What Nutritionists Say About Cheat Days

Cheat days have both scientific pros and cons. It’s not easy, but finding a balance is possible.

Leigh Fisher
Nov 12, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo Courtesy of Ricka_Kinamoto

When you’re trying to live a healthier lifestyle, it always seems like there’s something on the horizon that’s going to make it harder. That could be a vacation, a battery of holidays, or some type of life event that makes eating well difficult.

But what’s the real impact of having a “cheat day?” Just how crazy should you go?

Even if you cheat and enjoy some extra calories, it’s still worth it to be aware of just how much you’re cheating by. On the plus side, cheat days can be a fun little indulgence that motivates you to stick with your diet.

Conversely, the problem with cheat days is that by implying that something is entirely off-limits makes you crave it even more. MyFitnessPal, a calorie tracking app, shared some advice from Sondra Kronberg, a registered dietitian.

“The very phrase ‘cheat day’ sets up enjoying a meal as something forbidden. Separating foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories encourages you to associate eating with guilt and shame.”

— Sondra Kronberg, RD

Thinking that there’s only “good” and “bad” food subtly closes your mind off to discovering healthy foods that taste fantastic.

If you want a cheat day where you have “bad” food and indulge in three slices of pizza, a huge amount of fries, or whatever your vice is, you’re setting yourself up to crave those cheat days desperately. You fall into thinking that only foods high in calories can taste good.

However, if you experiment with lots of different recipes and cuisines, it’s completely possible to make food with robust flavors that taste as good as anything you’d have on a cheat day.

It’s particularly important to remember that not all healthy food tastes like cardboard, especially if you’re socializing a lot or going to a lot of events.

There are two things that just don’t go together at first glance; diets and holidays. In most cultures, food is almost always part of a holiday celebration.

While this can be tremendous fun, it’s important not to overindulge. I’ve been striving to balance my diet goals with the myriad of holidays demanding celebration and I want to share a few things that have helped me keep making progress.

Plan what you’re going to eat; splurge on one part of your meal but not all of it.

Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

If you’re going to indulge in something a bit less nutritious, keep your portion size small.

You can enjoy your favorite foods without having a full-fledged “cheat day.”

You can have a slice of pizza once in a while, balance out the rest of your meals to be a little lower calorie than usual. You can still enjoy yourself when you’re out with friends.

When you’re adopting a healthier lifestyle, suddenly drowning yourself in sugar, high-fat foods, and less nutritious carbs isn’t going to serve you well.

Nutritionist Melainie Rogers, RD, says that having a cheat day where you eat a substantial amount of sweets can have “a massive impact on blood sugar and insulin levels,” Rogers says.

“You’ll wake up the next day craving more sugars and simple carbs, and you’ll find yourself feeling pretty ragged. And if you repeatedly increase your caloric intake above baseline, you may inadvertently end up gaining more weight over time.”

— Melainie Rogers, RD

For many of us, holidays and cheat days scattered throughout the year can wreak havoc on the new habits we’re trying to develop.

To offset some of that problematic cheat day mentality, I made it a point to have a lettuce wrap on my burger and a salad instead of potato chips.

Sometimes, on holidays, the best thing you can do is indulge a little bit but know when to draw the line.

This isn’t perfect eating, no. Plus, you shouldn’t do this on a daily basis. I’m focusing strictly on ways to mitigate the damage on holidays.

On holidays, choosing options are just a little bit healthier can go a long way.

Even if you’re going to exceed your daily requirement, track your calories anyway.

Photo Courtesy of TravelBook

If I’m going to have a break day, I have the tendency to just throw tracking out the window, into the street, and watch it get run over by a New York City cab driver in a rush.

While I’ve been guilty of doing this, I’m trying to stop.

You should still keep track of what you eat on a break day.

You can make slight modifications to your daily schedule or to your diet to offset the extra calories you consumed.

While it’s tempting to throw things to the wind, even if you know you’re going to have more calories than you should, keep tracking. After all, dieters really do need to weigh food, even if it feels like a chore.

It’s valuable to know just how much you’re overdoing it and adjust your eating or exercise routine throughout the week accordingly.

If you’re actively dieting, return to your diet without delay.

After a cheat day when you’re early or right in the middle of your diet plan, return to your plan. Don’t let one bad day turn into a bad week.

Whether you’re doing keto, paleo, or a simple caloric deficit diet, get back on your regular plan. Don’t let a cheat day turn into a cheat weak.

If you’re aching for a cheat day, try a new recipe with nutrient-dense ingredients.

Photo by Shayda Torabi on Unsplash

There are a lot of recipes out there that taste delicious, with rich, complicated flavor profiles, and are made of nutritious ingredients.

If you grab a cookbook or do some research online, it can be fun to experiment with trying new things.

The notion of a “balanced” diet can vary a lot, but we all know we need vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and not too many fats or sugars.

It might sound overly simplified, but it’s true.

I promise, it really is possible to have “healthy” and nutrient-dense food that still tastes fantastic.

Cooking meals like this does take some time and skill—I used to be the cliché terrible cook, but learning skills to make my healthier lifestyle permanent is more than worth the effort.

It does mean working on becoming a better cook, but it’s amazing how the right spices can make healthy food taste wonderful. Find recipes with a good balance of protein and healthy carbs.

If you do have a cheat day, let it be a reminder to stick with a very healthy diet on your regular days.

A lot of nutritionists side on the idea that cheat days aren’t an ideal method for balancing your diet. However, realistically speaking, they will happen sometimes. You’ll go to a party or a holiday event and eat some unhealthy food once in a while.

When this happens, do your best to be good for the rest of the week. If you do happy hour on Thursday, don’t splurge on a dessert coffee or a special lunch on Friday. Stick with your regular low-calorie meals that provide excellent nutrition. You can make balance as simple as this.

Every dieter is guilty of cheating on occasion; you might balance it right out by walking an extra mile or spending a little more time at the gym.

Healthline and licensed dietitian Natalie Butler outline why maintaining a balanced diet is vital to maintaining your overall health.

“A balanced diet is important because your organs and tissues need proper nutrition to work effectively. Without good nutrition, your body is more prone to disease, infection, fatigue, and poor performance.”

— Natalie Butler, RD, LD

It’s inevitable to have a few bad things or empty calories here and there, especially on calories, but it’s important not to overdo it.

Always remember, you’re working toward a healthier lifestyle, not just a temporary diet.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

You’re making a big change.

You’re not just following fads or doing something temporarily.

You have to enjoy the changes you make to your diet, because your “diet” is supposed to be everything you consume.

It’s not just something you do for a little while to drop a few pounds.

I’m just an average person who happens to be a writer and wants to share the experiences I’ve had on my quest to live a healthier life.

In this quest, I strive to do a lot of research and absorb information from people who are highly experienced nutritionists and dietitians.

Personally, I’ve been doing a caloric deficit diet where I only eat 1,200 calories per day. I’ve taken a few breaks from the deficit and spent a week here and there eating at my maintenance level of caloric needs.

All in all, I’ve managed to drop over thirty pounds in the last ten months. It’s not groundbreaking speed, but realistically speaking, slowly and consistently changing my diet is better than doing extreme measures to lose weight fast.

You can change the way you eat and enjoy it. You can live a healthier lifestyle without completely sacrificing your favorite foods.

It’s completely possible to enjoy things you love, just in moderation, and without falling back on that old idea of a cheat day.

Leigh Fisher

Written by

Writer and poet from Neptune. No, not the farthest planet from the sun, but Neptune, New Jersey. I work in communications and instructional design in NYC.

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