Are “Cheat” Times a Good Diet Strategy?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
April 12, 2015

Probably not. Instead, try to eat fewer calories per meal day-to-day.

Changing your eating habits, whether to lose weight, keep it off, or otherwise manage your health, requires an exercise of will. The traditional view is that self-discipline is a character trait you can build up if you so choose. While you’re working on it, in theory, “cheat” days or meals are a necessary break that keep you from derailing completely.

This doesn’t mean that overweight people lack self-discipline — though they may need more. You may not realize the many demands that are being made on you. You exercise self-discipline not just when you stay away from French fries or do push-ups but in all kinds of social situations — holding your tongue with an irritating relative, keeping a pleasant demeanor during unnecessary meetings at the office, winning over a hostile stepchild. Added up, life may deplete will power in anyone.

Cheat times can save you getting bored with a diet and also boost your metabolism, especially if you do your extra intake after a workout. One rule of thumb is to keep your cheat eating to about 10 percent of your overall calories.

The problem: believing that you can compensate for indulgence tends to backfire, research suggests. You could easily end up eating more on your non-cheat days while feeling virtuous. We sometimes overeat food we don’t even consider especially tempting.

Animals have built-in mechanisms that keep them at a healthy weight. In general, if an animal is forcefed too much, it will eat less voluntarily for days or weeks. However, this isn’t true for every animal. You know what’s coming: when rats who are already obese have a binge, they can’t regulate their intake and weight afterwards like the cool lean rats.  

Some people argue that it’s best not to see dieting as a self-control issue and eat as you please. “From my personal, clinical and research experience, dieting does not work. The most predicted outcome long-term is weight gain,” says Alexis Conason, a New York psychotherapist and author of the “Anti Diet” blog and a research associate at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center. “I encourage people to eat whatever they want all the time. Ironically when we do that we start to pay attention to what we actually want and listen to our bodies.”

As great as this sounds, our bodies may not be giving us enough of the right cues. Studies overall seem to show that overweight humans need restraint. As an aIternative to a formal cheating program, you might try to build pleasurable food into ordinary days while keeping down the calories you consume at any sitting. Smaller portions and less calorie density cue your body to eat less at the next meal. Listen to your appetite, savor your food, and be grateful scientists are studying those obese rats.  


April 09, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN