If you've followed any of my nutrition advice, the one thing you should know about my philosophy on food is that it's okay to enjoy yourself—as long as you're still getting results. That's why most of my diets allow for some fun food choices. You've likely seen some of my social media posts of me eating donuts, ice cream, pie, and other decadent favorites—all while maintaining my body fat below 5 percent.
But just because I can pound burgers, beer, and donuts, doesn't mean you can or should do the same thing—or do it as often. So many people come to me confused about "cheating" on their diet. I get questions ranging from, "Is cheating on your diet a good thing or a bad thing?" to, "Is it better to do a cheat meal or a cheat day?" Well…that depends.
When "Cheating" Isn't Cheating at All
One thing that many people don't realize is that cheating can actually help you lose fat by helping your body maintain a higher metabolic rate. If you follow a low-calorie or low-carb diet consistently over a long period of time, your metabolic rate (the number of calories your body burns each day) will drop. Your body does this to conserve energy, at a time when you're not giving it all it wants.
Think of it this way: The fat cells in your body are basically spare fuel tanks. If you start emptying all of your fuel tanks, your body will try to conserve some fat for possible future needs. So, ironically, the stricter your diet, the more efficient your body becomes. The net effect is that your body learns to use fewer calories to do the same functions.
When your metabolism stalls, it gets harder to continue losing body fat, because you now need to eat even fewer calories to continue dropping fat. If that cycle continues, you'll have to drop your calories so low that it will compromise your muscle mass, and that's never a good thing.
Cheating, by increasing calories and the amount of calories you get from certain macronutrients like carbs and fat, can help to prevent your metabolism from slowing down so quickly. For example, in my experience, when you're following a low-carb diet it is critically important to include one weekly high-carb day.
In one sense, eating far more carbs than you're allowed on normal diet days is technically cheating. But, since the effect of the high-carb day is to help you maintain your metabolism, not only is it not a cheat day—it's actually a help day!
Cheating helps you mentally as well as physically. I highly recommend at least one cheat meal per week, mainly for the sake of preserving your sanity. It's easy to preach willpower, but in action, few of us avoid our favorite foods for too long without having a massive cheat attack or, even worse, falling off the diet completely. Any diet that restricts too many types of foods, especially the ones you crave the most, is a recipe for failure. A diet must be realistic in order to last, and if it never lets you enjoy your favorite foods, it is anything but.
Adding in a cheat meal of fun foods can give you something to look forward to, which in turn can help you follow the diet more effectively, and for longer. It can also help you better police yourself. Most people want to feel like they've earned their cheat food, so knowing that a fun cheat meal is in your very near future can help you better deal with the dietary restrictions that you have on the other days.
Cheat Meal or Cheat Day?
But, should you have a cheat meal or an entire cheat day? That depends on your diet, your goals, and how your body is responding to the diet and the cheats.
If you're following a low-carb diet, you'll respond better to a high-carb cheat day, which I would define as increasing your total carb intake to 2 grams or more per pound of body weight. Having just one high-carb cheat meal won't be enough to keep your metabolism turned up. Since the high-carb day is more of a help day than a cheat day, you can add a more decadent meal that day—or add a cheat meal to a different day of the week altogether.
Generally speaking, the leaner you are and the longer you've been dieting, the bigger and, in some cases, more frequent your cheat can be. If you're a man under 10 percent body fat or a woman under 20 percent, you can probably schedule an entire cheat day. It just depends on how your body responds to the cheating. If the cheating doesn't interfere with— or even increases—your fat loss, you can either have a bigger cheat day or even more than one cheat day a week. One cheat day every 4-5 days may work well for you.
If, however, the cheating slows your progress or adds body fat, you know the solution: Reduce the amount and/or frequency of cheating. If a full cheat day is halting your fat loss, cut back to two cheat meals that day, give it some time, then assess your progress from there.
If your body fat is higher that these percentages, start with a baseline of one cheat meal per week and see how your body responds. If taking in extra carbs for that one meal enables you to maintain or even improve your fat loss, try adding more cheat meals and, eventually, maybe even an entire cheat day.
Self-Monitoring Your Cheats
There is no "one size fits all" formula for cheat meals or days. You just need to be honest with yourself. If eating an entire pizza, a pitcher of beer, and banana split every Saturday night is stalling your fat loss, the solution is pretty clear: Cut back to a more realistic cheat meal. If this new cheat meal supports or even increases your fat loss, then keep adding cheat meals until it starts to interfere with your fat loss, then cut back.
If you pay attention to the effect what you eat has on your body, you can tell pretty quickly if you need to make a change—and what that change should be.
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