheat day usually means that you take in more calories which can be great during a cutting phase. More calories means that you get a break from a calorie deficit which can lead to both positive mental and physiological effects.
In this post I’ll explain more in depth what a cheat day is, why having a cheat day (or days) can be beneficial, when you should have them, how often you should have them, and finally what you should eat during your cheat day(s).
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What is a Cheat Day?
A cheat day can have a couple definitions when it comes to using them when cutting.
The first definition would be when you eat more food than what you’re supposed to and hence that no longer are in a calorie deficit, or at least you’re in a much smaller one. This type of cheat day are also commonly referred to as a “refeed day”.
The second definition would be when you take a day to eat a ton of junk foods that you normally wouldn’t include, hence the term cheat day. This usually also leads to a reduction in the calorie deficit since junk foods is often very energy dense.
A cheat day can be both intentional where you plan to eat either more food or junk food, and it can also be unintentional where you “accidentally” screw up your diet.
Personally I think that there’s no such thing as accidentally screwing up the diet since we all make choices, it’s not like you were clumsy and just incidentally ate a tub of Ben & Jerrys’, but it can happen becuase of low willpower and bad dieting strategies etc. especially once you’ve been cutting for a while.
When planned for and done right however, a cheat day can be a very powerful tool during your cutting phase, even if it includes a tub of Ben & Jerrys’. Let’s look at why this is:
Why Having a Cheat Day While Cutting Can be Beneficial
During a cutting phase you will bump into someting I like to call “diet fatigue”. And diet fatigue is hands down the greatest enemy to fat loss. Once you get too fatigued, your body and mind will start working against you, which forces you to use willpower in order to continue getting results.
And, no matter how much we like to see ourselves as masters of willpower. Unfortunately we will give in to out natural impulses sooner or later, and fall of the waggon.
Now, when you’re dieting to lose body fat, eventually you will experience some sort of fatigue, there’s no way around that. This happens simply because you’re taking away the biggest aspect of recovery in order to lose body fat, which is energy from food (calories).
But there are ways to effectively mitigate how much fatigue that you build up, and this is exactly what cheat days can help you do.
A Cheat Day or Two Can Help You Feel And Perform Better While Cutting
The power of the cheat day lies in it’s ability to increase your calorie intake. Research has shown that one day at maintenance calories per week can provide positive mental effects. This was found when one group of researchers sent out a computer based survey to a group of subjects with the following question:
-What would you enjoy most; 7 days of straight dieting on 1500 calories per day, or 6 day on 1300 calories with 1 day at 2700 calories on the last day of the week?
These two options will result in the same weekly caloric intake by the way, which is more important than daily caloric intake, here’s a visualization of this:
Nearly all subjects choose the second option, simply because they believed 1500 and 1300 calories to be equally sucky. But that having one cheat day at maintenance where they could indulge in more food seemed like a very enjoyable break and trade-off.
So, one cheat day per week is supported to be beneficial for mental enjoyment and better adherence to the diet. However, one cheat day per week doesn’t seem to be that beneficial when it comes to reversing negative physiological adaptations caused by the calorie deficit, adaptations like; metabolic slowdown, glycogen depletion and hormonal disruption etc.
What’s been shown however, is that multiple cheat days of between 2-3 consecutive days seems to be beneficial for reversing some of the physiological adaptations created when cutting as well.
In one study by Dirlewanger et al. they found that by eating at maintenance 3 days in a row participants in the study reversed their metabolic slowdown by increasing TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). This effect seemed to start already at day 2 of the 3 days at maintenance as well.
Also, in another study by Olson et al. they found that by eating at maintenance for at least 48 hours in a row, they could reversed the effects of hormonal imbalances that are created during a calorie deficit, for males this is typically a lower testosterone to cortisol ratio. By having at least 2 consecutive days per week at maintenance, this ratio will stay overall better throughout the cutting phase. This will likely make you perform and feel better, while preserving more muscle mass and losing more body fat.
Can Cheat Days be Negative?
Even though I believe that it’s better to include cheat days when cutting than not having them, I still think that cheat days can potentially be negative for some people.
If for example you have problems with binge eating, then perhaps having a cheat day can completely offset your calorie deficit from you not being able to stop eating once you’ve gotten the taste off it.
Another potential negative of cheat days are that you need to have a bigger calorie deficit on your other days, which can make those days feel a bit tougher. But, as we witnessed in the survey mentioned earlier, most people believed that having 1 day at maintenance but eating 200 cals less per per day was an enjoyable trade-off
When Should You Have a Cheat Day?
When you choose to have your cheat day is entirely up to you. Personally I prefer to have my cheat day (or days) on the weekend as this allows me to eat more food at times when people typically enjoy eating food together, by doing this I can still keep most of my social life while losing body fat in the meantime.
How Often Should You Have a Cheat Day?
This is an interesting question, simply because how often you should have cheat days depends a lot on how low you want to go in calories on your non-cheat days. So, again it’s mostly up to you.
With that said though, to make your fat loss feel as effortless as possible while still providing quick results I recommend setting up your cheat day frequency based on your body fat percentage:
|Body Fat %||Number of Refeeds/Week|
Females add 8-10 % to the body fat percentage in each “bracket”.
You can find out your body fat percentage by using the Iron Built Fitness Body Fat Percentage Calculator here. (Link open in new window)
I’ve found this strategy to work incredibly well. The leaner you become the slower your rate of fat loss should be if you want to avoid muscle loss, ill-health and ill-being. By taking a refeed/cheat day each time you hit a lower body fat percentage “bracket” you effectively reduce your calorie deficit without having to recount your calories and macros each time you should drop you should slow down your calorie deficit.
This strategy is known as diet periodization. If you want to learn more about it, make sure you read this post next, where I go into more depth on the topic.
What Should You Eat During Your Cheat Day?
Okay, so finally let’s cover perhaps one of the more important questions surrounding a cheat day, which is; what should you eat during your cheat day while cutting?
As I wrote in the beginning of this post, often when people hear “cheat day” they think about a day where they eat only junk food. Now, your cheat day can include mostly junk food without having much negative effects on your fat loss results, in fact, having junk food during some of your cheat days is more beneficial to your results when cutting than what not taking the cheat day at all would be.
The reason for this is that when you’re cutting the body is CRAVING calories. And what include a lot of calories? Yes, junk food!
The problem with junk foods is that they contain very low levels of vitamins, minerals and fiber, which are all very important compounds for our health, performance and well-being. But as long as you’re eating a wholesome nutrient dense diet throughout the majority of your low calorie days, then the occasional cheat day with junk food will probably only do you good, even though the food is of lower quality.
But, if you want to be sure that you’re providing your body with the nutrients it needs, don’t only eat junk food on your cheat days, maybe eat the same steady base of nutrient dense foods as you would on your low calorie days, but let the additional calories come from junk foods.
Personally I like to stick to the 80/20 rule of dieting where 80 % of my food comes from wholesome nutrient dense foods and the remaining 20% can come from junk foods. This works incredibly well.
The 80/20 rule of flexible dieting
If you want to learn more about how to best include junk foods while cutting, read this post next.