The Problem With Cheat Meals And Cheat Days (And What To Do Instead)

Years ago, if you asked me about cheat meals and cheat days, I would have said they were beneficial for helping you stick to your diet and reach whatever goal (typically losing fat) you set out to reach.

Back then, I was regularly recommending this “cheating” approach to others, providing guidelines for it in my articles, and using it within my own diet on a regular basis.

But now? I don’t use or recommend it at all.

Here’s why, and the much better approach I’ve been recommending in its place.

What Are Cheat Meals And Cheat Days?

You know how most diets require you to avoid eating certain yummy foods?

For example, typical junk food (e.g. cookies, chips, candy, ice cream, cake, sugar, etc.) is almost always off limits.

On certain “clean eating” diets, foods like white rice and white potatoes might also fall into the off-limits category.

The same is true of carbs on a low carb diet, fat on a low fat diet, grains on a Paleo diet, and on and on and on.

Regardless of the diet you’re on, chances are pretty good that there are foods you’re not allowed to eat.

But… What If You Wanted To Eat Them Anyway?

That’s where cheat meals and cheat days enter the equation.

These are methods that allow you to “cheat” on your normal diet and eat the types of usually-off-limits foods you’re not supposed to eat but still really want to eat.
  • With a cheat meal, you have a single meal containing one or more of these restricted foods.
  • With a cheat day, you have an entire day of eating these types of restricted foods.

The specifics can vary in terms of how often they should take place, whether there should still be any tracking of your calorie or macronutrient intake during these times, and so on.

But the big picture remains the same: you get to eat foods you love but aren’t normally allowed to eat.

What Are The Benefits Of Cheating?

Here are the 6 biggest benefits…

  1. They make the diet more enticing.
    Diets suck, and nobody wants to be on one (I think this will be the first line of my next diet book). But if you have to be on one in order to lose weight, build muscle or be healthy, which sounds more enticing to you: Diet A, which requires you to never eat your favorite yummy foods ever again, or Diet B, which allows you to eat those foods on occasion in the form of cheat meals and/or cheat days? Exactly.
  2. They give you something to look forward to.
    You know how people look forward to the weekend to make their work/school week a little easier? This is the same kind of thing. Let’s say you have a cheat day scheduled every 3-4 weeks. Suddenly weeks 1-2 don’t seem as tough because you know what’s coming a few weeks later. Now let’s say you have a cheat meal scheduled every Sunday. Eating how you’re supposed to eat on Wednesday becomes a little easier because you know what’s coming a few days later. These methods essentially provide a little light at the end of the diet tunnel and give you something positive to look forward to (in addition to your continued progress).
  3. They provide a mental break.
    Eating from a strict list of foods and/or eating specific amounts of calories and macronutrients each meal and each day, day after day, gets mentally draining. Getting a temporary break from that strictness (whether it’s a single meal or an entire day) from time to time provides a little boost of sanity to make the next few days/weeks easier.
  4. They allow you to eat your favorite yummy foods guilt-free!
    Getting to eat the yummy foods you love is a happy experience for obvious reasons, but take note of the “guilt-free” aspect of this. When you mess up on your diet and unintentionally eat these kinds of foods, you usually feel guilty about it afterward. But when you plan out instances in advance where you’re allowed to eat these foods? There’s no guilt involved. At least… there shouldn’t be.
  5. They prevent a breaking point from being reached.
    Do you know what happens to most people when they eliminate their favorite foods from their diet? They begin to feel hungry, deprived, annoyed, frustrated and generally pissed off at their diet because they miss eating those foods. And what happens next? They eventually reach a breaking point that causes them to go off of that diet altogether and fail to reach their goal. But that’s exactly where cheat meals and cheat days can help. By allowing you to occasionally eat those foods rather than lose your mind trying to avoid them completely… you can prevent that breaking point from ever coming about.
  6. They make the diet more sustainable.
    Combine the 5 benefits listed above and what do you get? You get sustainability. You get a diet you’re more likely to stick to. You get a diet that’s more tolerable for you. You get a diet you actually like — okay, maybe not like… but a diet that you at least hate less than every other diet that forces you to never eat these restricted foods under any circumstance.

Sounds pretty good so far, right?

It is.

Again, I spent a few years experiencing all of these benefits firsthand and seeing countless others experience them when they put these same methods into action.

When used correctly, cheat meals and cheat days work.

No, I didn’t find them to be ideal for everyone, but for many, this approach played a key role in their success.

And that brings us to an obvious question.

If this approach works, and it provides legitimate benefits, why did I stop using and recommending it?

Good question.

The Problems With Cheating

Aside from the most obvious potential issue here – which would be not using these methods correctly (i.e. doing it too often, turning it into a crazy binge eating session/day, etc.) – here’s what I found to be the 3 biggest problems…

Problem #1: “Cheating” Is A Negative Thing

The word “cheat” is rarely used in a positive way.

You cheat at a game. Your cheat on your spouse.

It definitely has a negative connotation.

So why did I suddenly become an elementary school vocabulary teacher to point this out to you?

Because the idea of “cheating” on your diet can lead to a poor relationship with that diet or really just food in general.

And when you take into account the related issues that many people already have (body image problems, eating disorders, etc.), it has the potential to do more harm than good.

I’ve seen it happen.

Problem #2: The Guilt Remains

As I mentioned earlier, one of the benefits of cheat meals/days are that they allow you to eat typically not-allowed foods in a guilt-free setting.

Win-win, right? Not quite.

Because even though it’s supposed to be guilt-free, the reality is that many people still feel guilty anyway.

Why is this?

Because when you classify certain foods as being “bad” and “not allowed” and then go days/weeks completely avoiding them for that reason… you end up feeling like you’re doing something wrong when you finally get to “cheat” on your diet and eat them.

Problem #3: It’s The Wrong Way To Get These Benefits

While there are real benefits to these methods, there’s one major underlying flaw behind their usage.

And that is, in order to benefit from cheat meals and cheat days, you must first have a diet that warrants cheating.

And that, in and of itself, is the biggest problem of all.

What I mean is, in order to have a need to “cheat” on your diet, you must first have a diet that…

  1. Categorizes certain foods/food groups as being “bad.”
  2. Makes those foods/food groups completely off limits because they are “bad.”

Only when both of those factors are in place is there an actual need to set up special occasional meals/days where you temporarily become allowed to eat these “bad” foods.

What’s wrong with this, you ask?

Everything. Everything is wrong with this.

Categorizing foods, food groups or nutrients as universally “bad” regardless of context is fundamentally wrong and goes against all of the logical, evidence-based diet guidelines I’ve given for the last 10+ years.

And removing those foods, food groups or nutrients from a person’s diet – when they are foods the person actually enjoys eating and would prefer to continue eating – because they are deemed “bad” is the opposite of the #PECS approach (aka making your diet as Preferable, Enjoyable, Convenient and Sustainable for you as possible… full details here: The PECS Method) that I recommend.

So What Does This Mean?

There is no denying the benefits that cheating can provide. Again, I experienced those benefits and watched others do the same. The benefits are real, and they can play an important part in making your diet successful in both the short and long term.

But the specific approach to getting these benefits? Cheat meals? Cheat days?


There’s a much better way to do it.

And it’s what I’ve been doing/recommending for years.

The Better Approach

It’s really simple…

Make your so-called “cheat foods” a small and regular part of an overall good diet.

That’s it.

Instead of excessively depriving yourself and completely eliminating certain foods/food groups for long periods of time (and hating every second of it) until you’re finally allowed to “cheat” a little before repeating this “deprive and cheat” cycle all over again… just keep these types of foods around in moderation and work them into your intended daily calorie and macronutrient intake.

In Moderation?

Now what do I mean by “in moderation,” you ask?

The way I like to explain it is like this…

The majority of your calorie and macronutrient intake should always come from higher quality, minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods you enjoy, while the typical junkier “bad” foods should be kept to a sane yet still enjoyable and sustainable minimum (PECS!).

For most people, a ratio like 90/10 or 80/20 (of “good” foods to “bad” foods) tends to be an ideal balance in terms of diet quality, sustainability, overall health, getting the 6 benefits we covered earlier, and… you know… life not sucking.

And when that’s happening… guess what? You no longer have a need to cheat.

That’s how I do it myself, and that’s how we do it in Superior Fat Loss.

It’s just a much more effective approach to the concept of “cheating.”

Need Help With Your Diet And Workout?

Don't waste another minute of your time searching for what to do. I've already done the research for you and created step-by-step plans that work. Select your goal below...

  • I Want To Build Muscle
    If you want to build lean muscle without gaining excess body fat, spending all of your time in the gym, using a diet or workout that isn't customized to you, or doing myth-based nonsense that only works for people with amazing genetics, check out: Superior Muscle Growth
  • I Want To Lose Fat
    If you want to lose body fat without losing muscle, feeling hungry all the time, using stupid restrictive diets, doing 100 hours of cardio, or struggling with plateaus, metabolic slowdown, and everything else that sucks about getting lean, check out: Superior Fat Loss

Get Your Perfect Workout

It takes less than 60 seconds...
Take The Quiz
About Jay
Jay is the science-based writer and researcher behind everything you've seen here. He has 15+ years of experience helping thousands of men and women lose fat, gain muscle, and build their "goal body." His work has been featured by the likes of Time, The Huffington Post, CNET, Business Week and more, referenced in studies, used in textbooks, quoted in publications, and adapted by coaches, trainers, and diet professionals at every level.