Wellness Tips: To Cheat or Not to Cheat?

Will allowing myself a “cheat meal” or “cheat day” help me stick to my desired diet?

No matter how much willpower you think you have — following a restrictive diet for weight loss can be challenging. Even the most disciplined dieters will admit to craving a slice of pizza or some ice cream every now and then, but giving into those cravings can bring on feelings of guilt, shame, and failure. That’s where the concept of cheating comes in. 

Cheat days or meals are included in many popular diets as a way to help you stick to the plan overall. If you know that you can throw all the rules out on a Friday night, it can make the rigidity of a diet a little more palatable. Rules are meant to be broken, right? Maybe. One small research study showed that people who allowed themselves a cheat day while on a calorie-restricted diet were better able to maintain their motivation to remain on the diet, but the cheat days didn’t lead to any better weight loss results. 

The bigger question you should ask yourself is: if I need to cheat on my diet, is the diet really working for me? Overly restrictive diets are not sustainable — even if cheat days are included. And they rarely work. Research shows that most people who diet to lose weight will regain any lost weight within 6 months to three years. And yo-yo dieting is neither good for your mind nor your body. Restrictive diets have also been linked to the development of eating disorders. The concept of cheat meals perpetuates black-and-white thinking around food and putting foods into “good” or “bad” categories, which can contribute to a disordered relationship with food. 

Cheat meals tend to be overly indulgent, often binge-like, reminiscent of a “last meal.” A quick search for #cheatday or #cheatmeal on Instagram returns millions of posts filled with triple bacon cheeseburgers, massive bowls of creamy pasta, and all the sweet things. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying a burger or a bowl of pasta, bingeing on over-large portions of such indulgent foods can wreak havoc on your digestion and leave you feeling lethargic. You’d be much better off including some of your favorite foods in your regular rotation in moderate portions. 

Rather than going on a restrictive diet that calls for cheat days, find a healthy eating plan that you can stick to for the long term. It may not be as straightforward as following a popular diet, but it will be a better solution for you in the long run. 

At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists and chefs ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you feel your best, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to nutrition@cafebonappetit.com.