Do cheat meals actually do more harm than good?

Nutritionist and dietitian Catherine Saxelby on the science of cheating on your diet. 

Do cheat meals actually do more harm than good?

Nutritionist and dietitian Catherine Saxelby on the science of cheating on your diet. 

To cheat or not cheat? That has been the question on many a dieter’s lips over the years.

And it’s been a case of: is it OK to have a cheat meal/day or is it better to stick to the regimen and not fall off the wagon at all?

However, there’s now a new theory to consider – can cheating actually support your weight-loss goals?

Like what you see? Sign up for our newsletter for more stories like this.

What does it mean to ‘cheat’ on your diet?

A “cheat” is a scheduled break in a diet.

It’s based on the notion that a dieter can go off plan for either one meal, or a whole day, as long as they eat to their routine for the other meals and days.

In order to gain some insight into what is considered a cheat meal, a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders analysed a sample of images that were tagged #cheatmealcon Instagram.

More than half of the images analysed contained “very large quantities – over 70 per cent – of calorie-dense food”, such as hamburgers, fried onion rings, savoury filled pies, pizza, chips and ice cream.

You don’t need to be a nutritionist to note that these foods are not only fattening, but unhealthy, too. It stands to reason, then, that cheating on a diet shouldn’t be thought of as a free ticket to excessive overeating, as it only encourages binge-style eating behaviours.

Cheats should be small, inconsequential and infrequent.

So…what are the potential benefits?

There are thought to be both physical and psychological benefits to straying from your diet every now and then.

First is the theory that cheat days boost your metabolism, causing you to burn more kilojoules. The idea behind this is that when restricting your kilojoule intake on the regular, your body adapts and resets your metabolism to your new lower intake.

The argument for cheating here is that it will kickstart your metabolism, thereby boosting kilojoule burn. The science is yet to prove this one way or the other, though.

Another hypothesis is that cheat meals/days help you stick to your diet – both physically and psychologically.

The physical reason is that your levels of leptin (the hormone responsible for suppressing feelings of hunger) fall when you diet, which can make it harder to resist overeating.

It is thought that cheat days help keep your leptin levels up.

Psychologically, some studies have shown that it helps keep you motivated knowing that you don’t have to give up on all your favourite things altogether for the foreseeable future.

The nutritionist’s verdict

I would recommend having a cheat meal rather than a cheat day, because if you eat “badly” an entire whole day, you’re probably consuming too many kilojoules to effectively lose weight.

A moderate weight-loss diet that’s slow and steady – and that doesn’t leave you with cravings – is likely to be more beneficial for physical and mental health than a very restrictive diet with cheat meals.

5 golden rules of a cheat meal

The benefit is largely psychological. You get a short-term benefit for long-term gain. It is a planned indulgence but also a popular dieting tactic. It gives you something to look forward to (a reward). A cheat meal can keep you on a steady track. It can be hard being on a diet day after day. It takes time to lose weight. Limit yourself to three cheats as part of each “cheat” meal, say a glass of wine or beer, a dessert and a treat such as fries or a bar of chocolate. Don’t attempt this if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or have diabetes. You need regular meals that are high in nutrients.

How many kilojoules are in my favourite cheats?

According to Foodwatch:

3 x veg-pizza slices, medium: 2836 Fish and chips: 3760 Meat pie with sauce: 1655 Medium fries: 1540 2 x cinnamon doughnuts: 1726 1 x glass red wine: 290

Catherine Saxelby is an accredited nutritionist and accredited practicing dietitian, award-winning author and founder of Foodwatch, a website which aims to inform women on how they can eat well and maintain a healthy weight, without compromising on energy.

Any products featured in this article are selected by our editors, who don’t play favourites. If you buy something, we may get a cut of the sale. Learn more.