Taking a small break from your diet can provide many benefits, but the question becomes whether it is more beneficial to implement a cheat meal or an entire cheat day.
What is the difference between a cheat meal and cheat day? The main difference between a cheat meal and cheat day is that a cheat meal involves indulging in your favorite foods that aren’t on your diet plan for one meal, while a cheat day is an entire day of foods that aren’t on your diet plan. A cheat day usually results in a higher calorie intake compared with a cheat meal.
While both strategies serve as a temporary break from your diet, the one that is best for you will depend on factors such as personal preference, current goals, and dieting history.
In this article, I will discuss:
- What is a cheat meal?
- What is a cheat day?
- Cheat meal vs cheat day: 5 Similarities
- Cheat meal vs cheat day: 2 Differences
- Should you have cheat meals or cheat days?
What Is A Cheat Meal?
A cheat meal is a planned meal that involves purposely eating foods that you typically would not eat while dieting. This is to help satisfy any cravings for certain foods that you might be experiencing, along with providing a mental break from dieting.
A cheat meal does not always have to consist of “unhealthy foods”. The types of foods that are included in a cheat meal can vary greatly depending on your personal preference.
For example, some people may want to indulge with a fast food burger and fries, but others may just want to have a giant bowl of fruit, without having to worry about the exact calorie or macronutrient content of what they are eating.
One of the other notable characteristics of cheat meals is that they are typically untracked meals. Some people use the terms “untracked meals” and “cheat meals” interchangeably because the goal is to have a break from tracking the calories you eat while consuming foods you enjoy.
More often than not this results in the meal being a larger portion size compared with meals in your regular diet, but this is to be expected.
Cheat Meal Pros
- Can provide a temporary break from dieting without stalling or reversing progress
- Can provide a boost in energy
- · Can reduce cravings and feelings of hunger while dieting
Cheat Meal Cons
- One cheat meal might not feel like enough of a break from dieting
- It can be hard to practice self-control during a cheat meal
- Could promote an obsessive mindset toward certain foods if they are only permitted in one meal a week
How To Have a Cheat Meal Properly
If you decide to implement a cheat meal into your dieting routine, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure you will have a successful experience.
1. Have A Plan
While a cheat meal is meant to be a break from your normal diet, it is not a bad idea to have a plan for what you are going to consume (and how much of it) beforehand.
Having a plan will help to ensure that you do not find yourself overeating or binging on certain cheat foods.
2. Choose Foods You’ve Been Craving Without Guilt
When you are choosing foods for your cheat meal, try not to associate eating these foods with feelings of guilt.
When we only include certain foods in “cheat meals” it can be easy to associate these foods with feelings of shame or guilt.
If you decide to eat certain foods that might not be considered healthy during your cheat meal, you must do so without any added feelings of guilt. Slow down, savor the food, then move on.
Additionally, if you find that the word “cheat” is throwing you off, try referring to it as an “untracked meal” instead, which has less of a negative connotation. That way, you don’t feel like you’re doing something wrong, you just don’t plan to track that meal.
3. Eat Your Cheat Meal After An Intense Workout
Another helpful tip when implementing a cheat meal is to eat your indulgent meal after you’ve completed an intense workout.
This is because your body will be able to better utilize the extra calories and carbohydrates to replenish any depleted energy stores (glycogen) that you may have used up during the workout.
4. Eat Your Meal Mindfully
Another important thing to remember when you are eating your cheat meal is to make sure you are eating slowly and mindfully because this will help you to enjoy your meal and prevent overeating.
If you eat your cheat meal too quickly or in a distracting setting, you are more likely to overeat, which can have negative impacts on your progress.
5. Avoid Extreme Hunger Before Your Cheat Meal
Lastly, if you are planning to have a cheat meal, do not try to undereat or starve yourself all day prior to this meal.
Doing so could result in you drastically overeating at your cheat meal, and it encourages unhealthy eating behaviors such as binge eating.
What Is a Cheat Day?
A cheat day involves purposely taking a break from your diet for an entire day by allowing yourself to eat foods that are not on your diet plan and do not necessarily bring you closer to your goals.
Ideally, a cheat day consists of a mixture of both “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods, which would allow you to satisfy certain cravings while still meeting your body’s nutritional needs. The types of foods that are involved in a cheat day will vary depending on individual preferences.
Some people will take cheat days to an extreme and overconsume foods that are generally viewed as unhealthy for the entire day; however, this isn’t the best approach for long-term dieting success.
Unlike a refeed, a cheat day is untracked which usually results in increased calorie consumption. This can have both negative and positive impacts which I will discuss in more detail below.
Cheat Day Pros
- Provides a longer mental break from dieting
- Can provide a boost in energy
- Can reduce cravings and feelings of hunger while dieting
Cheat Day Cons
- Could encourage an “all or nothing” mentality with food
- Increases the likelihood of water retention
- Going “all out” on a cheat day could slow or derail your progress
How To Have a Cheat Day Properly
When you are implementing a cheat day, there are steps that you can take to make sure you are doing it properly which will optimize your results.
1. Have A Plan For Your Cheat Day
Similar to a cheat meal, having a plan for your cheat day is a great way to ensure that you get to include all of the foods that you might be craving, without going overboard and overeating.
This is especially important with a cheat day since having a “free for all “with food for an entire day is more likely to slow your progress down compared to only one meal off plan.
2. Incorporate Foods You’ve Been Craving & Nutrient-Dense Foods
While your cheat day will most certainly include your favorite foods, which might be considered less healthy, it is also important to make sure you are consuming nutrient-dense foods throughout your day as well.
Doing so will help to ensure that you are not going overboard on your calorie and sodium intake. Additionally, nutrient-dense foods will help maintain important bodily functions such as digestion.
If you only eat high-calorie high-sodium foods all day long, then I can guarantee that you won’t feel very good the next day, which could make it hard to get back on track with your diet.
3. Complete Your Heaviest Workout On Your Cheat Day
Since your calorie intake will likely be significantly higher on your cheat day, it makes the most sense to complete your heaviest workout on this day.
On a cheat day, you will have the most energy to fuel your training session and repair your muscles after your workout.
4. Eat Mindfully Throughout The Day
Another step that you can take to optimize your cheat day is to make sure that you are being mindful each time that you eat.
Since a cheat day consists of multiple meals that are off plan, it is important to listen to your body and make sure that you are not overeating and that you stop when you are full.
Some tips to be more mindful while eating are:
- Chew your food more (try putting your fork down between bites)
- Eat slowly, this will help to prevent overeating
- Avoid distractions such as your phone or the TV while eating
- Eat in a calm, quiet environment and sit down while eating
- Practice appreciation for your meal before eating
5. Get Back To Your Regular Routine The Next Day
It can be easy for one cheat day to turn into a couple of days, or even an entire week, due to a lack of self-control.
One of the most important things that you must do if you are implementing a cheat day is to enjoy your cheat day without guilt and get right back on track with your normal diet the next day.
Getting back on track is important to ensure you do not slow down your dieting progress.
Cheat Meal vs Cheat Day: 5 Similarities
Five notable similarities between a cheat meal and a cheat day are:
1. Can Help To Increase Energy During A Dieting Phase
A positive side effect that can be felt from both a cheat meal and a cheat day is that they can increase energy levels that may be depleted while dieting.
This is simply because when you are consuming fewer calories, you have less fuel to burn for energy. But when you increase calorie intake through a cheat meal or a cheat day, you will likely feel energy levels increase.
If you have been on a low-calorie diet for an extended period, then a cheat meal might not be enough for you to feel more energetic, and you might benefit more from a full cheat day instead.
2. Can Help To Temporarily Boost Metabolism
When you have been dieting, it is common for your metabolism to slow down to adapt to the new lower calorie intake. When your metabolism slows down, you burn calories at a slower rate, making weight loss more difficult.
Implementing both cheat meals and days has been shown to temporarily speed up your metabolism.
Whether it is a cheat meal or a cheat day, a temporary calorie increase while dieting can have a positive impact on your metabolism so that it’s not slowing down as much as it would otherwise.
- Related Article: Gaining Weight After A Cheat Day (Is This Normal?)
3. Can Restore Hormones That Can Become Imbalanced While Dieting
During a dieting phase, another common negative side effect is the depletion of the hormone leptin (which sends fullness signals to your brain) and the increase of the hormone ghrelin (which sends hunger signals to your brain.)
Luckily, temporarily increasing your food intake with either a cheat meal or a cheat day can help your body bring these hormones back into balance, which should help with any feelings of incessant hunger and cravings that you experience during a dieting phase.
4. Can Provide Motivation During A Dieting Phase
When you have been dieting and eating the same foods for an extended period, the motivation to keep going can dwindle.
However, with the addition of a planned cheat meal or cheat day, the motivation to stick to your diet and stay on track throughout the week may increase, as you can look forward to your favorite indulgences.
For this reason, both cheat meals and cheat days can be great tools to help you stay motivated and on track with your current diet.
5. Has The Potential To Create An Unhealthy “All-or-Nothing” Relationship With Food
Unfortunately for certain people, both cheat meals and cheat days have the potential to create an unhealthy “all or nothing” dynamic with food.
This is particularly true for individuals who may already struggle with a negative relationship with food, or for those who lack self-control around their favorite foods.
If this is the case for you, then following a strict diet and adding in cheat meals or days might not be the best idea for you.
Instead, permitting yourself to include your favorite indulgences in moderation throughout the week may serve you better, compared to saving it all up for one day or one meal in the week when you’re more likely to overdo it.
Cheat Meal vs Cheat Day: 2 Differences
While cheat meals and cheat days have many similarities, there are two notable differences between them:
1. A Cheat Meal Is Less Likely To Slow Or Derail Progress
A cheat day is likely to consist of a much higher calorie intake than a cheat meal because there is more opportunity to include the foods you’ve been craving without tracking them.
With an increased calorie intake from a cheat day, you increase the risk of slowing down or derailing the progress that you’re making with your dieting phase.
Not only this, but for some people, it is easier to “get back on track” with their regular diet after one meal “off-plan”, versus an entire day “off-plan”.
Therefore, if you are worried about sabotaging your progress by going “all-out” on cheat days and struggling to get back on track the next day, then you might be better off sticking to one cheat meal, rather than an entire cheat day.
2. A Cheat Day Provides More Of A Break From Dieting
Although both are meant to provide a mental break from dieting, for many people one cheat meal doesn’t feel like enough of a mental break.
For this reason, certain individuals will benefit more from an entire cheat day, rather than just one off-plan meal during the week.
As long as a cheat day is not being used as an excuse to overeat all day long, then it can be a great way to give yourself a break from your regular diet.
Should You Have Cheat Meals or Cheat Days?
Choosing between a cheat meal or a cheat day will ultimately depend on personal preference, as well as how well you can moderate yourself with indulgent foods and get back on track.
- If you tend to overeat, and can’t stop once you’ve started, then it might be best to limit your cheats to one meal during the week.
- On the other hand, if you can practice moderation and balance by consuming your favorite food indulgences and healthy nutrient-dense foods, then you could try adding a cheat day into your routine.
- Additionally, choosing between a cheat meal or a cheat day could come down to what your personal goals are (bulking, .
For example, if you are in a fat loss phase with a specific timeline, then you are probably better off eating a cheat meal, rather than having a full cheat day.
However, if you are in a maintenance or bulking phase of your diet where your calorie intake is higher or more loosely tracked, then a cheat day is less likely to throw you off track.
More Cheat Day Resources
- How Many Calories Should You Eat on A Cheat Day?
- Should You Work Out On Cheat Day?
- How Many Cheat Meals Per Week?
About The Author
Colby Roy is a holistic health and nutrition coach. She is certified through Precision Nutrition and has a passion for all things nutrition and healing the body. More specifically, Colby likes to work with clients who want to optimize their gut health and energy levels.