When Is It OK to Cheat? The Pros & Cons of Cheat Meals

by Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN
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When Is It OK to Cheat? The Pros & Cons of Cheat Meals

We’ve all been tempted to ‘cheat’ by indulging in less nutritious foods from time to time. After all, we’re only human. But is the idea of focusing on a cheat day or meal really beneficial to long-term health and weight management? The truth may surprise you: It’s really all about your mindset.


Just the word ‘cheat’ conjures up the negative idea you’re doing something wrong or that you should feel guilty for your choice, and that can be a slippery slope. “It’s like opening a door to permission to eat foods you crave but with such a narrow window of opportunity that the urge to get as much in as you can is very high,” says Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, author ofBody Kindness.”

As a result, cheat foods might be consumed hurriedly — without time to really savor the food. After a cheat meal or day, it’s normal to feel shame or guilt, negatively impacting future food choices.

These negative impacts may result in going down the slippery slope of eating more “bad” foods. Or it could go the other extreme of shunning cheat food, which can actually increase cravings and a desire to binge down the line.


However, since healthy eating is about balance, no food should ever be off limits. Allowing yourself to indulge in favorite foods helps prevent boredom and deprivation, which can spark cravings and a desire to binge. No matter what your health goals are, incorporating indulgences is the key to maintaining balance.

To indulge without hurting your health and weight-loss goals, shift your mindset from negative to positive. “Stop calling it ‘cheating’ and call it a flex meal. Not every meal has to be ‘nutrition first,’” points out Scritchfield. For this reason it’s important to allow yourself permission to eat all of the foods you love — and having a strategy is fundamental. Planning out your indulgence by portioning them in advance is a tip Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN,  authors ofThe Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure” and and co-founders of 21-Day Body Reboot suggest. This approach allows you to indulge without completely straying from your goals.

When you plan an indulgence, pay attention to what you want, then embrace the splurge. Enjoy it by eating slowly and take time to taste the food and really savor it. By eating intentionally, you’ll feel much more satisfied, even with a smaller portion of the indulgent food. Over time, you’ll notice allowing yourself permission to mindfully eat these foods results in fewer cravings, potential binges and an improved relationship with food.


  • Ida Know

    I recently did a refeed two days as I was experiencing constant hunger on day 20 of my diet. I’m no scientist but for me that 2 days must have raised my leptin levels because the hunger pangs subsided and have remained moderated since. I lost weight that week regardless and feel like I am better in tune with my body’s signals. I will say this though it does spark up habitual overeating thoughts on the day after. Will power was used that day not because of hunger but due to habit.

  • Mary Viellenave

    Last month I had the rare pleasure of a date night with my husband. A friend had mentioned that a local restaurant served monte cristo sandwiches…yeah, deep fried diet killers. Three days before the date I had looked up the calorie count, planned to eat half the sandwich on date night and had logged both that meal and the leftovers. I chose a healthier side and left room for soda calories. I chose this meal at a restaurant because they can deep fry like a boss, and I don’t cook like that at home. Then I made healthy choices the rest of the day to allow for the splurge. It was fun and I didn’t blow the budget or totally destroy my progress for the week. Life has special occasions and a diet needs to flex for them.