The skinny on ‘cheat days’: help or hindrance?

By Linda M. Richmond
Published May 11, 2021

Key Takeaways

Pop culture is steeped in the lore of the “cheat day”—in fact, an internet search of the term yields more than 17 million results. Simply put, it’s the idea that paying heed to your nutritional goals 95% of the time allows you to consume otherwise forbidden foods like ice cream or pepperoni pizza—on a given day, or for a particular meal.

Statistics show that Americans do need to lose weight. According to the CDC, nearly 74% of adults are overweight or obese, and the government advises individuals to “aim for a healthy weight” by maintaining a healthy BMI, among other guidance.

But do cheat days really help you reach your nutrition and fitness goals?

In honor of National “Eat What You Want Day,”—which is today, mind you—MDLinx reviewed the evidence surrounding cheat days, and whether they help or harm your waistline and long-term health goals. National experts also weighed in on the use of cheat days and the efficacy of dieting itself.

Do cheat days actually work?

There is some evidence that cheat days can be helpful. In one study, amusingly named, “The benefits of behaving badly on occasion: Successful regulation by planned hedonic deviations,” researchers examined the benefit of behaving “badly” on occasion compared with following a straight and rigid “goal-striving” process.

Authors found that including a planned deviation from extended goal striving helped participants maintain motivation, regain self-regulatory resources, and improve their mood, according to the article published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. These benefits helped participants stick to their diets long term.

In an exclusive interview with MDLinx, Colleen Tewksbury, PhD, MPH, RDN, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Philadelphia, agreed that working cheat meals into one’s program can help people lose weight over the long term. “Evidence shows that people who follow a more lax schedule on the weekends coupled with a more restrictive eating style during the week may be more likely to sustain their changes,” she said.

Another study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, corroborates that. The study looked at more than 7,000 participants who tracked their calories on a weight loss app, and found that those who ate about 500 calories more on the weekend days and then got back on the bandwagon on Mondays lost more weight than other dieters.

Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined what methods have worked among the more than 4,000 successful dieters from the National Weight Control Registry. These individuals lost an average of 73 pounds and kept it off for more than 5 years. Two out of five of these participants reported that they eat more restrictively during the week than on weekends, and that they also limit their food intake more when they’re not on vacation vs when they are on holiday.

For those using this type of strategy, Tewksbury suggests reframing the term “cheat day,” as simply a “higher calorie” or “lax” day. “The term ‘cheating’ puts a negative connotation on something that could really be a positive part of someone’s overall nutrition plan,” she said. “Remember, there is not one food that is problematic. There is no good or bad food, it is morally neutral.”

However, consuming a pepperoni pizza plus half a tub of ice cream in one sitting is not the idea. “The key is to make sure it is planned and intentional. This isn’t a day of ‘no holds barred’ eating,” Tewksbury said. For optimal success, make a plan for higher calorie indulgences, including how much to eat, and stick to it. She added that individuals who experience complete loss of control or an inability to stop eating should seek the counsel of a healthcare professional or registered dietician.

Still, smaller weight losses should be expected for those deploying lax days, compared to individuals who follow a more restrictive diet every day, she said. “Studies show that physical activity may be a proactive measure for individuals who choose to integrate these lax days into their normal eating plan.”

Find out about the 5 worst dieting mistakes—and how to fix them on MDLinx.

Try ‘intuitive eating’ instead 

Not all experts are in favor of cheat days, and there is a growing faction concerned that weight loss diets themselves could be at the root of Americans’ weight problem. “Cheat days are ridiculous. When that day comes you’re out of control. The whole concept of the ‘cheat day’ is the epitome of what diets do to people,” said Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, in an exclusive interview with MDLinx. Resch is a Beverly Hills, CA, nutrition therapist who helped pioneer the concept of “intuitive eating” and co-wrote a book on the subject. Read Is ‘intuitive eating’ as simple as it sounds? on MDLinx to learn more about the concept. 

“Diets don’t work physiologically, because the body is deprived of nourishment; neurochemically, because the brain is starved of the energy it needs to function; and psychologically, because people are emotionally deprived when they don’t get to eat what they really want,” she said. One novel study on more than 2,000 sets of twins in Finland showed that dieting itself, independent of genetics, is significantly associated with weight gain and risk of being overweight, according to the International Journal of Obesity

“Putting people on diets for weight loss is only a temporary fix that leads to weight cycling,” defined as the constant gaining and losing of weight caused by yo-yo dieting, Resch said. “Diets are a major factor in the development of eating disorders and are a predictor of weight gain, and this type of diet especially.” 

Cheat days do share many similarities with binge eating disorder (BED), which is the most common eating disorder in the United States, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Individuals with BED also have recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often very quickly, and to the point of discomfort. Individuals with BED experience a feeling of a loss of control during a binge. 

However, one study of the two phenomena found an important distinction: Cheat meals typically do not confer psychological distress, as binges do for individuals with an eating disorder, authors noted, according to the study published in Appetite. “The solution is the anti-diet, recognizing that dieting is a failed concept that sets people up for weight gain, depression, and oppression of people who are larger-sized,” Resch said. “Less than 2% of dieters keep their weight off long term and many people end up weighing more as a result of dieting. Physicians wouldn’t prescribe a medication that has an efficacy this low.”  

Resch advocates instead for helping individuals attain health at their current size and shape, to teach them to accept their DNA programming, to listen to their signals of hunger and fullness, to make peace with all foods, and to stay present while eating and appreciate how satisfying their food is. “We need to reject ‘diet culture’ and to get back to that wisdom,” she said.

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