The Truth About Cheat Days: Are They Really OK?

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If you have spent much time dieting or have friends who have followed various weight loss diets, there’s a good chance you have heard of the concept of cheat days.

However, despite a general awareness of the concept of cheat days, many people still have a host of questions surrounding them with dieting and weight loss.

For example, what are cheat days? Are cheat days OK? Are cheat days bad? How often can I have cheat days? What is the best cheat meal?

In this article, we will discuss what cheat days entail in terms of dieting, the difference between a cheat day vs cheat meal, whether cheat days are bad for you or helpful when trying to lose weight, and tips for the best cheat day meals.

We will cover the following: 

  • What Are Cheat Days and What Are Cheat Meals?
  • Are Cheat Days OK?
  • Are Cheat Days Bad?
  • Tips for Cheat Days

Let’s dive in! 

A person eating pizza on a park bench.

What Are Cheat Days and What Are Cheat Meals?

One problem that people have when following a restrictive weight loss diet is feeling deprived of the foods they enjoy eating or large portion sizes.

This is where cheat meals and cheat days come into play.

A cheat day is a deliberate day that you plan ahead or allow yourself to deviate from your regular weight loss diet meal plan.

This may mean that you are eating larger serving sizes or different foods altogether that are normally not allowed on your restrictive weight loss diet.

The primary difference between a cheat meal vs cheat day is simply the fact that a cheat meal will temporarily “break up the rules“ of your diet for just one meal, whereas a cheat day permits you to go off your diet guidelines for the whole day.

A person eating a donut.

Are Cheat Days OK?

There isn’t a simple, conclusive answer to whether cheat days are OK, good for you, or bad for you because everyone responds differently to a weight loss diet.

The pros and cons of a cheat day or a cheat meal may be more or less impactful for you in terms of supporting long-term adherence to your diet or potentially derailing your efforts based on your overall diet goals, your personality, or what you choose to eat on your cheat meal or cheat day.

In theory, the concept of a cheat day or a cheat meal is valid and rooted in sound reasoning.

While it is true that you need to maintain an overall caloric deficit to lose weight, this does not necessarily mean that every single day that you are dieting, you have to consume fewer calories than you are burning.

If you look at weight loss on a weekly or monthly basis, as long as the net number of calories you are consuming is lower than the net number of calories you are burning per day on average, you will still lose weight.

A person cutting a piece of cake.

Furthermore, if you have a personality that you need treats to look forward to or love the concept of being able to enjoy a cheat meal or cheat day and then have the discipline to get back onto your more restrictive weight loss diet, a cheat day can be a great way to support long-term adherence to your weight loss diet for better success.

When asking how often can I have cheat days, typically, they are just once a week.

For example, let’s say you are on a low-carb, calorie-restricted diet, but you really enjoy pancakes.

If once a week you open up your diet and allow yourself to enjoy a couple of blueberry pancakes for breakfast in the morning, but you can get right back on your normal diet for the rest of the six days per week, you might find that it’s actually easier to stick with your diet.

Knowing that you have a scheduled cheat day where you will be allowed to indulge in some of the foods that you normally cannot have on your diet can help you through the monotony of dieting day after day after day.

This monotony may otherwise cause you to give up because the path to your goal of weight loss feels so long that you can’t imagine ever getting to enjoy your favorite foods again.

A person eating a piece of cake.

On the other hand, some people have the type of personality or disposition that makes cheat days or cheat meals a slippery slope.

For these types of individuals, it can be better to follow an “out of sight, out of mind “ mindset.

Indeed, some people find that allowing themselves to go “off the script“ of the weight loss diet they are following to enjoy a cheat day makes it really hard to get back to the diet the following day.

Sometimes, if you have high-sugar foods, your body and brain will crave more sugar, making it more difficult to eliminate these foods the next day when you try to go back to your diet.

Some people find similar difficulties after eating fried foods, salty foods, foods high in MSG, etc. In this way, a cheat day can tease the pallet with big flavor bombs that your body begins to crave.

Instead, a cheat day might turn into a cheat weekend, which snowballs into a cheat week, and before they know it, they might be right back to their old eating habits.

Most likely, if you have tried to lose weight in the past, you have a sense of your personality, control around food, and what motivates you or dissuades you from sticking with a diet long term.

You will need to be your own judge to determine if it is helpful or too risky to allow yourself to have cheat days on your diet.

A person biting into a bar of chocolate.

Are Cheat Days Bad?

As just discussed, cheat days can be super helpful for some dieters and a recipe for backsliding into old, unhealthy eating habits for others. 

An additional consideration about whether cheat days are bad or good for you is what you plan on eating on your cheat day.

Losing weight requires achieving an overall caloric deficit.

Therefore, a massive cheat day every week can largely undo a lot of your overall weight loss efforts and the modest caloric deficit you achieve on the other days each week when you stick with your diet.

Finally, although not true weight gain, many people gain a lot of water weight after a cheat day due to higher sodium, higher carbs, and higher sugar intake.

This may leave you feeling bloated and sluggish, which may make it harder to get in your workouts, or disheartened by your weight loss progress if you stand on the scale.

Although water weight should come off in a matter of days, it can still be a real mind saboteur for some people.

A group of people laughing and eating pizza.

Tips for Cheat Days

If you do decide that cheat days seem like something that will actually support your weight loss efforts and long-term adherence to your diet (as many people do), here are a few tips for cheat days:

#1: Start With One Cheat Meal Per Week

Start with just one cheat meal per week rather than a full cheat day.

If you find that you are able to get right back on your diet and that you enjoyed or looked forward to the cheat meal and it helped you through the week, you should certainly consider keeping cheat meals or cheat days part of your overall diet plan.

#2: Control Your Portion Sizes

The best cheat meals are still portion-controlled and calorie-controlled but just include foods that you normally can’t eat.

In other words, if you love pizza, by all means, enjoy a cheat meal of pizza, but instead of eating the entire pie, have two slices and freeze the rest or enjoy the pizza as a celebratory meal out with friends or family who share the pizza pie with you.

A person with a plate of chocolate.

#3: Stick To Your Plan

Earn your cheat meals and cheat days by sticking with your diet and exercise plan for the rest of the week.

If you skip several workouts or allow yourself a lot of extra treats during the week, skip your cheat day for the week and consider it the next week if you follow your diet more strictly.

#4: Enjoy Your Cheat Meal

Be mindful and present when you are enjoying your cheat day or cheat meal.

Savor each bite rather than rapidly scarf down a huge plate of nachos or a big bag of candy in the parking lot before your brain can even register that you have worked hard during the week on your diet, and you now get to enjoy some of your favorite foods.

For more information about dieting and losing weight, check out our guide to three of the best popular weight loss diets here

Wooden blocks that spell out healthy diets and health food surrounding them.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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