Cheat meal or cheat day
The cheat meal/cheat day dietary strategy involves the introduction at regular intervals into the menu of a meal or several meals in one day that are prohibited in the normal diet and considered ‘unhealthy’. This approach is supposed to promote weight loss, but there is no research to conclusively prove this, and unfortunately it does more harm than good for many people.
All over the world, and especially on social media, the cheat meal and cheat day trend is very popular. For many people, it is unequivocally associated with the ‘fit’ world, ‘healthy eating’ or the ideal figure. But is cheat meal and cheat day really such a good solution for everyone?
What is a cheat day and a cheat meal?
The term cheat meal and cheat day has already become firmly established in the vocabularies of people from the fit world. What does it really mean? A cheat meal, or cheat in Polish, is a planned meal containing less healthy products that would not normally be allowed in a person’s diet. A cheat day is a day when you allow yourself to eat whatever foods you like (including those not allowed in your daily diet) for an entire day.
How often to use a cheat meal/cheat day?
The nutritional strategy of using a cheat meal or cheat day is based on systematically deviating from the diet in the form of one meal that is normally forbidden in the diet or a whole day filled with such meals, over a specific interval of time.
This dietary approach has no specific guidelines for how often a cheat meal/day should occur or what meals to eat, so everyone can adapt it to their own needs. Meals treated as a cheat meal are usually high-calorie meals high in fat and/or simple carbohydrates (sugar), and are usually fixed for one day a week.
Can a cheat meal/cheat day be used in any diet?
Although the cheat meal/day strategy can take various forms individually tailored to the individual, it cannot be used in all types of diets e.g. the ketogenic diet, diets for specific disease entities or allergies. The ketogenic diet requires a restrictive approach to keep the body in a state of ketosis, which makes it impossible to eat whatever one’s heart desires. It is for this reason that cheat day/meal lends itself to more flexible diets.
Leptin and the ‘cheat meal’ eating strategy
Leptin is a hormone produced mainly in white adipose tissue, and its main function is to inform the brain about the sensation of satiety (the higher the leptin level, the greater the sensation of satiety). Advocates of the ‘cheat meal’ eating strategy claim that intermittent periods of eating high-calorie foods will contribute to the production of more leptin and thus prevent overeating. Unfortunately, there is a lack of solid scientific research to support this theory.
Cheat day and cheat meal – the psychological aspect
Physiology is physiology, but if weight loss was based on physiology alone, obesity would not be one of the major diseases of civilisation in the 21st century. For some, the approach of looking forward to the weekend when the cheat meal occurs is a motivating factor in maintaining a diet during the week, but not everyone can be put into such rigid measures of self-control.
Cheat days and cheat meals can reinforce unhealthy eating behaviours
The assumption of keeping a ‘clean bowl’ six days a week and allowing oneself one anticipated day filled with, by design, ‘unhealthy’ meals, can result in the building of negative eating habits. In addition, this approach can encourage overeating and the consumption of far more kcal than a person’s energy requirements. Research shows that people who are on a diet very often have a black-and-white mindset. Once they start to eat against the assumptions, they very often eat until they are full or they reach their limits. This translates into greatly exceeding their requirements. Looking further ahead, the feeling of overeating and often weight gain after such a day (caused by water retention and glycogen accumulation, not an increase in body fat) can cause remorse, depression and guilt for not sticking to the prescribed menu, which in turn will lead to even greater restrictions the following week, and so the circle goes on. If you go down this road, it is very easy to get lost in your own emotions, and the painful consequence can be eating disorders such as orthorexia, anorexia or bulimia, among others, and unfortunately it is not so easy to get out of them.
How to take a healthy approach to cheat meal and cheat day
Change your vocabulary
The word ‘cheat’, or cheated, has a very bad connotation, evoking negative feelings of guilt. For people who have a problem with emotional eating, i.e. so-called “sad eaters”, “stress eaters” or people who reward themselves with food, this approach can bring more negative consequences than positive ones.
It is also worth stopping approaching food on the basis of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’. Food is food. Yes, there are foods whose nutritional value is better because they have more vitamins, minerals or fibre. Nevertheless, eating an occasional pizza on the town instead of a steamed fish and vegetable porridge is not a bad thing, especially if you listen to your body and do not eat it all at once and if it is within your daily energy requirements. Changing the approach to divide products into positive and negative, good and bad, can psychologically reduce the desire to eat those on the forbidden list.
An 80/20 approach to diet
Also of great value is the 80/20 rule approach to diet, which assumes that you only need to stick to a healthy, well-balanced diet 80% of the time and allow yourself less nutritious pleasures 20% of the time (but within the limits of your energy requirements) to keep both your health and your figure in shape.
A study conducted in New Zealand found that people who associated chocolate cake with something positive were more successful at losing weight than those who associated it with guilt.
The cheat meal/cheat day approach to dieting is not necessarily an unequivocally bad thing, but it is not a solution for everyone, in fact it is a good solution for a few. In this day and age, where the pace of life is lethal, the number of challenges that await us from all sides often overwhelming, it is hard for most people to stick within such a rigid framework. Additionally, failing to achieve a goal set for oneself can lead to feelings of guilt and other negative emotions. Healthy eating should be associated with pleasure, and favourite meals, even if they fall a tad short in terms of ingredients compared to others, can and even should be woven into everyday life. Both in life and in nutrition, the ‘black and white’ approach rarely works. It is worth not overeating, observing your body, noticing which products harm you and which make you feel good, and based on this, creating a tailor-made menu (e.g. with the help of the Fitat app) or with the help of a dietician, while at the same time building healthy eating habits.
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