Cheat Days & Cheat Meals: Are They Good for Weight Loss?

someone holding a burger

Cheat days are popular among fitness enthusiasts. You stick to a strict diet for the whole week except for one day when you let yourself eat whatever your heart desires. Burgers, pizza, ice cream, chocolate, soft drinks, alcohol…you’re allowed to eat anything on this one day. But are cheat days (or refeed days) really a good thing if you want to lose weight?

two people drinking wine

What is the difference between cheat meals and cheat days?

You have to decide how much you want to splurge:

  • Cheat days: Pizza for breakfast, ice cream for lunch, and burger and fries for dinner? On a cheat day, you are allowed to eat whatever you want. What this day looks like depends entirely on you: some devour everything they can get their hands on. It’s possible that you might consume twice as many calories as on a normal day. Others choose a less extreme version and increase their daily calorie intake with healthy, high-calorie foods.
  • Cheat meals: Another option is to use cheat meals. The idea here is that you eat healthy the whole day except for one meal when you eat things that are not part of your prescribed diet (usually things like junk food).

Physical effects of cheat days

The theory is that since cheat days increase the production of leptin, they boost your metabolism. This, in turn, should then cause your body to burn more calories after overeating. Leptin is a peptide hormone (consisting of amino acid chains) that is secreted by the body’s fat cells and controls hunger and feelings of satiety. However, the extent to which leptin controls body weight is still a subject of debate among scientists. Whether leptin production actually increases after a cheat day or a refeeding day is still being studied. Overeating is thought to boost your body’s metabolism by no more than 3-10% (over a maximum of 24 hours).

If you have been following a strict diet for a long time, it might be that the glycogen stores in your muscles are rather limited. This can lead you to fatigue more quickly and hurt your workout performance. A cheat meal or a cheat day can help replenish your glycogen stores by increasing the number of calories and carbohydrates you are consuming. This can provide you with the energy you need for a strenuous workout; but going overboard on your cheat day can, of course, also set you back a bit with your weight loss goals.  

pizza on a table

Psychological effects of cheat days

Cheat days or refeed days can have both positive and negative effects on the human mind. It depends on the kind of person you are: many people feel that regular cheat days help them stick to a strict diet. It makes it easier for them to stop food cravings on the other days.

However, for other people, overeating can cause more harm than good. They eat so much on their cheat days that they feel guilty afterwards. Or the only thing they can think about is their next cheat day instead of focusing on healthy eating in general. This is definitely unhealthy behavior and can ultimately lead to an eating disorder.

pancakes on a plate

So, should you cheat regularly?

It’s okay if you loosen up once in a while and treat yourself to something you’ve been dying for. There should be room in your diet for the occasional indulgence even when you are trying to lose weight. We are not big fans of restrictive diets anyway, and we definitely do not recommend scheduling regular days on which you eat everything you can get your hands on. What happens at the end of the day? You have consumed several thousand calories, are riddled with guilt, feel bloated, and maybe even a little sick to your stomach. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? Cheat meals are probably better and healthier.

It should be mentioned that people with diabetes, high cholesterol, or blood pressure need to be extra careful. Even small treats can have big, negative impacts on their health.

Our tip: Keep a food diary

Are you craving ice cream? Then treat yourself! Every healthy nutrition plan should leave some room for your favorite foods. With food tracking, you can simply plan your small indulgences: enter tonight’s ice cream in your food diary first thing in the morning. That way you know how many calories you have to spare during the day without exceeding your goal. The secret is everything in moderation.



Julia Denner Julia is a dietician and sports nutritionist. Before she began her position as Communications Specialist at Runtastic, she spent several years working as a dietician in the surgical department at Vienna General Hospital. Julia is passionate about inspiring others to eat a healthy, balanced diet. View all posts by Julia Denner