Nutrition Articles

Can You 'Cheat' on Your Diet and Still Lose Weight?

How Cheat Meals and Cheat Days Affect Your Weight Loss

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"Cheating" is the act of deceiving others or being dishonest. The word conjures up images of copying someone else's answers during an exam, fudging your taxes, or counting cards.  Needless to say, these are not positive activities.  But does the same negative connotation apply to a cheat meal (or day) for a person on a diet?  Can "cheating" on one's diet be beneficial—even fun—or is it just setting the stage for dieting disaster? 
 
As a registered dietitian, I am often asked about cheat meals and cheat days.  Usually the dieter seems to be asking the question out of desperation. He or she often mentions feeling obsessed and exhausted of counting calories. "I want to have a cheat day once a week where I can eat whatever I want without worrying about my calories," they often say.  "But will this cheat day hurt my weight loss?" In other cases, people eat so "clean" (i.e. perfect) on their diets that they simply can't keep up with it day in and day out. They feel that they "need" a cheat meal or day to look forward to and keep them accountable to their strict diet all the other days.
 
I think everyone would agree that even though it has been documented to help people lose weight, daily calorie counting is a big pain in the butt.  You have to read labels, measure portions and keep track of so many details. Food selection is constantly on your mind.  Focusing so much on calories makes it easy to get into the trap of trying to eat a strict diet of "good" foods, then falling off the wagon and overeating the "bad" foods you tried to avoid.  Your vocabulary and thoughts are consumed with extremes: good foods vs. bad foods, cheating vs. being good, restricting vs. overindulging. It is easy to see why you'd want to "cheat" on a system like this. But is cheating on your diet really the answer?
 
Scientifically speaking, "cheating" has not been studied enough for me to give you a clear-cut answer on whether or not it works in the short-term or the long-term.  However, the science of caloric intake, as well as the psychological implications of cutting and counting calories, has been extensively researched.  So let's explore what we do know and apply it to the idea of cheat days.

"Calories in vs. calories out" is the golden rule for effective weight loss. To lose weight, a person must eat fewer calories than he or she burns.  Let's assume you are cutting a total of 3,500 over the course of a week to lose 1 pound.  In this example, your daily calorie intake is about 1,200-1,500 calories. (Calculate your daily calorie needs for weight loss here.) Say you choose to eat right in the middle of your recommended range: 1,350 calories per day. How would an innocent "cheat" day affect your progress?
  • Scenario #1:  On your cheat day, you indulge in a few extra sweets or treats and take in 2,500 calories total.  This brings your daily average to 1,514, which is still within your weight-loss calorie range.  Therefore, you should still lose weight for the week.
     
  • Scenario #2:  On your cheat day you eat anything and everything you've been craving: a fast food value meal, potato chips, a milkshake and some buttery popcorn. You take in 4,000 calories.  This brings your daily average to 1,729, which is over your weight-loss calorie range.  Therefore, you will probably maintain your current weight for the week.
 
This simple example illustrates how a cheat day can easily derail your weight loss efforts.  If you eat with reckless abandon and no real plan (or calorie counting), as in scenario #2, you'll stall your weight loss. But scenario #1 shows how the occasional higher calorie day can still fit into a weight-loss plan when it's properly planned and somewhat controlled.  Planning for that little indulgence on occasion is easier than you may think and uses the weight loss technique that I call "calorie banking." 
 
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • Speaking of 'cheating', there's this great site I go to for recipes.. they're delicious and skinny style, so you feel like you're cheating but you're not. :) www.skinnykitchen
    .com. It's free and you don't have to sign up, but I signed up so I could save recipes for the future. I tried their 3 ingredient ranch which is DELICIOUS. Tastes like full fat ranch and only has lowfat buttermilk, light mayo, and 1 oz Hidden Valley Seasoning and Salad Dressing Mix. It is SO good. Check it out, I love the site and you can find tasty skinny versions of everything. None of it tastes like diet food. :) - 7/19/2014 12:49:55 PM
  • I follow the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time, I am on track. 20% of the time, I indulge. Absolutely giving any thing up, just sets me up for the binge. I am only three weeks in...but this strategy has helped me. - 6/23/2014 3:05:05 PM
  • I generally have cheat meals instead of cheat days. My motto for those meals is "Anything I want, not everything I want." In those meals I don't consider the nutritional or calorie content of the food like I do for other meals, but I also don't use it as an excuse to eat everything I've been craving for the past week. - 4/26/2014 2:58:03 PM
  • "In this example, your daily calorie intake is about 1,200-1,500 calories"

    This right here seems like it might be part of the problem. If you're starting at a weight where eating truly between 1800 calories - 2000 calories/day (like, you're sure you're not actually eating more like 2500 calories or something, or drinking extra calories in there) will sustain you without weight loss, maybe cutting enough calories to lose a whole pound a week is a bit aggressive?

    Also, from the calculator that you linked: "When calories drop too low (usually below 1,200 calories for women and 1,500 calories for men), your body's protection mechanism switches on. In order to conserve energy, the body lowers your metabolism and you will not burn calories as quickly. This results in a slower weight loss rate, or sometimes prohibits any weight loss from occurring."

    If I were eating 1200 calories/day, I'd be desperate for a cheat day, too. As it is, I only have a "cheat" day twice per month or so. Since, per the calculator, even at 2500 calories I would be losing a pound per week, and I generally eat way less than that in a day, a cheat day doesn't really throw me off my game. It's a nice mental reset and I probably don't even end up going over my "maintenance" calories. I often go back and track those days a couple of days later just to see where I landed, and thanks to having now trained my body how much to eat in a day, it isn't that far off--and sometimes I still come in under my goals anyway.

    - 3/25/2014 12:38:28 PM
  • LINDACRH
    You are right. Always counting calories is a pain in the butt. However, being sick, overweight, having nothing attractive to wear, no energy, no self respect and not fitting into theatre seats or airline seats is a far worse pain in the butt. I want to be able to live my life and when I accepted the fact that investing the time to keep track for the rest of my life was a good trade off for having a life, it became less of a drag.

    And Spark People makes it so easy to keep track because I always have my smart phone and can take a few minutes after every meal to log everything in. Even on vacation, I can and do keep track. After awhile it isn't so hard.

    I eat a Paleo diet, and some folks believe that Paleo doesn't require calorie counting or exercise. However, I have found that unrestricted eating with no exercise simply will put on the pounds, no matter how you confine your foods to a certain protocol. After struggling with my weight for years on a Paleo lifestyle, it dawned on me one day that our ancestors had to WORK FOR EVERY BITE OF FOOD THEY WERE LUCKY ENOUGH TO PUT INTO THEIR MOUTHS. And they often had to do without when food supplies were scarce. We have the opposite problem - an overabundance of food. In this day and time, we have to work hard at restricting it to only what we need to stay alive and be healthy, and we have to commit to moderate exercise to duplicate the work our forebears had to do to get their daily bread.

    I do not severely restrict my calorie intake (my weight loss plan is slow, moderate and tolerable), but I do set limits and stick to them. And, yes, there are days that I choose to indulge in a treat and eat more - it is a relaxing and stress relieving thing to do. I don't call them "cheat days", but prefer to think of them a "scheduled relax times". Planning for and tracking the indulgences helps me stay within bounds, while still enjoying the benefits of freedom from a completely anal existence.

    These days my blood pressure is starting to be within the normal range; blood sugar is comi... - 11/4/2013 3:58:16 PM
  • I do not believe in cheating. Instead I calorie cycle. I save high calorie days for Sunday brunch, dinners with my husband, celebrations and holidays. After over 50 years on the planet, I have finally learned I can celebrate special events and no longer feel guilty as long as I IMMEDIATELY get back on track. On my low calorie days, I avoid carbohydrates as much as humanly possible. It works for me.


    - 11/3/2013 12:29:20 PM
  • Using the word "cheat" really IS a horrible thing. I don't cheat. I indulge in moderation. Basically that just means that if I decide to have a soda today then I won't have another for at least another 3 days. It also means that I have just 1. No refills. No seconds. I only buy 1 can or bottle and that's it. Then, the next day, I work extra hard during my work out to help with the calories if it put me over my daily budget. - 10/22/2013 12:33:27 AM
  • Everything in moderation. That way you don`t ever feel deprived. - 10/21/2013 10:38:07 PM
  • I really don't like cheat day but I have been monitoring everything. My biggest issue is that I work out way more than I did in the past and I keep my calories at least 500 below where I am to be. I have had slow down week and this is frustrating however I am still getting compliments on my weight loss. I like to call it my reward day. My husband go out every Friday night before HS football game that is my reward for living my new lifestyle change. So try reward day. Seems to be working for me. FINGERS CROSSED FOR CONTINUED PROGRESS 53 LBS
    - 10/21/2013 9:34:15 PM
  • I dont know about this article. Of course spark gives you a range of 1,200-1,550 but not only do I do 5 miles a day in steps (10,000 plus ) I also exercise which subtracts from that count So I honestly dont think if I use scenario 2 on one day that Im gonna derail anything - 5/24/2013 10:00:34 PM
  • pick me up after the break down - 2/24/2013 9:12:00 PM
  • I have always said that its better to eat smaller amounts of the 'bad' foods then to totally restircit yourself and binge out making yourself feel sick and horrible for overeating the 'naughty' foods. If i feel the need for chocolate I get a small bar and enjoy it! - 2/6/2013 11:17:41 PM
  • Great article.... I admit, I don't usually love food and when I was young, they used to give me shots to try to make me eat. I just didn't want to. Now, I usually eat the same thing every day and it makes my calorie counting easier.

    I think I am more lazy than anything else. Starting in high school, if someone put a pizza in front of me, I would eat a large pie in one sitting. My laziness was really my Achilles Heel. Now, I have my "cheat" meal since my family likes pizza once a week and I plan for it in my other meals. I also try to drink a big zero cal/caffeine free drink first so that I don't get too far out of control. One day, I'll plan it better and get a salad made in advance to keep me in check. - 2/6/2013 8:13:49 AM
  • cheating helps. just watch the people on biggest loser, they pull out big numbers after an indulgence. probably their body stops thinking it is starving - 2/6/2013 12:52:19 AM
  • Daily calorie counting is LESS a pain in the butt if 1) you eat mostly whole foods, rather than packaged (fruits, veggies, etc.), 2) you use the Nutrition Tracker (being Pescatarian, I enter my own food or meals ONCE & it's much easier) & 3) prepare SP recipes, which have all the nutrients calculated for you. - 2/6/2013 12:06:51 AM

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