Do ‘Cheat Meals’ Help or Hurt Your Diet?

Our dietitians debate the pros and cons

Do ‘Cheat Meals’ Help or Hurt Your Diet?

You’re good about watching what you eat. But every now and then, you splurge on a meal that’s definitely not on any weight loss plan.

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Are ‘cheat meals’ a good thing or a bad thing? Our dietitians share their points of view:

Con: Cheaters never win

“With ‘cheat meals,’ the only thing you’re cheating is yourself,” says Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDE.

If you hope to lose 1 pound a week and burn 2,000 calories per day, you’ll have to cut 500 calories per day. That means consuming no more than 1,500 calories per day.

A cheat meal consisting of a double cheeseburger with fries and a milkshake can set you back over 2,000 calories.

“Once you’ve added in other meals and snacks, it literally cancels out half your hard work in meeting your calorie and exercise goals all week,” she says.

Pro (with a few caveats)

Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, is OK with cheat meals as a positive reward — as long as you offset the extra calories somewhere else in the day.

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“You can exercise for a longer period of time or at greater intensity, for example,” she says.

Whether cheat meals help or hurt depends on the person, says Julia Zumpano, RD, LD.

“If you feel less deprived by eating that piece of cake, or burger and fries, and don’t feel you have to order one of everything off the menu, it could lead to better long-term outcomes,” she says.

But know that indulging in “forbidden” foods can make you start to crave them. “And if you have a history of overeating or bingeing, cheat meals can trigger those behaviors,” she notes.

Gonna cheat? Be smart

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, recommends being strategic if you decide to cheat. “Don’t plan a cheat meal just to go nuts on your diet,” she says.

“Allow yourself to go off your diet for a special event. If you find you don’t feel like cheating, then don’t — don’t force it.”

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Also, keep those cheat meal choices fairly healthy, adds Ms. Patton:

  • Order a single cheeseburger instead of a double bacon cheeseburger.
  • Share your French fries.
  • Split a pasta primavera instead of ordering a whole fettuccine Alfredo.

How’s that diet working for you?

If you find you’ve created a pattern of cheat meals, “your diet is probably not livable,” says Ms. Taylor. Many diets are too strict.

Everything you eat needn’t be a dietitian’s daydream, she notes. Start with a foundation of fiber-rich produce, whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats.

Then give yourself some flexibility:

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

The bottom line: Don’t use food to reward, punish or comfort yourself. Strive for a healthy relationship with food, and you’ll enjoy a healthy weight — while also enjoying your meals.

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