How Often Can I Have A Cheat Meal?

Written by Liza Brunell

Adv Dip Health Science Naturopathy, Nutrition          Hi there, my name is Liza, I am a Naturopath, Herbalist, Nutritionist from Brisbane, Queensland. And I’m here to show you how easy good nutrition and healthy living can be.

May 12, 2021

Quite often one of the biggest challenges to sticking to new, healthy eating habits that both support your health and maintaining your weight loss is finding a plan that isn’t so super strict that you feel as if you are missing out on the foods that you enjoy the most.

It has been increasingly popular over the years for when you are sticking to a healthy eating regime most of the time to indulge in a cheat day as it has been touted as being a way to overcome food FOMO (fear of missing out).  I don’t know about you, initially when health experts started talking about including cheat meals in your overall maintenance plan this seemed like a great way to have your cake and eat it too so to speak however, more recently there seems to be more of a negative connotation around cheat meals or cheat days. 

Before we delve too deeply into the theories firstly, let’s take a look at what Cheat Days or Cheat Meals are before getting too far in o the nitty gritty of whether or not it is good to have a cheat day?

The theory behind cheat days is that by allowing yourself brief periods of indulgence that you are more likely to stick to your healthy eating plan for most of the time.  Whether or not you choose to have a cheat meal or a whole day of cheating’ the premise is the same.  You either choose to veer off your healthy eating plan for just one meal or for an entire day of free food choices. The foods of choice during these meals will be highly individual however, they will most likely be higher in caloric value than those permitted on a typical healthy eating plan. 

How often can I have a cheat meal?

There are also generally no specific guidelines for how frequently cheat meals or cheat days occur and will be dependent on the individual’s health goals.  This may be why a cheat meal or cheat day is an attractive alternative to many as it can be implemented alongside several different healthy eating plans.

Does “Cheating Really Work?” Let’s take a look at some pros and cons involved.

As if constantly being mindful of the food you are eating alone doesn’t set you up for emotional high’s or low’s there is some school of thought that categorizing foods as good, bad, healthy or unhealthy sets us up for even more potential upset by adding feelings of guilt and worry over whether or not you are eating or not eating the right foods, thereby stating that you are having a Cheat Meal or Cheat day already brings negative connotations around the food that you are about to eat.

Physically when it comes to weight management and body composition there are quite complex processes involved. For example, some research claims improved metabolic function due to increases in the hormone leptin.  Leptin is a hormone secreted by our fat cells and is responsible for regulating fat storage and the number of calories that you consume and burn, as well as how much fat you store in your body.  If we consider our evolutionary background our bodies are conditioned to regulate hormones and store macronutrients as energy therefore preventing starvation. During periods of food shortage or starvation leptin levels decrease and during periods of normal food intake high levels of circulating leptin signal the brain that you have enough fat stored which prevents you from overeating. 

Advocates of the cheat meal or chat day theorize that by consuming intermittent periods of higher caloric foods will trick your hormones into producing more leptin.

Leptin levels vary and are dependent on the type of food eaten and the amount.  After eating a larger meal than usual leptin production may increase by as much as 30% for up to 24 hours.

Is Having a Cheat Day good for Weight Loss?

One of the biggest issues around incorporating Cheat Meals or Cheat days into your everyday eating plan is that unfortunately, it may lead to a pattern of indulging in far more than you would usually and may set you up for a nasty cycle of yo-yo restrictive eating vs a binge eating cycle.

Which begs to question are the metabolism boosting effects of cheat days enough to negate the number of extra calories burned.  Additionally, is the food consumed during your cheat meal enough to prevent you from falling into the vicious junk food eating cycle the following week?

Perhaps a better alternative to a cheat day would be a cheat meal, as you are still activating leptin production, as well as feeling as if you have splurged a little, mitigating the feeling of deprivation without consuming an extreme number of unnecessary calories. Let’s take a look at some numbers to put this into some perspective, by looking at how many calories can I eat on a cheat day? 2 slices of Hawaiian pizza are approximately 550 calories, add just one beer giving an additional 150 calories and that is just one meal let alone an entire day of cheat meals, you can see why cheat days could potentially be detrimental.

Who are you Cheating?

By creating a sustainable, healthy, and balanced lifestyle it’s possible to learn that you can be trusted to listen to your body, to have a treat occasionally and to get back on track. If appropriately planned cheat meals shouldn’t be framed as a free ticket to excessive overeating, and rather than denying yourself, try enjoying small treats occasionally that won’t derail your healthy eating goals.  

Additionally, by reframing your language around cheat meals with a more positive message this will help promote healthier eating behaviours. At the end of the day food is meant to provide nourishment to fuel our body.  Be mindful and listen to your body, try to understand you motives for wanting to eat that ‘’cheat’ meal, this will ensure that you are using the healthiest approach that supports both your mental and physical health. Our bodies have a unique and specialized way of telling us what we need, we just have to be better listeners. For example, if you are out at a restaurant and really craving a burger but order a salad instead because you think you should, chances are you won’t find it satisfying. Alternatively Honour the burger craving and take the time to eat mindfully and really savour it, this can lead to much greater satisfaction after the meal and free up a good amount of brain space and save yourself a lot of negative self-talk and beating yourself up.

Plan for Success

The key to success with any lifestyle program 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.

Implementing a plan for cheat days 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 what and when you eat. 

From there, you can also plan to maintain portion control, for example, plan to have only one or two slices of pizza instead of sitting down with the entire pizza.  Instead of feeling like you’re “giving in” to food cravings and ruining your diet, honour them for what they are and move on also ensure that if you’re going for it, make sure it’s worth it!

The Bottom Line

Cheat Meals or Cheat Days when incorporated into your healthy eating lifestyle may be more successful alongside other tools mentioned above. Remember that it is important to establish a healthy balance while maintaining weight by eating foods that provide energy and nutrients most of the time, also allowing yourself to enjoy your favourite treats in moderation as well.  This kind of balance can look different for everyone, but a common approach is the 80-20 principle, which suggests eating healthy, wholesome foods 80 percent of the time and allowing yourself to indulge in some less nutrient-dense foods the other 20 percent.  This allows for flexibility in your life without leading to weight gain.   Eating lean protein, vegetables, and wholesome carbs 80 percent of the time allows for the occasional dessert on date night, popcorn at the movies, and a couple wines with friends. If you struggle with deciding what to eat on those days check out the Clean Eating guide  and if Controlling hunger and stopping cravings is a challenge try our new Maintenance Patches.

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