Do Cheat Meals Make Dieting Sense?

Stacey Penney
Stacey Penney


Can the occassional cheat meal help you, or your clients, move toward achieving nutrition goals? Instead of completely denying craved foods, allowing for a small or occasional indulgence could be a strategy to consider.

Here we’ll take a look at why.

What is a Cheat Meal?

Cheat meals are an eating approach of adhering to a clean diet 90% of the time and cheating on 10% of meals (or even ratios of 80:20), or a complete day of modestly indulging in the not so healthy craved foods.

New Year’s Eve and Fat Tuesday are two events where many people overindulge in diet luxuries before committing to a healthier change. Lent, though not specific to only giving up a food, has a predetermined time span with an opportunity to embrace new ways.

The top-ranking New Year’s resolution year-after-year is to lose weight, and of the 45% of people who actually make resolutions only about 64% of resolutions are kept past one month, and only 46% past six months (1). Do all-or-none approaches work for these new ways and resolutions? Will a one-time slip result in feelings of guilt and failure, and lead to completely giving up on the goal?

Perhaps when it comes to food choices, occasional indulgences may improve the odds of long-term change. (Note: A cheating strategy does not apply to detrimental or dangerous health habits!)

Food cravings differ from hunger. Hunger can be satisfied with almost any food. A craving is a continuous desire regardless of hunger status.

Cravings can be linked to psychological and physiological triggers ranging from lack of sleep, PMS, emotional status, stress, nutrient deficiencies, or even the sight or smell of food (2-4). Having strong food cravings can also be a dieter’s demise with increased risk factors for binge eating disorders, higher BMI, and obesity (3-5).

Does restricting a food increase the desire? Completely restricting favorite foods from the diet can potentially backlash. A study released by Blechert et al., (2014) on chocolate deprivation of just one week indicated an increased like, desire, and an increase in chocolate consumption at the conclusion of the week by participants compared to the week when they were allowed to eat chocolate at will (3). When they were deprived of chocolate they also experienced elevated ratings of frustration and depression (3).

Scheduling a cheat meal may help people stick to their otherwise clean diets. Knowing that an upcoming meal will allow for a slice of pizza, a small scoop of chocolate ice cream, or partaking in a piece of cake at an upcoming wedding may keep dieters on track. With a cheat meal, or a planned modest indulgence, the psychological guilt or feelings of failure can be kept in check while keeping committed to the goal rather than quitting altogether. It does have to be understood that the more cheat meals that are eaten, the longer the journey to the weight loss goal it could be.

There's more information where this came from! If you want to get more information on portion sizes, how to navigate diets, and even nutrition and behavior change, see our course catalog on nutrition


  1. “New Years Resolution Statistics—Statistic Brain.” 2014 Statistics Brain Research Institute. 1.1.2014.
  2. Insel PM, Ross D, McMahon K, et al. Nutrition. 4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011.
  3. Blechert J, Naumann E, Schmitz J, Herbert BM, Tuschen-Caffier B. (2014). Startling sweet temptations: hedonic chocolate deprivation modulates experience, eating behavior, and eyeblink startle. PLoS ONE, 9(1): e85679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085679
  4. Yen J, Chang S, Ko C, et al. (2010). The high-sweet-fat food craving among women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder: emotional response, implicit attitude and rewards sensitivity. Psychoneuroendocrinology 35:1203-1212.
  5. Kemps E, Tiggeman M, Bettany S. (2008) Food cravings consume limited cognitive resources. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14(3):247-254.


The Author

Stacey Penney

Stacey Penney

Stacey Penney, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, CNC, is the Content Strategist with NASM and AFAA. A 20+ year veteran of the fitness industry, she's worked with the top certification and continuing education groups. At NASM and AFAA she drives the content for American Fitness Magazine, blog and the social media platforms. Stacey received her degree in Athletic Training/PE from San Diego State University and an MS in Exercise Science from CalU, plus credentials in Health Promotion Management & Consulting (UCSD), Instructional Technology (SDSU), group fitness and yoga. Previous San Diego Fall Prevention Task Force Chair, she’s developed continuing education curriculum for fitness organizations in addition to personal training, writing, and co-coaching youth rec soccer.