Weight Loss Advice

Are “Cheat Days” a Good or Bad Idea?

Share This

By Patricia Jurek, RD, MBA

While cheating is usually viewed as a bad thing, some dieters claim it can act as a sort of bridge to keep them on a healthy track. In fact, some diets actually incorporate “cheat days” or “cheat meals” into the program so dieters don’t feel deprived. The gist: You follow a healthy eating plan the majority of the time, but during the designated cheat period, you eat whatever you like.

The concept of “cheating” is especially enticing to people who are cutting out entire food groups, since sticking to those regimens for extended periods of time can be difficult (and typically isn’t recommended). Unfortunately, a cheat day mindset can lead dieters to failure, particularly if they’re ingesting an entire day’s worth of calories in one sitting. Some people even find their cheat meal or cheat day evolves into a week (or longer) of making less healthy choices.

A better approach: Follow a healthy lifestyle all of the time, one that allows for occasional indulgences. Then avoid the slippery slope that often occurs with cheat days by remembering this acronym: SLIP.

S = Stop (the problem behavior)

Once you think, “I don’t want to be eating this,” stop! Hit the pause button on your actions. Are you eating a calorie-laden dessert that will derail the rest of your day, sipping a sugary soda or mindlessly noshing on chips? No matter what the dietary culprit, taking time to pause will allow you to …

L= Look (at the situation objectively)

Evaluate the situation and decide whether you really want to continue indulging. There’s no right or wrong answer here. If it’s your birthday and a slice of chocolate cake is calling your name, go for it. Just compensate for those extra calories somewhere else in your day – skip your morning latte, eat your salad without the dressing and extra toppings or spend an extra 20 minutes on the treadmill. Taking the time to assess the situation transforms mindless eating — and the negative self-talk that often follows — to “mindful” eating or a decision to stop.   

I= Investigate (the situation further)

Take a few minutes that day or the next to reconsider the challenging situation. Investigating gives you an opportunity to tweak the chain of events that led to the “cheat” episode the next time you find yourself in a similar scenario. Some questions to ask: What was the challenge? What didn’t work? What got in the way of my original plan?

P= Plan (for a future similar situation)

Finally, plan. What will I do different next time? Brainstorm obvious easy wins and come up with some extreme solutions, too. What would you do the same? Remember, a diet is an eating choice. A lifestyle is the repeated pattern. When you’re striving to achieve a healthy lifestyle, setting yourself up for success is critical. Transform your home into an environment of healthy choices. Keep healthful whole foods on hand and discard any obvious food traps.

Related Topic: Hit a Weight-Loss Plateau? 8 Ways to Get Over It

If you do choose to use a “cheat day” or “cheat meal” approach, continue to be mindful. Take ownership of the choices you make so you can maintain control. And keep in mind that portion control is key – cheat day or not. Plan exactly what you’re going to indulge in and stick to a reasonable portion (half a cup of ice cream, for example, not the whole pint). Otherwise, your cheat allowance could easily snowball into a day’s worth of calories.

Remember that every day is a journey, you are creating your lifestyle one day, one meal, one step at a time.

Still not clear whether you should invite cheating into your life? Henry Ford’s Center for Weight Management offers an intensive lifestyle intervention program to help you find your way. Visit henryford.com/weightloss or call 1-800-756-9890 to speak with a registered dietitian.