Fitness advice: Why building a "cheat day" into your regime could be bad news for your waistline

Harry Thomas
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If you’re one of the millions of people trying unsuccessfully to lose fat, your problem could boil down to two little words: cheat day. A “cheat day”, or “cheat meal” as it’s sometimes called, is where people on a training program allow themselves a period where they can eat whatever they want.

Being healthy all week takes some discipline and people rightly want to reward themselves – I often hear clients say it gives them something to look forward to, a reason to struggle through some gruelling sessions.

But if you’re piling on calories quicker than you’re burning them off, the only person you’re cheating is yourself. Instead you need to ask yourself why a meal is a cheat – and what can you do to integrate the enjoyment you get from certain foods into a successful fitness regime.

My advice on overcoming this is simple and intuitive, and yet because we’ve all been fed myths about our diet our whole lives, it somehow sounds radical. We need to forget the common excuses people trot out for retaining weight. I hear all the time people saying things like “I have a slow metabolism” (on the contrary, scientists have found that thinner people often have a lower resting metabolism), or “It’s harder to lose weight the older I get”, or, my personal favourite, “I travel all the time, so eating at the wrong times of the day really affects me.”

These are all wrong. The only problem (in otherwise healthy individuals) is that you’re eating more calories than you’re burning. So the only thing that needs to happen to lose weight is to create a big enough calorie deficit – it doesn’t matter if you’re eating those calories at 3am on a Tuesday morning or drinking them on a Friday night.

Understanding this can be incredibly freeing – you are in control of your calorie intake, therefore you are in control of your weight loss (or gain). The ball is in your court – now you just need to understand what you’re eating.

A widely espoused rule is that a pound of fat is equivalent of 3,500 calories. So, in theory, to lose a pound of fat each week, you would need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories a week. That’s 500 calories a day. Now, these figures have been questioned, but the principle behind them remains the same: to achieve a deficit, you need to either eat fewer calories, burn more calories, or both.

We get all our clients to download MyFitnessPal, an app that allows you to calculate how much you’re consuming each day. I wouldn’t ask people to do it every day of their lives, but try it out for a week to give you a good idea of what you’re consuming. When you go out drinking or eat lots of chocolate, have a look at how many calories that involves; if you want to lose weight, you will now need to try and create a deficit somewhere else.

So if you don’t think you can give up chocolate or alcohol, you can still lose weight, but only if you reduce the calories somewhere else. If you keep your regime the same and have a cheat day, then you’re going to blow your calorie target. There’s no point cutting out alcohol, sweets and bread for six days a week if you pile it all back on over Sunday lunch.

So-called “healthy” snacks are also a big problem. I’ve had plenty of clients who don’t ever eat junk food but still can’t lose weight. The problem still lies with over-consuming calories. Things like olive oil, nuts, avocado, Greek yoghurt and hummus are all great for you in small doses, but they are also very calorific. If you binge on these foods, you won’t lose weight any more than if you binge on McDonald’s hamburgers.

Tips for saving Calories
• Did you know lattes and cappuccinos are 200-plus calories? A black coffee is only 80.

• Salad dressings are usually not recorded on the back of the packs and can easily put another 200 calories onto your lunch.

• Eating fish instead of meat will reduce up to 400 calories in some meals. A fillet of fish over a 300g steak can cut back on the amount you are eating but keep you feeling satisfied.

• Fizzy drinks have lots of calories. Always go the diet option, which usually have zero calories.

• Although not for everyone, morning fasting can be great tactic to help reduce calories. If you can aim to get to at least midday before eating you will create a nice deficit, which doesn’t seem to affect energy levels too much. I used to love breakfast but now regularly skip it when I’m leaning up.

• Get more sleep. The clients here at No1 who seem to struggle sleeping often comment on being hungrier, which in result means eating more.

When it comes to losing fat or weight, remember that there is no cheating, there is just being accountable for what you eat. If you do fancy a big bowl of macaroni cheese, just take a note of it and make sure you make up the calories somewhere else that week.

Harry is a personal trainer and co-owner of No.1 Fitness, with gyms in the City and Tower Bridge. To book a session visit or call 020 7621 1312

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