Cheaters may never win. But they might lose weight, as long as the cheating is planned and occasional, according to a new study.
Researchers examined 60 students in a simulated diet environment and 30 people dieting in real life. They found that those who planned ahead to treat themselves to guilty pleasures had more control over impulses to give in and indulge, and were more motivated to stay on track toward achieving their long-term goals.
“These results indicate the value of a well-planned weight loss strategy, as opposed to just trying to resist giving in, day-to-day, hour-to-hour,” says Dr. Howard McNair, a family medicine physician on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. “Knowing you have a planned cheat day in the near future can make it much easier to resist temptation as it occurs.”
In one test of the study, some of the student participants were told they could eat 1,500 calories a day for a week, while others were told they could consume 1,300 calories a day, except for the seventh day, on which they could eat up to 2,700 calories. After planning out all their meals for a week, they were asked to imagine scenarios like grocery shopping after a long day and come up with strategies to fight off the temptation of chocolate snacks.
During this process, an open box of chocolates was left on students’ desks. The participants’ self-control was evaluated before and after each task, finding the students who had been told they could binge one day had stronger self-control and came up with strategies to help them overcome the lure of the sweets.
In a second test included in the study, more than 30 volunteers followed and documented a two-week diet, then came back in for a follow-up assessment a month later. Again, some participants were told they could eat 1,500 calories a day, and others were told they could eat less on most days, but have whatever they liked on the seventh, cheat day.
The second, planned cheat group showed more motivation at the end of the diet compared to the control group. The first group showed decreases in their ability to self-regulate by the end, while the planned cheaters felt more positive about the diet at the end of the study.
“Here is more evidence that a systematic, evidence-based weight loss plan is going to be more effective, over the long run, than fad or short-term dieting,” says Dr. McNair. “There are a few key components to dieting including smart shopping, realistic goals and exercise. And planned cheat days look like they need to be added to any successful weight loss strategy.”
But Dr. McNair warns that the positive effects of the cheat days won’t be realized if the rest of the plan isn’t followed.
“As long as the person stays on track with the planned diet during the week, cheat days are fine,” he says. “But staying disciplined with the weekly routine and setting attainable goals is a must.”