Cheat days or cheat meals are a common topic of conversation in weight loss circles.
Some will say that cheat meals are an important part of the weight loss process as they can help prevent weight loss plateaus by “boosting metabolism” or “resetting ghrelin and leptin levels” in the body.
Others will tell you that if you want to get results from your transformation challenge as quickly as possible, you should not have any cheat meals while dieting.
So, what’s the truth?
Should you have cheat meals while dieting?
Let’s first make an important distinction between cheat days and cheat meals.
Cheat Meals Vs Cheat Days
Most of you reading this are familiar with the concept of a “cheat meal.”
It is a planned meal in your nutrition plan that includes extravagant or indulgent foods that you otherwise normally wouldn’t eat while dieting. Basically, cheat meals are synonymous with high calorie, “dirty” foods.
Calories and/or macros from cheat meals are typically not tracked as the whole purpose of having a cheat meal is to take a break from your diet.
It’s a concept that has been around for decades.
By extension, a “cheat day” is an entire day’s worth of meals where you allow yourself to consume any foods that you desire.
Not one calorie is tracked, and nary a macro logged.
A commonly followed practice when implementing cheat meals or cheat days is to follow your nutrition plan (“clean eating”) for six days of the week, and then you choose one meal on the seventh day of the week (or the entire day) to cut loose (and loosen your belt buckle) and eat whatever you desire.
With cheat meals, no food, beverage, or snack is off limits (including ultra-processed and/or fried foods).
So, Should I Have a Cheat Day While Dieting?
The answer to this question is a bit more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.”
Truth be told, whether or not you should have a cheat day while dieting boils down to how quickly you want to get results.
If you want to get your results as fast as possible, then it’s advised that you avoid cheat meals and cheat days while dieting.
The reason for this is simple -- cheat meals / days take you out of your energy deficit. How much out of this deficit you are taken is entirely dependent on how out of hand your cheat meal/day was.
It’s entirely possible to undo an entire week’s worth of dieting with a single day of overeating.
What this means is that you’ve delayed achieving your weight loss goals by at least several days (if not an entire week) all for the sake of instant gratification.
Do this often enough, and it can add several weeks to your weight loss journey.
In other words, if you are serious about making a change and accomplishing it by a certain deadline, cheat meals and cheat days aren’t worth it.
Save those high-calorie indulgences for when you completed your transformation challenge as a reward or celebration of your accomplishments.
Have a cheat meal because it’s a special occasion, not because you’re bored with your diet.
And, if you are someone who is new to dieting or carrying a lot of excess body fat, then you have no business taking a cheat day. The past several weeks, months, years were your cheat days.
The next 8,10,12 weeks are about undoing the damage that has been done in the past, helping you get happier, healthier, and more fit, while ingraining good eating habits and a healthy relationship with food.
This brings us to our next point…
The “Cheating” Mentality
“Cheating” is synonymous with doing something that is bad or frowned upon.
We’d all agree that cheating on a spouse, cheating on taxes, and cheating in sports are not something to be particularly proud of, and at worse can lead to legal troubles.
Why do we glorify cheating on our diets then?!
It just doesn’t make sense.
We need to eliminate the “cheating” mentality from dieting.
Adopting a “cheat meal” mindset or dietary pattern can lead to grouping foods into “good” and “bad” categories as if some foods are morally wholesome and others aren’t.
Truth be told, there are no foods that are 100% “bad” (save trans fats).
Yes, there are foods that are processed, high in calories, and low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, but that doesn’t mean they are “bad” like a dog that pees on your carpet.
It just may not be in line with your current nutrition plan, but that doesn’t inherently mean it’s bad for you, “evil”, or “dirty.”
Furthermore, if you always have the compulsion to “cheat” on your diet, then that’s a pretty big indication that you are unhappy with your current nutrition plan.
It may be too restrictive and leaving you feeling deprived or unsatisfied, which means it isn’t sustainable and will NOT work for long term weight loss maintenance.
It is entirely possible to follow a fat loss diet without feeling deprived or have the urge to want to “cheat.”
Flavoring and texture have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years to the point where these “fitness foods” taste as good (if not better) than their junk food counterparts.
You can have your cake and eat it too. You just need to know how to go about getting it.
Next, we need to alter our mindset from the word "cheat" to "indulgence" or “reward.”
This subtle shift in wording can make all the difference in the way we perceive food both when dieting and when maintaining. It may also help to prevent the development of potential disordered eating.
Remember, you are working hard in the kitchen and in the gym.
That hard work should be rewarded, and you should celebrate that hard work and accomplishment with an indulgent reward meal.
Do Cheat Days “Boost Metabolism”?
When you diet, your body loses mass. If you’re doing all things correctly, this mass will be in the form of fat mass.
The longer you are in a diet, the more likely your body is to sense what is going on and enact various countermeasures to combat this chronic energy deficit.
One of these things is to lower metabolism, by way of reducing your non-exercise activity during the day, and potentially lowering your resting metabolic rate. (Though, to be honest, this typically only occurs in physique competitors who have been dieting for months on end and are approaching essential levels of body fat).
Another countermeasure the body’s enacts is the lowering of leptin levels, which reduces feelings of satiety following a meal and could cause you to overeat since the brain isn’t getting a strong enough signal that it has received enough nutrition.
But, some research indicates this leptin decrease doesn’t affect all dieters.
Furthermore, there is no conclusive body of evidence demonstrating that a single high-calorie meal, or entire cheat day can reset leptin levels in the body. It would more likely require several days or weeks to reset leptin levels (which would then be a diet break, not a cheat meal/day).
The reason for this is that human physiology is not so easily tricked. A single meal can’t reset leptin levels, just as a single meal won’t make you gain pounds and pounds of body fat, just as a single workout won’t turn you into an IFBB pro.
Physiological and hormonal changes take time.
So, if you want to have a high-carb refeed day, then you can use it to top off glycogen stores, increase muscle fullness, and obtain some relief from the mental strain of dieting, but it is not providing any meaningful boost in metabolism or leptin levels.
The Bottom Line on Should You Have Cheat Days While Dieting
By and large, we do not advocate individuals have cheat days while dieting. The reason for this is simple -- it delays your results.
Now, if you don’t have a certain deadline to meet, can you have a cheat day?
You could, but then again, why do you feel the need to cheat? Is your diet so restrictive that you feel unsatisfied and are compelled to binge on high-calorie fare that ultimately leaves you feeling sluggish and bloated?
Plus, cheat days (when they get out of hand) can undo an entire week’s worth of diligent training and dieting.
Ultimately the decision of whether to have cheat days while dieting is highly individualistic. What are your goals, when do you want to accomplish them, and how serious are you in your commitment to make a change for the better?
- Strohacker K, McCaffery JM, MacLean PS, Wing RR. Adaptations of leptin, ghrelin or insulin during weight loss as predictors of weight regain: a review of current literature. Int J Obes (Lond). 2014;38(3):388‐396. doi:10.1038/ijo.2013.118