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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?
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."