Do ‘Cheat Meals’ Help or Hurt Your Diet?

Balance, moderation and a positive mindset are key
pizza with salad on the side a healthy cheat meal

Whether you’re on a specific diet or just being more aware of eating healthfully, everyone is familiar with temptation — and just one cheat meal won’t wreck the whole effort, right?

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There are different schools of thought on the topic and different experts are going to give you a wide range of answers. But according to registered dietitian Kate Patton, RD, LD, yes, a cheat meal is OK now and again, but it comes with caveats.

What is a cheat meal?

“Cheat meals” are meals that contain foods that aren’t on your current diet plan or are considered indulgent with a calorie count that would throw off your plan. But the idea that a cheat meal includes unhealthy foods (like a fast-food burger or milkshake) isn’t always the case. It’s about what’s on your health plan.

How often is a cheat meal OK?

“Don’t plan a cheat meal just for the sake of having a cheat meal,” advises Patton. “You can always try to go slow at first. Maybe allow yourself to step off your diet just for a very special occasion. If you discover then that it’s not for you, then don’t force it.”

One way to look at your diet and still allow a bit of flexibility for sweet or savory treats is by building in a little flexibility.

  • To maintain health, eat healthy food 80% of the time, and allow yourself 20% wiggle room (practicing portion control).
  • To improve health, eat healthy foods 90% of the time, and allow yourself 10% wiggle room.

It’s all about maintaining a healthy relationship with food and not labeling food as “good” or “bad,” says Patton. The more you can avoid associating food, your consumption and negative thoughts, the better.

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She also adds that offsetting your cheat meal or cheat item with extra exercise (within reason, of course) is another way of balancing things out. “Exercising for a longer period or at a higher intensity somewhere else in your day can help with the extra calories you’re adding.”

The risks of cheat meals

Now, about those caveats.

First of all, cheat meals don’t work for everyone. It’s easy for them to become a slippery slope into a cheat day or even more regular cheat meals that offset any progress you’re making on your diet. Knowing your eating patterns and how you react to cheat meals is essential.

Don’t blow out that calorie count

Keep your cheat meal sensible. You’ll run into trouble when you go all-in on a fast-food banquet. A double-cheeseburger with large fries and a large soda can easily add up for your calorie intake for a whole day in just one meal. And that doesn’t take into account other negative components like sodium and saturated fats.

It’s possible to cycle in something a little indulgent — like a single cheeseburger — with healthier side items (veggies or salads). You’re still increasing your calorie count for the day but not to a point where you can’t make it up. It’s all about that balance and moderation.

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A negative viewpoint

Many of us can fall into the trap of treating food like a tool to punish or comfort ourselves. While eating a big slice of cake may help you immediately feel better after a bad day, most times, you’ll eventually feel a bit worse from all that sugar and regret that choice.

Cheat meals can, over time, also create a feeling like a diet or meal plan is all or nothing, that if you don’t strictly follow that plan, you’re a failure. “It’s about maintaining a healthy balance overall,” says Patton. “It’s possible to have a healthy diet or meal plan that doesn’t cut anything out, it just shifts the focus to portion control.”

The right diet

A diet or healthier food plan should always start with a conversation with your healthcare provider. They’re the best-informed person about your health and what works for you. They can help you come up with a plan that fits your framework or refer you to a nutrition expert who can.

If you find yourself falling into a pattern of cheat meals, there’s a good chance the diet isn’t sustainable for you anyway. Remember, it’s all about the balance and keeping your relationship with food a positive one.

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