There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just spit it out: I am a cheater. Sunday through Friday I eat clean—meaning no processed foods, no gluten, no dairy, no sugar. Temptations abound (Hey, everyone I know: Please stop inviting me out for “tacos and margs”), yet I remain committed. Until Saturday. That’s when I unshackle the fat kid within and plow through a heaping cup of red velvet froyo drowning in toppings or scarf down a wedge of coconut cake. Once I broke a two-month no-sugar streak with a warm, melty, platter-size cookie topped with seven scoops of ice cream. I still remember how the cool vanilla mingled with the Oreo-studded chocolate dough, how the creaminess complemented the crispiness, how I practically licked the plate clean. I have a sweet tooth, in case you couldn’t tell.
For me and many other dieters and fitness buffs, cheat days (or treat meals, as some dietitians prefer to call them) are the ultimate reward. They sate my cravings, replenish my willpower, and keep me sane. I like to think of them as a culinary “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I rely on them to slake my food lust in what seems like a healthy, controlled way. After all, how much damage can I do in one day? I also keep hearing something that seems too good to be true: Cheat days actually make you thinner.
Fitness magazines, lifestyle Web sites, and blogs written by armchair nutritionists love to claim that cheat meals offer body-altering benefits to anyone willing to consume them. A Men’s Fitness article titled “Gain Big with Bad Food” says cheat meals stimulate the metabolism. A Livestrong post says cheat days enable your body to stock up on glycogen (the energy that powers you through your workouts). But is cheating really the key to fat loss? Before you gorge, understand that not all dieters are the same. While some experts believe ingesting calorie-dense foods can yield physiological advantages—maintaining thyroid output, increasing levels of leptin (a hormone that suppresses appetite and burns fat), and kick-starting the metabolism—they are enjoyed only by elite athletes and bodybuilders in training.
“Having a physiological response to a cheat meal only applies to people who are following a hard-core, high-level nutrition program because of their sport or lifestyle,” says Brian St. Pierre, a registered dietitian and lean-eating coach at Precision Nutrition, a long-term training and nutritional program that is conducted entirely online. “The average person who just wants to lose weight, look better, and feel better is probably not eating strictly enough that a cheat meal is going to provide any sort of boost.”
St. Pierre also cautions that despite what you may read, stuffing your face with wild abandon doesn’t pay. Sure, Men’s Fitness asserts, “[p]izza, ice cream, and cheeseburgers are all fair game. Cheaters always win.” In fact, in cheating, as in life, balance is important and more isn’t better. Calories are calories. And come on, admit it: There was a part of you that already knew that.
Search the hashtag #cheatmeal on Instagram and you’ll find romantically tinted photos of greasy fried chicken, bacon cheeseburgers stacked three patties high (with Everest-size mountains of fries), milk shakes laden with whipped cream, and those ultimate no-no’s: glistening glasses of wine and ice-cold beer. After nearly six months straight of eating clean to prepare for a role, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson posted an image of his cheat-day menu: 12 pancakes, four double-dough pizzas, 21 brownies, and an enormous mug of milk. Images like these—a hard-bodied actor devouring in one sitting more than a family of four would consume—perpetuate the cheat-meal mystique.
“People tend to think, ‘Oh, he’s a bodybuilder and he eats a cheat meal, so I can do that,’ ” says Heather Mangieri, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But for someone on a 1,600-calorie diet who is trying to lose weight, it’s very different.” It’s a matter of simple math, she says. “You need a 500-calorie deficit every day to lose a pound a week. If your cheat meal is more calories than you consume on a regular day, that can be problematic.”
Instead of bingeing, both St. Pierre and Mangieri believe that dieters should integrate small portions of the foods they crave into their weekly menus to prevent feelings of deprivation. “Think about what you love and plan a meal with those foods,” says Mangieri. “But be smart about it. It’s not a free-for-all.”
A properly portioned indulgence, without sabotaging your fitness goals, allows you to still be “human,” as Julie DelaBarre, a Los Angeles-based clinical and sports nutritionist, puts it. “Food is a very psychological thing for everyone,” she says. “We all want to know we can have those social moments because the minute someone is told, ‘You can’t have this,’ they just want it more.”
Jay McLeod knows what she means. The personal trainer, who works mostly in Studio City, is fit for a living—he can’t very well inspire his clients if he’s flabby himself. So he eats carefully (i.e., boringly) most of the time: asparagus, broccoli, tuna, chicken breast, brown rice, spinach, and almonds. While he’s being good, he is buoyed by the knowledge that, come Saturday, “I can charge into a Chinese restaurant, acknowledge the hostess with a you-know-what-time-it-is head nod, and get my usual: hot and sour soup, egg rolls, and spicy orange chicken.” For that meal (and that meal only), he says, “it’s going down!”
“If I didn’t have at least one cheat meal a week, I’d be a ticking time bomb,” says McLeod, who also weight trains six days a week and does a cardio workout each night. “My cheat day keeps me on track.”
I turned to the cheat day while training for my first bikini competition earlier this year, a goal I had set as a New Year’s resolution. At their core these contests are beauty pageants for weight lifters: women who don vibrant, sparkly swimsuits, four-inch Lucite heels, and a few coats of bronzing spray to stand onstage and be judged for the model bodies they’ve sculpted over the course of several months. Everything about this ritual is my worst nightmare, but I signed up to force myself to get in the best shape of my life. It was much like how a novice runner might set out to finish a marathon. Except with sequins.
The workout regimen was rigorous (ten visits to the gym per week), but the nutritional plan was far more brutal: In the three weeks prior, a typical meal was three ounces of lean protein, ten spears of asparagus, and two teaspoons of almond butter (if I was lucky). No surprise, cheat meals quickly became my reason for existing.
I was allowed one per week for the first three months of my training, and it was easier to stay focused (read: eat like a bird and work out like a fiend) when there were pancakes, syrup, and sausage waiting for me each Saturday morning. Did those weekly refeeds do me physiological good? I’ll never know for sure, but they did sustain me psychologically. And during the five months it took me to prepare for the competition, I lost 25 pounds and 6 percent body fat—enough to make me a committed cheater.
There’s no doubt that sticking to a diet of whole foods will provide your body with immense benefits (especially if you’re fine with defining “dessert” as fruit for the rest of your life). But St. Pierre, Mangieri, and DelaBarre all agree that those once-in-a-while indulgences will not derail you. So if you ask me, I say savor the occasional wings and beer or your weekly hit of Pinkberry. Your metabolism will probably stay put, but your brain will thank you.