Do cheat meals help or hurt? Learn how to cultivate a healthy relationship with food so you don't cheat yourself.
It's common to struggle with cravings or indulgences when working toward health and fitness goals. Many people attempt an all-or-nothing approach to losing weight or enhancing their physical fitness, opting to completely eliminate what they consider to be "bad foods" and exercising excessively.
Although some people can sustain these significant lifestyle changes, most of us thrive with less dietary restriction, room for freedom, and less polarized thinking. In this article, we'll discuss cheat days, types of cheat meals, and whether this concept is effective.
Most important: We’ll show you how to navigate this concept and give you pointers for cultivating a healthy relationship with food and fitness.
Cheat days or meals refer to scheduled periods where people who are dieting can indulge in the foods they've been craving throughout the week.
For some people, a cheat meal is an unscheduled dinner out with friends during the week. Others who are dieting may assign an entire day to "cheating" on their diet, such as planning to eat junk food on Sundays.
Cheat days and meals can be a successful tool to prevent the feelings of failure or psychological guilt some may feel when they shift course from their scheduled nutrition plan. Instead of feeling like a failure, a prepared cheat meal gives you something to look forward to.
As with anything food-related, it's critical to uncover how cheat days impact your mental health, physical health, and relationship with food.
The answer to whether cheat meals or cheat days work for people to continue losing weight, stick to an 80/20 plan where they eat “clean” 80% of the time, or to maintain a healthy weight and high level of fitness depends entirely on the individual.
That may not be a satisfying answer, but it’s the truth.
For example, if you thrive eating a plant-based diet void of processed foods and low in sugar, but like the occasional “treat” of a blueberry muffin or honey mustard pretzels and can eat that “cheat food” and move on without guilt or spiraling, then cheat meals may work for you.
If you “can’t eat just one” potato chip or cookie without feelings of remorse afterward and the thought that you have to “work it off” by exercising harder and longer, or that you should skip a meal or eat only kale for the next 24 hours to compensate, then cheat meals or days don’t work for you.
When we restrict certain foods, we can end up craving them more. Call it a moth to a flame or the way two magnets come together quickly, but once we tell our brains that something is off-limits, it lures us until we can no longer resist it. One study showed an association between dieting and food cravings<sup>1</sup> and showed that dieters experienced stronger cravings that were harder to resist than non-dieters.
Addiction expert Omar Manejwala, MD, advocates for healing your relationship with food in his book Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough. He suggests that diets that restrict or eliminate foods often fail because they never address the root cause of the issues that lead to weight gain and dieting. Shame contributes to negative feelings about foods, drives cravings, and motivates extreme behaviors.
To decide whether a “cheat meal” or “cheat day” can work for you, answer the following questions honestly:
If you answered yes to question number 2, you can eat and enjoy the cupcake and go about your day.
If you answered yes to any or all of the other questions, you should examine your outlook on food. Make a list of foods and thoughts that trigger feelings of shame. Journal about circumstances, specific people, or events that happened that led you to eat the foods that make you feel shame. Reach out to your doctor, a registered dietitian or nutritionist, psychologist or psychiatrist to work through your food issues.
Leptin, a hormone released by fat cells, helps the body maintain a healthy energy balance.
One study suggests that obese people exhibit high levels of leptin but that their hypothalamus no longer responds normally to this hormone used to suppress appetite or increase energy expenditure. The scientists discovered a signaling pathway they call NSAPP as being required for normal leptin and insulin signaling. Any defects in the NSAPP pathway can explain resistance to the appetite-suppressing effects of leptin. What can trigger a defect in the pathway, according to the researchers? Overeating<sup>2</sup>.
Another study reviewed snacking frequency and palatable food intake—salty, fat-rich foods like French fries and sugar-laden ones like cookies—of 4,774 Swiss adults. They found that higher hedonic hunger (cravings) and lower self-control were associated with higher intake of palatable foods, increased snacking, and more overeating<sup>3</sup>.
Let’s face it: We don’t tend to overeat celery or even apples. Most of us define a “cheat meal” as a let-your-hair-down chance to eat a burger with bun and fries, a sushi meal with gyoza and mochi for dessert, or pepperoni pizza with garlic knots and beer. These hyper-palatable cheat meal foods are what we can crave, and your hedonic hunger drive and less self-control may make you more vulnerable to frequent overeating of the foods that can inhibit the normal functioning of the hormones that regulate your appetite and energy burn.
When planning cheat meals, it's essential to consider your weekly schedule and when it would bring the most enjoyment. Many people choose a weekend day to indulge in a cheat meal or cheat day because these days tend to be less structured.
Dr. Sean Kandel, a board-certified internal medicine doctor, recommends one or two cheat meals per week for healthy individuals. Suppose a person struggles to control their cravings throughout the week. In that case, he suggests swapping cheat meals for extra servings of your go-to healthy foods.
If enjoyed in moderation by people with a healthy, no-shame relationship with food, cheat meals can be a conducive tool to allow you to eat all of the foods you enjoy. How you define a cheat meal or treat is up to you; it can be something small like two squares of chocolate after dinner a few times a week or a glass of wine four times a week. These types of allowances can help you stick to a health-supporting lifestyle that’s sustainable and balanced.
After a cheat meal or a cheat day, there's no reason you can't get right back to your usual routine. The best thing you can do is avoid beating yourself up, feeling guilty, and giving up. A couple of meals is nothing compared to the time you've already invested. Punishing yourself with exercise is not the answer. Simply wake up tomorrow and get back to what works best for you.
If you've gone overboard on your cheat meal or day, you're not alone. It's normal to make mistakes when changing dietary habits and attempting to stick to a healthier way of living. Consider following this easy three-step plan:
This simple meditation will help you tackle your fitness plan moving forward with a clear head. Everyone needs space to reflect and reset at times.
When following the 80/20 Rule, cheat meals can be an effective tool for weight loss if you have a healthy relationship with food.
Planned weekly, biweekly, or monthly, cheat meals can prevent excessive binge eating and urges to abandon the diet entirely. Cheat meals or days can also be scheduled for days when you plan to complete an intense workout or spend time being active outdoors so you can use that extra energy.
Cutting refers to a fat-loss phase of fitness routines that are meant to maintain as much of a person's lean muscle mass as possible. For individuals cutting or trying to lose fat while preserving as much muscle as possible, try following the 90/10 Rule. You’d follow your goal-oriented nutrition plan 90 percent of the time and indulge the other 10 percent of the time.
As previously mentioned, it's recommended to enjoy a cheat meal that satisfies your cravings. This doesn’t mean gorging yourself at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Enjoy one item or meal that may be outside of the foods you regularly eat but don’t overdo it.
Cheat meals are a widespread dietary practice by people following many different diets, including Whole30, paleo, keto, and more.
There's concern about cheat meals and their tendencies to overlap with disordered eating behaviors in the medical community. One study investigated cheat meals, disordered eating behavior, and psychological distress in 248 young adults. Approximately 89 percent of the participants consumed planned or spontaneous cheat meals during the study. Results suggested men were more likely to develop eating disorder symptoms<sup>4</sup> and binge episodes after eating a cheat meal.
The research around cheat meals and binge eating is still quite slim. For that reason, anyone participating in cheat meals may consider keeping a journal or reflecting on their thoughts around food to monitor for disordered behavior.