The Truth About Cheat Days


There are benefits to “behaving badly on occasion.” That was the finding—and part of the title—of a study published in January in the Journal of Consumer Psychology that issued a license to cheat (sometimes) to anyone on a diet.

The researchers, from universities in Portugal and the Netherlands, came to that conclusion after 26 people followed a 1,500-calorie diet for two weeks. Those with built-in cheat days were able to exercise more self-control than those who didn’t have them.

The scientists said that cheat days—when you allow yourself the foods you avoid when dieting—help you beat the “failure cascade” that occurs when you go off your diet. You know the routine: You ate one cookie, decided you blew your diet and then finished the box.

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But not all science supports the benefits of cheat days. Turns out, those “cheats” can sabotage your efforts to get back on track when the day is over. Dr. Deborah Clegg of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found in animal studies that high-fat foods trigger the brain to send messages to the cells in your body, telling them to ignore the appetite-curbing hormones leptin and insulin. In other words, your “cheat” shuts down the system that prevents you from cheating nonstop. Result: You undo all the hard work you’ve put into losing weight.

Other studies suggest that when you eat certain kinds of foods, it can be tough to not let one lead to another. Using high-tech brain scanning equipment, scientists have found that when people eat highly palatable foods such as chocolate, the regions of the brain linked to pleasure and reward “light up,” just as they do in people addicted to opiate drugs. When you stimulate your brain’s pleasure center with, say, a handful of M&Ms, chances are you’re going to come back for another hit. In susceptible people, that can lead to bingeing.

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And as a binge goes on, says research from Virginia Tech University, the way your muscle tissue metabolizes glucose—the form of sugar your body runs on—changes in a way that could lead to weight gain and health problems.

Your muscles are the primary clearinghouse for glucose, which can either be used for energy or stored. In their study with college students, the Virginia Tech researchers found that after only five days of a high-fat diet, the students’ muscles no longer processed glucose as well. One potential result: As the results of the University of Texas study suggested, eating lots of cheat foods could make your body less responsive to appetite-suppressing insulin. Not only will you not get the “you’re full” signal, insulin resistance, as it’s called, can be a precursor to type 2 diabetes.

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A better idea? Don’t cheat. But don’t create a list of no-no foods either because there’s really no need to deprive yourself of pleasure when you’re trying to lose weight.

Instead, incorporate some of those foods into a healthy diet—in moderation. Even better? Take advantage of all of the healthier versions of your favorite “cheat foods” Nutrisystem offers. We’ve got treats for sweet lovers, pizza for pie-lovers, pasta for carb junkies, ice cream for your frozen treat fix and so many guilt-free versions of all your guilty pleasures.

Or, check out our awesome Recipe Center, which is packed with hundreds of healthier recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack and dessert time!

Turn to options like these to feed your cravings and need for pleasure. And you can do it on a daily basis, so you don’t really need a cheat day. Why limit it to one anyway, when there’s a way to have your cake and lose weight, too?



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