This is a question I have been asked on many occasions. How often should you have a cheat day when you are trying to lose weight? The answer is not that simple, and unfortunately there are many factors.
In this article, I am going to give you everything that you need in order to equip yourself for deciding when or if you should have a cheat day.
Personally, when I was building muscle or cutting, I would start with a cheat meal every other week. Then when I had my nutrition dialed in, I would switch to once a week. That is just my preference.
I know some people that have cheat meals once a month and some people that have cheat meals every other day. But, don’t let that excite you too much. Those who have a cheat meal every other day know exactly what they are doing and what they are eating.
What is a cheat day?
A cheat day is a day when you cheat on your diet. If you are trying to lose weight, a cheat day would indicate an indulgent day where you go all out and eat whatever you want.
Imagine eating pizzas, cheeseburgers, fried chicken sandwiches, etc… That is usually what a cheat day looks like. But, cheat days are different for everyone. Maybe you just want to have a certain meal that doesn’t fit into your diet plan. That is fine too.
The point here is that a cheat day is when you cheat on your diet. NOT on your significant other! Learning how often you should have a cheat day when you are trying to lose weight is a skill. Once you master that skill, then you can further your weight loss by calculating your calories.
Let’s count some calories
If you are already on your weight loss journey, you have probably already learned about counting calories. If not, I have some bad news for you. You probably won’t hit your goals in sufficient time if you are always guessing what you put in your body.
Unfortunately, the fitness industry tries to sell us on the idea that we can take the easy route. We don’t need to count calories. We can just take some special pill and it will burn all of the fat off of our bodies.
This is the type of rhetoric that is dangerous to those who want to lose weight. It gives them an excuse not to count calories and put in hard work to lose weight.
Your first step in losing weight is learning how to calculate your maintenance calories. Yes, it will be a little difficult at first, but once you get the hang of it, you will start having fun when you see the pounds start to shed off.
Eating at a caloric deficit is the number one key to losing weight. NOT working out. Yes, working out is important, but you will not lose weight while working out without eating at a caloric deficit. But, you can lose weight without working out while also in a caloric deficit.
So what does that tell you? The most important thing you can do for weight loss is count your calories and constantly be at a caloric deficit. Another important note is that every person on earth has a different maintenance calories than you.
Don’t try to base your situation off someone else. Your caloric deficit will look different than your neighbor or significant other. You cannot build muscle in a caloric deficit. So that means you cannot gain weight in a caloric surplus.
The math behind how often you should have a cheat day
I think I have made it VERY clear that in order to lose weight you need to be eating at a caloric deficit daily. And if you are doing this over an extended period of time, you will be losing weight consistently. Deciding how often you should have a cheat day when you are trying to lose weight is something that we can decide through math.
The problem with cheat days is that people do them completely wrong. You absolutely have to factor in your cheat day calories into your week or month. When people don’t see this, they don’t lose weight and they get frustrated and quit.
The wrong way to have a cheat day
Let’s look at the average person’s weekly diet of trying to lose weight. Let’s say that this person’s daily maintenance calories are 2,500, so they want to eat at a daily caloric deficit of 2,000 calories.
Days 1-6 (Perfect Diet) – 2,000 Calories per day
Day 7 (Cheat Day) – 5,000 Calories
Most people will think that this is perfectly acceptable. They will think that because they did so well for 6 days, they can do whatever they wanted on the cheat day without consequences. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t lie, so here is what it looks like.
2,000 * 6 = 12,000 + 5,000 = 17,000/7 = 2,428
Hmmm… Isn’t 2,428 very close to this person’s maintenance calories? Meaning there is a good chance that this person is not going to lose weight this week. This is not the right way to do it.
The right way to have a cheat day
When you have a cheat day, you need to factor in the total calories for the whole week or month. In reality, total calories over long periods of time is what matters most for weight loss. For example, I need to be at a caloric deficit for weeks or months before I can consistently lose weight.
Most people don’t want to deal with this reality, so they just ignore it, hoping their fat will go away. It is not going to happen without careful calculations.
Let’s take a look at what you should do. First, decide what you are going to eat for your cheat day. Second, calculate the calories for that cheat day. MyFitnessPal has pretty much every food in the world. Third, make sure that your caloric deficit number is what you hit when you average out your days.
Here is what the math might look like:
Days 1-6 (Perfect Diet) – 1,500
Day 7 (Cheat Day) – 5,000
As you can see, the numbers look a little bit different than our previous example. Let’s see how I got there. I used the same idea of a 5,000 calorie cheat day from our first example, then worked backwards to make sure that our average is still 2,000 calories per day.
2,000*7 = 14,000 – 5,000 = 9,000/6 = 1,500
So, if you wanted to have a 5,000 calorie cheat day once per week, you would need to eat 1,500 calories for the other 6 days of the week.
The best example of a cheat day schedule
As you saw from our previous example, maybe you thought that 5,000 calories was a little bit crazy for a cheat day. What if we change that cheat day number to 3,000 calories. That way, we can consume a few more calories throughout the week and not lose our minds.
Days 1-6 (Perfect Diet) – 1,833
Day 7 (Cheat Day) – 3,000
Now you see that you can eat a little bit more on days 1-6. Let’s see how I came to those numbers:
2,000*7 = 14,000 – 3,000 = 11,000/6 = 1,833
It is important to remember that the numbers I used are just an example. Your maintenance calories are going to be different. So in order to lose weight, you will want to start by averaging 500 calories per day UNDER your maintenance. That is why I am using 2,000 calories in these examples. It is 500 calories under my example maintenance calories of 2,500.
Main Point: How often should you have a cheat day when you are trying to lose weight?
Learning how to answer this question for ourselves comes down to one question. How good are you at counting calories? You see, if you are great at being strict when it is necessary, you can have a cheat day as often as you want, ONLY if you are at a caloric deficit over time.
How often should you have a cheat day when you are trying to lose weight? In all of my examples, I used an example of one cheat meal per week. I think that is a good balance. You don’t want to go too crazy here, and you don’t want to restrict yourself so much that you bow out.
Losing weight is all about math. Eat less calories than your body burns at maintenance, and you will absolutely lose weight. Don’t think that you can eat well for 6 days out of the week and then go nuts on the 7th. It doesn’t work like that.
If you are going to do that, you have to factor the cheat day calories into your overall weekly total.
Don’t make the mistake that so many people make and not track your calories.