Following a diet plan is hard, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. Something that keeps many people on track with their diet is by having a short break from it. These short breaks are also known as cheat days.
A cheat day gives you some flexibility in what you eat and allows you to consume some foods that are often off-limits. While they are definitely satisfying at the time, cheat days come with some common downsides.
One of the main ones (and why you’re likely reading this), is that you’ve gained weight after cheat days.
This throws so many people off track with their diet as you feel like you’ve lost all your progress. Therefore, read on as I’ll explain why you’ve gained weight after a cheat day and what you can do to recover from this and prevent it in the future.
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Why You Gained Weight After Cheat Days
Gaining weight on a cheat day is usually caused by water retention and is not necessarily fat gain. Cheat days usually involve consuming foods high in carbohydrates and sodium which leads to more water retention and weight gain as a result. This weight gain is temporary and should be expected.
For most people, you can comfortably lose 2-3 pounds of weight per week and make great progress when dieting. Then, you have a cheat day on Sunday (because you earned it), weigh yourself on Monday, and find you’ve gained 5lbs!
Is all that progress lost? How have you managed to gain so much weight by just having one day off your plan? Fortunately, you’ll be relieved to hear that cheat day weight gain is not necessarily fat gain, the majority will instead be water weight through water retention.
There are three main reasons why you’ve gained weight after a cheat day:
#1 Water Retention
The main reason for weight gain after a cheat day is water retention.
A typical cheat day for 99% of people is going to involve foods that are considered to be “junk foods” or “treats”.
Related – Dirty bulking foods
Your body will retain water as a result of an increased carbohydrate intake and an increased sodium intake.
When you first started a diet, chances are you saw rapid weight loss. The reason for this is you would have initially lost water weight through an increase in exercise combined with a calorie deficit.
Well, after a cheat day the reverse is true and all the extra calories you consumed will have resulted in water retention and a gain in weight. It’s therefore important to note that this isn’t weight from body fat but rather water weight.
The reason you retain water after a day of heavy carbohydrate and sodium consumption is that your body converts carbs into glycogen. Glycogen is used as an energy source but for every 1g of glycogen your body stores you’ll retain up to 3g of water.
Similarly, a high salt (sodium) intake also results in water retention but there isn’t a specific calculation for how much water you retain in proportion to sodium intake.
We’ll cover glycogen weight gain as a separate point shortly but the key takeaway is that the majority of the weight you gain after a cheat day will be water weight as a result of water retention.
#2 Food Not Yet Digested
The second reason for weight gain after a cheat day is because you’ll have significantly more food in your stomach and bowels that still needs to be digested and excreted.
When dieting normally, you’ll be having a calorie deficit each day. For most people, this means that your stomach won’t often be full of food (because you’re not eating enough) and this is typically something that leads to hunger and cravings when cutting.
After a heavy cheat day though, it’s likely you’ve consumed large meals that are not as easy to digest. Burgers, pizza, sweets, ice cream, cereal, fast food, and other cheat day foods are going to be high in calories, carbohydrates, and fats.
The quantity and macronutrients for these foods mean that they are going to sit in your stomach longer while the body breaks them down via digestion and utilizes them – or excretes them.
This food is of course going to weigh something and the following day’s weigh-in will undoubtedly factor in the actual weight of the food you’ve eaten on a cheat day.
#3 Muscle Glycogen Stores
Finally, you’re going to store more water weight as you replenish and even exceed your muscle and liver glycogen stores.
This is very similar to water retention but is a secondary reason for retaining water.
Our muscles hold a certain amount of glycogen and this is a primary energy source used for muscular contractions. I mentioned earlier that for every 1g of carbohydrate that you convert to glycogen, you’ll also retain 3g of water weight.
Therefore, if your typical diet involves consuming 100g of carbs per day, you’ll likely be holding an additional 300g of water weight and therefore your typical water weight in terms of glycogen will be roughly 400g.
Now, cheat day comes and you consume 400g of carbs. This means you’ll hold roughly 1,200g of water weight in addition to this. This is important because when dieting, you’ll likely be engaging in weight training and depleting your muscle glycogen after each session.
At 100g of carbs per day, most people won’t be fully replenishing these stores and you, therefore, use stored body fat as a secondary fuel source when training. This is one of the main reasons why low-carb diets work.
Instead of using stored glycogen for energy, your body is forced to tap into fat stores because there simply isn’t enough muscle glycogen available to fuel a workout.
A heavy cheat day will therefore result in topping up these muscle glycogen stores.
The human body can store up to 350g – 500g of glycogen so if you’re replenishing these glycogen stores with the addition of the water retention needed, it becomes easier to see where the weight gain from a cheat day could be coming from.
How Long Does It Take To Lose Cheat Day Weight Gain
As most of the weight that you gain from a cheat day will be water weight, this is going to be temporarily held weight. This means that if you get straight back onto your regular diet and training plan, you’ll come back down to your baseline body weight.
By having a calorie deficit following a cheat day, you’ll give your body time to digest the surplus calories from a cheat day. When you combine this with a workout routine and consistent calorie deficit, you will lose cheat day water weight after 2-3 days. This will depend on how large of a calorie surplus you consumed on a cheat day though.
A common strategy people use to quickly lose cheat day weight is fasting after a cheat day. Here, you restrict your calories the following day in order to utilize the excess calories that you consumed on a cheat day.
This is a beneficial strategy and could mean that you lose the cheat day weight after 2-3 days while your body adapts back to its baseline weight.
As a general rule, allow for 1 pound of weight loss per day following a cheat day. Therefore, if you gained 5 pounds of water weight on a cheat day, it may take 5 days to lose this weight.
How to Lose Cheat Day Weight
The most effective way to lose cheat day weight is to not be reactive. The best way to lose cheat day weight is to follow your usual plan.
This means that the day after a cheat day you should resume your normal diet and training plan without making any drastic changes.
As you’ll likely be in a calorie deficit, this demand on the body combined with weight training and cardio sessions will ensure that you drop any water weight that you gained.
This is definitely a psychological aspect as it’s difficult to see the scale go up after a cheat day, especially if you’ve been working so hard to lose weight in the first place. The effects of a cheat day are temporary though.
Water retention, bloating, and increased glycogen stores will all be reduced once you start following your regular fat loss routine.
For a more detailed explanation of losing cheat day weight, check out our full guide – How to recover from a cheat day
How to Minimize Cheat Day Weight Gain
The first thing you need to do to minimize cheat day weight gain is to plan for the cheat day. Firstly, you want to roughly estimate (or calculate exactly) how many extra calories you plan to have on a cheat day.
If you think you’ll have a 1,200 calorie surplus on this day, a good idea would be to balance this out during the week. This means having an additional 200kcal deficit each day.
** This additional deficit must be in addition to your usual deficit. If you typically have a 200kcal deficit each day and consume 2,200 calories, for your week leading up to a cheat day you should now have 2,000 calories each day.
This additional deficit will ensure that your weekly calorie intake is still in a deficit. This will provide a negative energy balance and ensure that you are still staying in a fat-burning state.
If you struggle to balance out the deficit leading up to a cheat day, make sure you still account for the calories you consume and then use the following week to carry on a deficit.
The goal of managing a cheat day is to ensure the additional calories you consume don’t put you into a surplus over a two-week period.
As mentioned above, you could also fast after a cheat day to try and combat some of the effects, and the best way to combat this is to get back on your usual routine.
Cheat Day Weight Gain FAQ
Should You Weigh Yourself After a Cheat Day
You should weigh yourself after a cheat day as you still need to track weight fluctuations on a weekly basis. Weight will fluctuate from day to day but during a fat loss phase, you need to track your weekly average.
A weekly average will account for day-to-day fluctuations in weight but show whether or not you are losing weight overall. Therefore, expect some weight gain following a cheat day but still make sure you weigh yourself after a cheat day and log your weight.
Will One Cheat Day Make You Gain Weight
One cheat day will make you gain weight. The severity of the weight gain will depend entirely on what you eat and how much of it you eat though.
A 2,000 calorie surplus coming from foods high in carbs, fat, and sodium will see that you retain a significant amount of water weight as a result. As these are the most common types of food that people consume on a cheat day, it’s highly likely that weight gain from a cheat day is unavoidable.
Will You Gain Body Fat From a Cheat Day
Depending on how extreme you take a cheat day, there is a possibility that you could gain body fat as a result. There are a lot of factors that will influence this but the most basic analysis would suggest that some fat gain can be expected for a cheat day with a significant surplus in calories.
This is because a basic calorie rule is for every 3,500 calories you consume as a surplus, you’ll gain 1 pound of body fat.
Therefore, if you have a very heavy cheat day and essentially binge, the closer you get to this number of 3,500 calories (as a surplus, not daily total), the more likely it is that you’ll gain body fat.
Trying to lose weight is not easy. After a sustained cutting period, it becomes more difficult to stick to a diet, and cheat days are often used to give you both a mental and physiological break from a consistent calorie deficit.
A well-planned cheat day can help you get cravings out of your system, kickstart your metabolism, replenish glycogen stores, and most importantly help you stick to a diet for the long term. The issue, however, is that many people experienced weight gain after cheat days.
It’s not uncommon to gain 2-3 pounds of body weight after a cheat day but it’s important to note that this isn’t fat gain. Most cheat day weight is caused by water retention and undigested food.
Therefore, the weight gained from cheat days is temporary, and provided you get back on plan the next day, you should still be able to continue your fat loss phase successfully and without setback.