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Are Cheat Days a Good Idea?

Updated on 27. Dec. 2018
Could this doughnut derail you weight loss?
Could this doughnut derail you weight loss?

How do you keep up with your diet? Are cheat days a good idea? Or are they a quagmire that will halt your progress and suck you into their vortex of empty calorie consumption?

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You are on a new diet and determined to make it work this time. The first week is a breeze. You are eating colorful fruits and vegetables and feeling good, but then a co-worker has a birthday and you just have to try a piece of the homemade cake someone brought in. One piece of cake leads to another and soon you find your diet completely derailed.

The idea of a cheat day is floating around the internet with all of the other supposed helpful hints and tips for successful dieting. Most dieting experts do not condone the idea of a cheat day as it can derail the progress of a successful week of dieting.1 However, many support the idea of a cheat meal.

One of the potential benefits of allowing yourself a cheat meal is the idea of positive inducement. Often when dieting, you may feel like you are simply depriving yourself of all the enjoyment associated with food. It can feel like a chore, rather than a choice. Having one meal each week where you loosen the restrictions of your diet can stave off these feelings of deprivation and reduce the guilt associated with straying from your diet.2 Psychologically, a cheat meal can make your diet seem more feasible in the long run.3

Unfortunately, a cheat meal can easily turn into a cheat day or can trigger a junk food binge.4 What are some ways you can make sure that this does not happen to you?

First, figure out what kind of eater you are. Are you prone to bingeing? Or will a little bit of a fun treat satisfy you?

You may find that a small indulgence each day is better for you than an entire meal. You could try a glass of wine with dinner or some other small treat like a post-meal square of chocolate.5 However, for some of us, that just will not satisfy. You may find that a cheat meal where you can allow yourself to indulge a bit is the best option for you.

It is important to schedule your cheat meal so that you can plan ahead.6 If you know you are going out to dinner for a friend’s birthday, make this your cheat meal for the week so that you can enjoy yourself without feeling guilty. It may also be beneficial for you to schedule a regular cheat meal day. This regularity will help to keep your diet consistent and on track during the rest of the week. Some diet experts suggest having a cheat meal on Sunday. Eating a cheat meal earlier in the weekend may lead to a whole weekend of cheating.

Your cheat meal is not a license to binge. Moderation is still the key. Eat until you are satisfied, not until you are stuffed. Keep your portion sizes reasonable and do not go back for seconds!7 Finally, make sure that your cheat meal does not exceed 1,500 calories! Any caloric intake exceeding this means that you are more than likely overeating.8 Most restaurant meals average around 1,000 calories.9 Eating one meal out per week will not derail your progress, but consistently eating out will.

Try eating your cheat meal after you work out. Your body needs to replace the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats lost during exercise and this will be the optimal time for your body to make the most use of additional calories.10 It is important not to overeat your workout. In order to lose weight, you need a caloric deficit.11 If you take in more calories than you spent, you will not lose weight.

You may find yourself feeling ill after a cheat meal or snack.12 This means your body is adjusting to the lean and clean food you have been eating throughout the week. This pain is a positive sign! But it does not mean it should be repeated. You may find that certain foods trigger a negative reaction in your body and the ill-feeling is your body telling you that this food is hurting, not helping! Listen to your body and avoid foods that set off a negative reaction.

Research shows that sugar has addictive properties and as you eliminate sugar from your diet, you will crave it less.13 In order to avoid reawakening these cravings, especially for those of you with a nasty sweet tooth, you will want to avoid a sugary cheat snack or meal.

If you are new to a diet, wait to introduce the cheat meal or snack. Give yourself at least 3 months on the new diet.14 Your body needs the time to adjust itself and cheating early on in your diet can derail this process.

Make sure that you have someone to keep you accountable during your diet.15 Inform them of your planned cheat meal or snack. Having someone who knows your dieting goals and strategies can be both an encouragement and source of accountability.

Dieting may not necessarily be the best way to help you lose weight or manage your current weight. Instead of turning to a strict diet, you may find it more beneficial to introduce mindfulness when eating.16 The idea of a diet can be rather daunting whereas setting goals for yourself to increase the mindfulness of your diet can seem less scary. One way to introduce eating mindfulness is to commit to making each meal as colorful as possible, incorporating many different kinds of fruits and vegetables and eating rich leafy greens.

One idea proposed by nutrition experts is the 90/10 rule. They suggest that 90 percent of your diet focuses on healthy foods and 10 percent of your diet allows for some indulgence.17 This leaves room for you to choose what you can indulge in and when.

Indulging does not have to mean loads of carbs, sugar, and fats. Try this EatSmarter recipe for Mango Sorbet or this EatSmarter recipe for Whole-grain Blackberry Crumble.

No matter what kind of eating plan you choose to follow, remember that your body needs proteins, fats, and carbohydrates for fuel.18 The most important thing you can do is to fuel your body with the highest quality food, not empty calories.

As a last note, the concept of a cheat meal is built on the idea of positive incentive. This positive incentive does not need to come in food form.19 Perhaps it is better for you to allow yourself a new pair of shoes when you hit a certain weight goal. Do you enjoy going to the movies? You could plan a day to the movies each week to reward yourself. Brainstorm things you enjoy doing. Any of these things can be turned into a positive incentive. However, it is important to hold yourself accountable.

If you like baking and want to turn your cheat snack or meal into a baking fiesta, check out this cookbook by Genevieve Ko. She works hard to replace white sugars and flours with their more wholesome counterparts, making it possible for you to indulge without going too far off track.



1. Justin Caba, "The 90/10 Rule: Cheat Meals Actually Boost Your Metabolism and Help You Lose Weight," Medical Daily, IBT Media Inc., 27 Mar. 2015, Web.

2. Gabrielle Maston, "Cheat Meals: Yes or No?" Fitness First Mag, Fitness First Magazine, 06 Apr. 2016, Web.

3. Caba, "The 90/10 Rule: Cheat Meals Actually Boost Your Metabolism and Help You Lose Weight."

4. Maston, "Cheat Meals: Yes or No?"

5. Christine Skopec, "Why a Weekly Cheat Meal Is the Key to Dieting Success," The Cheat Sheet, Health & Fitness CheatSheet, 30 Aug. 2016, Web

6. Adam Wynn, "The Art and Science of "Cheat Meals"" LIVESTRONG.COM, LIVESTRONG.COM, 19 Feb. 2016, Web

7. Ibid. 

8. Skopec, "Why a Weekly Cheat Meal Is the Key to Dieting Success."

9. Rachael Schultz, "How Many Cheat Meals Should You Have Per Week?" Fitness Magazine, Meredith Corporation, n.d., Web

10. Caba, "The 90/10 Rule: Cheat Meals Actually Boost Your Metabolism and Help You Lose Weight."

11. Wynn, "The Art and Science of "Cheat Meals""

12. Maston, "Cheat Meals: Yes or No?"

13. Erin Coleman, "The Importance of Having One Cheat Day When Dieting," FitDay, FitDay, n.d., Web.; SH. Ahmed, K. Guillem, and Y. Vandaele, "Sugar Addiction: Pushing the Drug-sugar Analogy to the Limit," National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2013, Web.

14. Wynn, "The Art and Science of "Cheat Meals""

15. Casey Gueren, "How Does Having Regular Cheat Days Affect Weight Loss?" Women's Health, Rodale, Inc., 13 Nov. 2013, Web

16. Maston, "Cheat Meals: Yes or No?"

17. Caba, "The 90/10 Rule: Cheat Meals Actually Boost Your Metabolism and Help You Lose Weight.";  Wynn, "The Art and Science of "Cheat Meals""

18. Caba, "The 90/10 Rule: Cheat Meals Actually Boost Your Metabolism and Help You Lose Weight."

19. Coleman, "The Importance of Having One Cheat Day When Dieting."

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