Which One Is Better: Cheat Day or Cheat Meal?

by Rakib Sarwar, RPh
Published on May 13, 2024
a man holding a burger

Wave goodbye to those strict diet rules! Imagine giving yourself a cheat day or meal as a pat on the back for eating so well throughout the week. Picture it as your delicious reward for sticking to the plan. They say, “reward meals” or “free meals,” but hey, it’s all about treating yourself to those favorites usually not on the menu. So, who’s this a win for? Anyone looking for a guilt-free pass from their tight diet schedule. Hang tight, because you’re about to find out how a little indulgence is actually the magic ingredient for a joy-filled diet adventure.

First of all, let’s say that many nutritionists and dieticians do not like cheating. However, a well-designed “cheat meal” or even a “cheat day” is very popular (1). This meal can help you stay on your diet in many ways.

What is the story behind the diet cheating? Is it fair to call it cheating at all? The essence of the cheat day or cheat meal is that you are fed up with the rules of the diet you are on during the greater part of the week, and you start feeling pressure or even become tempted to give up. This is when you should reward yourself with something you like to eat.

The strategy of cheating can be applied to different types of diets, but good self-assessment is necessary. First, it is necessary to precisely define the goals of the diet, daily nutrition habits, and your previous diet successes and failures. Only then you can decide how to implement the cheat day or cheat meal.

What is a cheat day?

The so-called “cheat day” is the favorite day in a week of all of you who are on a diet. It is the day you can eat whatever you want, regardless of your diet!

How does it actually work? You should take care of what you eat for the whole week, every week. Increase the intake of vegetables, reduce the intake of fats or carbohydrates (depending on the type of your diet). Then, relax! Most people pick Saturday or Sunday as their cheat day. This is the time when you can eat pizza or fried meat and potatoes. Here comes the best part: you can accompany it with your favorite dessert!

Scientists say that planned loss of control, or the so-called “cheat day”, can help people withstand the pressure of a long-term healthy diet and reinforce their will for weight loss (2).

It actually makes sense. If you just think about how you can never enjoy a delicious pasta or cakes, you’ll sooner or later give in your urges and give up on your diet.

Instead, you will be able to keep your healthy diet and make proper food choices when you know that you will enjoy and award yourself during the weekend.

You are probably wondering if it means that you will destroy all the hard work you’ve done during the week? Actually not.

Planned “cheating” or “meal sins” in your diet may seem like you can undo everything you’ve accomplished, but in fact, it is completely the opposite! The cheat days are like mini vacations for your mind and body. That is why more and more modern dietitians and nutritionists suggest relying on one day in a week when you can “cheat” in your diet.

What is a cheat meal?

We believe that you have made a mental image of what a cheat day or cheat meal is. Similar to the cheat day, one of the ways you can relax during a rigorous long-term diet is by introducing a “cheat meal”. This is a kind of psychological relief that will motivate you to continue your diet. The key difference between the cheat day and meal is simple, as the name itself implies. The cheat meal is a single meal you choose that does not fit your diet, instead a whole cheat day people usually opt for on the weekend.

You will not get fat from one ‘cheat meal’. A pre-planned “cheat meal” will not ruin your diet because you will not exaggerate with only one meal. Also, you will be relieved of the previous several-day restrictions and have the energy for a new wave of diet.

The “pause” in the planned diet helps combat adaptive thermogenesis, and studies have shown that it is associated with an increase in TDEE (total daily energy consumption of an individual), which suggests that it works to maintain the existing body weight.

TDEE consists of several components, and the largest among them is the basal metabolism index (BMI), i.e. the daily amount of energy that is consumed in the idle state.

Metabolism of each person is variable and dependent on a number of factors. At the stage of losing excess weight, the level of TDEE is constantly decreasing. Namely, losing weight results in the loss of metabolically active tissues.

Adaptive thermogenesis is the explanation for the increased difficulty when it comes to losing weight after reaching a certain level, despite low-calorie intake. Also, adaptive thermogenesis is partially responsible for the recovery of lost weight. This is why a cheat meal can help you and your diet.

*Tip: Rebalance your needs

People on a diet need to try to rebalance caloric needs when they reach their desired weight to continue losing weight and prevent adaptive thermogenesis.

This is why you should carefully plan the cheat days or cheat meals in advance, so that it really serves as a psychological relief during the diet, without ruining your efforts.

How often should you have a cheat day/meal?

Even though you may think that implementing a cheat day/meal once in a week is already an extremely lenient way of being on a diet, there are some rules.

It’s up to you to choose your day, but remember that you may wish to not do it more than once a week because the diet will lose its meaning.

It can be one meal or both meals on Sundays – within reasonable limits. Also, you can choose to have a cheat day once every two weeks.

The most important thing is to know that there are moments when you can eat whatever you want, whatever your favorite dishes are, no matter how caloric they are – without any hesitation! However, be aware that you may wish to continue with your diet the next day.

So, to answer the question asked in this subtitle, you should not have a cheat day more than once a week.

Diet cheating plans

Here, we will present several cheating plans that will improve your diet and not ruin it. Those include:

  • Plan 90/10
  • Plan 80/20
  • Plan for “Cheating Day”.

The whole cheat-meal or cheat-day principle works if it is carefully planned. After several days of low-calorie intake, cheating in a diet may be beneficial to your metabolism if the stored glycogen is consumed the next day.

Remember that the things you do every day have a great impact on the things you do once a week. Let’s learn how to plan a cheat meal.

Plan a cheat meal

The simplest way to “cheat” in your diet is to apply the strategy of a single cheat meal. Once a week, plan a meal that you love and enjoy. Simple eat it and relax.

One “full” meal is a practical and attractive way for those who can control themselves. However, if you know that you cannot control yourself, you should not fall into this trap. If you have self-control issues, a cheat day is a better option for you.

Here are some tips on implementing the cheat meal. First of all, if you have just started your diet, you should not feel obliged to implement a cheat meal. You are probably motivated and don’t need a cheat meal at all.

If you feel a need for a cheat meal, you should eat what you want until you are satisfied, not until you are done with everything on the plate! For example, take only two pieces of a pizza, not the whole pizza. Find your balance. If you really like hamburgers, take one, but omit the French fries.

Long story short, a cheat meal should not ruin your diet. It should boost your motivation and make it easier for you to be on a diet.

Plan 90/10

This plan, the so-called plan 90/10 means that 90 percent of your time (when you are eating) is according to the rules of your diet and you should not cheat, not even for a moment. The remaining 10% of your eating time/habits is the time you are allowed to cheat.

This plan best suits women and people with office jobs that consume not so many calories and don’t have so many eating habits and demands during their week, due to the nature of their job.

People with high body weight, people who eat a lot due to some psychological issues, such as anxiety, and people who are struggling with diet, have to use this strategy very carefully. For these people, the 90/10 plan can be too demanding and they could fail.

How to apply the 90/10 plan? Determine how many times a meal is allowed during the week. If you have three meals and one snack a day, it means you eat 28 times a week. Therefore, you can afford to cheat twice a week.

Plan 80/20

This plan is identical to the previous strategy, with the possibility of cheating 20% of your time instead of 10%.
Active people and athletes often choose this strategy. Plan 80/20 allows active people to enjoy “forbidden” food while maintaining their desired weight.

This strategy is good for the initial diet stages. As time goes on, and good start results decrease, you may need to choose the 90/10 strategy. People with a sedentary lifestyle can even begin to gain weight if they continue with the 80/20 plan for a long time.

To implement this strategy, calculate how often you can cheat during the week, as you have counted for the previous strategy, by calculating 20% of the total number of meals per week.

Try to take your cheat-meal earlier in the day so that you can spend some calories more easily before going to bed.

The “Cheating Day” Plan

This plan allows you to eat whatever you want for a whole day. Eat as much as you like, and enjoy for the whole day, but do not eat so much to get sick of too much food. You must strictly adhere to the diet you are practicing for the rest of the week.

This strategy is not recommended under ordinary conditions. This plan is recommended for bodybuilders, marathon runners, and people who are exercising intensively.

On the day before your cheat day, you should eat as little carbohydrates as possible. You need to exhaust the glycogen supplies.

The day after the day of the cheat day, you should continue with the low-calorie intake. The meals can be omitted completely and you can choose to take many water and quality vitamin supplements as well.

However, it is not recommended to cheat in this way at the beginning of your diet. You need to be familiar with the diet program, to understand the way you should eat, to feel the effects of your diet, and then to allow the concept of cheating. Sometimes, this process can take up to three months.

The Cheat-day plan is divided into two phases.

Phase 1

The phase one implies that you stick to your diet for six days, and you enjoy the seventh day. You can have breakfast with a dry tea, sweetened with stevia or some other healthy sweetener and lemon.

Add larger amounts of olive oil to your food. It will satiate you with healthy fats. Also, olive oil in larger quantities acts as a diuretic, which is desirable.

With this type of nutrition based on the 6 + 1 plan, you are shocking your metabolism. It is not used to getting such a small amount of food for six days and regular food on one day. Your metabolism reacts with positive stress. It activates your body in an accelerated mode using the fat stocks.

Also, this system may help you clean your body from toxins. At this early stage of the cheat day plan, you can lose weight, if you stick to your program during the remaining six days of the week.

This is also a very good way to gradually prepare your body for some more rigorous diets. It is recommended to complete at least four such processes before moving on to phase 2.

Phase 2

After practicing phase one at least four times (the average is 12), you can pass to the more rigorous phase. Practice your diet for ten days instead of six days. Include one cheat day every ten days.

Your meals must be small, just enough to suppress hunger. Specify a small number of meals (no matter what kind of meal), wait for 20 minutes and then decide if you want to a little bit more.

Look out for the fruit. No matter how low-calorie a tangerine is, if you eat a kilogram of tangerines (that’s very likely to happen!), you will intake too many calories in one meal and soon start to have a stronger hunger strike.

Such a positive shock will make you good. It will help you lose weight safely. This is similar to your training. Better results are obtained if you run on short runs in 60 minutes, so you can have a rest and sprint again, then jogging for 60 minutes.

Short-term breaks shock your metabolism and give the best results, while not harming your body.

If you find phase 2 too rigorous, stay on phase 1 for as long as you need. Take care of your diet and train. The results will come very soon.

What are the psychological benefits of a cheat day/meal?

Every diet is a form of a struggle. Therefore, weight loss often turns into a mental burden and depends on how well we can control ourselves.

That is why every good nutrition program and diet plan should be carefully designed, so that you can be able to keep it as long as possible, with as low burden as possible.

So-called cheat days or cheat meals have positive psychological effects on people on a diet. Those include relaxation, discharging from accumulated stress, getting rid of anxiety, and motivating us to stick to the weight loss plan more easily (1).

You will feel excited several days before your cheat day and you will also feel grateful and satisfied a day or two after the cheat day. This basically covers the whole week with satisfaction and positive feelings!

However, cheating on a diet should be done with caution (3). If your cheating turns into a few days of uncontrolled food intake, your psychological state will become ruined as you may feel guilt. This is why you should always stick to the golden rule of not exceeding one day a week. You must practice a smart diet and you may need to know some nutrition basics. Cheating is supposed to be a psychological relief that will ease the diet and will not spoil it.

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, we can say that being on a diet is not always an easy task. Luckily, there are tips and tricks you can rely on to withstand the temptations and make your struggle easier.

A cheat day or cheat meal is an excellent way to get rid of the accumulated stress and anxiety during your diet, to motivate yourself for the upcoming week, and to stay on a diet for a longer period of time.

There are several types of cheat days and cheat meals, and you should learn how to listen to your body, track your progress, and lose those excess pounds!


(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30144490
(2) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276122355_Food_reward_system_Current_perspectives_and_future_research_needs
(3) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/eat.22671

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