Cheat Day vs Cheat Meal: Which Is Best For Weight Loss?

by Marixie Ann Obsioma, MT, undergrad MD on May 22, 2019
Last updated on May 23, 2021

The prevalence of obesity is continuously rising and it has affected approximately 93 million US adults in 2016. It has caused several serious health conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, stroke, and certain types of cancer (1).


Luckily, obesity is a treatable condition (2). For this reason alone, the search for effective weight loss strategies should be more fervent. While picking the right regimen can be difficult, often the greatest challenge is starting and maintaining new habits that will support your health and weight loss goals without getting the foods you love off the table.

Surely, you have seen several posts about incorporating cheat meals or cheat days into a diet plan by some popular and successful fitness enthusiasts. It is making a huge craze in social media. Though nutrition is highly personalized, one thing most of us share is the urge to lose every now and then.

Cravings are just very hard to deny. Whether giving into them will help or hurt you will depend on how you approach it. This article will discuss what cheats meals or cheat days really do to your body and the things you should and should not do if you decided to indulge.

What Are Cheat Days and Cheat Meals?

Cheating on a diet plan gives you a chance to break strict diet rules for a limited period of time. It is believed that by allowing yourself brief periods of indulgence, you will more likely be able to maintain your prescribed diet.

You may either have a cheat meal or a cheat day. As their name implies, a cheat meal gives you an opportunity to veer away one meal from your prescribed diet, while a cheat day allows for free food options for the whole day.

Cheat diet techniques may vary. How they are done may not appear the same for different people. They would highly depend on one’s needs, preferences, and goals. The food one eats as cheat meals will also differ from one person to another due to tastes, but normally they are high-calorie foods that are restricted on a usual diet plan.

There is really no strict guideline for when or how often would like to do a cheat meal or day. While they are adaptable, however, you must remember that this approach is not suitable for all diet styles. To be more specific, the ketogenic diet requires strict adherence, hence no room for cheat meals or days.

How Do Cheat Meals or Days Affect You and Your Body?

We all respond differently to weight management as our body composition is complex and unique from one another. But generally, cheat meals or days may give us the following effects:

Weight Loss and Metabolic Changes

It is claimed that cheat meals can cause measurable changes in body composition and boost metabolism because of instability in leptin levels.

Leptin suppresses feelings of hunger. While some research links significant weight loss with low leptin levels, other studies say otherwise (3).
One common theory in weight management is that with low levels of leptin, you are more likely to overeat. There is not enough hormone to send signals to the brain that you are full, hence increases the possibility of rebound weight gain.

Supporters of the cheat meal strategy also theorize that intermittent intake of high-calorie foods will make your body produce more leptin. Though the effect is just temporary, this will still help prevent rebound overeating. However, there’s not enough evidence to support this theory.

More research is needed to prove the association between weight loss and a person’s ability to control eating behaviors.

Unplanned Indulgence Makes for Good Motivation

Another important component of cheat meals is the theory that by occasionally indulging in foods restricted on your diet, you’ll have the motivation to stick to your weight loss plan. It works like a reward system. Some are successful in resisting temptation knowing that cheat day is fast approaching, while others cannot regulate their own eating behaviors. Thus, results may differ for every individual (4).

Also, if you cannot control yourself during cheat meals of the day, you run the risk of undoing your initial weight loss efforts and end up eating more calories. Cheat meals should be planned appropriately. They are not passes for excessive overeating.

Again, the most effective weight loss method is the one that you can stick to.

The craze about incorporating cheat meals into your diet has become popular through social media. For sure, you have seen several photos of fit people with indulgent foods, giving the impression that the cheat meal strategy served as the key to their praised physical appearance.
While the above-mentioned positive effects can possibly help in weight loss, cheat meals or days may also encourage unhealthy behaviors.

Cheat or Treat?

To successfully maintain weight loss, you must eat fewer calories than you burn each day. Your attitude towards food also plays a big role when it comes to resisting temptation and regulating eating behaviors.

Cheat is almost always associated with feelings of guilt. The use of this word to describe a meal may affect your ability to do self-control even within the cheat meal framework.

A 3-month study revealed that people who ate chocolate cake to celebrate are more successful with their weight loss goals as compared to those who linked it to guilt (4).

And since cheat meals focus on a reward-based system, it may not be suitable for those who have a hard time controlling stress or emotional eating. Some may even feel hopeless and guilty (5).

By simply rewording a cheat meal positively like a treat meal can help to better support self-control and healthy eating behaviors (4).

Binge Eating

Another major concern with a cheat meal or day strategy is its potential to encourage a binge-style eating behavior. This can exacerbate eating-related problems.

A study shows that those who turn on food to cope up with a situation are more susceptible to binge eating (6). Knowing your motives for eating your desired cheat foods is very important to ensure that you are choosing the best approach to weight loss based on your personal needs.

Focusing on Looks

As you have seen online, the cheat meal strategy is well advertised by celebrities and athletes. Sometimes, it gives a portrayal of ambitious body images that can be harmful to the general public.

Concentrating on the superficial aspects of weight loss can negatively affect your mental health. It enhances feelings of anxiety and encourages disordered eating tendencies, specifically among young women (7, 8, 9).

The cheat meal strategy should be approached with a healthy mindset together and realistic goals.

Other Tips to Consider

Even with the willpower of steel, you are still at risk of splurging on something sooner or later. How do you keep one cheat meal or day from turning into a cheat month? Slow down and follow the tips below:

1. Don’t think of it as “cheating”

As mentioned earlier, you may want to reconsider calling it a cheat day or meal. Think of it as consciously indulging and think of other names. Enjoy your meal without feeling guilty. The more guilt you feel about eating your favorite food, the more that you are likely to overeat.

2. Stick to One Guilty Pleasure

Another technique that may benefit your diet efforts is to stick to the one cheat food. Instead of having burger and ice cream all at once, just pick one.

Focusing your attention to just a single treat, you’ll be less likely to tip the scales in an unhealthy direction.

3. Splurge then Detoxify

Make positive, healthy steps to the future after eating a cheat meal. Eat foods that you know are healthy; something that can help clean your body. Foods like broccoli, which can help detoxify are excellent choices. Probiotics can help offset damages on your digestive tract. Water and potassium-rich foods can help reduce bloating. Get back on track after cheating.

4. Hit the Gym

Returning to a healthy diet can help you lose weight, especially if you’ll also get your heart rate up. Exercise has always been a powerful tool for more than just a calorie burn. People feel better after exercise, which gives them a healthier mindset to avoid unwanted cravings.

Anything counts when it comes to exercising. You can choose to walk, run, and jog nearby home. You may also swim, snorkel, and paddle board while on vacation to add more fun.


Cheat days or meals can both effectively motivate people to stick to their diet, except for those with emotional, disordered eating tendencies.


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