As the obesity epidemic rises, the search for effective weight loss strategies becomes increasingly fervent.
While choosing the right regimen can be tough, often the biggest weight loss challenge is making and sticking to new habits that support your health or weight loss goals without missing out on the foods you love.
The incorporation of cheat meals or cheat days into a diet plan has been popular among fitness enthusiasts for some time, but it’s now making its way into mainstream diet culture by way of social media.
This article discusses cheat days and meals, their effectiveness and whether to incorporate them into your health and fitness journey.
What Are Cheat Days and Meals?
Cheating within a diet plan involves giving yourself calculated, planned permission to temporarily break strict diet rules.
The theory behind this reward-based diet strategy is that by allowing yourself brief periods of indulgence, you’ll be more likely to stick to your prescribed diet the majority of the time.
When using the cheat strategy, people will typically employ either a cheat meal or cheat day approach. As the names imply, a cheat meal is a single meal that veers from your planned diet pattern, while a cheat day allows for free food choices for an entire day.
Cheat diet methods are highly variable. How they’re implemented may look very different for different people, depending on an individual’s diet preferences and goals.
The foods you eat as cheat meals will also vary from person to person due to individual tastes, but they often consist of high-calorie foods that wouldn’t otherwise be permitted on a typical diet plan.
There is no specific guideline for when or how frequently your cheat meal or day should occur. Often people will include one cheat per week, but this can change depending on what the person’s health or weight loss goals are.
In this way, the cheat strategy is adaptable and can be implemented alongside many different diet patterns.
Note that the cheat meal approach is not appropriate for all diet styles. Some diets, such as the ketogenic diet, require very strict adherence with no room for cheating. Therefore, the cheat strategy is best utilized in diets that allow for some flexibility.
Cheat meals are scheduled meals that include indulgent foods that wouldn’t ordinarily be permitted on your diet. A cheat day is when you allow yourself to consume any foods you want over an entire day.
Does Cheating Really Work?
Weight management and body composition changes are complex processes. Not everyone will respond the same way to the same strategies — the best diet plan is the one you can stick to.
It’s well known that if you eat fewer calories than you burn, weight loss is likely to occur. In this way, the reward-based cheat meal or cheat day strategy may be effective if you’re able to execute a well-planned diet and maintain overall reduced calorie intake.
Weight Loss and Metabolic Changes
It’s frequently claimed that using cheat meals will lead to measurable changes in body composition and improved metabolic function due to fluctuations in the hunger hormone leptin.
Leptin is a hormone responsible for suppressing feelings of hunger. Some research indicates that when someone experiences significant weight loss, leptin levels may decrease. However, this result is inconsistent with other studies (1).
A common weight management theory is that with lower levels of circulating leptin, you’re more likely to overeat because you don’t have enough of the hormone sending you signals that you’re satisfied and full. This may lead to rebound weight gain.
Proponents of the cheat meal strategy for weight loss further theorize that intermittent periods of higher-calorie foods will trick your hormone cycle into producing more leptin temporarily and prevent the desire for rebound overeating.
Unfortunately, there is little rigorous scientific research to support this theory.
It’s still unclear how fluctuations in leptin levels associated with weight changes affect someone’s ability to control their eating behaviors and maintain weight loss. As a result, more research is needed.
At this stage, it’s more likely that weight loss occurs for some people with the cheat method because of a reduction in overall calorie intake that is achieved by sticking to a well-planned diet most of the time and limiting high-calorie junk foods.
Using Planned Indulgence as a Motivator
Another component of the cheating diet strategy is the theory that by occasionally allowing yourself to indulge in foods not permitted on your diet, you’ll then have the motivation to stick to your planned diet most of the time.
This is where the cheat meal strategy is tied to the psychology of weight loss.
Some people can effectively resist temptation knowing that their cheat day is coming up, but not everyone can regulate their own eating behaviors in the same way. Thus, the same results cannot be guaranteed for every person (2).
Furthermore, if you’re unable to maintain some degree of self-control within your cheat meals or days, you run the risk of undoing your prior weight loss efforts if you end up eating more calories than you should.
Even cheat meals or days should be appropriately planned. They shouldn’t be framed as a free ticket to excessive overeating.
To reiterate an important point: the most effective weight loss strategy is the one that you can stick to.
For some people, cheat days or meals may be a great way to maintain overall healthier dietary habits — for others, a different approach may be more appropriate.
The causes of obesity and the best methods for losing weight can be complex and will look different for everyone. Cheat meals can be effective for some to reduce overall caloric intake, as long as you’re careful not to overdo it on cheat days.
May Encourage Unhealthy Behaviors
The trend of incorporating cheat meals into your diet plan has become increasingly popular in the Western diet and fitness culture, especially across social media platforms.
It’s common to see photos of highly indulgent foods alongside people with fit, muscular physiques giving the impression that the cheat meal dieting strategy is the key to acquiring their culturally praised physical appearance.
While the cheat meal approach may work for some people, it could also have some potentially detrimental effects.
Cheat or Treat?
Successful and sustained weight loss is about more than eating fewer calories than you burn in a day. Your attitude toward food can also significantly impact your ability to resist temptation and regulate eating behaviors.
The word “cheat” has a culturally negative connotation and is associated with feelings of guilt. Using that term to describe a food or meal could impair your ability to maintain self-control even within the cheat meal framework.
One three-month study noticed that people who associated chocolate cake with celebration had more success with their weight loss goals than those who linked this food to feelings of guilt (3).
Because the cheat meal or day strategy focuses on a reward-based system, it may be ineffective for those who have a difficult time self-regulating emotional eating. Some people may even experience feelings of hopelessness and guilt (4).
Reframing a cheat meal with a more positive message, such as a treat meal, could help to better support self-regulation and healthy eating behaviors with this kind of diet pattern (3).
A major concern with the cheat meal or day strategy is the potential for it to encourage a binge-style eating behavior.
Causes of obesity can widely vary — it isn’t always as simple as calories in and calories out.
The cheat meal method could exacerbate eating-related issues for people dealing with food addiction tendencies, disordered eating or an inability to self-regulate eating habits.
Research shows that people who use food as a coping mechanism may be more susceptible to binge eating (5).
Understanding your motives for eating desired cheat foods ensures that you’re choosing the healthiest approach to weight loss for your individual needs.
Even a cheat meal or day should be approached healthfully and with a plan. Cheating should not mean you ignore hunger and satiety cues under the assumption that you can eat as much as you want of any food on your cheat day.
Focus on Physical Appearance
The social media culture associated with cheat meal or cheat day diet patterns places a strong emphasis on physical appearance.
Because the cheat meal strategy is very popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts on social media, an unrealistic portrayal of body image can be propagated, which may be harmful to vulnerable populations.
Excessive focus on the superficial aspects of weight loss could be mentally damaging, as it can enhance feelings of anxiety and encourage disordered eating tendencies, especially among younger women (6, 7, 8).
As with any weight loss or diet plan, it’s important that the cheat meal strategy is approached with a healthy mindset alongside realistic goals and expectations that will support both mental and physical health.
The cheat meal or day strategy could trigger unhealthy eating behaviors, especially in those who struggle with emotional eating, food addiction or eating disorders.
Other Strategies to Consider
Whether or not implementing a cheat meal diet strategy is the right choice depends on the individual. Remember that the best, most effective diet plan is one that you can stick to over time.
Incorporating cheat meals into your diet may be an effective method to support your health goals, but it shouldn’t stand alone. There are other strategies you may want to consider in conjunction with cheat meals to better support your unique personal needs long-term.
One thing that can determine the success of your cheat dieting strategy is being mindful of what you’re eating — even when you’re having a cheat day.
Mindful, or intuitive, eating is paying attention to your body’s hunger cues and eating when you’re hungry but stopping when you’re full or satisfied. It also involves slowing down while eating so that you can enjoy and savor your dining experience.
Early research indicates that mindful and intuitive eating approaches may help to reduce tendencies of emotional and binge eating. They may also reduce weight gain, but further research is needed (9).
Combining these types of eating approaches with your diet may support your ability to stick to your diet plan more easily and successfully. Furthermore, it may help prevent you from going overboard during more indulgent cheat meals.
Focus on One Cheat Treat
Another strategy that may benefit your diet efforts is to focus on just one or two cheat foods, instead of trying to fit them all in at once.
For example, if you’re planning a cheat meal, instead of eating the cheeseburger, sugary cocktail and dessert, pick only one or two of these indulgent options.
By focusing your attention on just one treat, you’ll be less likely to tip the scales in an unhealthy direction by overconsuming during your cheat period.
Additionally, you can continue eating healthy and avoiding foods you know you have difficulty controlling yourself around while still bending your diet rules.
This may look like a day of not tracking calories or macronutrients or enjoying a meal out without worrying about what you choose from the menu.
These strategies may be most useful for those who have a hard time with self-control during eating scenarios.
Plan for Success
The key to success with any major lifestyle change is being prepared. If you have a solid plan in place, you’re less likely to give in to temptation because your plan is set up to support you.
With cheat days or meals, it can be difficult for some people to know when to put on the brakes. This lack of self-control could end up making your diet goals less successful in the long run.
Implementing a plan for cheat days — just as you do on regular dieting days — is a good way to stay on track. This means that even though you’re allowing yourself to consume foods you normally wouldn’t, you can still maintain control over the situation.
For example, planning when and where your cheat meals will occur is a good first step. If you know you’ve got a birthday party or other social event coming up at the end of the week, it may be wise to plan your cheat meal or day around this event.
From there, you can also plan to maintain portion control, even with more indulgent foods. For example, plan to have one or two slices of pizza instead of sitting down with the whole pie.
Another option worth exploring is framing the cheat day as a time to continue with a balanced, healthy meal approach without tracking calories and macronutrients. This gives you a mental break from tracking without increasing temptation from certain foods.
Make Your Everyday Diet Enjoyable
A contributing factor to why diets are difficult to maintain is because you don’t like the food you’re eating. Portion control and planned diet regimens can be difficult to follow on their own, and it can add fuel to the fire if you’re filling it with foods you don’t enjoy.
Just because a food is deemed healthy doesn’t mean you’re required to eat it. Not to mention, eating foods you hate isn’t a requirement for reaching your health and weight loss goals.
Incorporating foods that you enjoy even when you’re not having a cheat day can be a great tool for making your diet feel like less of a chore. It can also help you maintain more self-control during both diet and cheat days.
At the end of the day, working toward a healthier diet or lifestyle should be about making sustainable changes that meet your unique needs and tastes — there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
If you’re unable to make this work on your own, consider consulting with a dietitian or other qualified health professional, who can help you build an effective and enjoyable diet plan to reach your health goals.
Incorporating other dieting strategies into cheat meals or days can help support your ability to stick to your goals. Having a plan for cheat days, incorporating mindful eating practices and including foods that you enjoy on diet days are some examples.
The Bottom Line
Cheat days or meals, which allow room to indulge, can effectively motivate some people to stick to their diet but may be unhealthy for people with emotional, binge or disordered eating tendencies.
This strategy may be more successful alongside other tools, such as mindful eating and self-control practices.
Written by Ansley Hill, RD, LD on September 13, 2018