Everyone does them, so instead of pretending we don't, I think its better we get it out in the open and talk about how to minimize the damage while still enjoying some over-indulgence on occasion.
A lot of people who are really focused on fitness, and are in great shape, have cheat days. A cheat day is the day you reserve for eating with reckless abandon when you are following a healthy way of eating 5-6 days a week. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a cheat day. I utilize them myself, and also recommend that my clients who are following strict diets, to enjoy cheat days as well. However, not all cheat days are created equally. And for that reason, I don’t like to refer to cheat days as cheat days, and prefer the term Re-feed Day or Concious Cheat Day which I will discuss below. In this post I will talk a little bit about how to use cheat days in a diet, and how to minimize damage on these days.
But first, a little note on how cheat days can be beneficial. The reason cheat days are recommended in low carbohydrate, or caloric deficite diets, is that at a certain point, your body, and especially your muscles will be wanting more. So, once a week, you do a carb re-feed, and smash a high amount of carbs. This can be really good for losing weight and retaining muscle-mass. If you have been conscious about your diet consistently for a couple of years, you may even be able to feel when its time for a re-feed and can chose to have a re-feed, or concious cheat day. I must stress that in my experience the quality of the food that you chose to indulge in on re-feed days can play a huge difference in the outcome. With that in mind, let’s talk about two different ways you can approach re-feeding, or cheat days.
The Possessed- Black-Out-Processed-Food Cheat Day
I’ve been here myself, we all have. You are sick of eating super-clean Monday to Friday, and when Saturday night comes, its time to send it. And I mean really send it. I remember one particular cheat day in college where in one sitting I ate a grocery-store sushi set for two, a litre of Ben and Jerry’s, 1/2 a jar of peanut butter, and 500g of Bacon. Needless to say, during my euphoric eating state, I was not thinking about how I would feel for the following six hours, or the next couple of days. Nor did I really taste or enjoy any of the food. If someone were to have filmed me during this, I am sure I would have looked like a starved raccoon in a restaurant garbage-bin. Other common abusive cheat-days can involve Epic Fast-Food binges, 2 large pizzas to oneself, any trip to McDonalds, 18 beer and 2 lbs of honey garlic chicken wings,< insert your favourite here>, etc.
Now, we all need to cut lose once in awhile, and over-doing it once or twice can even be a good experience for self-discovery, BUT, cheating like this will take its toll. If you are used to eating clean, going off the rails like this, is going to introduce a lot of chemicals, or gluten, or dairy, to your body that you have been working hard to avoid, and as such they will smash your system. You will also likely be giving yourself a massive dose of “bad-fat”, “bad-carbs”, and empty calories because the food will not be nutrient dense.
It is my opinion that when we hear the words cheat-day, since cheat has a somewhat mischievous connotation, we are almost conditioned into thinking a cheat day doesn’t count unless its really bad or mischievous food. Food that your better conscience or coach would not want you to eat. So, when we think mischievous food, we think of things with the flashiest labels in the grocery store, the most frosting or cheese, and the best commercials. This also almost always means super-processed food. For this reason I really prefer to use the terms re-feed or conscious cheat day. With these terms we don’t associate them with eating shitty food, but rather it just makes us think of eating lots more.
Does this look familar on a cheat day? If so, you may have a problem ;)
(Image: Junk Food- Rodrigo)
Re-Feed Day- The Conscious Cheat Day
Now, let’s consider a completely different way to approach a cheat day. First off, let’s call it a re-feed day or conscious cheat day. Think of this day, or a weekend, as a time where you don’t have to worry about the amount of food you are eating. You can even over-indulge until you are sweating at the table, but what you will do is continue to eat quality, non-processed, nutrient-dense foods.
In the past couple years my re-feed days might look like this. For breakfast I’ll eat 300g of high quality bacon from a butcher + 1kg of Blueberries + 100g Goji Berries + 6 eggs. Yes, that is a stupid amount of food and especially berries, but I didn’t say you couldn’t over-indulge. After eating this meal, I am surely full, but my heart is not racing, and I don’t feel like I am stuck on the couch farting for the next 6 hours. In fact, on these days, I feel quite good, and the next day, I feel like a super-human. For supper I might have a massive steak, 2 cups of roasted garlic cloves, 300g of asparagus, a full package of sun-dried tomatoes, and 2 sweet-potatoes with lots of butter. Late-night I might smash 1/2 a litre of Goat’s Milk Ice-cream with a banana and some cashew butter. Sometimes on these days, since Breakfast is my favourite meal, I’ll simply have that twice.
I am not eating much differently than I do during the week, and the food quality is the same, it is just a stupid amount of food. And guess what? No sodium,-weird additive,-gluten-shit- food hang-over. The amount of good nutrients, and good energy put into the body on a conscious cheat day is overwhelmingly positive and is extremely energizing for training the next week.
In conclusion, go ahead and have your cheat day. And sure, once in awhile, you will go get drunk, and smash Ronny’s at 2am. It happens, its how we are conditioned to "enjoy ourselves" in the western world. Don't be too hard on yourself if that happens on occasion, and as my former coach Marcus Filly would say, “It builds resilience”. But, don’t feel obligated to eat shitty food just because it is a cheat day. Next cheat day, even if you do crave McDonald’s try a conscious cheat day instead and see how you feel after. It is worth noting that on a processed-food cheat day you will damage your system, take time to recover, and likely feel crappy for awhile. I strongly recommend a re-feed day/conscious cheat day or two (if you are following a strict diet monday-friday), but focus on eating your favourite high-quality, nutrient dense foods that you usually do. Just don't worry about the amount you eat. Conscious cheat days, or re-feed days are much more in line with your health and fitness goals (if you have them) than a processed food binge. If you don’t believe me, try one of each, and see which you want to do again.
I would like to share a relevant theory I have, as it involves gorging on high-quality meat, fruit, and nuts. Remember, this is just a theory and I am not recommending this is a daily, or even weekly practise, but perhaps once a month or so. If you think back to the Palaeolithic area and consider the lifestyles of our ancestors, it is likely that they walked, and walked, and walked and on occassion found something to eat. Sometimes this would mean that they’d kill an animal like a deer or buffalo. I don’t believe that they would have butchered the animal, cooked it, and then stopped eating at 150g. No way, they would have eaten until they were stuffed, because who knows how long it had been since they had eaten, when they would find another animal, and back then it would have been extremely time-consuming to prepare meat for long-time storage. My guess is that they would have eaten upwards of a kilogram of meat at a sitting, easily. The other instance I imagine is coming across a berry patch or nut-tree. In much the same way, some berries/nuts would have been collected for later, but at certain times it is likely that they sat there, picked the berries/nuts, and ate them until they were stuffed. I actually hadn’t thought of this theory until after the first time I ate a kg of blueberries and a package of bacon at one sitting, and found that afterwards, and the next day, I felt fantastic. Also, my performance was high the following day. So, it may just be that you are tapping into something primal and wired into your DNA if you follow the re-feed/conscious cheat approach to your beloved cheat days.
If you want to try and really experience this primal feeling you can try something I enjoy often on weekends as part of my conscious cheat day practise. Perhaps I'll call it the caveman hike and gorge. It involves a morning hike, or extended walk, and all you are allowed to consume between waking and up until after the hike is completed is water, coffee, or tea . Ideally the hike will be somewhat taxing, but sustainable, and last for a couple of hours. When you finish the hike, or return home, you will be hungry. Eat a conscious cheat day sized meal that involves a lot of fruit (preferably berries or something with a low glycemic index), but even more fat (unprocessed bacon or lots of nuts). It is of utmost importance that you make sure to consume a lot the high amount of fat with this meal. If you fast while exercising and then eat a high carb-only meal it will lead to a massive spike in blood-sugar which you do not want. You will really appreciate this meal, taste your food more, and I believe your body will appreciate it in a big way as well.
Grit Human Performance