Oh, the infamous ‘cheat day’. Even if you don’t identify as a gym rat, you’ve likely heard of crazy fit celebrities, like The Rock, participating in cheat day festivities. Just one look at his Instagram feed will take you down a drool-worthy rabbit hole of inhuman portioned platters of sushi, cookies, burgers, fries, and most recently his famous French toast layered with syrup, coconut, and whipped cream, made from his very own secret recipe which he’s coined ‘Rock Toast’.
The Rock is inarguably shredded, which begs the question, should you partake in a cheat day meal? And what space do they have in your diet if you have specific weight loss, muscle gain, or maintenance goals? To answer these questions and more, I sat down with Sunny Trainer James King III to get his perspective on how cheat days should fit into your nutrition plan. His answers may surprise you.
What is a Cheat Day?
A cheat day or cheat meal is essentially when you stick to a nutritious, clean diet majority of the week, and indulge in an unhealthy meal a few times a week. The idea is after a long week of fueling your body with whole foods like lean protein, healthy fats, and carbs - you set a specific day or meal where anything is on the table.
What exactly could be a part of your cheat meal? Dream big! That loaded platter of nachos? A big stack of blueberry pancakes? A thick slice of deep-dish pepperoni pizza? All of it could be yours with a well-implemented cheat day plan as a part of your diet.
But are cheat days harmless - or do they completely cancel out all the hard work you’ve been putting into your Sunny workouts? According to James, “Cheat days can definitely be a part of a healthy eating plan.” However, while it can be a part of a healthy diet, determining if a cheat day deserves a space in your routine is up to you. No one knows you better than yourself.
Is it Okay to Have a Cheat Day Meal?
Absolutely! If you’re healthy, your body knows how to regulate itself after a cheat meal. Aside from feeling bloated, less active, and a temporary increase in water weight (excess sodium in many processed foods means you’ll hold on to more water) a cheat here or there won’t do much harm.
From a psychological, sustainability, and practical standpoint ‘cheating’ on your diet is inevitable. You’re a human, not a robot. It will serve most people to be consistently good instead of sporadically perfect.
Special occasions and events will pop up, and when they do it’s nice to have the flexibility to embrace the human experience. Life is meant to live, right? Being able to share those moments with others is an essential part of building a maintainable healthy lifestyle.
According to James, he doesn’t even like to use the word ‘cheat’ meals. “I like to use the word ‘treat’ meals because I think they’re that special,” he shares. James is a pescatarian, so when he does treat himself, he likes to enjoy a steak and dessert, something he wouldn’t normally eat. Other go-to treats for him include Oreos and growing up in Chicago he’s a huge fan of Vintner’s hot crunchy curls.
How Often Should You Have Cheat Days?
For cheat days to be a part of a healthy diet, you can’t just have a cheat day every single day. I don’t think I’m alone in wishing that could be the case. However, you can indulge in a treat meal more often than you might think, and still maintain general health while continuing to see progress towards your fitness goals.
James recommends reserving 80% of your meals for healthy, nutritious foods, and setting aside 20% of your meals for cheat days each week. If you eat 3 meals a day, that’s 21 meals a week - which comes out to about 17 healthy meals, and 4 cheat meals.
Feel free to stack your cheat meals as you like, creating one big free-for-all treat yourself a day, or spread them throughout the week. James recommends giving yourself something to look forward to by spreading them throughout the week. Plus, it’s much easier to hop right back into your routine after one snack or meal than it is after a whole day of indulgence.
Do Calories Matter on a Cheat Day?
When it comes to counting calories or portion sizes, always track what you’re eating, and try not to go too far out of your norm. Track your food by keeping a food journal or taking pictures of your meals throughout the day. As James points out, “You should know which meals are healthy and which meals are ‘unhealthy’.”
If you do go crazy, whether it’s healthy or unhealthy, your track record will be a good indicator of where you went wrong if you aren’t seeing the progress you expected. As James points out, “make sure you’re tracking, not guessing.”
Can You Have a Cheat Day Meal if You Want to Lose Weight?
Yep! Believe it or not, you can have cheat day meals, and still, achieve your weight loss goals. James recommends starting your weight loss diet by taking one portion of carbs away from one meal each day. That could look like limiting a side of potatoes at your dinner or cutting out the croutons on your salad at lunch.
From there, check in on your weight loss over seven days. Are you losing weight, maintaining weight, or gaining weight? You can adjust your intake from there, maybe you need to cut out one more portion, or take out a snack in the afternoon. Remember, the adjustments should be small. Always take time to evaluate the success of your changes before making more.
To indulge in treat days during your weight loss diet, follow the 80/20 rule: eating healthy, nutritious meals 80% of the time, and treating yourself about 20% of the time. If you hit a plateau and you’re struggling to see more results, you can try bumping it up to 90/10, and you will usually see changes from that adjustment.
Can You Have Extra Cheat Day Meals if You Want to Gain Muscle?
Unfortunately, bulking doesn’t mean you can eat all the cheat day meals you want. If only! Maintaining an 80/20 balance is important for your health too. So be mindful that you’re also fueling your body with healthy foods about 80% of the time to get your body the vitamins and nutrients it needs.
If your bulking goal is physique-based - maybe you’re looking to add more muscle or get shredded for a show - keeping your diet healthy most of the time will ensure you’re gaining lean muscle and not fat.
To get started with increasing your muscle mass, James recommends adding just one portion to one meal of the day - it can be carbs, healthy fats, or lean protein. Just like with weight loss, if you’re looking to bulk up or gain muscle, you’ll want to keep track of changes to your diet and progress over time.
Again, track by taking photos of your meals throughout the day or keep a food journal of what you’re eating. After tracking, it’s also important to reflect on your methods, and the progress you’ve made from the changes in your diet. You can determine what to do next based on the results.
Do Cheat Day Meals Ruin Your Fitness Progress?
Slip-ups are inevitable. You’re human, and no one expects you to be perfect. As James puts it, “the difference between people who can reach their fitness goals and those who struggle, is how you recover and react after a slip-up.”
If you’re able to plan for a slip up on your healthy diet, you can plan to get back on track too. He notes, “The important thing is not letting that lapse turn into a relapse, turn into full-on unhealthy eating. The best thing you can do is get right back on track.” He recommends immediately getting the ball rolling, rather than waiting until the next day: “Take action at that moment, don’t wait.”
Cheat day meals don’t have to ruin your fitness progress. It’s all about where you end up after a cheat day. Do you let a cheat day take control of your life by eating unhealthy food for days and days, only to feel guilty after? Or do you let yourself enjoy it, and then get right back on track? The decision is yours. Plan now and a cheat day won’t ruin your fitness progress, it’ll help you enjoy a beautiful, balanced life.
Tips for Approaching Your Cheat Day
So, are you ready to embrace cheat meals and make them a part of your regular training schedule? Below I’ve listed 3 key tips to treat yourself like the king or queen you are.
1) Find a Sustainable Schedule for You
Plan and track it. Having a cheat meal isn’t permission for a free-for-all, it’s a controlled but indulgent celebration of life and the hard work you’ve been putting into your workouts. My suggestion? Put it on the calendar. If you know you’re going out to dinner Saturday night with the girls, look at the menu in advance, and get excited about enjoying yourself.
2) Treat Yourself to the Best of the Best
Treat yourself to the best of the best. Don’t get yourself a stale donut from the grocery store, get the best donut in town. Don’t waste your cheat meal on something that isn’t worth it. If you’re going to treat yourself you want it to be worth it, so seek out something that will be a real pleasure to sink your teeth into.
3) Make it Memorable
Do you find yourself going to town on treats curled up in a ball in a lonely corner in front of the TV? We’ve all been there! And there’s a time and a place for that…maybe? For your cheat meal, envision something grander. Make your treat a social, memorable experience.
Part of the human experience is enjoying life with friends and being social, your social health is a big part of a healthy lifestyle too. Plan to indulge in a treat in a social setting where you’ll be able to soak in the best of the best with the people you love.
Giving in to a cheat day doesn’t have to derail your fitness progress. It is possible to indulge and still reach your goals. Looking for a good way to celebrate your cheat day? Treat yourself to some of Sunny’s favorite cheat day recipes you can make in your kitchen! And let us know in the comments below how you like to treat yourself.