Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Do you daydream about your next cheat meal? Many people who diet or restrict their nutrition — whether that’s through caloric intake, carbs, sugar, or any number of other specific constraints — live for the sweet glory of their cheat meals. And while this may be the right approach for some, it’s not necessarily the best plan for everyone. In fact, your personality may be the determining factor in how successful or detrimental this philosophy is to your overall healthy lifestyle.
“Some of us are able to be rigid and regimented with no adverse effects from this type of discipline; however, there are a fair number of individuals who cause themselves emotional stress and occasionally disordered eating with this way of thinking,” says holistic nutritionist Nicole Ritieni, RN, a graduate of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition who works at New York Center for Innovative Medicine. “They begin to overanalyze each bite and lose the enjoyment that comes with food.”
Most experts agree that there are several pros and cons to carefully consider when deciding if cheat meals are right for you:
Benefits of Cheat Meals
It may benefit those with reward-driven personalities. “If I know my client thrives on incentives and is in the proper head space when it comes to eating habits, we would create a cheat meal schedule for them to follow,” says Arnit Kobryniec, a certified personal trainer in South Florida who has a master’s degree in psychology, specializing in eating habits and behaviors. “Cheat meals are seen as a reward for a behavior. If someone is committed to their goal, cheat meals can give them something to work toward.”
Creating awareness of reactions to foods. “When we think of cheat days, it often includes ‘eating whatever we want,’ even when we know we won’t feel great afterwards,” says Ritieni. “I think the benefit of cheat days or meals can simply be recognizing what those specific foods are. It’s important to become aware of how our body reacts to different things we choose to ingest. Abiding by cheat days in the past actually encouraged me to avoid them, and to eat foods that make me feel good without overdoing it.”
One indulgence won’t derail your efforts. “Indulging in foods that may be considered ‘unhealthy’ every now and then will not derail someone in their health journey,” says Ritieni. “Food is meant to nourish us, not create stress and shame when we give ourselves unattainable guidelines.”
Cons of Cheat Meals
It may mess with your head. “Our goal is really to have a sustainable eating lifestyle,” explains Kobryniec. “We don’t want to always be yo-yoing. By saying ‘cheat’ meal, it means we are restricting ourselves from things that we enjoy. Rewarding ourselves with food leads to an unhealthy relationship with food. We end up teaching ourselves that if we do good at restricting ourselves, then we will be rewarded with an unhealthy meal.”
It could accidentally turn into something bigger (like a binge). “It’s like tasting the forbidden fruit — you may want even more because you’re told not to have it,” says Kobryniec. “And once that begins, we as humans are subconscious eaters. We aren’t aware of how much we are taking in, especially when we know we can’t have it again for another week.”
You may end up regretting them. “Cheat days and meals can absolutely cause binges that may derail someone’s goals,” says Ritieni. “In turn, this makes people feel crappy physically and shame themselves emotionally. Eating healthy six days a week just to overload our bodies with a bunch of unhealthy foods requires many days to get back on track. It can cause someone to lose sight of eating to maintain health and happiness and instead focus on reward and punishment.”
A Smarter Way to Cheat
Whether you’ve decided cheat meals are going to be part of your lifestyle or you’re still experimenting to see if it’s a fit, follow these best practices to increase your chances of success:
- Plan ahead. “Set it up in advance and know what you’ll have, so you don’t ‘eat with your eyes,’” says Kobryniec. “And choose just one time per week.”
- Set some boundaries. “I tell clients the cheat lasts from the moment you sit down until you get up from the table,” says Kobryniec. “That’s a great way to insert some control and stop it from turning into a binge or an entire cheat day.”
- Let go of the guilt. “Allow yourself some grace and know if you have a cheat meal that guilt won’t make what you ate go away,” says Kobryniec. “Don’t feel bad about it.”
At the end of the day, Ritieni says everyone must find what works for them and be honest about whether it’s serving their best interests.
“When we constantly overthink what foods we’re eating, it can lead to disordered eating, higher stress levels, and poor health,” she adds. “Tailoring someone’s diet by creating sustainable health practices that meet their individual needs leads to true long-term health. Dietary standards that don’t create feelings of having to take a break is a liberating decision.”