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Nutrition Articles  ›  Healthy Habits

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

How Cheat Meals and Cheat Days Affect Your Weight Loss

-- By Becky Hand, Registered Dietitian
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Your Calorie Bank
The banking of calories works in a similar fashion as your checking account or debit card.  For example, if you invite your main squeeze to dinner and a movie on Friday, you have to make sure you have the funds to cover your outing. So you save a few extra bucks Monday through Friday, therefore providing sufficient money in your account to spend on the evening out.  Now, apply the same principle with the calorie banking.  By eating at the lower end of your recommended calorie range Monday through Friday, you can accumulate a few more calories to spend on your Saturday splurge day, while still remaining within your weekly budget when you take the average for the seven day period.  While this gives you more calories to spend on your special day, it still requires planning. This works because a single day of calories (whether low or high) won't make or break your weight loss. It's the overall trend—or weekly average—of calories that affects changes in your body.
 
Better than Cheating: How to Remain Faithful to an Eating Plan You Love
If you feel the desire to cheat on your diet, it may not be your fault. Your diet—or your view of how you "should" or "need to" eat to lose weight or be healthier—is the real culprit. If your diet is so restrictive, plain, boring, tedious, or "perfect" that you can't stick with it forever, then try these smart strategies to bring your eating habits back to normal.
  • Start embracing all foods.  Remember that no single food causes weight gain.  Weight management is based on total calorie intake—not the restriction of certain foods, ingredients or food groups. All foods can fit into a healthy eating plan. Instead of thinking about foods as being "good" or "bad," change your food language.
    • Instead of saying "This is a bad food," say "This food has a lot of calories; if I really want it, I will have it in moderation."
       
    • Instead of saying "I cheated," say "I ate more than I wanted to, but that happens to everyone once in awhile. It is normal and I won't beat myself up over it."
       
    • Instead of saying "I was bad," say "I ate more calories than I intended, but I am in control now."
       
  • Start to enjoy those "off limits" foods in smaller portions. Slowly incorporate food you once considered "bad" into your eating plan.  Don't be discouraged if you occasionally eat too much of a food that you once considered "off limits."  If you are used to eating large quantities of a food, it may take practice to moderate your portions. To help, savor every bite and take your time eating.  Make snacks last at least 15 minutes and stretch out your meals to last at least 30 minutes.  Do not eat out of packages.  Make food special by putting it on a real plate or bowl and using silverware.  Limit distractions and enjoy your food without watching television or using the computer. 
     
  • Socialize and enjoy. Enjoy once "off-limit" foods in the company of others. This may help you avoid over-indulging, which is easier to do when you are alone.  When you are in a restaurant with companions, order what you want, not what you "should" eat.  Savor every bite and enjoy it slowly.  Stop eating when you feel the first signs of fullness.  Don't feel that you must clean your plate.  If you have difficulty eating certain foods in small amounts when home alone, practice eating safe portions in safe places where you are less likely to overeat. 
 
Overcoming the Desire to Cheat
I have a friend named Patrick who had smoked for more than 30 years and finally decided to quit. The next time I saw Patrick, I said, "I hear you've quit smoking.  How's it going?" 
 
Patrick sternly looked me straight in the eye and said, I did not quit smoking, for I am not a quitter!  I chose to not smoke!" 
 
What a powerful statement that you can apply it to your weight-loss journey as well.  You are not a quitter! You are not a cheater! If you feel the need or desire to "cheat" on your diet, it may be worth examining your relationship with food and whether you're actually taking steps to leave dieting behind in favor of adopting a healthy eating plan that you can live with for life. The idea of "cheating" tends to reinforce the concept that certain foods are "good" in your mind while others are "bad." This idea is hard to break if you've been on and off diets throughout your life, but it's not impossible. The healthiest eating plan—and mental outlook—is to embrace all types of foods and never to feel guilt, remorse, embarrassment or discouragement about the foods you eat. Taking proactive steps to ditch the "diet" mentality can reduce your anxiety and obsession with food and help you avoid out-of-control binges that derail your weight-loss efforts.
 
 
Source
 
Kushner, Robert, MD, ''The Swing Eater Handout,'' in Dr. Kushner's Personality Type Diet (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003).
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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