Cheat Meal vs Cheat Day – Do They Work? [Low Carb Diet Discussion]


Today, Monday May 11th, is celebrated as Eat What You Want Day. It seemed an appropriate time to discuss cheat days and cheat meals, since they’re such a hot (and highly debated) topic in the Low Carb Diet community.

I’ll tell you my experience, give you a few things to consider, and then I would love to hear YOUR thoughts. πŸ™‚

I should start by saying I am NOT a fan of the “cheating” concept. Not only because it doesn’t work for me (more on that in a second), but also because I don’t even like the word “cheat”. It reminds me of infidelity, which is one topic you will see me get REAL heated on. πŸ˜›

Seriously though, what if you decided to have a “cheat day” once a week or once a month, just so you wouldn’t get bored with your partner, or just to keep it interesting. Is that okay?? Of course not!

When you make a healthy life choice, it’s a commitment.

Those are my thoughts, that’s my opinion. That doesn’t mean I’m perfect and never eat a carb. It happens. And when it does, I pay dearly for it. I go through a horrible “break up” with myself, I pay for it physically AND emotionally, and no amount of temporary pleasure was worth it – ever. EVER!

So while I do believe eating healthy is a lifestyle choice and a commitment, I do get derailed sometimes. Just so you know I’m not perfect and I’m NOT being judgmental… just opening up the topic for discussion, and to hear YOUR experiences.

People choose to have a cheat meal or a cheat DAY on their diet for one of three reasons:

  • To “jump start” weight loss during a stall.
  • To keep from getting bored on their diet.
  • To justify a bad food choice in their own mind.

As for whether a cheat meal or a cheat day will actually jump start your weight loss when you seem to be in a stall… that’s highly debatable. A number of people have shared their experiences in the low carb challenge group, with varying experiences.

Most of the time, whether the “cheat” was an intentional decision or just a “fail” it results in instant weight gain of several pounds, bloating and stomach pains / stomach upset, feeling discouraged and disappointed – and like a total failure, and it induces all of your old cravings… often leading to an all out binge for days on end, followed by a difficult time getting back on track with healthy eating.

I was recently at a catered social where they served a beautiful spread of high carb foods. I chose to eat super clean and very low carb at that meal, and I shared my reasons why in that post – and talked about HOW I avoid beautiful (unhealthy foods):

low carb diet cheat days

Why Cheat Days Don’t Work For Me

Indulging in a cheat meal doesn’t work for me for the same reason a cheat doesn’t work for an alcoholic. It’s a downward spiral. A fast downward spiral that sucks me into a dark hole of physical and emotional misery where escape is a serious challenge.

ONE cheat day – even a controlled cheat day of “normal healthy foods” (like oatmeal and baked potatoes), without even binging! – results in immediate weight gain for me. The last two times I tried it, it took me 11 days to get back to the weight I was before that stupid cheat day. ELEVEN DAYS. Both times.

That was frustrating. Was it worth it? HELL NO.

There’s another reason I avoid cheat days, and even cheat meals…

For me, eating low carb is not JUST about weight loss. Sure, it was in the beginning, but then I realized there were other benefits. For years I suffered with extreme back pain, muscle and nerve pain. My doctor wanted to diagnose me with Fibromyalgia (which I refused). I believe my pain issues stem from inflammatory arthritis in my lower back, causing sciatica – and all sorts of related pain – due to a near fatal car accident more than half my life ago.

When I started eating low carb, the pain went away – like magic!

I discovered that carbs promote inflammation in the body, so if you have any time of arthritis or inflammatory disease, eating low carb makes you feel a million times better! Many people who HAVE been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia reported their symptoms improved dramatically as well.

So yes, being out of pain is a HUGE perk.

NOT getting back in pain is a BIG deterrent!

Not to mention you have to go through the keto flu (aka low carb flu, or Induction Flu) all over again to get back into ketosis (fat burning mode). Which is pure misery.

Your turn!

Leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts. πŸ™‚

One last note… it does bother me when this topic of cheat days or cheat meals come up in my Low Carb Challenge Group. The whole point is to challenge yourself to eat low carb consistently for 90 full days. Just three short months. The health benefits of eating a low carb ketogenic diet are AMAZING, and it’s only by doing it consistently that you’ll really experience those benefits – and truly experience life-changing weight loss. There’s no place for “cheat days” in a CHALLENGE. πŸ™‚

Join the Low Carb Challenge!

Lynn Terry, aka @LowCarbTraveler

About Lynn Terry

I love making the low carb diet EASY for people with a busy lifestyle (like me!) with my KISS / Keep It Simple method. :) About Lynn Terry: Host of the Low Carb Challenge
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37 Responses to Cheat Meal vs Cheat Day – Do They Work? [Low Carb Diet Discussion]

  1. Alice says:

    When I found this group and a couple of the other Atkins groups that I’ve been in, I noticed a lot of folks talking about cheating. For me, it’s really frustrating when when I don’t cheat and struggle for every pound that I want to remove to read about the cheats. I guess it’s more jealous than anything which is why it makes it frustrating because I read about people cheating and still losing.

    I read an article the other day though, sorry I can’t remember what web site I was on, that said if you are going to have a “cheat”, eat foods that are still low in carbs, foods that have a little higher carbs than what you are used to.

    • Lynn Terry says:

      I feel the same way, Alice. I have to work SO hard just to lose a pound or so a week, and one bad meal will undo all that work for almost two weeks! πŸ˜›

      I agree with that advice. For the people that say “it works for them” I recommend they eat something healthy for their “cheat” such as fruit or starchy vegetables. NOT “junk food” that’s harmful to your body.

  2. Jo says:

    There is a low carb plan called ‘Carbohydrate addicts’ that allows one ‘regular’ meal a day as long as it’s consumed within in an hour. I think the science has to do with not triggering blood glucose levels, etc, lots of science, lol.
    I couldn’t do that every day. I feel so good eating LCHF.

    • Lynn Terry says:

      I feel great eating this way too, Jo. πŸ™‚ I can see doing one HEALTHY higher carb meal a week or a month, and I’d be interested to read up more on that. I love food science! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ That said, most of the people I see doing “cheat days” are totally binging out on things like a Chinese buffet. Ack!

    • Tim says:

      Jo, The first time I was on a successful low-carb diet I wrecked it by switching to the “Carbohydrate Addicts Diet”. I immediately gained my weight back by trying to add that “regular” meal back in. At some point I just gave up and went back to eating like I always did.

      I have lost 55 pounds now, again, and I’m very careful. I do not have a cheat day because I know my addictive personality would embrace it.

      I have had two major stalls. I have been tempted to do a “fat fast” as recommended by Adkins and others. But I’ve stayed with the low-carb program I have embraced and eventually moved off of the stall.

  3. Marra says:

    99% of the time, I subscribe to no cheating on the WOE. And if I did have an off-off-peak item, it would that item only and moat of meal would conform to LCHF…nut I would up my fiber intake too be out that off-peak item as quickly as possible. The science does support the claim that of you eat an off-peak item but follow it with greens/fibrous food, it will minimize the negative effect on your metabolism. NEVER an entire cheat day…yikes. I would gain, for sure, since I already have the every day challenge of hypothyroidism. I believe that most of us have a greater challenge staying away from fat-producing foods if we allow ourselves to consume them. Hard to have just one chip and not want another…and another…and again tomorrow. #theslipperyslopeisreal!

    • Lynn Terry says:

      The slippery slope is most definitely real!

      What most people don’t realize is that there is a science to the way the low carb diet works. It’s not like a low calorie diet. You can’t “burn off carbs” for example. And if you “cheat” on a LCHF diet… you’ll actually GAIN weight. πŸ˜›

  4. Janet Small says:

    I too follow a low carb lifestyle. In fact, when others ask how my “diet” is going, I reply-it is a lifestyle not a diet & thanks for asking, I’m doing well.
    I have been eating low carb for 4 years and have lost about 105 lbs., which took me two years and have kept it off for two years. I am continuing to loose. My husband & I went on an around-the-world cruise (4 months) and I lost 6-8 lbs. during the cruise. We avoided the buffets like the plague. Our waiters were informed the very first meal that we were followed a low carb lifestyle and were very helpful when asked about certain menu items. I am committed to stay on this lifestyle for the rest of my life. I am hypoglycemic like my dad & his dad. My dad also had type II diabetes for the last 12 yrs. of his life. I was close to 350 lbs. & knew that if I didn’t do something about my weight, I could end up just like my dad.
    About cheating-if I decide to have something that is definitely not low carb (like fried oysters, which I love) I make the decision to do so, knowing that there might be consequences. I eat very low carb before & after. I don’t call it cheating. I am an adult and I made a choice to eat something that wasn’t low carb. Do I do it often? No. Maybe twice a year. But when I do I understand what I am doing.

    • Lynn Terry says:

      I like your attitude about it, Janet. πŸ™‚

      When I decide to have something like that, I “eat super clean” the days leading up to, and after, that meal. Super clean meaning extremely low carb (mostly meat & eggs).

      Though I admit it’s a struggle for me to stay super low carb once I put carbs in my mouth. It triggers serious cravings and a downward spiral for me. That’s why I do it rarely, and very intentionally.

  5. Denise Potter says:

    My experience is much like yours Terri. I am 60 years old and have been struggling with higher weights since I was about 40-but looking back I realize I have had trouble with carbs my whole life! Sugar, white flour are like alcohol to an alcoholic to me. Keep posting! I am thankful I found your group, I also feel so much better when I eat lower carb. – cheats destroy my food choices for days or weeks until I am so sick and tired I surrender and get steady again. Not worth it!!

  6. Lana Rusj says:

    I agree with you 100% on cheating days. I don’t do it and when people ask about it I try to be nice and tell them I don’t and they shouldn’t because it takes so long to get back into Keto’s…I am really glad you wrote this… Sometimes I get so frustrated when other talk about check days and I think don’t they know they are going to make their body suffer. Oh well thank you again for this.

    • Lynn Terry says:

      I wonder that most people that incorporate cheat days are actually eating low carb, low enough to enjoy the benefits of ketosis. If you were to do it weekly like some plans suggest, for example… how would you ever get, or stay, in ketosis – ie fat burning mode?!

  7. Trisha says:

    I did my first cheat meal after a month of being lchf and ate thin crust pizza with crust. I was so hungry and the thought of just toppings made me sad and there were no other options. So I ate it and later felt horrible, like physically horrible. I decided that I have gotten used to the woe and it just wasn’t worth it. πŸ™‚

    • Lynn Terry says:

      That’s the best way to find out, hey? Sorry you felt so horrible afterward, Trish – that’s no fun at all. πŸ˜› I know that feeling! Ugh.

      We have so many GREAT food options that are low carb, and very filling, even take-out and restaurants (which I use a lot, lol) – that it hardly makes any sense to eat something that will make us feel so miserable.

      It’s funny too how your body adjusts and LOVES the low carb, high fat foods so much that it practically rejects anything else. πŸ˜‰ I love that!

  8. Rosie says:

    Cheat meals or days DO NOT WORK for me! I had a couple of cheat meals in April and it took me the WHOLE MONTH to get back down to the weight I started with the beginning of April. I started this WOE on 2.23.2015 and I am down 15 pounds. If I hadn’t cheated, (and what I mean by cheat is I would have a waffle on Saturday mornings) I would have lost more weight by now. I have learned my lesson. Now when I am tempted to eat anything that I know will add 1-2 LBs instantly, I ask myself…”Is it worth it punk?” and I then make a better choice!

    • Lynn Terry says:

      Smart, Rosie! I’ve experienced the same. Like I said in my post above, it takes me at least 11 days after a bad meal to get back to the weight I was before I had it. It’s so NOT worth it. :p Especially when I’m working SO hard to lose weight right now!! πŸ˜‰ *cheers*

  9. Lindsay says:

    There is no right or wrong answer when discussing having a treat/or cheat day. Every person has a different glucose intolerance. Some lose weight effortlessly consuming 50 carbs per day, and others struggle at 20 per day. Before I consider having a treat, I ask myself if there is a low carb alternative (like ice cream). I have discovered at Walmart “arctic zero” ice cream alternative with 5 net carbs per serving. That way I am not feeling deprived and I avoid feelings of guilt as well.
    If I find myself daydreaming about carbs, it usually is because I need to revamp my menu. I will pinterest until I fill one week’s worth of food on my list, and then feel excited again about low carb!

    • Lynn Terry says:

      That’s the way to do it, Lindsay! I like Breyer’s CarbSmart ice cream myself. It’s 5 carbs also for 1/2 cup, so I often add crushed pecans to it. It’s delicious, adds a nice crunch & texture, and adds something healthy in with my “treat”. πŸ™‚

  10. trishtee says:

    I myself am always a bit nervous of cheat days because we all know how tempting high carb foods can be and how difficult they make it for us to stick with low carb food choices. Yet, life finds a way of always throwing them into the mix – a birthday party here, a cocktail function there. What I do is plan around these times, or functions, and choose low carb diet options wherever I can. I accept that this is something I have to manage and know that these days are not the NORM. My focus is always on returning to my low carb diet plan the next day – without fail – and enjoy life’s moments even if that means high carbs have to come along too!

  11. Pingback: The Low Carb Lunch Meetup at Floyd’s Shrimp House on Fort Walton Beach | Low Carb Diet Tips for Busy People

  12. Lenny says:

    Cheat meals work like magic for me. Once a month i eat a whole Chicago style deep dish pizza and a pint of Hagen Dazz Ice cream. I have absolutely ZERO guilt and i immediately go back on my low carb regime. What the heck is the point of life if you can’t enjoy the “forbidden” fruits on occasion. So, i gained about 2-3 lbs and it takes me about 3 days to get back in ketosis. Guess what.. the world did not end and all is not lost. I feel groggy for a day or so like a hangover.. Within1 week i have lost at least the 3 lbs and within the next 3 weeks at least 8-10 more lbs and I feel great. It actually jump starts my weight loss again..Is there a small price to pay? Yes. Is it worth it? Heck yes.
    I have been doing this for 8 months and have lost 87 lbs.
    Cheat meals are indeed magical for me.

  13. Julie says:

    Hi! I’ve been in a low carb diet for 2 months now and have lost a lot of weight. My total carb intake ranges from 15 to 23 carbs per day. Tonight I ate 1/2 slice of cheese pizza putting my carb intake for today at 23. Will this mess up my diet? Thanks!

    • Lynn Terry says:

      Hi Julie,

      Not likely, but the best thing you can do is eat super clean and super low carb for the next 3 days. Meaning: real food only (no bars, shakes, processed food, etc) and keep your ingredients super simple: meat & greens + healthy fats.

  14. Tim says:

    Thank you for posting this. I had googled this exact question and it was nice hearing, not only your perspective, but those of your blog readers as well.

    As I said in a reply to Jo, I have too addictive a personality to trust myself with a cheat day. I have worked hard to create and research alternatives to the foods I miss, but some of them I just have to forget and consider I am allergic to them.

    A person with a nut allergy would never have a day where they just ate nuts. I have to think of myself as being allergic to carbohydrates, because, in a way, if I eat them, I will die sooner. I am a Type-ll diabetic and I know sugar will kill me. So in essence I am allergic to carbohydrates.

    I have hit two major stalls, they are aggravating and depressing, but I finally moved past them. I considered doing a fat fast, like Atkins and other recommended.

    As for a high carb day, I do not think a cheat day will help me, more than likely it would hurt me. I need all the help I can get.

    Thanks again for this post.

  15. Jodee Kirkman says:

    I have been on low carb diet (20 or less) since September. I have had a few “cheat” meals once a month or so. They didn’t help or harm me, only reason I think is because I don’t eat or crave sweets. Even when I wasn’t dieting they were not a problem for me. My cheat day usually only consisted of a potato or similar…. So I think it all has to do with what you eat on your “cheat meal” I have lost 25 to 30 lbs since September. My biggest fear is the Holidays coming up. I am not worried about the pies and cakes, but the dressing and potatoes/gravy. Any suggestions on how to handle the holidays or should I just enjoy this day… as long as I stay away from those sugars.

  16. Sarah says:

    I see a lot of comments like I had a cheat meal and worked all week to burn it off.

    Weight loss and diet are lifelong goals and a week amounts to about .001% of your life.

    I don’t use a scale, they are worse than a cheat meal.

    You should be exercising every day! Burn off those carbs!

  17. Blaine Cartwright says:

    Once a week for a cheat day is too often. Try going 10 days. Cheat days seem to work. But this diet only works if you are very strict and know the carb content of everything you put in your mouth, everything.

  18. Margaret Floeter says:

    I just can’t do it. When you’re on a keto diet, cheating is sheer stupidity. (Not trying to insult anyone who does it and doesn’t pay for it…but if you’re like me [and obviously you], one tiny cheat causes all sorts of mayhem). I’ve been keto without cheating for a year and a half, and last month, after two weeks of losing REALLY fast, my nutritionist told me to eat some fruit “to slow things down”. I ate a quarter cup of watermelon, gained three and a half pounds and didn’t lose for two weeks. TWO WEEKS for a QUARTER CUP of a fruit that’s melon and supposed to be one of the fruits you can eat now and then! I know some people on low carb can eat berries and melon and get away with it. I’m not one of them.

    And the thing is…there are SO many substitutions you can make to have the things you miss that there’s just no need for cheating. If I want bread, I make soul bread (thank you Gloria Koch!). If I want fruit, I make a mock apple crisp out of chayote squash. If I miss pasta, there are keto recipes for egg noodles that are on plan. If I miss potatoes, I fry up some radishes with onions and boom, home fried “potatoes.” Craving pecan pralines, pecan pie, pumpkin pie? There are sub recipes for that, too. There’s just no need to cheat…you’re only hurting yourself, and the consequences hurt BAD!

  19. Tim Kubehl says:

    I’m curious what people think of THE CRUISE CONTROL DIET then? It promotes having a cheat meal if you choose to have one.
    Granted, after you do have a cheat meal you feel like crap and have found out that I’m personally getting to the point of not wanting to have them anymore because how they make you feel.
    The person promoting this diet has some very strong points and he even states that eating this way really isn’t a diet but changing your metabolism so you don’t want to be eating unhealthy anymore and it becomes a way a life, not just a diet to lose weight.

    • Lynn Terry says:

      Hi Tim πŸ™‚

      I’m not a fan of carb cycling methods at all, because I eat low carb to the point of staying in ketosis. Every time you eat higher carb, you knock yourself out of ketosis and have to start all over again – and the keto flu is hell. πŸ˜›

      For diabetics, or others with health issues, carb cycling is dangerous. For me, it’s about controlling my inflammation & chronic pain issues. Going off plan, even for a day, puts me back in pain for 3-4 days. That’s SO not worth it!

  20. Milly says:

    I also have reaped benefits WAY beyond weight loss which I am just now achieving. I have been doing lowcarb for 1 month or so with no loss. I just started losing now that I am keto with IF. But wow! The benefits to my chronic pain! I also refused my fibro diagnosis. I REFUSE to be labeled. It will become a crutch. I also refuse my interstitial cystitis, osteoarthritis, side effects of brain tumor surgery, scar tissue pain blah blah blah…whatever other BS I have been labeled. No I am not in denial. The pain reminds me every day. But I KNOW there is a way out. And this WOE is one of the steps. A huge step. I no longer wake up feeling horrible. I am clearer, more energetic & have gotten off antidepressants and reduced pain medication. Yes it’s a struggle especially during celebrations because I am surrounded by carbs. Only my son who doesn’t live with me has joined me. But it’s not about “joining in”. Just one won’t hurt you as my husband is fond of saying. Because in my case yes! It will. I will relapse & pay dearly not in just weight gain but in pain gain. Here’s to us lowcarb warriors. Virtual hugs!

    • Lynn Terry says:

      I totally agree, Milly! It’s AMAZING what can be cured, or at least controlled, with food and lifestyle choices alone. πŸ˜‰ That has been the biggest benefit for me as well. There is SO much cool stuff to learn about Food Science and the science of food combining – and it’s ability to heel what ails us. πŸ™‚

  21. Kathy says:

    I just started back on this woe about 10 days ago. I did this about 15 years ago also. At that time, I did have cheat days once in a while when I got in a state of what I called carbohydrate rage. I do remember that candy like a Reese’s cup did not mess me up. But if I ate bread, pasta or potatoes, I did get messed up. I think it is a personal preference for everyone because our body chemistry is different. I can’t say that I will never eat a piece of cake. But it will be a small piece of cake when I do. And I don’t do well with fasting blood tests so I usually have a regular pop right afterwards. But I know how my body reacts to these things and I am not going to do something that will make me feel worse or take longer to recover from that.

    • Lynn Terry says:

      Hi Kathy,

      Do you just eat low carb – or do you eat keto, meaning you eat low enough carbs to get into ketosis? I ask because even a regular soda or a regular candy bar will take you back out of ketosis, then you would keep having to go through the keto flu over and over again… ?

  22. Krista V. says:

    Honestly, when I fall off the wagon (I don’t like to call it cheating because that makes me sound vindictive, when in reality it’s just me being HUMAN), it definitely takes a couple days for me to get back into ketosis, but I never, EVER get the “Keto Flu” or “Carb Flu”. If Keto/LC are done correctly, keto flu is totally avoidable. In fact, I only felt it once and it’s because I wasn’t doing this right. Many people never feel it at all. Not ever. I make sure I always add my salt to appropriate foods, take my daily Magnesium Glycinate, do shots of pickle juice if I start to feel tired, and drink plenty of water & Powerade Zero for electrolytes. Yes, I fall off the wagon every now and then, but not planned or intentionally…and it’s very easy to get right back on track with the right game plan and never any keto flu.

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