Most of us do what we can to be healthy. For some this means exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet, for others it means getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep and drinking water. Whatever form your healthy habits take, one thing remains the same—it’s all about making it work long term.
So, what’s the secret to making it last? Enjoying all of your favorite treats—cookies, candy and ice cream—oh my! While you wouldn’t normally think of these foods as diet-friendly, they can be if you enjoy them during designated nutritional splurges. That’s right; we’re talking about cheat days.
The concept is simple enough; you follow your healthful diet for a majority of the week. Then, for one day only, you cut lose and let yourself indulge in all of your favorite foods. That can’t be healthy, though, can it?
Because there’s still a fair amount of debate about the potential benefits and drawbacks of cheat days, there’s no clear answer. So, to help you decide if cheat days are right for you, here’s a quick look at the physical—and psychological—pros and cons.
Let’s get physical
Pros: Recent studies have shown that periodic cheat days may help to restore your body’s level of the hormone, leptin. As an important part of your metabolic process, leptin helps support energy and regulate hunger signals. Oh, and let’s not forget that higher levels of leptin also help to boost your metabolism, but only for a 24-hour window after overeating.
Cons: Keep in mind that a cheat day here and there isn’t necessarily bad news, but consistently binging can cause some notable physical changes, including:
· Stomach stretching. While your stomach can technically stretch to fit 4 liters of food, its average is closer to 1 liter (the size of a Moe’s burrito). If you consistently overeat, your stomach may remain stretched, requiring more food to feel full.
· Decreased insulin sensitivity. Your body relies on insulin, a compound produced by the pancreas, to process and absorb blood sugar. If insulin sensitivity is reduced, this means it takes more and more insulin to get the job done. Over time, this can lead to diabetes. What’s even scarier, is just one day of binging can decrease insulin sensitivity.
· Disrupted circadian rhythm. After indulging in an extra-large meal, your circadian rhythm, which regulates the timing of both eating and sleeping, may be thrown off for the next several days. This will leave you feeling extra hungry and extra tired.
Pros:You may remember hearing about leptin for its many physical benefits, but the good news doesn’t stop there. It also provides psychological benefits, too. For instance, higher amounts of leptin have been linked to increased motivation, libido and dopamine levels.
Cheat days can also help individuals satisfy their cravings in a manageable way. Instead of giving up on dieting all together, individuals have an outlet to indulge periodically, while still maintaining a healthy diet overall.
Cons: As noted above, overeating can cause a spike in dopamine levels, which is the neurotransmitter that controls your pleasure and reward systems. Moving forward, your body will associate those good feelings with unhealthy foods and overeating.
Also, when binging on delicious foods (aka those high in fat and sugar) the hormone gherlin, which stimulates appetite, becomes elevated and stays elevated, which keeps you wanting more and more—and more.
A Healthy Dose of Dieting
The foods we eat have the power to make us look and feel our very best, but they can also leave us feeling tired, sluggish and uncomfortable. Gwinnett Medical Center’s Nutrition and Weight Management program offers access to the experts and resources you need to make better food choices for your unique health needs. Our registered dietitians will help guide you through nutrition consultations, Diet by Design, as well as metabolic testing—all of which will make a positive difference in your overall health.