Whether you’ve decided to reduce your sugar intake, you’re trying to reduce the number on the scale or you’re adjusting your diet to deal with a chronic health condition, changing your eating habits isn’t easy. And anyone who’s attempted to adjust their approach to eating can tell you that some days are easier than others. Some days, you just want to “break the rules” and eat whatever you want.
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“Cheat days,” as they’re commonly called, are a subject of considerable debate among dietitians, especially when it comes to eating to support weight loss. Some people say they can have a positive impact on your metabolism. Others say that needing a cheat day is probably a sign that your current eating plan — and possibly your relationship with food — needs rethinking.
We talked to registered dietitian Anna Taylor, RD, LD, about the arguments for and against cheat days. And she explains why, after reviewing the evidence, she’s concluded that “rewarding” yourself with a cheat day after sticking to your weight loss plan all week will backfire on you.
While Taylor isn’t a fan of cheat days, there are some arguments that advocates make in their favor.
The most common reason people support cheat days is psychological. Some find that the prospect of indulging helps them stay disciplined the rest of the time — and there’s some research to suggest that “planned hedonic deviations” really can help us stay on track.
The best eating plan is the one that (1) you can stick to and (2) that doesn’t rob you of the joy of eating. For some people, cheat days do just that.
Setting motivation aside, there’s also a scientific case for cheat days — it just isn’t an especially rigorous one. Some researchers theorize that the occasional cheat day improves your metabolic rate.
The basic idea is that occasionally deviating from an eating plan helps temporarily raise your body’s levels of leptin. Leptin is a hormone that tells you when you’re full. When you’re on a restrictive diet, leptin levels go down to encourage you to eat. In theory, cheat days help override that survival mechanism and prevent you from feeling really hungry while dieting.
There are some studies that suggest this theory’s valid … sort of. The thing is, most of studies that people point to as supporting the use of cheat days aren’t really studying cheat days at all. In some cases they’re focused on refeed days for athletes or intermittent energy balancing protocols — neither of which are really “cheat days.” In the case of the intermittent energy balancing study, the participants ate meals that were planned and prepared by a dietitian at all times. That’s hardly “cheating.”
Taylor is of the opinion that any short-term benefits you might get from a cheat day are outweighed by the harm they cause.
There are two main reasons she — and plenty of other experts — advise against cheat days.
Let’s start with the impact cheat days have on weight loss. While your metabolism may go up in the immediate aftermath of a splurge, it doesn’t stay that way for long enough to make a significant difference.
“Cheat day calories can add up fast and bring your weight loss progress to a screeching halt — or even reverse it,” Taylor warns. “What’s the point of working hard all week to create a calorie deficit, just to undo it completely with a calorie splurge on the weekend?”
To make matters worse, a quick tour of social media will tell you that a lot of people aren’t exactly clear on what a “cheat day” is supposed to be. They actually make a whole day of it, consuming thousands upon thousands of calories worth of fast food, sweets, sugary drinks or other calorie-dense foods.
That’s not really cheating. It’s overeating. In some cases, its binge eating. And it can open the door — if it’s not already open — to a wide range of disordered eating behaviors.
A 2022 article in the Journal of Eating Disorders found that, among adolescents, eating cheat meals “is linked to greater eating disorder behaviors and psychopathology, including binge-eating episodes.“
The physical benefits of cheat days are questionable at best. And they clearly come with their own risks. But setting those issues aside, they also reinforce some outdated ways of thinking about food and weight loss.
“Having a cheat day implies that a healthy diet is all-or-nothing — that you’re either ‘off the plan’ or ‘on the plan,’” Taylor explains. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
If sustainable weight loss is your goal, Taylor emphasizes that labeling certain foods “good” and others “bad” isn’t the way to go. It adds moral baggage to every decision you make about food and encourages a black-or-white, extreme approach to dieting. Unless it makes you physically ill, no food needs to be off limits all the time. A deprivation mindset doesn’t do you any good.
In a world without cheat days, every day is an opportunity to enjoy what you eat.
“A healthy diet is a balanced one,” Taylor encourages. “My mantra is 80/20 or 90/10.” She explains that if you want to stay healthy, healthful foods should make up about 80% of your total calories. If you want to better your health, they should make up about 90% of your total calories.
The remaining 20% or 10% represents wiggle room. Not everything you eat has to enhance your health, but you need to be mindful of portion size when enjoying those foods.
Instead of a cheat day, Taylor recommends spreading the extra calories throughout the week.
“Otherwise, you’ll start associating cheat days with ‘treating yourself’ or ‘being bad,’” she further explains. “Using food as a ‘tool’ at either extreme won’t sustain long-term weight loss.”
If you’re trying to decide whether or not to incorporate cheat days into your weight loss plan, there are a few things you need to remember:
Whether you’re a “yes” or a “no” on cheat days, it’s important to remember that you have a right to enjoy and have a healthy relationship with food. Any eating plan that leaves you feeling hungry and deprived isn’t going to be sustainable in the long term, so if that’s where you’re finding yourself, talk to your healthcare provider. They’ll help you figure out what about your approach needs adjusting.