Cheat Days: They Really Are Necessary (part 3 of 3)

or “Get Flack For Cheating? This One Should Straighten Them Out”

When I wrote the articles talking about how cheat days suck, and even after I officially declared them “not necessarily sucky“, I had no idea I would be writing three of them. In the end, though, I’m glad I did because it’s helped me to understand much better what should be happening during that “refeeding” period.

Whether your reason for cheating is purely psychological or totally physiological, one thing is common for everyone: it’s necessary.

You spend all week restricting your calories (by default – you don’t consume as many calories because you’re not consuming as many types of food, not because you have to restrict calories). More importantly, you’ve been giving your body very efficient fuel to use. Your body starts to get used to that and regulates its services to adjust to your intake. By throwing it off one day a week, you’re accomplishing two things: your body doesn’t know what the heck to do, so it starts recalibrating; and you’re keeping your brain from feeling deprived.

Deprivation is the enemy of fat loss

Put a plate of cookies in front of a kid, tell them they can’t touch the cookies, and walk away. Wanna bet that when you come back in the room there’ll be the same cookies on that plate?

Let’s just be honest with ourselves for a second: food is delicious, and the more sugar or fat it has, the more delicious it is. When you crave something is it usually veggies or is it junk? (I’m generalizing: some of you “health nuts” out there actually crave cucumbers and such. We don’t understand you, but we love you anyway.) Especially when you’ve gotten used to eating fries, fatty cheeseburgers, pizza, and donuts your whole life. Humans are creatures of habit, and our brains know how good that stuff tastes. To tell our brain we can’t have it is to declare war against our will.

Many of you reading this blog have fantastic wills. You may not even like sweets. But if you’re overweight, I’m nearly certain you know exactly what I’m talking about. Our wills are very thin when it comes to certain kinds of food. That’s precisely why I was never able to stick to simple portion-control diets. News flash: fat people don’t understand portions!

So having a cheat day removes that barrier to our success. To know I can eat what I want to on Saturday means I can live with not eating it Sunday through Friday. That’s the psychological side of the cheat day. It’s the side we all love. It might even be the reason we decided to start this 4HB thing!

Recalibrating your engine

Our bodies adjust to what we give it. If you had been used to jogging and stopped, once you start again it’ll be tough for a bit but you’ll get your groove back fairly quickly. It sucks to work back up to your previous level, but once you’re there you’re used to it. The “extreme home fitness workout program” P90X is all about muscle confusion; when you do the same thing over and over and over your body gets used to it, so you have to change it up for maximum results.

Metabolisms seem to work the same way. If you consistently eat lower calories, your body will get used to that and will not need to work as hard to burn it. That’s why we’re told to eat more to lose weight. Eating too little also makes your body think you aren’t eating enough, so your metabolism eventually slows down.

You can think of the cheat day as the P90X for your metabolism.

One of the things the cheat day is used for is towards preventing “hormonal downregulation”. The way I understand it, hormonal downregulation means your insulin sensitivity decreases. Lower insulin sensitivity means more fat storage because the insulin can’t make your muscles use as much glucose for fuel (important side-note: I’m not a doctor, so if what I just said is completely off-base, please let me know).

According to The 4-Hour Body, spiking calories once a week “causes a host of hormonal changes that improve fat-loss, from increasing cAMP and GMP to improving conversion of the T4 thyroid hormone to the more active T3.” Basically that all means that giving your body more than it is used to every so often helps it process calories more efficiently.

Either way you take it, enjoy it

Please don’t take this to mean I’m contradicting what I said in my previous cheat day articles. I still don’t recommend eating yourself sick every weekend, and we need to do the damage control correctly. I realized that there are a lot of misconceptions about the cheat day, so I wanted to really talk about what the point is.

As I said at the beginning, whether we do it for mental or physical reasons, doing it helps us. To quote Tim, “eating more, then less, then more, and so on in a continuous sine wave is an impulse we can leverage to reach goals faster.” Up until recently I was doing it purely to be able to stuff my face, but after this past weekend, it’s more for the purpose of refeeding.

So whether you to it just because you can or because your body will benefit, enjoy your cheat day!

(If you have friends who think you’re being too unhealthy by eating whatever you want one day a week, go ahead and send them to this page. I’ll take the responsibility for you. 😉 )

Why do YOU cheat? How has it helped you? What tips do you have for a quick recovery?

The other Cheat Day articles:


Related Posts:


  1. I agree that for fat loss spiking insulin is good, but for maintenance it is not as beneficial.

    Metabolism is controlled by many things, what you eat is just a small part of that. Caloric restriction and Intermittent Fasting actually have many more benefits then just fat loss

    Reduced insulin sensitivity I would word as decrease glucose conversion to glycogen (short term muscle fuel storage), which results in extra fat storage. But I also am not a Dr or biologist.

    I would recommend to cheat with natural sugar, fruit, dark chocolate, and limit or avoid grains. If you haven’t read this guest post on Tim’s blog from a while ago by Robb Wolf re-read it.

    Personally I used to cheat once or twice a week and it did really help my psychologically. Now I just eat some fruit and chocolate once in a while.

    • See, I think what’s going to happen is that very soon I won’t want to eat junk anymore, so psychology won’t be an issue. It could be because I cheated a bit this week anyway (nothing REALLY serious), but I don’t have any particular cravings for tomorrow. I will probably have a pretty normal slow-carb days. Maybe I’ll eat an apple or something. 🙂


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