Trying to lose weight? A cheat day a week could help diet, study suggests

A young girl takes part in a cake eating contest during the Fourth of July festivities at the Baumholder U.S. military base on July 4, 2012 in Baumholder, Germany. Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

You’re dreaming about donuts, cheeseburgers and pizza while you’re following your strict diet. Take a cheat day, scientists say in a new study. As long as it’s planned, a one-day indulgence will help you stick to your long-term weight loss goals, they suggest.

Dutch researchers out of Tilburg University called the cheat day a “planned hedonic deviation.” Based on their findings, letting loose once is enough to keep your self-control intact for the rest of your week.

It was a small study: the scientists worked with 59 students who had to “role play” with two different diets. Half the group followed a traditional route that had them eating 1,500 calories a day while the other half followed an “intermittent diet,” in which they had to restrict their intake to 1,300 calories six days a week, then splurge on the seventh day where they could eat 2,700 calories.

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The students had to make up what they’d eat for the week and answer questions about how much self-control they’d have left by the time Saturday rolled around. Ultimately, the group with the imaginary cheat day fared better with self-control as the week wore on.

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In a second experiment, 36 volunteers had to take on the diet, log their eating in a food diary and go into the lab for weighing. This time around, the group with the cheat day were better at managing self-control and temptation knowing they had an indulgence at the end of the week. They even reported high rates of motivation and found more focus.

In the end, they lost just as much weight as those on the traditional diet.

In a third test, 64 people were surveyed about reaching goals, whether they related to weight loss, money or giving up a vice. One path was all about committing without straying from the plan while the other had planned breaks throughout.

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Those surveyed said the second plan seemed much more feasible and helpful.

“This reveals that it may be beneficial for long-term goal-success to occasionally be bad, as long as it is planned,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Their findings build on plenty of research on the merits of intermittent fasting when it comes to weight loss.

Dr. Krista Varady, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor, for example, has been studying intermittent diets and cheat days for years.

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In short-term studies, she learned that those who fast for a day don’t binge the next day at all. At most, they’d eat about 10 to 15 per cent more calories once they broke their day-long fasts. Despite a slight increase, the calorie reduction was still enough to see weight loss.

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It didn’t matter if volunteers were on high-fat or low-fat diets, too. Another study of hers revealed that those on a high-fat diet cheated less and lost a bit more weight than their low-fat counterparts.

Read the latest study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.


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