In 2013, a picture of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson set the internet ablaze. The image showed the 6’4″, 260 lb behemoth posing next to a number of delectable foods.
In one, he’s sat behind a towering pile of pancakes, staring threateningly into the camera pulling his signature ‘People’s Eyebrow’; a knife and fork tightly grasped in each hand to signal the oncoming blowout. In another, he gleefully bites into a double-dough pizza. Only one of four he intends to eat that day (that wasn’t a typo). And in the third, he smiles that oh-so-charming Rock smile with a plate of brownies stacked atop one another like a miniature chocolate pyramid.
The caption under the photo reading: “After 150 days of eating clean The Rock allowed himself a ‘legendary’ cheat day. 12 pancakes, 4 double dough pizzas, and 21 brownies.”
Of course, cheat days are nothing new. Just three years earlier, Tim Ferris wrote an entire book on diet and training (among other things like how to achieve a 15-minute orgasm, which, honestly, was the only reason I bought the book)–The Four Hour Body–where he extolled the virtues of a strict, clean diet followed by one day of unbridled hedonism where you could eat whatever, and however, much you want.
And cheat days have been a staple in bodybuilding diets for decades.
Aaaaand, in case it wasn’t clear from the title of this article, cheat days are unequivocal, A-grade, organically-farmed bullshit (sorry, Rock, I still love you though).
Note that I didn’t say ‘I think they are’ because this isn’t an opinion. Cheat days are up there with a bunch of the other bullshit running wild in the industry like a toddler on Adderall with a pack of crayons.
In this article, I’m going to explain why they’re stupid and why you should stop doing them, immediately. So go ahead and throw that carefully curated shopping list of ‘cheat’ foods you intend to buy this weekend in the bin.
But before we get to why I so vehemently despise them, let’s understand what cheat days are.
What’s a cheat day?
A cheat day is one day during the week where you ‘stop’ dieting and eat and drink anything and everything with reckless abandon. Kinda like this:
Ok, why do people do it?
The logic behind this periodic hedonism goes something like this: when you diet, your metabolism slows down. This slowdown reduces fat burning so by eating more calories for a day, you ‘boost’ your metabolism which consequently increases fat burning.
On the surface this makes sense. Yes, there’s definitely some slowing down of metabolic rate the longer you diet and get leaner (no, this isn’t metabolic damage–it’s metabolic adaptation).
And yes, eating more food does increase metabolic rate.
BUT, before you run off to your local grocery store to stock up on your favourite cheat foods–when we look at the studies on overfeeding and metabolic rate and crunch the numbers, it’s not something to get excited about.
Looking at short-term overfeeding studies, the average increase in metabolic rate is somewhere between 3-10%, but this effect only lasts for 24 hours. 1 2 3
So if you consumed 4000 calories on your cheat day, you’ll have ‘boosted’ your metabolism by a WHOPPING ~120-400 calories.
A large portion of this increase is due to an increased thermic effect of food (your body burns more calories trying to digest the thousands of extra calories you consumed) and an increase in activity expenditure (with an increase in calories, people tend to move more, and you may burn a few more calories during training due to increased energy levels).
A side note: people differ in their response to overfeeding.
Those of you who are ‘high-responders’–you move more when calories are increased–will see a larger increase in metabolic rate with increased calories. And those of you who are ‘low-responders–you don’t move much even when calories are increased–will see a lower increase in metabolic rate with overfeeding.
This is why some people can overeat and not gain body fat while others can overeat and gain fat.
I’d posit the people who are the most vocal about the benefits of cheat days are the people who respond well to overfeeding. And because it ‘worked for them’, they assume it’ll work for everyone. Which, in case you didn’t know, is pretty fucking stupid.
The other argument for cheat days is they increase leptin levels
Leptin is a hormone produced in the fat cells and controls metabolic rate, appetite, libido, and a bunch of other things that I can’t be bothered to list because I only slept 3 hours last night and holy shit, no amount of coffee is helping.
So, anyway, where was I…OH, right! Leptin. As you consume fewer calories and start to get leaner, leptin levels decrease which increases hunger and slows down your metabolic rate. Conversely, as you start to consume more calories and gain body fat, leptin levels increase which suppresses appetite and increases metabolism.
Following that train of logic, having one day where you eat more than normal will increase leptin which will normalise hunger and ‘boost’ your metabolism. But the truth is, just like the increase in metabolic rate, the increase in leptin is short-lived.
As you get leaner, leptin levels will decrease regardless. Even if you ‘boost’ (goddamn I’m using that word a lot today) leptin levels for a day, once you resume eating in a calorie deficit the following day, leptin levels will return to baseline.
It’s also worth mentioning that it takes at least 1-2 weeks of eating at maintenance to reverse the downregulation of hormones that occurs with extended dieting. And while there are benefits to eating more calories for a day or two (more on this in a moment), these benefits are more psychological than physiological.
Basically, you can’t hack your biology despite what some Silicon Valley ‘bio-hacker’ claims. Also, please stop taking health and nutrition advice from said Silicon Valley tech bros. We can also throw celebrities into that list.
But let’s ignore all the physiological reasons for cheat days being stupid (like the fact one day of extreme overeating can very easily wipe out the entire deficit you created the week before, leaving you spinning your wheels and not making any progress).
My biggest qualm with cheat days is the use of the word ‘cheat’
No, I’m not being pedantic–words matter.
Firstly, when has the word ‘cheat’ ever been associated with something positive–that’s rhetorical, the answer is never.
Secondly, what exactly are you cheating on…the healthy eating habits you’re trying to cultivate so you can maintain your body composition in the long-term?
Thirdly, by classifying certain foods as ‘cheat’ foods–you inadvertently demonise them which only increases the anxiety and ‘fear’ around eating those foods. Which, for long-term adherence, is no bueno.
Lastly, and most importantly, cheat days put the focus on the wrong thing.
If Saturday is your ‘cheat day’ and it’s also the day you spend with friends and family, you become more focused on the food than enjoying the moment with people you love. You’re more concerned about eating as much as you can because you know that once tomorrow rolls around, the dietary cuffs will be slapped back on and you won’t be ‘allowed’ to eat these foods for another week, which stops you from being present.
As I explained to a client recently:
When you’re going out with friends and family be relationship-centric versus food-centric. Instead of the focus being the food, it should be the people you’re with.
Meaning: food and drink should be a part of the experience, not the experience.
For example, every Friday night my girlfriend and I go out to eat. We don’t do this because it’s our ‘cheat meal’ or ‘cheat day’, but because it’s something we’ve done since we began dating and it adds to our relationship.
We can sit down and enjoy a meal while discussing our week. The conversations and enjoying each others company is the experience. The good food is just a part of that experience. If the food was removed from the equation, we’d still have a good time.
When we take all of these things together, I think we can all agree that cheat days are not only damaging to your progress but can also mess up your relationship with food.
With that said, this doesn’t mean you can’t have days where you eat a bit more than normal–you can.
What you should do instead
In an ideal world, we’d all be able to eat in a calorie deficit for a few months, get lean, and then live happily ever after like every Disney movie. But, we live in the real world where things are seldom ideal and one day a badass purple giant with a magic gauntlet shows up and snaps 50% of the population to dust (wait, wut?).
This is the dilemma most people face: you want to lose fat and you understand you need to eat fewer calories for that to happen. On the other hand, you also want to be able to enjoy all the things that normal people enjoy as part of a healthy, balanced, life–namely, going out with friends and family and having a good time.
And this is where higher calorie/refeed days can be an effective tool
As I’ve already explained, the whole ‘boosting’ metabolism and leptin stuff is pretty much pointless in the short-term. So the entire purpose of the refeed day is to allow you 1-2 days during the week where you eat a bit more than normal so you can go out and enjoy yourself and not ruin progress.
How to approach the refeed
This is how I recommend you approach it and how I program refeeds for clients (where applicable):
• Increase calories to maintenance for one or two days of the week. To work out a rough maintenance intake, multiply your BW (in pounds) by 14 (females) or 15 (males). So, if you’re a female who weighs 160 lbs, your refeed calories will be ~2200 calories; conversely, if you’re a male who weighs 160 lbs, your refeed calories will be ~2400 calories. I’ll explain picking a refeed frequency in a bit.
• Keep protein intake as is.
• As for carbs and fats…This is where it gets a bit tricky.
Ideally, you want the majority of the increase in calories to come from carbs because a) it’s a lot harder for carbs to be directly stored as fat whereas dietary fat is directly stored as fat 4, and b) carbs seem to have more of an effect on the cortisol-related water retention that so often comes along with dieting. So by increasing calories (and carbs), you may find a drop in water retention that often ‘masks’ fat loss. This is why you often find yourself leaner (and lighter on the scale) the day after eating more calories.
For my clients, I’ll slightly increase fat intake (~10-15g) and have the rest of the increase come from carbs. This simply allows them to eat a wider variety of foods for their refeed that they may not be able to fit into their macros when dieting.
For example, a female client consuming 30-40g of fat per day would aim for 45-55g of fat during her refeed. This gives her room to fit in some of the higher fat foods she can’t during the week.
The other option is to simply focus on hitting your protein for the day and then stay within your total calories (not worrying too much about carbs and fats). Even if some of the fat is stored as body fat, this isn’t that big a deal because you’re eating at maintenance and once you go back to eating in a deficit, those few grams of fat will be burned off (remember: fat balance).
What option you decide to go for is up to you.
How often should you refeed, once per week or twice per week or something else entirely? Like with most things, there isn’t a clear-cut answer and we have to consider a few things:
• For most people, once per week is enough. For leaner clients <12% body fat men; <21% body fat women–two refeeds per week can be beneficial.
• How much fat do you have to lose? If you have a lot of fat to lose, then refeeds will only slow down your progress so it’s better to avoid them in the early stages.
• Adherence. Some people do better knowing they can eat more on the weekend and this tends to increase compliance during the week. In this case, increasing calories to maintenance on Saturday and Sunday can help increase progress and adherence to the plan.
• Do you actually care for a refeed? Some people like having a refeed day. Others prefer to just diet for as long as they can and then take a ‘diet break’ for a week or two before resuming the cut. 5 If you’re not too fussed about refeeds then you don’t have to take them. It’ll definitely speed up your progress.
And that’s about it
Cheat days are not only pointless but can also damage your progress and relationship with food. If you do want to eat more food during a diet, a better strategy is implementing weekly refeeds where you increase calories to maintenance for a day or two.
Ultimately, refeeds are just a tool you can use as you see fit. They’re definitely not necessary and won’t make or break your progress. But if you think you’ll benefit from them, then use the information in this article and implement them intelligently.
One last point before I bounce: I’m not here to bullshit you. If you abuse the refeed day and eat whatever you want and as much as you want–you’ll end up in a surplus and you’ll very likely gain some body fat (especially if you’re drinking alcohol and eating high-fat foods). While this isn’t the end of the world, it will slow down your progress.
So, uh, don’t fuck around?