“Should I have cheat days? If so, how often?”
This is one of the most common questions I hear in regards to dieting and nutrition. Honestly, in the past I have usually come up with some answer that is at least mildly fulfilling for the person asking the question… But it’s time to say what I really feel.
In my opinion, the entire concept of “cheat days” is flawed. It’s an extreme tactic that finds its legitimacy through the competitive bodybuilding culture. The idea of ‘cheat days’ is also drenched in fear tactics and hidden scripts that will screw up your entire idea of how to eat.
Don’t believe me?
Keep reading and you’ll learn what is truly operating beneath the surface of the coveted ‘cheat day’ and discover that this idea is spiked with more than a no holds barred, one day ‘hall pass.’
Cheat Day Confusion: Who Needs Cheat Days?
The concept of cheat days wasn’t invented because normal dudes like you and me were sitting around trying to think up a way to build or sustain a great body; cheat days are founded with the competitive bodybuilder or fitness model in mind.
In the weeks/months leading up to a competition, bodybuilders have to be extremely meticulous with their nutrition. This is when the “chicken and rice” menu is in full effect; this is when they are carrying around tupperware containers of food everywhere they go.
It’s “go time” and they have to pull out all of the stops in order to bring their best to the stage. So how does one do this without going mentally insane?
Cheat days are a way for a competitive ‘figure athlete’ to reward themselves for 6 days of extremely restrictive eating.
It’s a way for them to maintain their mental stability. And spiking calories for one day is something that is necessary when you are in the kind of deficit most bodybuilders are in during the time of extreme ‘cutting’ that leads up to competition.
But guess what?
You should never be in the kind of restrictive or extreme nutritional deficit that a bodybuilder is when preparing for a competition. I constantly talk about the difference between “stage shredded” and your “best natural look.” Not only does this look different; the approach is much different.
Cheat days are another example of the bodybuilding culture, and it’s extreme approach, spilling over into ‘normal people’ fitness.
It sounds cool, it promises an all you can eat foodie ‘hall pass’, but it’s honestly not necessary, or beneficial for most people outside of the competitive figure athlete arena.
Cheat Days Skew Your View of Food And Ruin Your Life
When you follow the cheat day setup, you eating ‘healthy’ foods all week and put yourself through extreme restriction for six days, and then on the 7th day, you feast.
This is when you pull out all the stops and pile ‘junk’ food in your mouth like 8-year old boy about to be shipped off to “fat boy camp” (if that’s actually a thing, I have no idea).
There are two problems with this:
1.Your mind begins to obsess over “good” and “bad” foods and you start slipping into the “obsessive fitness lifestyle”. All of your energy is placed on maintaining the restriction of eating certain foods during the week so that you can finally relax and stuff your face come Sunday.You start just trying to “get through” the week so that you can finally destroy that giant bowl of Fruit Loops on your cheat day.
Instead of viewing Fruit Loops as a food you can have once in a while, in moderation, you start seeing all foods like this as “good” or “bad” that should only be consumed in extreme excess on your cheat day.
2. You fail to learn the moderation necessary for a truly sustainable approach. Guess what? For bodybuilders, fitness IS life. They put themselves through extreme restrictive tactics because that’s what life is about for them. They live for the stage, and are willing to maneuver the rest of their lives around preparation for that event.
I’ve heard and read countless accounts of bodybuilders gaining 10, 20, even 30 pounds (and that’s not muscle) following a competition because they have been in so much restriction for so long that they eat everything in sight for days or weeks at a time.
This shouldn’t be surprising, because extreme approaches are not sustainable. Cheat days may work for a while for ‘normal’ people, but eventually, you will start hating the fact that you have to live miserably for 6 days every week and that all you can think about is your ‘cheat day.’
It’s not a sustainable approach, and sooner or later, you will get tired of it and search for another way.
Unfortunately, at that point, your views on “healthy” or “effective” nutrition will be so skewed that you will struggle immensely to find an approach that actually works long term.
A Sustainable Nutrition Approach
So if cheat days aren’t the answer to being able to enjoy foods you like while achieving your fitness goals, then what is?
Moderation and balancing over/under.
Instead of sending out a “burn notice” (loved that show on USA) or black-labeling some foods, the most sustainable approach is one that embraces moderation and knows how to make adjustments for events of everyday life that allow you to enjoy foods and social events involving food that you like while building or sustaining a great looking body.
Rather than allowing yourself to only eat “junk” food in extreme excess one day per week, find a balance that fits your lifestyle.
The cheat day approach operates under the guise that having any ‘bad’ foods on a regular basis will ruin your progress and ability to build a lean, muscular body.
And while that may be true for someone trying to take their body to the extreme necessary to step on stage for a bodybuilding competition; it’s not true for a ‘normal’ person just trying to look great in everyday life.
When you aren’t trying to achieve the absolute extreme of muscularity and leanness, you can get away with having some junk food on a regular basis.
A lot of guys I know who are in great shape eat some junk food regularly or have a beer with supper on a regular basis.
Heck, I eat dessert almost every night.
But we keep it in check.
We don’t go all out – we don’t eat the whole cake, or have 10 scoops of ice cream. We embrace moderation. And if we overeat a little bit today on junk food, we dial things back and eat a little less the next day or two – that’s the magic of the over/under principle.
It’s just a simple way to embrace moderation and keep things in balance.
You can eat a bit more today if you’re willing to eat a bit less tomorrow.
Dinner out with friends with little (or no) notice in the middle of the week? No problem, I’ll enjoy that time with friends and cut back on how much I eat tomorrow.
Try springing something like a impromptu social occasion on someone with the ‘cheat day’ mentality and you’ll witness chaos in action.
They will panic and likely either completely avoid situations like this out of fear of ‘screwing up’ and eating something they shouldn’t or attend but feel constant distress the whole time because they can’t participate.
I’m not telling you to “be like everyone else.” Or that you can get away with eating like the average person and still look great. I’m just telling you that you can balance lifestyle with fitness.
You can enjoy foods – foods that are often labeled “junk” foods – on a regular basis if you embrace moderation and commit to balancing the over/under.
In the end, it’s all about finding an approach that fits your lifestyle. And while cheat days may be beneficial to certain groups of people (like those in competitive bodybuilding), it isn’t the best approach for someone wanting a sustainable, long term approach.
Overly restrictive dietary approaches are the enemy; and unfortunately, despite the popularity of cheat days, it just doesn’t line up with the lifestyle most normal guys want to lead.
The idea of being able to eat whatever you want for an entire day sounds appealing at first, but when you realize that this will cause you to live the rest of your week in restrictive misery, the appeal disintegrates quickly.
Don’t fall into that trap. You don’t need cheat days, you just need to embrace moderation and remember to balance the over/under: if you eat more today, eat less tomorrow to balance things out; if you eat less today, you can eat more tomorrow.
You can use this approach when preparing for certain events (parties, vacations, etc) by eating less leading up to the event.
Have an event that comes up unexpected? No worries, you can participate knowing that you will balance things out in the days following by eating less.
Sexy? Probably not. But it works and lets you achieve your goals while enjoying the lifestyle you want.