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Sometimes, It's Okay to Cheat: Here's How Having a Cheat Day Can Help You Lose Weight

Cheat days are seen as a way to stay focused and motivated while on a diet. But did you know they may actually be good for your waistline?

In the last few years, dietitians have stressed the importance of having a day when you can splurge on calories. On so-called ‘cheat days,’ health-conscious eaters have permission to waive dietary restrictions and dig in—nosh on a slice of pizza, a fat, juicy steak, or a bowl of ice cream. Pick your poison.

Most of the time, giving yourself the right to gorge once a week or once a month is framed as a way to stay sane and motivated while on a diet. Like giving yourself a day off from your job, taking care of your kids, or exercising, it’s a proven way to keep up your motivation and reward yourself for hard work.

But just how beneficial are cheat days in the long run? They may boost morale, but what kind of effect do they have on your metabolism—and will establishing one make a difference when you step on the scale?

It may sound too good to be true, but cheat days can actually have a positive effect on your body. This advantage has to do with caloric restriction and how it affects your body. Your thyroid hormones control your metabolic rate. Taking in fewer calories has been shown to decrease production of thyroid hormones, which means that your metabolism actually burns calories slower. Not exactly the effect you want when you’re on a diet.

Overeating from time to time may regulate this effect, effectively keeping your body guessing. But experts warn that cheat days can be a slippery slope. For some people, falling off the diet wagon means abandoning self-control altogether.

If you want to use a cheat day to help you lose weight, try to remember the following:

1. Don’t do it too often.

If you find yourself justifying regular binges by saying it’s your cheat day, you're at risk of falling into a bad habit. Cheat meals or days need to be spread out to help you lose weight. How often you splurge should also depend on how close you are to your ideal weight—i.e. you should probably avoid cheating if you’re just starting a diet.

2. Avoid pigging out.

Cheat days are not an invitation to overeat to a point of excess, which may actually knock you off track when it comes to your dieting and exercise goals. Instead, try to organize cheating around a single meal, or relax your restrictions within reason for a day.

3. Try to plan around holidays and special occasions.

Weddings, birthdays, and holiday get-togethers are ideal cheat days. Not only are food options limited, but celebrations go hand in hand with stress—which causes many of us to turn to food. Let yourself off the hook for these special days and try to simply enjoy the event by eating whatever is served. Within reason, of course. Try to limit yourself to one plate instead of going up for seconds or thirds.

4. When possible, cheat on a day when you burn a lot of calories.

Plan to cheat immediately after a big workout. Not only will you feel like you’ve earned it, you’ll have burned enough calories to make up for the dietary indiscretion. Try to eat a protein-rich meal after a workout, but don’t worry about restricting your carb intake.

5. Avoid guilt.

Having a cheat day is about giving yourself a bit of freedom—but not too much. For many of us, too much freedom can quickly prompt a fall off the wagon. And you may fall off the wagon. When you do, don’t guilt yourself. Focus on getting back on track the next day.

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