If you’ve ever gone on a diet for more than a week, you are likely familiar with the concept of a cheat meal — or maybe even a whole cheat day.
The idea is simple: For one meal, you get to throw “moderation” to the wind and eat whatever you want. Cheat meals often include sweets, greasy comfort foods, alcohol, and other treats that don’t fall within the guidelines of your regular healthy eating plan.
But while cheat meals might feel like a guilty indulgence, they can actually help you stick to your weight loss plan. (Really!) Here’s how.
Can Cheat Meals Be Good for Weight Loss?
Actually, yes. “There can be benefits to allowing yourself to have a treat when you’re looking to lose weight, especially if you’re the kind of person who is feeling deprived,” says Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, and Nutrition Manager at Openfit.
When you’re occasionally allowed to eat some of your favorite — albeit not-so-healthy — foods, you won’t feel so restricted. That makes it easier to stick to your healthy eating plan long-term, plus you’ll be less likely to binge-eat a whole bag of chips or pint of ice cream in a moment of weakness.
“It’s important to remember that food is not just fuel — it’s also enjoyment,” Giancoli says. “If we’re not getting to enjoy food, then it’s more likely we’re going to fall off the wagon and overdo our indulgences. If we allow them in an appropriately-portioned way, though, they can be part of a healthy diet.”
Should You Schedule Cheat Meals?
Not only do diet experts give occasional cheat meals a green light, but many recommend scheduling cheat meals right into your diet plan, instead of just indulging when the opportunity arises.
“Just like preparation is key for sticking to your regular healthy diet plan, the same is true of a cheat meal,” says Jacqui Justice, MS, CNS, a clinical nutritionist in Westchester, NY. Research supports this — a 2016 study found that “planned goal deviations” while working towards a long-term goal helped improve participants’ overall self-control, motivation, and positive outlook towards the goal.
Besides, if you don’t plan your cheat meal and instead just give yourself the freedom to indulge when the opportunity arises, you may find lots of opportunities to “cheat.” By deliberately scheduling a cheat meal into your week, you allow yourself room to indulge without sabotaging your healthy-eating plan.
How Often Can You Have Cheat Meals?
While cheat meals can be an important part of your weight loss strategy, that doesn’t mean you get a hall pass to eat whatever you want, whenever you want.
“In general, cheat meals should be scheduled for once a week,” says Justice. “Any more than that, and the chance of cheat meals hijacking your healthy diet plan significantly increase.” This is especially true if willpower isn’t your strong suit. Consistency is key when you’re building healthy habits, and too many cheat meals can get in the way of that.
But there can be ways to integrate a small cheat into your daily routine — as long as you have enough self-restraint to keep from going overboard. For example, Giancoli says, if you’d rather have a small sweet treat every day than a weekly cheat meal, that’s fine, but keep a close eye on serving sizes.
“As long as you’re keeping it in check and the portion size is small, then it can fit into a healthy diet,” Giancoli explains. “It really depends on the nutritional composition and size of your cheat. If it’s something small, like having an appropriately-portioned dessert every day, that could be doable — as long as you’re on target the rest of your day.”
Will Cheat Meals Mess Up My Weight Loss Goals?
Occasionally cheating on your diet won’t derail your weight loss goals — as long as you don’t let it discourage you or become a habit.
“For most dieters, one cheat meal per week helps them stay on their plan,” says Justice. “But for the all-or-nothing people, it can end up throwing them off their plan permanently.”
To lessen the impact of a cheat meal, it’s important to keep in mind that calories still count: “By keeping your treat to an appropriate portion size, there’s less of a chance of it having as much of an impact on the scale,” Giancoli says.
How to Make Cheat Meals Healthier
Remember, the goal is to satisfy a craving, not to cram as many calories as possible into one meal. (It’s a cheat meal, not a challenge!) If you’re craving fried chicken, for example, you can enjoy a few drumsticks without also loading up on homemade mac-and-cheese and biscuits slathered in butter.
Here are a few ways to make your cheat meal slightly healthier.
- Pinpoint your craving. A cheat meal doesn’t have to be a time where you eat all the things. “It’s important to pick your poison, so to speak,” Justice says. So if you’re craving carbs, she adds, “Choose from pasta, bread, or alcohol — but not all three.”
- Boost the nutritional value. Find ways to make your go-to cheat meal a little bit healthier, Giancoli suggests: “You can use less oil in cooking. Add more vegetables to a dish. Have a fruit-based dessert. This will allow you to feel satisfied while still bumping up the nutritional value of your indulgence.”
- Eat before you cheat. When you know dinner will be a free-for-all, skipping lunch may seem like a good strategy. But the golden rule of grocery shopping applies here as well: Don’t go in hungry. “Make sure you have a well-balanced, healthy meal within 4 to 5 hours [prior to] your cheat meal,” Justice says. “And if necessary, have a protein-rich snack right before.” This will help take the edge off your hunger so you’re less likely to overeat.
- Take your time. Whether it’s a scoop of gelato, a slice of pizza, or a glass of wine, slow down so you can actually enjoy it. “Put down your fork while you chew. Take drinks of water between bites. Breathe,” Giancoli says. “Slow down and savor that meal instead of just gobbling it up.” Mindful eating lets you relish the food and helps you to avoid over-indulging.
Once you understand that cheat meals can be part of a healthy weight loss strategy, kick your guilt to the curb and enjoy them now and then. “Schedule your cheat meal with a clear mind, and make it worth it!” Justice says. “When indulging in a cheat meal, the most important thing is to enjoy it — every morsel.”
And once the meal is done, look ahead. “The next meal or the next day, get back on your food plan, get back on your workout routine, and get back on that metaphorical horse,” Giancoli says.