When you are following a diet or in a fat loss phase, implementing occasional cheat meals is a great way to satisfy cravings. You may have wondered, though, how many cheat meals are too many before you risk not making progress.
In general, 1-3 cheat meals per week is a good guide for most people. This will ensure you can still work toward your weight loss goals without hindering your results.
With that said, the exact frequency of your cheat meals will depend on (1) your metabolism and (2) your particular weight loss goals, both of which we’ll discuss below.
In this article, I will cover:
- What exactly is defined as a cheat meal
- How often you should have a cheat meal
- Other dieting strategies to consider when implementing cheat meals
What Is a Cheat Meal?
Before we can determine how frequently we should have cheat meals, we must clearly define what a cheat meal is.
A cheat meal is a meal that typically does not fit into your normal diet but instead contains more indulgent foods that you would not normally eat. Cheat meals include foods that you might crave while dieting, and they do not adhere to a particular calorie or macronutrient count.
It is important to note the differences between cheat meals and cheat days since both are commonly used strategies while dieting.
While a cheat day implies that a person has a break from their diet for an entire day consisting of multiple meals, a cheat meal would only account for one “off plan” meal in a day.
- Related Article: How Many Calories Should You Eat on A Cheat Day? (Explained)
Cheat Meals: What the Science Says About Frequency
Too few cheat meals can increase the mental and physical difficulty of dieting, while too frequent cheat meals can slow down or reverse your progress.
Although there is not a set number of cheat meals per week that everyone should have, it is common for dieters to include 1-3 cheat meals per week to experience the positive effects both physically and mentally.
The frequency of your cheat meals could also depend on how much these meals stray from your regular diet plan.
For example, if you keep your cheat meals to moderate splurges, you might benefit from having up to 3 per week. On the other hand, if you like to go “all out” with your cheat meals and eat hundreds of calories over what is normal for you, you may be better off sticking to around 1-2 of this type of cheat meal per week.
- Related Article: Going Over Your Calories Once A Week: Is This Okay?
However, implementing too many cheat meals in your week can cause negative results.
In fact, studies have shown that including cheat meals multiple days a week (more than 4 cheat meals per week) could have the same negative effects on your gut bacteria that a high junk food diet would have.
Gut bacteria are tiny microorganisms that live inside your gut and perform essential functions such as the production of certain vitamins. They also assist in your immune health.
The quality of your diet can have a drastic impact on the health of your gut bacteria, which will ultimately have a large impact on your overall health.
For this reason, it is important not to go overboard when including cheat meals into your routine.
How Often Should You Have a Cheat Meal?
To determine how often you should have a cheat meal, you should consider the following factors:
1. Your Current Body Composition Goals
The number of cheat meals you should have can depend on whether you want to lose, maintain, or gain weight.
For example, if you are in a cutting phase and your goal is fat loss, it is best if you limit your cheat meals to 1 time a week because fat loss requires you to be in a calorie deficit for a consistent period.
The more cheat meals you include, the longer it will take you to reach your goal while cutting.
On the other hand, when you are in a bulking phase, you can typically get away with more frequent high-calorie cheat meals since bulking requires you to be in a calorie surplus.
You can likely consume 2-3 cheat meals per week during a bulking phase, provided you don’t go overboard or binge during these meals.
When you are looking to maintain your weight, a good rule of thumb is to stick to 1-2 cheat meals per week.
This amount should be enough to satisfy any food cravings you might have and give you a mental break from your usual routine.
- Related Article: How To Lose Cheat Day Weight: 5 Steps To Follow Right Now
2. How Consistent You Are With Your Current Diet
When deciding whether or not to include cheat meals and how many to include, you should evaluate how consistent you have been with your current diet.
For example, if you have been going off your diet plan several times a week, adding in cheat meals will not benefit you since you could have already strayed from your diet throughout the week.
On the other hand, if you have been extremely consistent with your current diet plan throughout the week, adding in a cheat meal is a great way to give yourself a break from dieting.
It could also be an opportunity to take part in social events such as an indulgent dinner out with friends, which can be more difficult to include in your regular diet.
3. If You’ve Been Struggling With Excess Cravings and Low Energy Levels While Dieting
If you have been dieting or in a calorie deficit for an extended period, you could be feeling the negative effects of a reduced calorie intake, such as increased hunger, increased food cravings, and lower energy. If this is the case, it is time to add a cheat meal to your week.
After adding this cheat meal, you should feel some relief from the negative symptoms mentioned above. However, if this relief is short-lived, this could indicate that adding a second cheat meal into your week would be beneficial.
How Many Cheat Meals Is Too Much?
Eating an excess of 3-4 cheat meals per week would be considered too much for most people.
This is especially true for individuals who are not currently in a calorie deficit since the excess calories consumed during cheat meals could result in a caloric surplus that is too large. This large influx of calories could result in unwanted excess fat gain, which is not ideal even if you are in a bulking phase.
Since 1 pound of fat is equal to 3500 calories, you would have to eat 3500 extra calories in a week to gain a pound of fat. While this might seem like a lot, cheat meals can quickly add up to this number.
For example, eating 5 cheat meals consisting of 1000 calories throughout the week could easily result in a little over 1 pound of fat gained. To put this in perspective, a 1000-calorie cheat meal is equivalent to 1 Big mac, a side of regular fries, and 1 medium coke from McDonald’s.
- Related Article: Gaining Weight After A Cheat Day (Is This Normal?)
In addition to this, any individuals who suffer from health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol should be especially careful about how many cheat meals they have.
Many cheat meals consist of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt and could exacerbate these conditions.
For these individuals, limiting cheat meals to 1 per week or taking a different dieting approach is more optimal.
Other Dieting Strategies to Consider When Implementing Cheat Meals
While adding cheat meals into a diet can come with notable benefits, this strategy is not for everyone and could do more harm than good for certain individuals.
For example, although cheat meals are meant to provide a mental break from your regular diet plan, implementing cheat meals could trigger an unhealthy relationship with food, such as binge eating behavior for certain individuals.
Not only this but including cheat meals could result in a person viewing certain foods as “good” and “bad.” This can further complicate one’s relationship with food, where one associates eating certain indulgent foods with feelings of guilt and shame.
If you struggle with the “all or nothing” mentality of following a strict diet plan followed by a cheat meal, or you have struggled with your relationship with food in the past, I recommend trying the following alternatives.
1. Focus on the 80/20 Rule
For certain individuals, eating a super strict diet during the week with the inclusion of one cheat meal can be a bit extreme.
It is not uncommon for individuals who include cheat meals to become obsessed with their one cheat meal a week, causing them to overeat during that meal.
For this reason, certain people might benefit from a more balanced diet approach, such as following an 80/20 rule. This implies that a person should eat on plan and within their diet 80% of the time while allowing their favorite indulgent foods the other 20% of the time.
For example, if you eat a total of 35 meals per week, you would want to ensure at least 28 of those meals (or 80% of your weekly meals) are comprised of whole, unprocessed foods. That would leave roughly 7 meals during the week where you could include more indulgent processed foods.
Keep in mind that the example above is not a recommendation to have 7 full-on cheat meals in the week. Instead, this approach allows you to integrate certain indulgent foods into a meal that also includes whole foods.
An example of this might be having a bowl of oatmeal and berries but adding a few squares of your favorite chocolate for a topping.
2. Practice Mindful Eating
Whether you are eating a meal that is on your diet plan or eating a cheat meal, it is important to practice mindful eating.
Mindful eating entails paying attention to how the body feels while eating a meal, which includes noticing taste, smells, and listening to the body’s hunger and fullness signals.
Practicing mindful eating is especially important during cheat meals since it can help to keep you from overeating or binging.
Mindful eating can also help to increase the amount of satisfaction you get from your meal, which is important during a dieting phase (whether it is a cheat meal or not).
- Related Article: Should You Undereat After Overeating? (Here’s What To Do)
3. Have a Plan for Your Off-Plan Meal
While many people use a cheat meal as an opportunity to have a completely unplanned meal that is off their diet, it can still be beneficial to create a plan for your cheat meal so you don’t overdo it.
This is especially true if you have been dieting for an extended period since it might be more difficult for you to practice self-control around foods you do not normally allow yourself to eat. This lack of self-control could result in overeating or even turning a cheat meal into a cheat day, which could negatively affect your progress.
For this reason, I suggest always having a rough idea of what you want to eat for your cheat meal before it happens. This way, it is less likely that you will give in to “spur-of-the-moment” cravings and overeat.
4. Think of It as a “Treat Meal” Instead of a “Cheat Meal”
Although it is a small reframing in how you view an off-plan meal, changing a “cheat” meal to a “treat” meal can help reduce any negative connotations you might develop to foods that are not on your regular diet plan.
Studies have indicated that those who associated eating indulgent foods with a celebration or “treat” lost more weight compared to those who thought of it as a “cheat” and associated the food with guilt.
For this reason, it can be very beneficial to change the way we think of a meal that is not on plan and ensure we are not labeling foods as “good” or “bad.”
- Related Article: Cheat Meal vs Cheat Day: Which Is Better?
Frequently Asked Questions
How Many Cheat Meals A Week When Cutting?
Since cutting requires a calorie deficit, eating off plan too frequently could result in slowing down or reversing fat loss progress. For this reason, it’s best to limit your cheat meals to 1 a week. In addition to this, I only recommend incorporating cheat meals if you have been successfully cutting for 2-3 weeks.
How Many Cheat Meals A Week When Bulking?
When bulking, it’s much easier to include high-calorie meals since bulking requires a caloric surplus. Therefore, you can include up to 2-3 cheat meals per week to help satisfy food cravings while still seeing results. However, including more cheat meals could result in unnecessary fat gain while bulking.
How Many Cheat Meals A Week When Maintaining?
When maintaining your weight, you can likely eat around 1-2 cheat meals in a week without experiencing any unwanted weight gain. As long as your cheat meals do not turn into episodes of extreme overeating or binging, you can enjoy your favorite treat foods while still being able to maintain your weight.
Will 1 Cheat Meal A Week Ruin My Diet?
No, one cheat meal in a week will not ruin your diet. In fact, including one cheat meal a week while dieting can have positive effects, including increased energy, fewer cravings, and reduced hunger. Including cheat meals can also help to keep you motivated on your diet.
Is It Okay to Have One Cheat Meal Every Day?
While no exact number of cheat meals per week is right for everyone, it’s generally not advised to eat a cheat meal every single day. A daily cheat meal could cause negative outcomes like slowing down your dieting progress or excess fat gain due to a calorie surplus.
Is 2 Cheat Meals A Week Okay?
For most people, eating 2 cheat meals per week is fine, as long as you adhere to your regular diet plan throughout the rest of the week. Including 1-2 cheat meals in a week can actually have positive effects in your dieting phase, such as increased energy and reduced hunger and cravings.
Is 3 Cheat Meals A Week Okay?
While eating 3 cheat meals a week might not have any negative effects if you are in a bulking phase, it is not advised for anyone in a cutting phase or looking to lose fat. This will also depend on the size of your cheat meals. If they are rather large, 3 in a week might be too much regardless of your goals.
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.