Weight loss: The pros and cons of “splurge days”

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Yesterday I ate too much, and today I can still feel it.  I don’t think I really enjoyed what I felt after we had our large pizza and the cheesecake dessert we brought back from our “foraging” trip later in the afternoon.  And this brings up an interesting topic — the idea of giving yourself a “splurge day” every week as part of your weight loss plan.  There are pros and cons to doing this.

Pros of having a splurge day

The basic idea is that if you are working on a diet plan as part of a weight loss effort, that you may sometimes find it easier to maintain your plan if it doesn’t mean you’ve got to give up your favorite foods for the rest of your life.  You like chocolate cake, you miss chocolate cake, you don’t think you can possibly do without chocolate cake forever… so you tell yourself that you’ll have it, if you can only hold out until Sunday.

There are some good scientific theories behind “splurge days.”  

  • Limits of self-control.  Some psychological researchers suggest that there are limits to our abilities to deprive ourselves.  Their research suggests that self-control seems to operate like the batteries in your laptop or cell phone: eventually you need to recharge them.  The thinking is that if we try too hard to deprive ourselves or control our behavior in too many areas, or sacrifice for too long, we may actually weaken our ability to control ourselves.  So the theory goes that if once a week you splurge, it’s like a much-needed rest period. 
  • Avoids “starvation mode.” This is based on the medical research suggesting that our bodies have built-in “famine detector” systems that react to prolonged caloric reduction by going into an energy-saving mode. In other words, if you cut back your calories constantly, you find that you’re less able to burn off fat.  The bod says “no.  Un uh.  I need this fat.”  So a day of splurging is a way of keeping the body’s famine detection system off guard…. so you can keep losing weight.  You eat a few extra cookies on Sunday and on Wednesday you may find you’ve lost more weight than you would have if you’d skipped the cookies.  (This only works occasionally, of course — cookies every day doesn’t have the same effect.)

Cons of having a splurge day

  • How it feels.  Sometimes your splurges may just not feel all that good.  When you generally eat a lot of heavy foods, sugary foods or whatnot, you may feel less good than you might feel if you ate healthier instead of splurging.  And the more you are used to healthier eating, the more you’ll notice the effects of your once-weekly splurge.  I think this was part of my feeling yesterday: despite looking forward to a pig-out meal and a great dessert, the fact is I didn’t feel all that great after I ate.  I used to eat like that daily; now I seldom do.  So I felt stuffed and frankly, got kind of sick of eating the pizza and dessert we’d bought.  Ick.  
  • Health effects.  Being diabetic, I have to plan carefully and adjust my meds if I am to eat a lot of carbs or sweet desserts or the like.  High blood sugar means having that “sleepy stupid” feeling that other folks mainly associate with the after-Thanksgiving feast.  It’s not healthy, though.  And even if your health is generally great, a pig-out meal stresses your bod anyway.
  • Psychology.  I mean, here we are, working not just to “get thin” for a few weeks, but trying to modify our general sense of ourselves.  Part of your sense of “self” is the stuff you do, the stuff you say, the stuff you think.  As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “you are who you pretend to be.”  So if I want to be a thin, healthy, athletic guy (my mantra), what is that guy doing eating like that?  

What to do?

I think the upshot of this is that like most weight-related issues, there are complex, one-size-fits-one answers here. My current thinking, for me, works like this:

  • Having a splurge day is fine, but I’ll try to have a balanced, more reasonable approach to it.  It’s fine, for instance, to make that a “splurge meal” instead of a whole day.  A big brunch or nice dinner should suffice, instead of following an “anything goes and eat like you’ll never see food again” strategy. 
  • Even at that, using some portion control and picking healthier treats is generally better, though I won’t lose sleep over it if I am not “perfect.”
  • Trying to get some exercise on splurge day is probably a good idea.  It happened that I also was on my “no gym” day (which is usually Sunday).  But a walk in the woods would have been good to have had.
  • Getting single-servings of things would be better than buying larger quantities.  Neither my wife nor I really want big slabs of pizza and slices of cheesecake during the week, but we bought a large pizza and a couple of cheesecake desserts that are now sitting in the fridge.  (Actually, we didn’t realize we’d have as much left over as we do.)  It’s hard not to eat that stuff later in the week, ya know?
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13 comments so far

  1. Craig on

    Just giving my experience.

    I do not have a weight problem, but do go into 6 on, one off dieting when training or trying to get a bit fitter. The benefits of a cheat day are enormous. Saying “no thank you” to all the delicious naughty food for 6 days is rewarded with a guilt-free feast on day 7.

    Yes, I too have had the bloated “what did I just do” feeling, but I think this eases off as your body becomes more attuned to the diet mode way of eating. As your habits change on the 6, it will influence the way you splurge on the 1. After about 5 weeks, you I develop a desire to slow down or cut shorter the splurge day.

    I wish you the best of luck, and recommend involving your doctor in this process if you haven’t already done so.

  2. [...] 5) Eat whatever the hell you want one day a week – Body For Life recommends it, Tim Ferriss (the man) recommends it, jury’s still out for me, so I’ll leave this one up for discussion.  Your stomach will recommend it too.  Pick one day a week, and eat whatever the hell you want: Twinkies, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Taco Bell, donuts, whatever.    If you want to eat an entire family size pag of peanut M & M’s…okay that might be too much.  When you eat all this crappy food, your metabolism will have to work extra hard because it’s used to getting 6 good meals a day.  All of a sudden you throw a Domino’s bread bowl at it and it doesn’t know WHAT to do, so it works overtime.  The next morning, when you go back to eating healthy, your metabolism will KEEP working overtime and you’ll burn more calories.  Woot.  During the week, when you see that two week old birthday cake sitting in the company fridge, you can tell yourself “not til saturday.”  Plus, once you start eating healthy, you can use this One Day a week to reward yourself for being good..and eventually the food that used to be so appealing to you (and so terrible for you) might not seem so great.  This one is probably more of a mental edge than physiological, but I think it works for lots of people.  This one is up to you.  If you just want to go all out and stay dedicated for the whole week, more power to ya.  Here’s a great article laying out the pros and cons. [...]

    • gregkorgeski on

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve actually been intrigued by the Body for Life and Ferris stuff on this, though I tend to be a bit cautious about relying too much on those kinds of “experts.” I think we were reading Ferris just before deciding to try that — he also suggests a very low carb diet that mostly seems pretty sound, if you can do it. My rule of thumb is if the science seems to fit with the popularizers who promise lots of amazing results, that’s a good thing to try, but you need to see at least some decent science there, too. The old “if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t” rule.

  3. Steve on

    Great article, I think it’s important to even eat in moderation on your ‘one day to let loose.’ I actually linked to your blog in mine today because I discuss the same subject!

    -Steve

    • gregkorgeski on

      Thanks, Steve.
      Greg

  4. kookie on

    I agree with Steve. I eat whatever I want for one meal (rather than a whole day) per week, but even that is not a ‘go crazy’ type of meal. It usually ends up being a big hamburger with fries and a beer (with maybe a frozen yogurt for dessert)…which isn’t that terrible (is it?).

    I know that if I ate Twinkies, and Doritos and candy and all the things I used to eat when I was fat, I’d be so sick I wouldn’t be able to move the next day…just not worth it.

    • gregkorgeski on

      I’m tilting that way too. Thanks, k.

  5. cwcomment on

    This is always a tough call. I just read a great little book that has some good tips in it- The Power of Small (Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval). It has tons of interesting life tips, but for my diet it made me realize I had not focus on how much weight I wanted to lose, but take a moment when I think about each meal I make a conscious choice to eat well. Taking it one step at the time helps me avoid the need for a splurge day!

    • gregkorgeski on

      Would like to hear more about how that works. Sounds similar to some other ideas I’ve heard. Thanks! G

  6. gregkorgeski on

    Don’t see your post. The spam filters pull stuff that may look like ads — I get what seem to be an endless list, page after page, of “comments” that are really just ads. Sorry if a real reply comment got lost in there. Feel free to repost and I appreciate it. G

  7. trangcongnghecao102.com on

    What’s up to all, it’s truly a pleasant for me to visit this web site, it consists of helpful
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    • Greg Korgeski on

      Thank you! Glad you enjoy it and find it helpful! Greg

  8. Emily on

    I think splurge days are good because sometimes we just need those sweets/salty treats to remind us that we are actually not missing out on much and dread the feeling after splurging ultimately getting rid of those cravings. Also it keeps your body constantly digesting which means metabolic rate goes up and aids in weight loss once you get back to your normal eating but I don’t recommend splurging all the time that is definitely not good!


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