Dieting is much more than just counting calories, the human body is complex and to achieve the physique and body composition that you desire, some flexibility in your approach is going to be required.
With that said, people certainly overcomplicate this process and look for strategies and hacks to either get them to their goal faster or to accommodate for something that wasn’t in their plan. One of these strategies being a cheat day.
Cheat days in bodybuilding are referred to as refeed days and serve a specific purpose, to restore muscle glycogen that’s been depleted from a sustained calorie deficit and stimulate the signaling of leptin to start burning body fat stores again. For non-bodybuilders, a cheat day is usually a diet break.
Cheat days get a bad reputation but they are perfectly ok when planned for and can help people stick to a diet long term, but many often feel guilty after a cheat day. People either wonder can you make up calories the next day or will fasting after a cheat day be ok.
Fasting after cheat day? Fasting after a cheat day will help to balance out your weekly calorie intake but it can also be challenging to manage. Instead of fasting before or after a cheat day, you should reduce calorie consumption slightly for the entire week to accommodate a cheat day and maintain a dieting routine.
In this article, I’ll cover whether or not fasting is good before or after a cheat day as well as some other approaches that you might want to follow that I consider being more sustainable long term and quite a bit easier than planning fasts around cheat days…
Should You Have a Cheat Day
The very term “cheat day” instantly makes you feel like you are doing something wrong and ruining your diet. While you might have been looking forward to your cheat day all week and planning the meals you’ll have, it’s easy to feel guilty afterward.
As mentioned earlier though, cheat days are beneficial when done correctly and will keep your body in a fat-burning state whilst also giving you the all-important mental break you need when dieting. For most people though, it’s a better idea to replace cheat day with cheat meal (or 2).
The reason serious lifters benefit from a cheat day is that they might be in a steep calorie deficit and cutting for a bodybuilding show. This depleted state benefits from a refeed to kickstart hormones and processes that enable continued fat burning.
If you are consuming a 200 calorie (kcal) deficit on a daily basis, it’s unlikely that this is going to be enough to warrant a cheat meal and definitely not a cheat day! This will vary for everyone but I’d always recommend starting with a cheat meal rather than a cheat day.
This is for the psychological break rather than the physical need for one and starting with a cheat meal is always going to be easier to manage and more beneficial for most people. If you do have a cheat day though, this is not detrimental to your progress and there are things you can do to accommodate it.
Fasting After Cheat Day
Fasting after a cheat day is a pretty extreme strategy that people look to in order to combat the effects of a cheat day and going over your calorie limit. It might also be considered a necessity for some people who have consumed far too many calories on a cheat day and have found it will impact their weekly calorie intake significantly.
Regardless of your reason for wanting to fast after a cheat day, the answer is that you can do it but it wouldn’t be advisable.
Is Fasting After a Cheat Day Good
Fasting after a cheat day is not a good idea for the most part because you are taking your body from one extreme (high-calorie intake) to another extreme (low-calorie intake). The human body likes balance and is constantly focused on creating a state of homeostasis.
The more extremes you put your body through, the harder it becomes to establish baselines and consistency which is the absolute most important thing for a diet. Sticking to a diet and being consistent over a long period of time leads to the greatest amount of progress.
Short sprints followed by falling off the wagon and yo-yo diets see a quick reward in the short term but the rebounds usually put you back into a worse position in terms of body composition and food relationship than you were in at the start.
In my opinion, fasting after a cheat day is not good because it forces you to put your body through extremes which makes it very difficult to progress. It also won’t be easy to follow through with.
The theory sounds solid, overeat one day and then undereat the next to balance out your calorie intake but if you’re not used to fasting, it’s not going to be easy to then just turn it on the next day!
A cheat day and high-calorie intake will release insulin which has a knock-on effect for your body in terms of signaling leptin and ghrelin, the hunger and appetite hormones. After a cheat day, you will likely feel hungry upon waking the next day because of the effect it has on hormones.
Instantly, this is going to make fasting difficult the next day but while I’m saying it might not be good to fast after a cheat day and this binge/fast mentality or cycle is one that can lead to a bad association with food and possible eating disorders.
This doesn’t mean there are not benefits to this approach though…
Is It Ok To Fast After a Binge
After binging on a cheat day, a form of intermittent fasting rather than straight-up fasting could be a good approach to help balance out your hormones and bodily functions whilst also making up for some of the excess calories the day before.
The reason for this is that you are giving your body time to adjust again after the hormonal, blood sugar, and the digestive onslaught that it had taken the previous day. Giving your body a break from food (especially a heavy consumption day) and allowing it time to reset is a better approach than keeping it working hard after a cheat day.
Allowing 12 hours as a minimum and then 16 – 18 hours after the last meal of your cheat day should be enough time for your digestive system to recover and be ready for food again. From this point, you should then consume your regular diet as normal.
A complete fast will throw your body out of routine and make it deal with extremes but an intermittent fast will allow you enough time for digestive recovery whilst also ensuring you stay consistent with your regular eating routine which is crucial for progress and physiological consistency.
Fasting Before Cheat Day
The one exception I’d make to the above is fasting before a cheat day could definitely be a better approach to take because it will make your body more sensitive to the calorie intake and ensure it better utilizes the calories that you’ll consume.
Your blood glucose and glycogen levels will drop following a fast and make you much more sensitive to utilizing the excess calories from a cheat day rather than risking the possibility that they will instead be used for fat storage.
Again, it’s not quite as simple as that as the body is a complex organism but if you are looking for a way to implement fasting around a cheat meal, the day before is a good option to take and it will minimize some of the digestive and hormonal issues that can follow a cheat day.
What You Can Do Instead of Fasting After a Cheat Day
I’ll try to keep this simple and actionable. Our bodies don’t necessarily work on a daily basis with 24 hours being the cutoff point. If you need to consume 1,800kcals per day but only manage 1,700kcals by midnight, the timer doesn’t marginally start again.
Just as an example, our full digestive system from consuming food to absorbing the nutrients and minerals to disposing of it can take up to 36 hours. There is a range of other body processes from repairing muscle tissue to changing energy demands daily which means your day to day actions are not necessarily the most important aspect when dieting.
Just to be clear though, daily routine and accountability are what will help you produce results in the long run and I highly recommend following a daily routine as it helps immensely when dieting. My more specific point is that instead of being so concerned about our daily calorie intake, we should be focusing on the weekly.
Your weight will fluctuate and change daily and any trainer on the planet will tell you that you should make a note of your daily weight (fasted) but track your average across the week. If one week your average weight for the 7 days is 185lbs and the next week your average is 184lbs, you’ve lost weight.
Averages are more important than daily fluctuations for tracking and achieving a goal and the same approach should be applied to dieting which is where my simple equation comes in handy for cheat days specifically.
Let’s say you’ve used a TDEE calculator and in order to lose weight you need to consume a calorie deficit of 200kcals giving you a daily total of 1,900kcals. The first thing you should do is convert that to a weekly target so 1900*7 = 13,300kcals per week.
Immediately, you know that as long as you hit the 13,300kcals across the week, you should lose weight. This isn’t theory or a dieting “hack”, it’s simply another way of viewing your calorie intake rather than daily.
Rather than worrying about the effect of a cheat day the next day, the easiest thing to do is account for it from the beginning. If you know on a cheat day you’ll consume 3,000kcals, that will leave you with 10,300kcal for you to consume over the other 6 days (13,300kcal – 3,00kcals).
This means that you just need to consume 1,716kcals per day and you will still hit your weekly target. Going from one extreme (a cheat day) to another (fasting) is not a sustainable diet approach and when you plan for a cheat day using the numbers, you’ll find it easier both mentally as well as from a manageable viewpoint.
Fasting after a cheat day can be a difficult thing to accomplish for most people and provided you have not binged too much on a cheat day, it might simply not be necessary.
Fasting before a cheat day is a good approach to take as it will prime you for utilizing the excess calories and intermittent fasting the day after a cheat day will give your body time to stabilize after the cheat day with going to the other extreme of fasting.
The best approach, however, is to keep the 6 days around a cheat day consistent in terms of calories, account for cheat day calories in your weekly intake to still allow for a deficit across the week, and if possible, just opt for a cheat meal or two rather than a full cheat day for optimal results.
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