Written and Medically Reviewed by Dr Babar Shahzad, BSc and MBBS on January 14, 2020.
If you’ve spent any time dieting or trying to lose weight, you’ve probably heard about both intermittent fasting and dieting cheat days. Intermittent fasting is popular since it doesn’t restrict what you eat, it only restricts when you eat. Cheat days are more controversial, some people think they are a great way to maintain your commitment to dieting the rest of the time, while others worry that cheating slows progress and can tank your motivation to stick to your diet.
But, can they work together? Can you add a cheat day to your intermittent fast routine and maintain results?
What Does an Intermittent Fasting Cheat Day Look Like?
A classic intermittent fasting cheat day, unlike a dieting cheat day, is less about changing up what kinds of foods you eat (although some combine fasting with a diet program as well) and more about when you eat it.
So, say you restrict eating to 8 hours a day, from 11 am to 7 pm. A cheat day on this program would let you eat before 11 am, giving you a chance to enjoy your favorite breakfast foods, and after 7 pm, so you could get some popcorn during your movie date night at the theater.
Now, the reason intermittent fasting works even for people who don’t make any other changes to their eating habits is that in the limited time frame you’re less likely to consume as many calories as you would during a full day of free eating.
If you were to indulge in one cheat day a week your overall weight loss results would depend on whether you eat more calories that one day than you save the rest of the week by fasting. In other words, the calories you don’t eat the six days you fast must total more than any extra calories you eat on your cheat day.
Sounds pretty easy, right?
Some Things To Consider Before Adding a Cheat Day
Well, there are some other things to consider. For instance, even if you’re using intermittent fasting to combat insulin resistance or other serious metabolic disorders, a cheat day may not hamper your results. However, if you fill your cheat day by eating the kinds of food that contribute to insulin resistance and obesity you may struggle to lose weight.
Even on intermittent fasting cheat days, you should pay attention to what your body is telling you. Eat until you’re full, but not stuffed. If you do add foods you wouldn’t normally eat, think about what it is you really want and will enjoy the most. Sure, a cookie might sound good, but if what you really want is a brownie or a bowl of ice cream you should skip the cookie and go for that instead.
Another thing to keep in mind if you fast most of the time, but add cheat days into your routine, is that you may not always want to eat outside of your normal hours. If your body is used to fasting and doesn’t prompt you to eat you shouldn’t try to force yourself to eat. If you find yourself tempted to eat just because it’s a cheat day as yourself if there is something specific you’re craving.
For instance, if you usually skip breakfast and aren’t hungry the morning of your cheat day, don’t try to make yourself eat breakfast until you are hungry.
But do ask yourself what about breakfast you are craving and enjoy that food when you start to feel hungry again. Eating this way will help maintain your weight loss while still giving you that indulgent cheat day feeling.
Clearing Up a Few Common Questions:
Can You Have a Cheat Day While Intermittent Fasting?
For some, a cheat day isn’t necessary for intermittent fasting because intermittent fasting is more of a lifestyle change than a diet. But if you miss early morning breakfasts and midnight snacks a cheat day can help you manage those cravings without backsliding.
So yes, you can have an intermittent fasting cheat day. Just keep in mind that you should not eat more calories than you save the rest of the week and be careful that you stick to one cheat day at a time, not several in a row.
How Long Should Your Cheat Day Be When Intermittent Fasting?
This is a great question because you can have a lot of flexibility to your cheat days. Some people prefer a cheat day where they can eat whatever they want whenever they want it. Other people only add an hour or two to their normal eating times, long enough to have an extra snack or indulge at a social gathering, but without adding all the calories of a full day.
Ask how long you want it to be. Maybe a full day is a good option. But, if you’re not a breakfast eater it might work just as well to stick to your usual morning routine and only add a couple of hours at night.
Make sure you add enough time to your cheat day to make it feel like something special. Remember that cheat days are, in part, a reward for committing to good habits the rest of the time.
How Often Can You Have A Cheat Day Without Gaining Weight?
Of course, everyone’s body is different, so some people can get away with more cheat days than others and still get results. However, as a general rule of thumb, you should have more days of intermittent fasting than cheat days.
After all, they are called cheat days, they should be a special reward not a regular part of the routine.
Some people do well with a once-a-week cheat day, usually on the weekend. Other people prefer (and get better results from) only having cheat days every other week, once a month, or only on special occasions like birthdays, family gatherings, and holidays.
Having a cheat day here and there won’t disturb your weight loss too much. Ultimately, it’s less about how often you have a cheat day and more about how impactful your cheat day is to your overall routine. Have one often enough to feel good about them without shaking your commitment to your fasting routine the rest of the time.