Why Diet Cheat Days Do More Harm Than Good

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You have chosen to take control of your nutrition and want to look good and feel great. You have stuck to your weight loss program and feel you deserve a reward. At Active8me, we agree …. you should reward yourself for progress… BUT…should your reward be a diet cheat day? We investigate whether diet cheat days are part of a good approach to your transformation and weight loss program or whether they set you up for a destructive nutrition see-saw.

The argument FOR

The idea of a cheat day is to reward ‘good behaviour’ and strong ‘willpower’ that you have employed through the week. It’s the concept of delayed gratification, where you do all the challenging work now and get the prize later. The theory is that you will make better choices now, because you know that you will have an opportunity to eat what you want later – on your cheat day. This implies that you are punishing yourself for six days of the week and only getting enjoyment for your one diet cheat day. Is this really what you want? Or is the gratification you really seek the hot body, the confidence and the spring in your step?

The argument AGAINST

At Active8me, we are not fans of cheat days and here are the reasons why…

1.The power of words…

The issue with diet cheat days begins with the wording. Everyone knows the definition of ‘cheat’ and you have always been taught it is the wrong thing to do. “Don’t cheat on your exams”, “Don’t cheat on your boyfriend.” Being fair and honest is what value systems are based around and when certain foods become taboo, it can develop into negative emotional associations. It’s simple, you cheat – you feel guilty! Dietician Jaclyn Reutens, and Active8me nutrition expert explains “Tempting foods usually offer a pleasurable distraction that soothes pain and relieves boredom. But if you constantly choose to give in to the unhealthy desires, then you continue to reinforce the pattern. The other choice is foregoing that instant pleasure for the sake of your health and weight loss goals.” So, it becomes a question of your values. Ask yourself are you happy with the way you look? Do you want to look after your body and feel energized or are you finding excuses that sabotage your efforts?

Active8me why diet cheat days does more harm than good woman sitting on road overeating

There have been some great studies in revealing ways to overcome guilty associations with food. Instead of thinking you ‘can’t’ have certain foods, adopt the mindset of ‘I don’t’ eat those foods. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people were empowered to make better choices when they applied ‘I don’t’ to eating a piece of chocolate cake compared to feeling restricted by saying ‘I can’t’ eat chocolate cake. Thinking ‘I can’t’ undermines your sense of personal choice, and leads to a much higher likelihood of making a poor nutrition decision.

2. The psychology…

There are some inherent flaws in the psychological reasoning behind diet ‘cheat days’. Cheat days often become the excuse, and catalyst, for overeating unhealthy, low nutrition value foods. Plus, they set up some possibly dangerous, unhealthy eating patterns around binge eating, guilt and restriction-splurging cycles that can have more damaging and lasting psychological effects. For example, for many people having a diet cheat day often brings with it a sense of guilt for cheating yourself, in spite of your overall fitness and health goals. This often leads to further emotional eating that creates a vicious (and hard to break) cycle of: bingeing – feeling guilty – turning to food for comfort – bingeing again – and so it goes! At Active8me, we aim to help you create a positive and healthy relationship with food. That includes the underlying psychology and how you talk about it. Eating healthy is you choosing delicious nourishment that offers you energy to do everything you want to do and create the body you want. The best foods for achieving this are ‘clean’ foods, that is, whole foods that are natural and unprocessed.

Clean Eating Food Swaps

3. It’s ok, I’ll make up for it later…

A study in  Appetite journal found that people who think they can compensate for their indulgent diet cheat day by making up for it later are less likely to reach their diet goals. This compensatory behaviour leads to overeating, not just on their cheat days but the following days too. Jeremy Rolleston, Olympian and Founder of Acvtive8me explains how this compensatory behaviour can become a habit driven by emotion. “Our emotions are our strongest and most powerful driver and they often automatically drive us in hidden, unconscious ways. Instead of thinking that you will make up for cheat days later, you need to focus on creating positive habits around foods. This includes consuming in moderation rather than establishing a restriction-overeating cycle.  Your emotions, such as fear of missing out (restriction) or guilt for overeating (cheat days) adversely affect your choices.”

4. More, more, more…

Maintaining a nutritionally balanced, calorie controlled diet during the week will see you start to notice changes. Some will be exactly what you want – weight loss, less bloating, feeling energized, clearer skin – others will be distractions to your end goal such as cravings. Jaclyn explains “Cravings are a fact of life. They are the result of multiple factors, and everyone has their own triggers. Many people turn to food when facing painful or uncomfortable emotions.” She adds “If you restrict your food intake severely, you will feel resentful and deprived of what you want to eat and have strong cravings as a result.” Weight loss programs don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) about severe restrictions.

The converse is also true. As much as restrictive diets can be a problem, the opposite (overeating on a cheat day) can also cause havoc with cravings. When you overload your body with sugar and fat with a diet cheat day, you can cause a massive spike in blood sugar levels. You will feel the effects almost immediately, with wanting more and more sugars and simple carbs, especially in the days that follow. This leads to one diet cheat day turning into two or more and making it both physically and mentally difficult to regain control of healthy eating. That is not what you’re aiming for!

Watch a quick tip from Jaclyn about dealing with cravings.


Participating in a weight loss program generally has one endpoint in mind, to LOSE WEIGHT. But, at Active8me we believe that you shouldn’t have to completely restrict and deny yourself the ‘treats’ you enjoy. We prefer guiding principles of nutrition as opposed to strict rules. Things like clean eating, portion control, clever nutrition choices, appropriate calories, healthy snacking, optimizing metabolism … The key lies in control and moderation. Start by identifying what treats or vices you find hard to resist. Is it Ais Gems? Chendol? Puto? Burfi? Jalebi? Chocolate? Prawn chips?

Remember these two principles instead of opting for a cheat day.

  1. Simply make a promise with yourself that it’s acceptable to indulge in 1-2 serves of your treats, 1-2 times per week. Ultimately we want you to crowd-out the unhealthy choices with the good choices. As Jaclyn has suggested, you will find that by crowding out the ‘less healthy’ foods with more wholesome foods, your cravings decline naturally over time.
  2. Reward your progress with non-food based treats
    Any weight loss program takes committed, persistent effort, so when you reach your goal, we want to make sure you stay happy and continue to make healthy achievements. We want you to reward yourself and enjoy the journey and give yourself a ‘pat on the back’. But reward your progress with non- food based treats. Perhaps a massage, pedicure, night out or new workout clothes. Aim to change your mindset to incorporate healthy nutrition as a favourable and enjoyable part of your daily living, where the prize lies in looking great and feeling energized, inside and out, from proper, balanced nutrition.

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