How Bad Are Cheat Days For You, Really?

By Isadora Baum

When it comes to dieting, the idea of "cheat days," is pretty common. Whether that cheat day happens a few days a week, or just once in a blue moon, there's a tendency to shape your eating habits around this notion of an "all-out" indulgence, on lets say, holiday treats. Unfortunately, these cheat days do affect your way of eating, for the better or worse.

Junk food
credit: Twenty20

Yo-yo dieting is never good for you. What's that, exactly? It could be where you binge on a whole pizza pie and then detox and restrict calories the next, or where you alternate between different fads and trendy diets, one following the next. So, you might go paleo, and then keto, and then macro, all within a few months. When this type of eating habits, it puts strain on your body with little transition time, and it can mess with your metabolism.

It's also worth noting that foods shouldn't be termed as good or bad, as you should be eating based on what your body's telling you, says Elizabeth Ann Shaw, MS, RDN, CLT, author of Fertility Foods. Making the distinction between a cheat meal and cheat day is also important: there isn't really such a thing as a cheat meal, as it's not doing much harm to your body, says Shaw. Instead, cheat days might be when you wake up to donuts, have a sundae for a snack, pizza for lunch, and so forth. It's all about excess.

"I hate the word 'cheat day,' because that insinuates a food is either good or bad. Food is neither of those, but rather, a source of nourishment for your body," says Shaw.

"Sure, there are foods you should consume more often than others, but just because you eat fries or a burger one day does not mean you are 'cheating,' but rather, honoring your body signals," she says. Needing that burger? Your body is saying it needs iron, some extra fat, and a delicious comfort meal. Nothing is wrong with that!

However, can cheat days ever be okay? Here, we weigh in on the pros and cons.

One Day Won't Kill You

First off, give yourself a break, here. "I think the concept of cheat days isn't the healthiest way to approach healthy eating, but that being said, one day of indulgent eating will not derail overall healthy habits," says Maggie Moon, MS, RDN, and author of The MIND Diet. If you start to do a cheat day too often in the week, it could turn into a habit, rather than a day, in which it could be a problem though, she explains.

However, if you give yourself a day to have some extra food splurges, for instance, a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary, you'll totally be fine as long as you get back on track with a healthy plan. Instead, work on eating mindfully to avoid these needs for cheat days, anyway.

The Pros:

If having a cheat day each week helps you maintain your healthy diet and exercise plan on the other 6 days, it might actually be beneficial for you. Of course, this depends on the individual, as everyone differs, she says.

"They may be helpful if they are used as a way to be honest with yourself about upcoming indulgent days of eating and drinking, in so far that that helps you plan to balance it out with healthier days for the rest of the week," she explains.

"For example, say you know you have a holiday party or big celebratory family meal coming up - acknowledge it and plan for it so you can enjoy life and good health (so you can enjoy it for longer!). There are no strict rules on how often, but I'd recommend saving them for special occasions and no more than once a week," says Moon.

The Cons:

Yet, if there's too much emotional attachment to these cheat days, it could be problematic for your mental health and wellbeing, says Moon. "They can be detrimental if they are used as a regular excuse to overdo it as a reward (or pent-up delayed satisfaction) for a week of being 'good,'" she says. "That just adds too much emotional baggage into eating," she explains.

And, if you've ever had an incidence of an eating disorder, you'll want to steer clear. Being over-indulgent can lead you to feel guilty or regretful, so those who have suffered from body issues in the past might feel inclined to restrict or take other measures in order to compensate.