Are Cheat Days a Friend or a Foe?

Cheat days were not part of the popular dieting culture when I was trying to lose my 150 pounds. When I was on Weight Watchers, the leader never talked about cheat days and neither did any other diet guru I had followed.

A few years after I had reached my goal weight, I started hearing about cheat days. Now I see them mentioned rather frequently on blogs I read and the concept of cheat days always makes me think twice.

I never had specified cheat days during my weight loss journey but that doesn’t mean I was perfect. Quite frankly, I made less than perfect choices now and then during the 14 months it took me to drop 150 pounds, but I mostly tried to be consistent with both my food and exercise. I occasionally made the conscious choice to eat some dessert, a piece of candy, or a small bag of chips, but I never purposefully set aside a period of time to “cheat” and eat whatever food I thought I wanted.

What is It?

The best definition I can come up with is that a cheat day gives the person who is trying to lose weight the opportunity to consume foods that are normally off limits. It could last a whole day, or maybe just take place during one meal.

The dieting person might actually “save up” some extra calories if they knew they were going out to eat, or put some calories in “reserve” for a special dessert. Other dieters might not “save” calories, but just allot themselves a day to eat without guilt.

Good Idea?

Here are my thoughts:

♦ I believe that if you feel the need to add in a cheat day to your weight loss journey, you might be having a hard time accepting your new way of eating as a permanent lifestyle change. If you really are changing your life, then there is no reason to cheat because you are just living your life. The honest truth is living your life sometimes includes eating cake, making less than stellar choices, or splurging on a restaurant meal.

♦ Cheat days might just set the dieter up for failure. If you have had a hard time controlling your refined sugar intake or crave “junk food,” then giving yourself a cheat day might actually backfire. You may find yourself craving those types of foods more strongly after a cheat day, which might just cause you to quit your diet completely.

♦ Cheat days might cause you to obsess about “off limits” foods. Let’s assume that you make great, clean food choices Sunday thru Friday, but every day of the week you are wishing that Saturday would hurry up and get here because you cannot wait to have waffle at IHOP or a Big Mac at McDonald’s as part of your cheat day. Is that a healthy way to think? I would have to say no. Not if you are really trying to change your lifestyle forever.

Although I don’t have to spell it out, you have probably guessed that I am not in love with cheat days while dieting. However, as always, I’m very interested in hearing your take on them.

Cheat days? Beneficial or harmful?  Diane

28 thoughts on “Are Cheat Days a Friend or a Foe?

  1. Lori says:

    For me – it is the term ‘cheat’ that I hate. It’s like eating the way you normally do is so horrible that you have to cheat on it. I consider more indulgent meals just that, indulgences and *part* of my eating style – not separate from it.

    I think people talk about cheating when they are truly depriving themselves – which then leads to binges. IMHO.

  2. blackhuff says:

    I have my once a week cheat day on Saturdays. This day is where I drink a soda or have a donut, eat a toasted sandwich. Things I don’t have in the week because I know that they are calorie laden and not the healthiest choice.

  3. Susan says:

    I didn’t indulge in cheat days back when I lost my weight because I have a hard time stopping once I get into “sugary” substances like cake, cookies, etc. I don’t crave those sugary things as long as I stay away from them.

  4. Jody - Fit at 54 says:

    I don’t do cheat days BUT I have mt PLANNED treats. I think it is a better way of looking at it then “cheat days”. Also, people do have to be careful because calories add up & one cheat meal or day can add up to all those pounds lost in a week… just know what you are doing & plan.. 🙂

  5. Joe says:

    I really don’t practice the cheat day method but on sunday’s for dinner I generally have something with more calories and fat then I normally would. Lately I’ve been having a steak and baked potato, but in the past I’ve also had a couple slices of pizza on a sunday night as well. I really don’t feel like I am cheating and the next morning I don’t feel sluggish so I stick with it.

  6. Amanda says:

    I go back and forth on the “cheat day” issue. Ultimately, I think whatever reasonable method works for people to get to the weight they want and stay there is acceptable (I say this understanding that “reasonable” is highly subjective). I did Body for LIFE back in 2002, and my “cheat day” with that particular plan kept me sane.

    Now, though, I don’t do cheat days. For one thing, I just don’t like the word. I’m not cheating, I’m living. I cycle my eating so that I’m lower calorie 5 days a week and higher two days of the week. Sometimes those two days are weekends, other times they fall mid-week. So if a potential “treat” comes up, I just look at what I’ve already eaten that week and if my higher calorie days haven’t come up yet, guess what boys and girls? It’s here now! And if those higher calorie days have passed, well, then I’m out of luck. For me, that’s what moderation looks like.

    Even on my higher calorie days I watch it, though, because if that “treat” is a cookie or cake, I’m usually in for several days of having to hold back the reins on my own appetite. Processed flour/ sugar combo just does a number on me and my cravings. I’d rather go higher on a fatty cut of meat, to be honest.

    And ultimately, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. Consistently good habits are what is necessary to maintain health. I love my indulgences, but I absolutely exercise caution. Besides, as I’ve said many times before, I like my clothes, they fit, and I’m not wealthy enough to replace them all a size bigger 🙂

  7. Marc says:

    Several years ago Bill Phillips wrote a best seller titled “Body for life” and in his plan he offered a once a week cheat day. He had to modify and explain it because Bill had never had a problem with obesity. To him, a cheat day meant having an ice-cream cone. Not a half gallon of ice-cream. To him, it meant a slice of your favorite pizza. Not an X-large entire pizza. I don’t have cheat days too often because it can destroy several days effort. I do allow myself one cheat meal about once a week. Not a cheat day. And the cheat meal is still about portion control, not all you stuff inside you.

    • Sarah says:

      This is interesting! Everyone’s definition of a cheat day is different. I would class an ice cream cone as just a treat – a cheat day to me means eating what you want for a day. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be – but it is the way my mind works!

  8. vickie says:

    slightly different angle – I have observed weight loss bloggers over the years whose cheat day just sort of always happened to occur before their weigh in day. A restaurant meal, a party, dish with a lot of salt, etc. Just always happened to fall on the day or even two days in a row, before their scale check in day. And the result was that they never had an accurate scale read. Happenstance might have this occur once, but this was a regular weekly event. And I think it was scale avoidance.

  9. Siobhan says:

    In theory it sounds okay to me to have one day when I might have a serving of something I normally avoid (Cake!). In reality at this point it doesn’t work for me. That one treat on one day just about always leads to several treats and several days. The old one bite leads to another and another and another …

  10. Lisa says:

    I don’t do cheat days. It implies that I am on a diet and restricting myself of things. I eat anything I want in moderation and within my calorie range for the day. That means I DO have treats here and there. I’ll have a beer with dinner, or two cookies for dessert. It depends on what I want. Not denying myself anything has helped me maintain my weight loss for 4 years. It works for me!

  11. suzanne says:

    While I’m sure “cheat” days work for some people it would just set me up for a bad week! I know I have trigger foods and there isn’t one day when I really need to have them.

  12. Sarah says:

    A cheat meal early in the day can set me up for a disaster day. A muffin for breakfast can easily lead to chocolate for snacks and cake for lunch. A cheat dinner works better because my cheat clock seems to reset itself by morning and be happy!

    I do use treat or cheat days – but I have to be careful they don’t turn into cheat weeks. Provided I’m on the ball its fine.

    I think it very much depends on the person and how the “cheat” food affects their mindset for that day or the next day!

  13. Michelle says:

    I don’t really like the ida of cheat days or meals. If I were to give myself a “day off” of my diet, I’m sure that number on the scale would be heading the wrong direction. The whole idea of me adopting a new lifestyle as opposed to a diet is that I can allow myself the foods I like in small doses (and not all of them in the same day or week). I don’t see it as cheating. I’m sure if I completely cut all of the not good for me foods that I loved out of my diet completely, then I would break down and cheat on occasion.

    For example, yesterday I made a fruit crisp that is (in theory) low(er) calorie. I had some ice cream with it, but I limited the portion size of both. I don’t think of it as cheating.

  14. Babbalou says:

    I agree with much that’s already been said. Whether a cheat day is a problem depends on how you look at it. If there are foods that trigger cravings (like sugar) then allowing the trigger food regularly will just make sticking to your plan more difficult. But I’ve had success limiting my (non-trigger) indulgences to a single day each week – and then on that day I have to choose ONE indulgence – it’s not a license to eat everything I’ve always enjoyed. Works for me (at least most of the time).

  15. Dr. J says:

    Cheat days are usually not a good idea! If food addiction is a problem, then cheating prevents ever getting past that. I’d rather see variety over several days where we eat more some days and less others without ever going on that excessive binge. Seems more normal to me that way.

  16. L says:

    I’ve been thinking alot about these cheat days. I’m pretty sure they will not work for me, because I am addicted to certain types of food and eating situations. I can’t allow myself to have all I want on one day a week, because as has been mentioned here, I would eat away all the hard work I had done on those other days. I also agree with what both you and Lisa shared, about this being a lifestyle change and not a diet. I cannot (have never been able to), stay on a diet, or keep the weight off through dieting. Now, changing my lifestyle, that’s working. Cheat days are not for me. I won’t be using them any time soon.

  17. Jeanette says:

    I dont do cheat days or meals either…if I want something that is not in my normal rotation of healthy foods I plan for it and eat it. Funny, when I want something that I have to plan on (lately it is a 3 muskateers bar) then I plan on when to have it ( and it can be months away….say like for my birthday) lol. I remember a time when I would just eat it and not contemplate it….especially not for months!

  18. KarenJ says:

    First of all, I don’t like the word “cheat.” It’s a shame-based word. I remember when I used to work for Weight Watchers, one of the leaders called it “being reckless,” which sounds a bit more fun. In any event, I’m not a big fan of cheat days. I think that for me to change my eating habits permanently, I had to practice consistency. Also, it’s not good to label foods and good and bad which is what we do when we cheat. It’s not like everyone eats extra vegetables on their cheat day. It puts certain foods into a category of being ordinarily off-limits which isn’t true. We can eat whatever we want as long as we can eat a portion that fits into our lifestyle. That being said, I’ve noticed that certain foods, like ice cream, seem to have an immediate effect on my weight, so it is my choice to avoid those foods rather than deal with the consequences. I think allowing a special day to eat whatever we want is a set-up for failure, shame and continuous set backs.

  19. LovesCatsinCA says:

    I’m more of the 80/20 rule… try to eat decently 80% of the time so 20% of the time you can have a meal with friends or a dessert without trying to count how many grams or calories or whatever are in there…

    However, I’m familiar with the concept of cheat days as I read a book that included them–it’s not really a “eat what you want” day as in gorge… The plans vary a little in the order etc. but they are mainly for people who are going to do a fitness competition and don’t want to go crazy or drop the metabolism. So there is the protein and veggies day with fat day but no sweets or starches, the carbs and protein low fat day… the super low calorie day, and then there is a cheat day that has certain elements you have to follow. It’s more calories than you’d normally eat and it combines fat, protein AND carbs all on the same day but it’s not a free for all. It makes sure your metabolism doesn’t get used to the more severe days is all.

    Frankly, it seems like a lot of work to do a cheat day because of what you have to do on non cheat days.

    I’d rather watch my calories most of the time and eat small bits of chocolate daily!

  20. Carol says:

    I did incorporate a “cheat meal” into my plan when I was losing weight. It was usually dinner after my weigh in on Wednesdays. I lost 115 lbs and the “cheat” meal never was a trigger for me. It was just a chance to go out to a restaurant and order something without really worrying about the points. Maybe this worked for me because I was super diligent about tracking my food for every other meal of the week. It can be exhausting to be constantly thinking about every morsel that you put into your mouth. My weight loss journey took over 3 years and I’ve been in maintenance for 2. I did (and do) incorporate treats and small indulgences into my daily eating, but I like to have one meal a week that I just don’t count.

  21. Emergefit says:

    This is probably a repeat comment, but here goes:

    I was fit. I was in severe accident and got out of shape for several years — badly out of shape. When I was able to workout again and chose to get my former body back, I built a cheat into ever single day. I just built it into my calories. I ate a Snickers bar at 3pm each and every day — during a period when I was able to lose 50+ pounds. It was my reward to myself for making concessions for the other 23 hours and 58 minutes of each and every day of the week. No cheat days, but a treat moment. May be semantics, but it worked well for me.

    Of course at the end of the day, it all comes down to how badly one wants it, yes…?

  22. Rachelle says:

    I agree with you about “cheat days”. I have found that it’s beneficial to allow myself to have a “treat” whenever I really feel the urge or the craving. If I know that I’m going to a birthday party or a wedding reception or something like that then I do try to make choices that allow me some extra points for that dessert. However I found that skipping meals all day to have those points is not helpful. So I still eat I just choose foods that are filling but have a lower point value than other foods I could choose if I wasn’t planning on having that wedding cake!

    Also, I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your blog and the comments that you leave on mine. I am still such a newbie in a way, and it is so nice to get feedback and support from you! Thanks!!

  23. Fat Woman says:

    My “Cheat day” is when I don’t have a calorie deficit. Eating an extra 500 calories feels like an enormous treat. I do this to help manage my leptin levels. A constant calorie deficit can see your body start to reduce leptin levels. Having “cheat” days as well as diet days and maintenance days can help avoid the diet plateau. I did read the proper peer-reviewed research to support this, so it is out there if you care to look for it.

  24. Sean @ Learn Fitness says:

    For me it’s a “free meal” and not a cheat meal. It’s a time I just care less about what I want and just eat it. I don’t down a whole large pizza and 2 liter, heck I don’t even drink soda necessarily. Is just a free meal to not freak out about the portion size or the sauce.

    I used to do a free day and you’re right, it got out of hand and I think it made it hard to accept my lifestyle and the free day turned into a free weekend and then worse. I feel like the free meal is a good fit and I find that I don’t always eat bad foods I’ll just eat different foods and maybe a glass of wine (or 2) and not fret over it.

    If it works and helps to lose the weight (and keep it off) then I say do it. If it backfires or doesn’t work for you then don’t. That doesn’t mean the concept is wrong for everyone because you don’t agree with it. To each their own 🙂

  25. julie says:

    I’m with you. Of course, I’m not a huge will-power person, I am on no diet or strict anything, maybe the cheat days makes more sense for them. There are times when I want a piece of cake, or pizza that isn’t “healthified”, or whatever, but It’s not penciled into my calender, or set for a certain time. It’s just life, now.

  26. Lees says:

    I think a way of eating should become a lifestyle, so if you are eating healthy foods and exercising regularly, then as you say Diane, there would be no need to cheat. But like everything in life we all think differently, so if cheat days work for you, then there is no wrong in it.

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