The case against cheat days

Allowing yourself leeway could backfire.

Athletes often incorporate cheat days into their healthy eating routines to avoid feeling too restricted. And while psychologically soothing (with some research revealing that taking a break from diet restrictions might help people lose weight), if taken to the extremes, they can do the opposite.

Sometimes, cheating can even lead to ‘binge and restrict’ behavior or disordered thinking about food, says Linda Bacon, Ph.D., a dieting and body image researcher. That’s because thinking of food in a reward-and-punishment context isn’t healthy mentally, adds Ryan Andrews, RD, a coach with Precision Nutrition. “Oftentimes when we restrict a food, we increase its desirability,” he says. “If someone says ‘I can only have potato chips on my cheat day,’ that might just fuel the idea of overeating the potato chips because they know they can't eat them for another six days.” He adds: “What if instead people had a reasonable amount of potato chips throughout the week?”

Another route to try: Consider foods neutral—and practice moderation throughout the week instead of relying on a cheat day.