Not everyone may be a fan of “cheat days” in diets, but new research from Australia suggests that these breaks from the usual diet regimen could help people lose more weight, and keep it off for a longer period of time.
Although cheat days are oftentimes included in diet plans on weekends, there has been some debate as to whether they really help people lose weight. As noted by the HuffPost, those who are in favor of cheat days believe that they give people the “mental stamina” and motivation to follow the stricter rules of their diet on regular days. But there are other sources, such as Healthline, which believe that cheat days in diets do more harm than good, mainly because they make it hard for people to fully adapt to a healthier eating regimen, and make people slide back into their unhealthy eating habits, due to the perceived addictiveness of junk food.
As it seems, cheat days are mostly justified in a psychological way. But the new study from the University of Tasmania in Australia suggests that there are also biological reasons why people need to have some cheat days in their diet. Lead researcher Nuala Byrne wrote that having breaks in one’s diet helps counter “adaptive thermogenesis,” a phenomenon where people feel as if they are starving due to the strict restriction on caloric intake.
Metabolism slows down during adaptive thermogenesis, as resting caloric requirements become lower as a person loses more pounds, adjusting to their new weight and body composition. This could last for years after a person loses their body fat, and due to the whole phenomenon, it becomes progressively harder for people to lose weight or maintain a healthy body weight, and progressively easier for them to gain the pounds back.
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In order to test her theory, Byrne enlisted 51 obese men with sedentary lifestyles, and divided them into two groups — an intermittent dieting group, and a control group. Those in the control group were asked over the course of 16 weeks to consume only two-thirds of the calories required for them to maintain their body weight, while the intermittent dieters were given the same amount of calories, albeit in two-week intervals.
During the cheat days in their diets, which lasted 14 weeks combined per person, the men in the intermittent dieting group ate the full amount of calories they needed to sustain their new weights. Likewise, they got the same 16 “diet weeks” the controls had received, meaning they were “cheating” on their diets slightly less than 50 percent of the time.
Based on the researchers’ findings, the men in the intermittent dieting group lost more weight and more fat mass than the men who didn’t cheat on their diet for a full 16 weeks. Specifically, the intermittent dieters lost 31 pounds on average, with 27 of those pounds being fat, while the control group dieters lost an average of 20 pounds of body weight and 18 pounds of fat. The intermittent dieters were also able to keep the pounds off in the months that followed the study, having lost an average of 18 pounds more than their control counterparts.
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According to Byrne, it all boils down to rebalancing one’s caloric needs after initially losing some weight, in order to reduce the effect of the adaptive thermogenesis phenomenon. And while the cheat days helped the dieters lose weight, per the study results, there are still a few unanswered questions that need to be addressed as Byrne and her college fine-tune their approach.
“We certainly think that part of the solution, or part of the reason this diet is working, is because of the rest periods. And we’re interested to understand the biology a bit further to maybe refine the approach and get greater results into the future.”
Georgia State University Center for Obesity Reversal assistant biology professor Aaron Roseberry was not involved in the study, but commented that Byrne’s research is, at the very least, quite promising, if with a few caveats. Speaking to the HuffPost, he said that only 36 of the 51 men completed the study, which means the study will need to be replicated in larger groups. And while some might use the convincing findings as an excuse to eat anything they please while on a diet break, Roseberry added that the men in the intermittent dieting group did not return to their old eating habits during their cheat days – instead, their diets were still regulated in accordance to their adjusted, post-weight loss caloric needs.
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