- Trying to follow a “perfect” restrictive diet is unrealistic. Sustainability is much more important.
- I don’t advocate “cheat meals” because they can encourage an unhealthy relationship with food.
- A better approach for most is to stop demonizing “bad” foods and incorporate them into your diet.
- Read more Working It Out here.
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I’m currently trying to lose weight by cutting down my portion sizes and making healthy choices, but I don’t manage to stay on track all the time. You’ve said before that it’s not smart to cut out all my favorite foods, but am I meant to have diet breaks that last a week, have cheat days, or just include “treats” into my daily diet? Is one approach better than the other for long-term weight loss success? Help!
— Dieter in a Dilemma
Firstly, it’s great to hear you’re making healthy choices and going about weight loss the right way. Please don’t stress about not being “on track” all the time — no one is! And that’s not a problem at all.
You raise an interesting issue, and one for which there are various approaches. Some people are staunch cheat meal (or day) advocates, others go for less frequent “refeeds” or “diet breaks” which can last a few days to a week, and some simply incorporate all foods into their daily diet, which is sometimes called “flexible dieting.”
As is always the case, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but I’ve done some digging into the research and consulted a couple of experts to offer some advice, which should help you find what’s right for you.
Cheat meals can create a negative relationship with food
Many people who are trying to lose weight have a “cheat meal,” where they eat whatever they want once a week. But think about it: if you feel like you need to “cheat” on your diet, you’re probably doing something too restrictive and unsustainable, whether that is cutting out specific foods or being in too drastic a calorie deficit.
Then there’s the fact that the language is highly problematic — “cheating” sounds like something which should lead to guilt. I’ve found that when you give yourself the freedom to enjoy foods without guilt, you no longer feel out of control around them and the urge to binge.
“Having ‘cheat’ days often alludes to some foods being ‘good’ and others ‘bad,’ which isn’t the case at all,” registered dietitian Tai Ibitoye told Insider. “It’s how much and how often that counts. With some people, having ‘cheat’ days can undo any progress made and may cause others to feel very anxious too as they feel like they have to ‘start all over again.'”
One study found that most images of cheat meals posted on social media would qualify as binge eating episodes, and another study found that “cheat meals may reflect psychopathological properties akin to binge episodes.”
There are people for whom cheat meals seem to work though, such as personal trainer Paul Carter, who regularly posts images on Instagram of his huge feasts.
However, Carter acknowledges that he follows a very strict diet the rest of the week and as a strength coach he also works out more than the average person.
Diet breaks can have positive effects
Another approach is to take diet breaks for a few days or a week, where you simply stop tracking (if you had been), relax, and eat as you please. One advantage of this approach is you can fit a break around your life, such as when you’re going on vacation or are on your period.
The idea is to bring your calories up to around maintenance level though, not go overboard.
For some people, the main benefit of a diet break or “refeed” is psychological, leaving them feeling refreshed and invigorated, and it can be really beneficial.
One study compared two groups of people: half followed a 25% calorie deficit seven days a week, and the other half ate in a 35% deficit for five days, then maintenance calories (by increasing carbohydrate consumption) for two. The refeed group lost slightly more fat, preserved their resting metabolic rate better, and held on to more muscle.
Another study compared whether it’s better to stick to a calorie deficit solidly for 16 weeks, or diet for two weeks then have a two-week break (making the whole period of time 30 weeks). The researchers found that those who took diet breaks lost more weight overall and kept their metabolism up better, despite the process taking longer.
I always recommend the slow and steady approach to weight loss, but ultimately it comes down to your priorities.
“The more often you take diet breaks, cheat days, or have unplanned treats, the longer it’s going to take to reach your physical goal,” personal trainer and fat loss coach Carter Good told Insider. “But if you’re OK with it taking longer, then what’s the problem?”
He continued: “For a lot of people, being able to take more frequent diet breaks and being generally looser with their nutrition is worth achieving their goal at a slower pace. For these people, when they reach their goal is a lot less important than having flexibility with their food choices.”
In five years, you won’t care about whether it took you 16 or 30 weeks, and the slower approach may make you more likely to keep the weight off.
‘Flexible dieting’ is a sustainable approach
The best diet for you is one you can stick to, and this is why I am a fan of an approach called “flexible dieting.”
This means prioritizing nutritious foods (which are more filling and satiating than highly processed, high sugar, high fat foods), but not depriving yourself of anything.
When I decide to lose some weight (I enjoy periods of calorie tracking, but it isn’t for everyone), I always incorporate my favorite foods — ice cream, cookies, chocolate, cake, burgers, pizza — into my daily diet.
But at the same time, if one or two days a week I go over my calorie target somewhat, I don’t stress as I know it won’t have made a big difference at all, and life’s too short not to enjoy good food.
“Instead of focusing on whether you’re supposed to have ‘cheat’ days, it’s best to focus on achieving a variety of foods that provides you satisfaction, enjoyment, and are nourishing to your body,” Ibitoye said. “You can still have your favorite foods that may be high in calories, fat, and sugar, but it’s best to have these less often throughout the week and in small amounts.”
Ibitoye suggests keeping an eye on portion size (try smaller bars of chocolate and, for example, half a pizza with a side salad) and cutting down on certain foods, not cutting out.
“It’s worth checking food labels to compare similar food products and choose lower sugar, fat, and salt options,” Ibitoye said. Try some of my favorite food swaps that don’t leave me feeling deprived.
At the end of the day, only you can decide what’s right for you. But remember, your diet shouldn’t dictate your life, and food is for enjoying. Good luck!
Wishing you well,
As a senior lifestyle reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.
Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.