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Cheat Day – The Best Day of the Week

chocolate bar

A cheat day can be a beneficial tool to help you lose weight. It’s one of the few times you can eat not-so-healthy food and still see fat loss as a result. By taking a preplanned approach towards eating “bad”, you have the potential to accelerate your weight loss.

Cheat days boost your metabolism and satisfy you psychologically. Knowing you can be a little looser with your diet, and be able to eat some of those forbidden foods will help keep you motivated the rest of the time to stay on track. Take the time to understand what a cheat day is, what it does to your body, and how to implement it, and you’ll soon be able to harness a nice little weapon in the fight against fat.

It Boosts Your Metabolism

Having a cheat day boosts your metabolism in many ways. One way it boosts your metabolism is by increasing leptin levels. Leptin is a hormone that influences hunger and body fat levels. When you diet and cut your calories, your leptin levels also drop. This causes those extreme hunger signals, and as a result, your body will hold onto body fat thinking that it’s going to need it to survive in the future.

Leptin levels are directly correlated with your total caloric intake. Low calories lower leptin levels. By having a cheat day, you give your body a chance to “reset” your hormone levels – leptin included.

Cheat meals keep your body guessing. You don’t want your body thinking that it’s going to be getting low calories forever. Throwing in a high calorie day sends your body a signal that food is plentiful, and that it’s OK to shed some fat reserves because there’s not a famine on the horizon.

How Often Should You Have a Cheat Day

While having a cheat day can be beneficial, you don’t want to overdo it. Until you get the hang of your body I recommend that you have a cheat meal once per week. In the very beginning when you first start your diet, wait two weeks before having your first cheat day. This serves two purposes.

  • It gives your mind and body a chance to get over your withdrawal symptoms of processed food. Waiting just one week at the beginning for your cheat day can keep the bad cycle of unhealthy eating going. Read more about overcoming your food addiction.
  • It gives you a chance to deplete some of your glycogen stores. More than likely your muscles are full of glycogen. You probably haven’t been eating carbohydrates sparingly, so it will take a little longer for your muscles to deplete themselves of glucose. This will make your cheat day more effective.

As you start getting leaner, the frequency of your cheat days may actually increase. The lower your body fat levels, the more your body wants to hang on to the energy reserves (fat) it has. You have to do a few tricks to get rid of that last bit of fat. Increasing the cheat day frequency to twice a week is not unheard of, although, depending on the person, they may need to keep the processed food out of their diet, and instead use calorie cycling.

Cheat Day or Cheat Meal?

So you’re all excited about this cheat day. You’re dreaming of eating pizza, ice cream, chips, and fast food all day. Let’s take a step back for a second. Remember, a cheat day is a preplanned approach to help you lose fat. You don’t want to go and blow a whole week’s worth of dieting by eating an insane amount of calories one day a week.

See if cheat meals are actually holding you back.

I recommend that at first you limit your cheat day to a single cheat meal. This way you can gauge the effects the cheat day has on your fat loss progress. If you see that you are losing weight at an extreme rate, you can either be a little looser with food choices during that single cheat meal, add a second cheat meal to your day, or add another cheat meal at some other time during the week.

“Cheating” guidelines should look like this:

  • Limit fat intake. Carbohydrates are going to have the biggest influence on your leptin levels. In addition, by eating a large amount of carbohydrates, your insulin levels will be high, so you don’t want to be combining fat with a storage hormone.
  • Eat more calories this day than other days of the week. Try eating 500-1000 calories more than what you would need to maintain your current weight. If you need help determining this number, see how many calories should I eat.
  • Your food choices can be looser than normal. They don’t have to be 100% healthy foods. However, not everyone can get away with eating 5 bowls of cereal. If you find that having a dirty cheat meal isn’t working for you, try keeping your carb choices healthier, but eating a lot more of them. This in effect turns your cheat meal into a carb up, but what can I say…not everyone’s genetics allow for dirty cheat meals.
  • Be mindful of your calories! Cheat days are not free-for-alls. Remember what your ultimate goal is and keep your eye on the prize. The best way to track calories is through a combination of a calorie tracker app and a digital food scale. Here is the scale I personally use.

When Should You Have a Cheat Meal?

The are a few different times that are more beneficial than others to have a cheat meal. This will depend on what your goals are and how they affect your lifestyle. Speaking from a strictly physiological standpoint, the best time to have your cheat meal will be when your insulin sensitivity is at its highest. When is this? It’s right after a good workout. After a high-intensity workout that demands energy from glucose, your muscles are primed and ready to absorb carbohydrates. It’s during this time that you will be less likely to store these carbohydrates as fat.

Read more about how insulin sensitivity is the key to fat loss, and find out the other times when your sensitivity to insulin is high.

The other good time to have a cheat meal, and the time I actually prefer, is at a time when it is socially beneficial to you. As you might have noticed, when you try to lose weight, you become somewhat of a social outcast. Bad food always seems to show itself when you’re out with friends. I like to save my cheat meal for a Friday or Saturday night when I can enjoy going out to dinner or a party and not worry about having to say no to every temptation.

What do you think? Have you found cheat meals to be beneficial towards fat loss? What is your favorite cheat meal?

  • Tom Parker

    Hey Tony – Personally I prefer having cheat meals rather than an entire cheat day. The reason for this is that a cheat day is so definitive. I might wake up on that day and not be craving healthy foods but eat them anyway because it’s my cheat day. Plus, there might be times during the week where I go out for dinner and I cannot really enjoy the meal because there are no healthy options I like eating. Not only does this affect my enjoyment but as you say it turns me into a bit of a social outcast.

    If I have cheat meals I can eat healthy most of the time but when I fancy a pizza or a burger I can still have it. If I end up eating out 2 or 3 times in 1 week I can go to the restaurant without worrying about what they have on the menu. I find this method much easier to incorporate into my lifestyle.

    As for the amount of cheat meals, I generally go with an 80/20 approach so a maximum of 1 in 5 of my meals can be a cheat meal (approximately 4 meals per week). I generally slot them in when I am eating out but sometimes I will also use a cheat meal to have a pizza night.

  • Coach Calorie

    Good points Tom. Sometimes an unplanned cheat meal is best. That way when one of life’s unplanned moments comes up, you can let go a little and enjoy yourself. I’ve found plenty of times that I’ve had a planned cheat meal, only to wish I would have saved it for the social event I was at just a day or two later.

  • Matt Ritchie

    I eat clean all week and have a cheat meal (usually a Saturday evening) where I kick back and have loads of home-made bread and a few beers as a reward. It works for me. I would thoroughly recommend it. I believe it’s good for your mind & metabolism. I might also add it will NOT affect your waistline…in fact I would make it mandatory for anyone thinking of making regular diet & exercise part of their lifestyle. Another great article.

    • Coach Calorie

      Very true Matt. And as I pointed out, not only will it not affect your waistline, but it can actually improve it.

  • Dave – Not Your Average Fitness Tips

    Fortunately my cheat day is today. This is usually my most intense workout day which makes me feel like I earned my cheat meals. Plus, today happens to be a holiday party so I try to time my cheat days on the weekends when events like this are more likely. One thing I’m curious said to limit fat intake, but I thought a combination of carbs and fat was what resulted in increased leptin levels, not just carbs?

    • Coach Calorie

      Hey Dave, while mixing fat and carbohydrates can improve leptin levels, fat alone has no effect. -John Berardi

      It’s the carbohydrates and the resulting insulin increase that has the greatest effect on leptin levels.

  • Matt Ritchie

    As I’ve said in a previous post my cheat day is usually a Saturday but next week it’ll be Sunday (for obvious reasons) But what will everyone else be doing for Christmas? Will some of you still be watching what you eat or just saying to yourself ‘ah, what the heck…it’s Christmas!’ It is only once a year I suppose but I personally can’t be bothered with having to shift a load of weight after the new year so I’ll be training & eating clean as usual. Nice to hear others thoughts on how they handle the holiday season temptations.

    • Coach Calorie

      I personally won’t be worrying about Christmas. If I really wanted to, I could save my cheat meal for that Sunday. Unless you are getting ready for some special event, one day is not going to kill you. You’d have to eat 3500 calories OVER your maintenance calories to put on a single pound. That is very hard to do. As long as you get right back on your “diet”, I think you’ll be fine.

  • Penelope

    I love the idea of a cheat day (it will probably keep me more motivated in my weight loss goals)…500+ calories extra that day gives a lot of leeway too! I find that having a break from dieting not only makes it more tolerable, but breaking it down over a week (500 extra calories one day is only 80 something extra calories a day)…it’s not really any damage.

    • Coach Calorie

      Good point Penelope. 500 calories one day isn’t much, especially considering the fact you’ve been eating 500-1000 calories below maintenance the rest of the week.

  • Deb Dorrington

    I am going to incorporate Cheat Day into my dieting. I feel so deprived most times as I am a chip eater by nature (genetics I swear)…lol. So to know that one day a week I can eat a small bag of chips and not feel guilty to so help me be good the other 6 days1

    • Coach Calorie

      The hardest part for me is getting back on a healthy eating schedule after eating a cheat meal. If you can do that, then you have the most difficult part down.

  • anna pry

    i have a daily cheat but it’s almost always dark chocolate so even that i dont feel very bad about having. I eat a couple pieces of at least 70% dark chocolate with a handful of almonds and a cup of decaf coffee. I think eating the chocolate with the almonds makes it last longer and taste more like i’m eating a candy bar and having with the coffee helps me unwind. I wouldn’t want to go without my chocolate fix!

    • Freddie Jackson

      I do the same Anna. Works very well for me too! Gotta have my Choc fix…

  • Donna B.

    I’ve incorporated cheats into my diet but I probably do it more often than I realize since I don’t have a formal system. I think I’ll try yours :) thanks for sharing!

  • Christine L

    I love this article. Cheating as a motivation will certainly help a lot of people stick to a good diet and fitness plan.

  • Sarah L

    Once a week after my regular swim I’ll stop and get a small dish of ice cream. Makes me happy.

  • Donna B.

    I saw a piece on Dr. Oz on this very topic late last week. I did like that he advocated cheating in moderation and not using it to totally pig out. I find as I’ve cleaned up my diet, my cravings for the bad stuff have really plummeted and when I do cheat, my old favorites taste disgusting. I just wish I’d done this a lot sooner!

  • Anne-Marie Cunningham

    This is music to my ears, I have been working out solidly since October and have hit a major ‘emotional’ plateau, don’t worry I’m not freaking out or in need of therapy! I have lost 5 inches off my waist and 3 off my leg but my scales hasn’t moved. I know what you are going to say but it has become a ‘thing’ with me so I keep tightening up my diet further, pushing myself in the gym more and nothing is making that scales move! I do 2 kettlebell classes a week and 2/3 other weight / cardio sessions (all given to be my an instructor so I have good guidance). I know I shouldn’t care about the scales and yes my figure is changing but until I see that scales move I know I won’t be happy. I’m 133lbs and have had 4 little boys in 5 years so I shouldn’t complain! I’m loving your articles by the way!

  • Geri S

    I LOVE your ideas about a cheat day, Sunday are my hubby and my cheat day. Hubby has a hard time on this day he wants to eat everything like popcorn, donuts and chocolate cake. If I tell him that he should choose one he gets mad and tells me he know what he is doing. We have been on a diet since the first of the year. He has only lose 1 to 2 lbs. I that it’s because of our Sunday cheat day and him going hog wild on those days.

  • Debbie

    I love cheat day! Whenever I am trying to lose some weight, I have incorporated cheat day into my regiment. It gives me something to look forward to, and keeps me from straying the other days. And I believe it really does work – I think it helps shock your metabolism into gear. Great article!

  • Karine

    I don’t have ‘cheat days’, but instead a cheat meal is enough for me. I usually order something that’s not too bad (it’s usually chicken & a kid’s portion of fries) and I’m happy for (most of) the week after that. My cheat meal is actually tonight, I enjoy getting back from work, going to the gym and then I order something and watch a movie. A great way to start the weekend, in my opinion :) I eat clean most of the week, so I don’t feel bad or guilty about this meal. I don’t binge, either.

    I don’t go overboard (with cake, alchohol, etc) just because my body doesn’t take it so well anyways. I usually end up feeling sick (literally) the next day.

  • Kat

    So happy to have read this article. I’ve been going out to dinner once a week with my friends and feeling totally puzzled with what to get. I’ve been sticking to a pretty strict vegetable/lean protein/healthy fat diet for the past couple months and it makes going out pretty tough. Glad to know I can add in some carbohydrates so I don’t have to feel awkward and explain why I can’t share an appetizer or have a beer!

  • Food Stories

    Upcoming Cheat Days :)

    05/06 – International No Diet Day
    05/11 – Eat What You Want Day

    Let’s all celebrate!

  • Nick

    is brown bread good for you?

    • Coach Calorie

      I have a love/hate relationship with bread in general. I tend to view it as a processed food personally, but some people don’t have any issues eating it. If you’re going to, make sure you read the ingredients, and choose a bread that has only whole food ingredients in it.

  • http://N/A Richard

    Hey dude, I have just recently put myself on a low calorie diet, I have three meals a day which consists of salad and a small portion of fresh meat, with one or two snacks inbetween of 50 to 100 grams of fresh meat. Today is my cheat day, can I eat whatever I want and drink beer? And does my diet sound okay? Oh, I also exercise moderately everyday. I weigh 100 kilograms and I’m 6 foot 3. Just looking for tips. Thank you.

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Richard, I would not go crazy on your cheat days. It’s not difficult for a cheat day to erase all your gains from the past week. Cheat days serve a purpose and should be controlled. Aim for calories about 50% higher than normal and try to keep it as clean as possible with maybe 1 single “dirty” meal.

  • tita

    Hey! I’ve been changing my eating life style since may, and i’ve lost a total of 15 pounds! but this week i’ve been eating like a hungry bear!!! Im hungry all the time, and I’ll eat everything you put in front of me! Im scared this crazy behavior will continue on and on! what can I do to stop this?!?! HELP!!

    • tita

      I forgot to mention something, I was prohibited to do any exercise for a month (this past week was my 3rd one), could that be a reason?? :O

    • Coach Calorie

      Tita, make sure you’re eating enough calories. Extreme hunger is almost a sure sign that your calories are too low.

  • Priya

    I have been trying to lose weight for so long and I feel like I’am getting no where
    I’m not over weight. My current weight is 49kg (well now 50kg because I just cheated)
    I feel terrible when I get on the scale and see no progress
    my goal is to be 46kg
    can you please provide me with a few tips and tricks to help me stay on my diet ! This constant cycle of working out and dieting and then flipping back is making me quite depressed

    • Coach Calorie

      Priya, get rid of the cheats. I know I just said that as part of the “cheat day” article, but for people like yourself, you’re not ready for a cheat, and you really don’t need one yet. Focus on cutting out the processed food and making consistent progress. Once you get going and master self-control, you can start adding in targeted cheats.

  • Pingback: Cheat days can help boost your metabolism « Life of Bai()

  • Caleb

    Hey there! I have been dieting for 3 months now, lost just over 60lbs :D I’ve got about 5lbs to go, I’ve never taken a cheat day before and to be honest I’ve had enough of this dieting… I tend to eat about 1100-1400 calories a day, plus I walk 7miles there and back to the gym every other day, I do (Insanity) HIIT cardio in between. I’m 5ft 11in 165.5lbs during the week I always tell myself I’ll have a cheat day but I never do, will splurging one day really hurt me? Thanks in advance

    • meanie

      Can you live the way you do the rest of your life? If no, then yes, use a cheat day.

      You may be able to eat 1100 – 1400 kcal for 6 days, but you might need one day where you eat 3kcal worth of junk food to sustain it long term.

      You might lose weight slower but it’s better than gaining the weight back.

  • Laura

    i did a cheat day after losing 4 lbs and dieting for almost 3 weeks – afterwards the scale said I gained 3 pounds back – is this possible??! I only had about 8 lbs to lose total and now I think the cheat day isn’t worth it at all if all my progress will be thrown out the window!

    • Coach Calorie

      Yes, that is possible, but it is mostly water weight. Don’t worry about it, it will be gone again after a couple of days of normal eating. I have an article coming out on Tuesday about that very subject. Keep an eye out for it.

      • Bj Cregar Kinkade

        I dont understand how you can gain 2-3 pounds overnight and then take days if ever to lose if it is water weight? What proteins do you recommend that do not have lots of fat as if I am going to eat some might as well eat my favorite peanut butter than meat help

  • Anita

    What do you think about alcohol on a cheat day ( ie a couple glasses of good red wine with Home made roast vegetable and feta cheese pizza) aka my fave meal in the universe! Sigh…

  • Coach Calorie

    I have no problem with wine in moderation. I make it part of my nutrition, and not necessarily a cheat.

  • Kim

    I absolutely love all the advice you give! I have been working hard on getting ready for a fitness competition and have a very hard time losing weight. I have a personal trainer who is amazing and gives me my diet and exercises for 2 weeks then switches it up. It is a high protein lower carb diet and I find that once a week my body seems to tell me to load up on either more calories or carbs. Whenever I do this I do tend to see an increase in weight loss and never feel guilty about my “cheat meal”. So glad to see that isn’t a bad thing:)

    • Bj Cregar Kinkade

      would love to hear what you do eat as I have gained 10 pounds and can not lose it and work out 2-3 hours plus weights 3 times a week (triathlete)

  • Kasia Norine Karen Mckenzie-El

    Love this article: another great 1

  • elizabeth

    Sadly I don’t know what diet to go on am fed up tried so many but I keep going back to cheats..I tried the cambridge diet loads of times please help What can I do hv got 10kg to loose.i dont know how to coubr calories or how much I nid to loose weight.i cnt control not eating

  • Coach Calorie

    I’d recommend you stop going on diets and work on making small but lasting positive changes to your eating habits. Be patient :)

  • Kassandra Dawson

    I eat 1250 calories a day and have one or two cheat days which consist of 2,000 to 2,800 calories. I work out 4 to 6 days a week for 1 to 2 hours. This seems weird but its working. I use coffee to supress my appetite on the low calorie days. Im 5’4. 147lbs down from 206. My goal is 140 since i have a large frame and i already have a flat belly. Dont wanna lose my kardashian like figure lol.

  • Coach Calorie

    Because you can eat a huge amount of carbohydrates in a short amount of time (hours), while it can take days to burn off those calories (glycogen and corresponding water).

  • Sarita80

    Hello! I love your site. Its so informative! I have one cheat meal a week. I have changed my diet using Ayurveda mainly because I had bloating problems. Im better now and I have seen many good results. I don’t intent to lose much weight, but the baby fat that I gained during pregnancy and after almost 5 years I can’t get rid of (Im heavier by 15 lbs. I’m 5’3″ current weight is 146 lbs). But with this new diet I found that one cheat meal a week, just after excercising has helpmed me a lot by not depleting the “bad carbs” that I don’t eat all week. I crave for lean meat and tortillas during my cheat day and it usualy is on wednesday late afternoon. This only cheat meal gives me a lot of energy for the whole week to keep on doing my jillian workouts and ashtanga yoga.

  • Tony Schober

    You can eat it whenever, but your insulin sensitivity is highest, and thus the partitioning effect most in your favor, post-workout.