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

Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN
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.

About the Author

Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN
Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN

Erin is the author of the best selling ‘Belly Fat Diet For Dummies’ and ‘2 Day Diabetes Diet.’ As a diabetes and weight management specialist, she frequently serves as a media spokesperson, nutrition consultant, and speaker while operating a private nutrition counseling practice in NJ. You can connect with Erin through her blog, Mommyhood Bytes, as well on Pinterest, VineInstagram, Twitter and Facebook.


4 responses to “When Is It OK to Cheat? The Pros & Cons of Cheat Meals”

  1. Avatar Ida Know says:

    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.

  2. Avatar Mary Viellenave says:

    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.

    • Avatar Lee says:

      That’s awesome! I love your strategy and it’s extra special when your significant other is able to give you a heads up so you have time to prepare in order to make the meal even more enjoyable. I make every attempt possible to do the same, and it works out well for me. Every year, as an example, the “experts” claim that most people consume 3,000 calories on Thanksgiving day. It’s so easy to eat a lot on a holiday, so I decided to find out how much food I would actually eat on Thanksgiving prior to the day. In the morning, I made a turkey sausage and egg on an english muffin (320 calories) and then I pre-logged what I would think I would eat at the Thanksgiving table and make adjustments accordingly. Stick with one slice of pie and then for Dinner, leftover turkey and one side. Less than 1,000 calories for Thanksgiving meal and at the end of the day, approx. 2,100 calories. I didn’t gain any weight and actually ended up losing a lb overall. Splurging is possible without feeling guilty and is manageable. What gets me into trouble is not having access to a home cooked meal and I end up going fast food.

  3. Avatar RastaFourEye says:

    I never thought of any meals as “cheat” meals. I don’t know who introduced the term. But now you’ve introduced it to me you’re telling me if I think of them that way it’s the “wrong mindset.” Thanks! If you think of any other things you think I shouldn’t think please bring them to my attention so I can think about them.

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