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One “Cheat” Day a Week is Fine ….. Right?

You have been working hard on eating “right” and engaging in physical activity/exercise all week, so you are ready to reward yourself with a “cheat” day. After all, one “bad” day cannot outweigh six “good” days. For six days you watched what you ate and restricted yourself while adding in some new form of physical movement into your schedule to lose some weight and improve your health. One day of enjoyment is certainly not going to hurt…will it?

Social media has increased interest and awareness on the idea of a “cheat” day. A day that is a scheduled as a break in your diet. A “cheat” day is believed to help boost your metabolism rather than resetting it to your new lower intake level. It is also thought to help you stick your diet as leptin, the hormone responsible for suppressing feelings of hunger, will not drop and thereby help you to resist eating. This sounds great, but before you forge ahead, ready to eat whatever you want without a care in the world let’s explore this further.

Unfortunately, there is no substantial research to support the idea that a “cheat” day will boost your metabolism. A “cheat” day may work for someone who has built up an exercise routine and a healthy eating style, but it does not mean it will work for you. In addition, the idea that leptin levels remain high after a “cheat” day remains inconclusive. If you are longing for a “cheat” day it can be the result of a very restricting and even unenjoyable practice of eating.

Let’s take a moment to think about the words you’re using as they can directly impact your behavior and mood. The word diet is typically used to refer to a plan you are doing to restrict certain kinds of food to lose weight. In this sense it is used as a verb, an action you are taking. If you think of diet as a noun instead, it refers to the kinds of food one typically eats. If you follow this meaning, then everyone is on a diet. When you shift your thoughts from dieting to creating healthier eating practices/habits it is no longer punitive and instead promotes positivity. Now take a moment to focus on the word “cheat”. What comes to mind when you think about that word? “Cheat” typically has a negative connotation as being “bad” for you. When you feel “bad” it is likely to bring up associated emotions of guilt or shame which leads to stress and anxiety. It can also impact your mindset into doing more, if I can have one “cheat” day let me do another. When this happens it is often easier to revert to old habits which are familiar and comfortable rather than returning to healthy choices that you are still in the process of establishing or maintaining. One last word that often gets mentioned in lieu of “cheat” is reward. When you work hard at something you tend to seek a reward. If you use a treat to reward yourself for the ‘good’ decisions and actions you took during the week, are you sub-consciously sending yourself a message that those ‘good’ choices and actions are associated with feelings of negativity or punishment? The ‘good’ choices and actions are the steps to you are taking to lead a heathier life and should have you feeling satisfied if not proud. Healthy eating is part of your self-care.

When you eliminate or restrict foods from your daily intake it can cause you to think about those foods more. Once your thoughts are consumed by these restricted foods it can lead you to overeat. You’re likely to overeat other foods in attempt to satisfy your desire, however you will probably be left feeling unfulfilled. As a result, you overeat the desired food on your “cheat” day. In addition, you will probably consume all you can on your cheat day. This is attributed to the feast or famine cycle; you eat as much as you can knowing that the food is available for a limited time frame.

It is easy to go overboard once you start. Overindulging is what can undo the health gains you’ve made. When you eat low nutrient dense, high calorie foods it leaves you feeling sluggish and craving for more. These foods also affect your sleep which will impact how you feel the next morning.

Living and eating healthy is not about denying or punishing yourself. When you eliminate or restrict a food group you are more likely to having cravings either from not getting enough or because you are rebelling against the restriction. A particular food or choice itself is not the problem, but rather how much and how often you eat it. Rather than avoiding foods or labeling foods as good or bad, consider eating a balance of foods and establishing a healthy eating pattern for your lifestyle. One that will sustain long term weight loss and heart health.

It is important to keep in mind that your body requires all of the food groups; protein, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, and fat. If you are trying to improve your eating habits, you may want to consider the 80/20 strategy. It is fit for real-life and more sustainable as it allows you to enjoy your favorite foods while eating healthy. When you follow this strategy, you eat nutritious foods 80% of the time. This would include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein &/or beans and healthy fats from avocado, oils, nuts and seeds. The remaining 20% provides you with wiggle room allowing you to enjoy your favorite foods in moderation remembering to stick to portion control. When you do this, you are not denying yourself the foods you want and removes feelings of stress, anxiety and guilt that are frequently associated with the old thoughts of dieting. It also allows you to partake in social gatherings (i.e. birthday parties) and dinner invites without feeling overwhelmed or consumed with food related decisions. It also eliminates the negative self-talk, such as “I can’t eat that”, which alone increases stress and is likely to call the attention of others that you are changing your eating habits. Accept the glass wine or piece of dessert without guilt, feel assured in knowing that the majority of your choices align with building healthy eating habits.

Remember it is a marathon not a sprint!


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