“Cheat days” or “cheat meals” are recommended by many in the nutrition field. The idea is to “allow” a person who is on a diet to have some indulgence and flexibility. A “cheat day” is most commonly applied in social situations when temptations are high.
The prevailing belief has been that having a “cheat day” may allow an individual to be able to comply with and stick to a more restrictive diet plan long-term, knowing that they have a meal, or day, in the future to look forward to. “Cheat days” allow the individual on a diet to enjoy foods that they normally are not “allowed” to consume.
Do Cheat Days Work?
“Cheat days” may work for very disciplined individuals who are not likely to use “cheat days” as an excuse to gorge themselves on foods and beverages that are not in their best interests. Most folks lean toward foods that are high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods and alcohol on “cheat days”. Depending on why the individual was adjusting their diet in the first place, these foods may really sabotage your diet and health goals.
Whether incorporating a “cheat day” is effective or appropriate really varies based on an individual’s relationship with food, their ability to move back to their optimal diet after their “cheat day”, or if there’s a history of food addictions or eating disorders. It’s a strategy that may work for some people, but can easily be triggering to others, making it much harder to get back on their nutrition program or diet.
Typically, it is recommended that the “cheat day” or “cheat meal” needs to be “reasonable” and not excessive. The feelings of guilt from going overboard can trigger negative emotions. Because this strategy can be focused on a reward-based system, it may not be ideal for those who have a difficult time self-regulating emotional eating. Some people may feel hopelessness, despair and guilt after “cheating” (1), which can lead down a negative path towards emotional eating and sabotaging the work they have already done to better their health through nutritional changes.
Considering the above, you might already know the answer to “should I have a cheat day?”.
Are Cheat Days Helpful?
You may have started a diet to address some health goals or to improve poor eating habits. It can be hard to break unhealthy diet patterns because your brain becomes hardwired to consume certain foods, possibly even at a certain time of day. For example, whether it is a glass of red wine while preparing dinner, or having a doughnut with your mid-morning coffee, or eating a bag of chips while watching TV in the evening… if you do it enough times, it becomes habitual and your brain actually sets up a craving system to ensure you continue that behaviour.
Research indicates it takes between 21 and 60 days to “break” or replace a habit. So, if you’re considering incorporating a “cheat day”, you may wish to incorporate a “cheat” not related to the habit you’re working to change. Consuming a food you’ve habitually indulged in (even if you logically know it’s no longer in your best interest to consume that particular food) might trigger your brain’s cravings and habitual eating patterns. This could make it harder to avoid that food afterwards, when the “cheat day” is over and you are back on your optimal diet, because you have now got your “taste” for that food again.
Are Cheat Days Practical?
Some individuals find that the “cheat day” offers them some freedom to go out with friends, host a dinner party, or attend a celebratory event and other social situation where temptations and associations with indulgences are high. It can give them something to look forward to, and possibly “take the edge off” a restrictive diet. For these people, a cheat day might be practical.
But, while it may sound convenient at first to “allow” yourself a “cheat day” for social events or a personal reward… certain diets may not lend well to “cheat days”.
For example, the ketogenic diet is very specific with certain macronutrient ratios needing to be achieved on a consistent basis. Having a “cheat day” may throw an individual out of ketosis, inhibiting progress toward their health goals, causing uncomfortable transitional symptoms, and leading to additional work to get themselves back in that specific metabolic state. That said, there are clinicians that recommend “carb up” days on the ketogenic diet, in specific quantities, intervals and circumstances; especially for women to help support healthy thyroid function.
Additionally, if you have identified (or are going through the process to identify) food reactions such as food allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities, “cheat days” can absolutely derail your healing process. Depending on the specific food and the severity of the sensitivity or allergy, it can take months to recover from a “cheat day” or “cheat meal”. For example, egg allergy (IgE mediated reaction) or sensitivity (non-IgE mediated reaction) is common in individuals with eczema. Some studies have shown over 40% of individuals with eczema are reactive to egg whites (1). Although many times, food sensitivities (non IgE-mediated reactions) can be reintroduced to the diet safely after an initial period of healing – that healing requires intention and compliance. Spending weeks calming your immune system back down, healing your skin due to a flare-up, and getting “back on track”… is that worth a “cheat meal”?
Are “Cheat Days” Healthy?
Our biggest concern when it comes to “cheat days” is the mindset aspect.
“Cheat” has a negative connotation to it and may subconsciously impact a person’s mindset. We are taught from a young age that cheating is bad, so indulging in “forbidden” foods may lead to negative emotions. Changing the word to “treat” day or “treat” meal, may be a better term that is less likely to lead to feeling guilty and shameful about food choices.
A healthy weight loss program or nutrition plan is one that you can stick to. For most of us, this includes incorporating food for enjoyment within our lifestyle. When considering a “cheat day” or even a “treat day”, it is important to consider your goals as well. Ideally, we can include thoughtful indulgences within our dietary choices that offer enjoyment, and satisfy desires without hindering progress toward your health goals.
So, at the end of the day, if you are carefully choosing mindful indulgences that are in line with your health goals… that’s not cheating! That’s well-balanced, sensible, conscious decision-making – and it’s a foundation for long-term success with any dietary change and building or maintaining a healthy relationship with food.
“But I Deserve A Cheat Day!”
“But I deserve it”, is an argument heard frequently; usually when discussing a piece of cake, a bottle of wine, or some other dietary habit we intuitively know isn’t serving our best interests. But, really ask yourself, do you deserve it?
Let’s dig a little deeper…
Let’s say you’ve recently learned that you are lactose intolerant. Reactions to dairy products have been causing you digestive upset for most of your life. But, you’re craving a bowl of your favourite ice cream. You know that if you eat that ice cream you will be doubled over in pain within 30 minutes, and likely spend most of the next two days making frequent, uncomfortable trips to the washroom. Do you deserve all those symptoms? Absolutely not! You deserve to feel well.
To give another example, let’s imagine that you were diagnosed with an autoimmune condition after nearly a decade of various symptoms including chronic pain, skin rashes, insomnia, and weight gain. You’ve consulted a naturopathic doctor and a nutritionist and have undertaken a type of elimination diet called the Auto-Immune Protocol (AIP), designed to calm the immune system’s overreactions. You’ve been on the program for 4 weeks and have had marked improvements in nearly all your symptoms. But, you want a box of those brand-name cookies. You know that the cookies contain several ingredients that you’ve eliminated. You also feel confident the elimination phase of the protocol is working because you feel so good! Do you deserve a flare-up of the symptoms you struggled to get under control for a decade? Of course not! You deserve to be at your best. You deserve to heal.
The importance of understanding why you are making dietary changes, and how that impacts your personal health goals, cannot be understated. Considered more holistically, eating a bowl of ice cream only to condemn yourself to two days of pain and discomfort no longer seems as enjoyable!
Plus, there are almost always alternative food choices that can address specific cravings, desired flavours, or emotional comfort that may be sought from food – while still keeping on track with your health goals! It just takes a little creativity, and we’re here to share our experience!
We would rather call “cheat days” a “treat day” to help build or maintain a healthy relationship to food. If you work out an approach and frequency for indulgences that will not sabotage your health goals and is best for you, then go for it!
However, if you have a history of unhealthy eating patterns, emotional eating or food addictions, or difficulty regulating cravings then having a “treat day” might not be the best approach for you. If you’re on the ketogenic diet, have food sensitivities, or are on another therapeutic diet, then “treat days” may not be ideal for you either.
If these are not issues for you, then the best advice is plan out a “treat day” or “treat meal” mindfully to be consistent with your health goals, and then monitor your behaviours and emotions leading up to and after it. Was your response healthy? Were you able to resume your optimal diet with no problems and no major set backs?
If you are going to incorporate a “treat day”, we recommend ensuring it is not excessive, it is planned in advance, that nothing about it causes negative emotions like guilt or shame, and that even your “treat” food choices are truly in your best interest! Because you deserve to be well. As has been famously said, “there’s no cheating, just choices” … and that applies to food as well.