What role do unhealthy foods play in weight loss?
Strictly speaking, eating junk food plays no role in weight loss. Pizza, hamburgers, candy and other unhealthy foods do not add much nutrition to your diet, and being high in calories they do little in themselves to regulate your weight. However, as anyone who has ever been on a diet knows, it’s almost impossible to stick to a perfectly healthy eating plan and strict exercise regimen all the time.
In fact, the moment you decide to abandon your old unhealthy favorites forever, you probably start craving them more often than ever before! Luckily, research suggests that the best way to stick with a diet in the long run and give yourself the best possible chance of losing weight is to intentionally cheat. Yes, planning to bail on your diet temporarily can help you shift the pounds.
The power of cheat days
When you give yourself the gift of a cheat day, you can stare temptation in the face and not give in, knowing that you only have a few more days to wait until you can indulge. When you impose restrictions on your diet, you place yourself under enormous mental strain.
It is difficult to say ‘No’ to junk food, especially in our society where it is cheaper and more readily accessible than ever before. When you know that you have a cheat day coming up, you are less likely to feel sorry for yourself or have a ‘what the heck’ moment and give into your cravings.
The science behind cheating on your diet
Researchers from Portugal put participants on a 10,500 calorie per week diet (by comparison, the average American man eats over 17,000 calories in an average week) and monitored their weight loss. Half of the participants were allocated a cheat day, being allowed to eat whatever they wanted every Sunday.
After two weeks, all participants had lost weight. Interestingly, there was no difference in average amount of weight lost between the two groups. Moreover, those who were allowed a cheat day every day felt more motivated to work towards future weight loss goals.
Rita Coelho do Vale Ph.D., who lead the study, believes that the effort required to restrain yourself whilst on a diet can result in unplanned splurges. Intentionally setting yourself up for indulgences, however, can help you maintain an overall level of willpower.
In her words, ‘…when goal-deviation behaviors are planned, that is, part of the long-term plan they may actually help rather than hurt successful goal pursuit.’
How to make cheat days work for you
So how often should you include a cheat day in your diet? The research cited above suggests that taking one day off from your diet or weight-maintainence regimen could help you stick to your healthy habits on other days of the week.
When you take a cheat day, try not to go overboard! It’s fine to enjoy a couple of treats, but eating to the point of excess will only make you feel lethargic and sick. You don’t want to have to contend with a junk food hangover the next morning when it’s time to get up for your usual healthy breakfast.
You could also consider incorporating extra exercise on your cheat days to burn off the extra calories, but take care not to go overboard in an attempt to get rid of every single calorie. Your aim should be to take a relaxed, positive attitude to your eating pattern, including scheduled and enjoyable cheat days. So the next time you want a slice of pizza but don’t want to break your diet, simply make a note to have a big slice on your next cheat day. In the long run, it’s good for you!