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Can You 'Cheat' on Your Diet and Still Lose Weight?

How Cheat Meals and Cheat Days Affect Your Weight Loss
  -- By Becky Hand, Registered Dietitian
"Cheating" is the act of deceiving others or being dishonest. The word conjures up images of copying someone else's answers during an exam, fudging your taxes, or counting cards.  Needless to say, these are not positive activities.  But does the same negative connotation apply to a cheat meal (or day) for a person on a diet?  Can "cheating" on one's diet be beneficial—even fun—or is it just setting the stage for dieting disaster? 
 
As a registered dietitian, I am often asked about cheat meals and cheat days.  Usually the dieter seems to be asking the question out of desperation. He or she often mentions feeling obsessed and exhausted of counting calories. "I want to have a cheat day once a week where I can eat whatever I want without worrying about my calories," they often say.  "But will this cheat day hurt my weight loss?" In other cases, people eat so "clean" (i.e. perfect) on their diets that they simply can't keep up with it day in and day out. They feel that they "need" a cheat meal or day to look forward to and keep them accountable to their strict diet all the other days.
 
I think everyone would agree that even though it has been documented to help people lose weight, daily calorie counting is a big pain in the butt.  You have to read labels, measure portions and keep track of so many details. Food selection is constantly on your mind.  Focusing so much on calories makes it easy to get into the trap of trying to eat a strict diet of "good" foods, then falling off the wagon and overeating the "bad" foods you tried to avoid.  Your vocabulary and thoughts are consumed with extremes: good foods vs. bad foods, cheating vs. being good, restricting vs. overindulging. It is easy to see why you'd want to "cheat" on a system like this. But is cheating on your diet really the answer?
 
Scientifically speaking, "cheating" has not been studied enough for me to give you a clear-cut answer on whether or not it works in the short-term or the long-term.  However, the science of caloric intake, as well as the psychological implications of cutting and counting calories, has been extensively researched.  So let's explore what we do know and apply it to the idea of cheat days.

"Calories in vs. calories out" is the golden rule for effective weight loss. To lose weight, a person must eat fewer calories than he or she burns.  Let's assume you are cutting a total of 3,500 over the course of a week to lose 1 pound.  In this example, your daily calorie intake is about 1,200-1,500 calories. (Calculate your daily calorie needs for weight loss here.) Say you choose to eat right in the middle of your recommended range: 1,350 calories per day. How would an innocent "cheat" day affect your progress?
 
This simple example illustrates how a cheat day can easily derail your weight loss efforts.  If you eat with reckless abandon and no real plan (or calorie counting), as in scenario #2, you'll stall your weight loss. But scenario #1 shows how the occasional higher calorie day can still fit into a weight-loss plan when it's properly planned and somewhat controlled.  Planning for that little indulgence on occasion is easier than you may think and uses the weight loss technique that I call "calorie banking." 
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Your Calorie Bank
The banking of calories works in a similar fashion as your checking account or debit card.  For example, if you invite your main squeeze to dinner and a movie on Friday, you have to make sure you have the funds to cover your outing. So you save a few extra bucks Monday through Friday, therefore providing sufficient money in your account to spend on the evening out.  Now, apply the same principle with the calorie banking.  By eating at the lower end of your recommended calorie range Monday through Friday, you can accumulate a few more calories to spend on your Saturday splurge day, while still remaining within your weekly budget when you take the average for the seven day period.  While this gives you more calories to spend on your special day, it still requires planning. This works because a single day of calories (whether low or high) won't make or break your weight loss. It's the overall trend—or weekly average—of calories that affects changes in your body.
 
Better than Cheating: How to Remain Faithful to an Eating Plan You Love
If you feel the desire to cheat on your diet, it may not be your fault. Your diet—or your view of how you "should" or "need to" eat to lose weight or be healthier—is the real culprit. If your diet is so restrictive, plain, boring, tedious, or "perfect" that you can't stick with it forever, then try these smart strategies to bring your eating habits back to normal.
 
Overcoming the Desire to Cheat
I have a friend named Patrick who had smoked for more than 30 years and finally decided to quit. The next time I saw Patrick, I said, "I hear you've quit smoking.  How's it going?" 
 
Patrick sternly looked me straight in the eye and said, I did not quit smoking, for I am not a quitter!  I chose to not smoke!" 
 
What a powerful statement that you can apply it to your weight-loss journey as well.  You are not a quitter! You are not a cheater! If you feel the need or desire to "cheat" on your diet, it may be worth examining your relationship with food and whether you're actually taking steps to leave dieting behind in favor of adopting a healthy eating plan that you can live with for life. The idea of "cheating" tends to reinforce the concept that certain foods are "good" in your mind while others are "bad." This idea is hard to break if you've been on and off diets throughout your life, but it's not impossible. The healthiest eating plan—and mental outlook—is to embrace all types of foods and never to feel guilt, remorse, embarrassment or discouragement about the foods you eat. Taking proactive steps to ditch the "diet" mentality can reduce your anxiety and obsession with food and help you avoid out-of-control binges that derail your weight-loss efforts.
 
 
Source
 
Kushner, Robert, MD, ''The Swing Eater Handout,'' in Dr. Kushner's Personality Type Diet (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003).