What Are Diet 'Cheat Meals,' Do They Work, And Should You Try Them?

What Are Diet 'Cheat Meals,' Do They Work, and Should You Try Them?

The ways in which individuals approach diet and exercise are vast and varied. Some people are looking for an extra edge and can benefit from quick tips like our 10 Things You Can Do to Lose 10 Pounds in 10 Days. For others, though, health, fitness, and nutrition are a long, arduous, never-ending journey.

Those who've decided to make well-being a lifestyle aren't looking for shortcuts. These dedicated souls aren't tempted by ridiculous, fleeting fad diets, and they don't put too much stock into claims about miracle foods. Men and women that have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of fitness are more than willing to show you their hard-earned calluses. They've eaten enough old-fashioned oats to feed a small country, and they can prove their dedication to this lifestyle by eyeballing a chicken breast and telling you how many grams of protein it has.

Much as many professionals suggest the occasional rest day, a day where your normal training is placed on hold in favor of recovery and rejuvenation, there's an increasingly large camp of health enthusiasts who swear by taking a similar day of rest from a strict, clean diet. This day, known as a cheat day, is highly praised by many and approached warily by others.


Obi Obadike, MS, ISSA-certified fitness trainer and nutrition specialist, is a writer for Bodybuilding.com, the largest fitness website in the world. In a recent piece in his popular column, "Ask the Ripped Dude," Obadike introduces what he refers to as the 90/10 rule. Similar to Cameron Diaz's acclaimed 80/20 rule, the 90/10 rule is a great way to leave room in your diet for some not-so-healthy treats:

"The 90/10 rule means that 90 percent of the time you should eat according to your specific goal-based nutrition plan, and 10 percent of time you can indulge in something that is not on the diet. If you consume cheat meals this way, you won't derail your fat loss or fitness goals."

Cheat Meal Prime Time

Obadike says that, according to Alan Aragon, MS, who has used evidence-based information to give professional and recreational athletes, trainers, and scientists the most practical nutrition and weight-loss advice possible for over 20 years, "the post-workout period is your best time to cheat. During the post-workout window, the cheat meal stands a greater chance of being utilized by your muscles instead of being stored as fat." Not every post-workout meal needs to be of the utmost nutritional integrity, so many people look to "naughty" foods like pizza, pasta, ice cream, and chain restaurant burgers (with fries and a shake, of course) for their high carbohydrate content.

"Even when you do a low-intensity workout," says Obadike, "your muscles can sponge up a lot of extra carbs, preventing them from being converted to fat."

Don’t Get Carried Away

In Obadike's article, he insists that people focus on cheat meals and not cheat days. Following his 90/10 protocol, healthy, fit adults can benefit from one or two cheat meals per week. If you're like Beyoncé when she's on a strict diet, you'll limit yourself to one relatively modest cheat meal per week. These meals aren't all-out, day-long splurges where you are free to hit up your favorite fast food joint for dessert 10 times in one day. Rather, they are meals where you can let loose a little bit and, according to Obadike, still maintain a "ripped" physique.

Making Cheat Meals Work

Michael Matthews, health and fitness author and founder of Legion Athletics, discusses cheat meals on his website, Muscle for Life. Matthews says, "You certainly can have 'cheat meals' without ruining your progress and you don't have to stick to a short list of 'approved' foods, but you can't eat yourself unconscious every week without paying a price." While consistently cheating can be incredibly detrimental to obtaining one's physical goals, an occasional cheat meal may be incredibly beneficial. Even people who eat like a psychopath enjoy cheat meals sometimes, sticking to their normal, clean, healthy foods the rest of the time.

Mental Relief

 "There is no single research study that says cheat meals can speed up your metabolism," warns Obadike, "but eating them can help you psychologically. It is difficult for someone to be on a diet seven days per week without cheating." A non-clean meal every now and again can help you focus on your goals, acting as a reward for the other 90 percent of food you eat that is clean.

Re-Feeding vs. Cheating

 "There's a difference between a re-feed and a cheat meal, though the two are often confused," says Obadike. "A cheat meal is eating something that is not part of your diet plan and is typically junk food like pizza, hamburgers, or French fries. A re-feed is a planned increase in caloric intake that lasts about eight-to-twelve hours and usually consists of a large amount of carbohydrates."

Re-feeds, a popular option for low-carb nutrition plans, allow you to pack in a regimented "cheat," albeit a healthy one that's composed of clean carbohydrates like sweet potatoes or brown rice. If you're looking for the cleanest carbs, check out our list of 14 Complex Carbs to Help Shape Your Best Summer Body Yet.


While many advocate for the efficacious nature of cheat meals, we've already seen that a cheat meal's ability to truly boost one's metabolism hasn't been clinically proven. Thus, many people, such as Kris Gunnars, BSc, of Authority Nutrition, downright don't see the point in cheat meals. Gunnars cites typical cheat meal foods, claiming that the sugar, refined wheat, and trans fat in them are harmful and altogether don't make sense for a healthy person to consume, period.