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Are “cheat meals” a good idea?

Many people who embark upon a healthy eating plan incorporate “cheat days” or “cheat meals” into their diets. But is this a good idea? And is calling it “cheating” helpful to your overall well-being and mindset? Corey Tolbert, RD, LD, a licensed and registered dietitian at Piedmont, shares her take.

What is a cheat meal?

“A cheat meal or day is a time when you eat foods you may not consider healthy,” says Tolbert. “It’s like a splurge, which isn’t a bad thing to do every now and then.”

Cheat meals can be beneficial because they prevent you from feeling deprived.

“It allows you to eat the foods you enjoy in moderation,” she says.

Is it helpful to call cheat meals cheating?

From a psychological or mindset perspective, using the language “cheat meal” or “cheat day” may not be helpful, depending on your relationship with food. It may make you feel restricted and more likely to overdo it when it’s time to “cheat.”

“You don’t want to eat until you’re sick every Saturday because it’s your cheat day,” says Tolbert.

A more helpful reframe: “If you’re really craving something, have it and eat it in moderation,” she says. “If there’s birthday cake and you have a reasonable portion size, there’s no problem doing that every few days.”

You’ll be less tempted to overeat since you’re not restricted to eating certain foods at only one meal or on one day per week. And when you don’t overeat, you’ll feel better overall.

“If you’re eating healthy foods the other six days of the week and have that day where you splurge on less healthy foods all day, you’ll probably feel sick,” she says. “If you want some chicken wings, have a few so you feel satisfied. That’s better than waiting until a cheat day where you eat wings, fries, beer and dessert.”

If you’re eating healthy 80% of the time, it all balances out.

“You can still be healthy and eat splurge foods from time to time,” says Tolbert.

Consider other aspects of health

What you eat is just one part of your overall health.

Incorporate physical activity into your daily life, drink plenty of water, get enough sleep and make sure you’re managing your stress,” she says. “All of this plays a role in your overall health.”

If you have questions about which foods are right for you, talk to your primary care provider or dietitian.

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