There's no satisfaction like a few bites of greasy pizza when you've been sticking to your healthy diet for the past month — until those few bites lead to a few slices and that one "bad" meal leads to an entire day of "bad" eating (or, as so many have come to call it, a cheat day). Suddenly, you've had a whole weekend of cheat meals...and potentially some bloating to show for it. Hey, it happens. But giving yourself just three cheat days a week is enough to impact your gut health as badly as a consistent diet of junk food, according to a study in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research. Meanwhile, another study from the University of Georgia found that 61 percent of people gain weight while on vacation — anywhere from 1 to 7 pounds.
Now, let's get something straight: Adding on a few lbs is really not that big of a deal. But seeing the number on the scale tick upward and simply just not feeling your best (blame those greasy beachside fries while OOO) can derail you even further, potentially putting your motivation and overall health at risk. "It's easier to gain weight than it is to lose — and it's certainly a lot more funto gain than to lose it," says Alexandra Caspero, R.D., owner of weight-management and sports-nutrition service DelishKnowledge.com.
Even with the willpower of steel, everyone's going to splurge on something sooner or later. So how many cheat meals a week are okay? And how do you keep one cheat meal from turning into a week-worth of cheat days and then a month? You can do just that by slowing down and following these 10 tips.
First of all, you might want to reconsider calling it a cheat day or cheat meal. "The notion of a 'cheat day' actually does more harm than good. If you dedicate a frame of time (a day, a week) as the time to 'cheat,' then you're more likely to eat just to eat because you feel like this is your one time to do so," says Caspero. (Just take it from Zoe Saldana, who doesn't believe in 'cheat days' or diets, for that matter.)
Instead, think of it as consciously indulging, offers Tori Holthaus, R.D.N., founder of Yes! Nutrition in Ohio. Find what matters to you — if brunch is your go-to meal, then enjoy that. If you love pizza, have a slice and really relish it. "There's so much power in enjoying your meal without guilt. Ironically, the more guilt we feel about eating decadent food, the more likely we are to overeat," adds Caspero.
That new pizza place up the block may certainly seem like trouble, but hitting it up a couple of times really isn't cause for alarm. And while, yes, the number of calories (as well as the amount of salt and fat) consumed during the average restaurant meal might be more than that from a DIY dinner, it's still not thousands and thousands, says Caspero. "Consistency matters — if you are eating out much more than you used to, you will likely see some weight gain. But it's not going to be after one or two nights out." And let's be clear: If you're maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle — staying active, following a balanced diet, getting ample sleep, the list goes on — then grabbing a slice or two once or twice a week should be NBD.
Aim to stick to your healthy diet 90 percent of the time. If you eat three meals and a snack each day (plus a workout shake four days a week when you exercise, which may not be true for everyone), that means you eat 32 times per week. Twenty-nine of those 32 meals and snacks should stick to your healthy diet plan, leaving three to do whatever you want. It sounds simple, but once you start tracking your adherence to your diet plan, you'll be surprised how easy it is to skip a meal or grab a quick, refined sugar-rich snack when you're short on time and, next thing you know, you're calling it a cheat day. (Also consider the 80/20 rule for dietary balance.)
"To me, gaining a pound on vacation is worth it for the fun and experience, even if that means I need to add a few more workouts in when I get back," says Caspero. Too rigorous a diet and you'll be missing out on the local flavor — whether in a new city or the one you live in — so don't beat yourself up about it.
Or, in the wise words of Donna and Tom from Parks and Rec, "treat yo-self!" Eating foods that make you feel the best for most of your meals and then splurging on one is a great way to control your cravings without feeling like you missed out. "A balanced breakfast and lunch followed by a more indulgent dinner and drinks won't be as detrimental as a hearty breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks out," explains Caspero.
Most people don't feel good after stress eating spoonful upon spoonful of Ben & Jerry's on a Friday night. But if you plan ahead and reward yourself for a week of sticking to your diet and exercise plan with a bowl (not a pint) of creamy, cookie dough-laden ice cream, that feels different. Plan your treats so that you can truly enjoy them and not binge one after the other on a so-called cheat day. (BTW, you might also want to try some of the best healthy ice cream brandsnext time you're cheers-ing to a week of balanced bites.)
"When you set yourself up for the traditional cheat day, there's an all-or-nothing mentality," says Caspero. ("If I've already ordered nachos, what difference is a hot fudge sundae going to make?!") Obviously, calling the whole day a wash is going to do a lot more damage than that potentially brought on by one not-so-healthy meal. "Allow yourself to eat what you really want in that moment and then continue on to your normal, healthier eating pattern," she says.
Surprisingly, knowing that you can "cheat" anytime usually lessens any desire food has over you, so tossing those constraints will actually help you need restrictions less. And remember that cravings can go either way: "I often find that choosing healthy food once makes it easier to choose healthy food again, just like with indulging," adds Holthaus. (
It's not just about weight gain or the psychological spiral of indulging in unhealthy fare. Junk food can mess with your gut health, which can affect how well you process food and how your body gains weight (not to mention, how it's able to absorb nutrients, as well). Research shows consistency in your diet helps support a healthy gut microbiome, so having a go-to cheat day-inspired meal can actually help ease the turmoil it causes your GI tract, says Holthaus.
And instead of intentionally restricting and then eating something straight-up unhealthy just once or twice a week, you're actually better off incorporating healthy-ish treats on the regular, so you never feel desperate for the flavors you crave. For example, "rather than indulging in a large brownie as a cheat meal, you're better off including a tablespoon of dark chocolate chips or cacao nibs as part of your regular meals for better gut health and to help ease cravings," she adds. (Wait, instead of a cheat day diet should you actually be following a gut-healthy diet?)
"Instead of feeling like you need to punish yourself with eating healthy after a cheat meal, I like to bring it back to what makes me feel good," says Caspero. "I don't have the same energy after eating a large stack of pancakes as I do after a green smoothie or yogurt and fruit bowl-so that feeling alone is motivating to me." After you enjoy a cheat day-esque dish, think back to what foods make you feel the best and have that next. "Returning to the foods that make you feel good will help curb any binge or residual cheat-day effect," she adds.
"Unfortunately, after a cheat meal there's nothing you can do to undo it. But you can make a positive, healthy step to the future by focusing on foods you know are healthy," says Holthaus. Opt for foods that can help your body reset. Broccoli, for example, is rich in glucoraphanin which helps power your body's own detoxification pathways for up to 72 hours, she explains. Water and potassium-rich foods (e.g. dark leafy greens, avocados, and bananas) can help balance sodium levels in the body and reduce bloating, while probiotic-rich foods (e.g. yogurt, kefir, and kimchi) can help offset any potential damage to your digestive system. "Bottom line: Don't stress and just get back on track," she says. (Try this: What You Should Eat the Day After Indulging)
That cycle of bad cravings is hard to break. Returning to a healthy diet can help, but so can getting your heart rate up. "Exercise is a powerful tool for more than just a calorie burn. Psychologically, not only do you feel better, but you actually start to crave healthier food when you're active," says Caspero — and the same is true for while you're away. The aforementioned University of Georgia study also found that one of the reasons why the pounds stuck around after people went on vacation was the fact that most folks worked out less once they returned home. Maintain your workout routine while OOO so you don't fall off the motivation bandwagon once you return to real life. "Anything counts when it comes to continuing an exercise pattern on vacation — hiking, snorkeling, paddleboarding, just walking around — make it fun," she adds. (And while you shouldn't worry too much about so-called cheat days during vacay, these creative beach workouts can help you feel better about all those indulgent bites and beverages.) Choosing physical activities and workouts that you enjoy and look forward to — versus see as a punishment — will also make it easier to stay moving once you return home.
One more time for the folks in the back: Don't (!!) beat yourself up for eating "badly" for a week or gaining a few pounds after a short holiday. Sure, you probably don't want to adopt a veritable cheat-day diet made up exclusively of greasy grub, sugar, and other unhealthy edibles that could leave your body in distress. But life happens (and, let's be honest, relaxing on vacation often means having that extra margarita or three) and you don't necessarily need a scale to remind you of your recent indulgences. Instead, consider paying attention to other signs of how you're doing, such as how your jeans fit or how your workouts feel.