What Nutritionists Really Think About “Cheat Days”

Anyone that has ever been on a diet or tried to eat clean knows that temptation is everywhere: whether it’s birthday cupcakes at the office or happy hour with your favorite pals. (Doesn’t it seem like when you’re trying to be healthier, treats are everywhere?) Even the healthiest of us, however, will have times where it’s necessary to treat ourselves. But how do you indulge without going completely off the rails? We surveyed real nutritionists on their philosophies to cheat days. Read ahead for their insights.

Don’t get caught up in good vs. bad

Whether you’re jonesing for a donut or a kale salad, your food choices are part of a larger lifestyle, so you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much for one decision.

“I don’t really think of them as ‘cheat days’ as that feeds into the concept of foods being ‘good’ or ‘bad’… or what you eat being related to if you as a person you are ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, founder of patriciabannan.com and author of Eat Right When Time is Tight, says. “It’s really your total diet and total lifestyle that matters. That being said, there are certainly days when I eat too much and/or too much of not very healthy foods. When that happens I try to balance it out over my next several meals by eating less overall and loading up more on healthy, plant-based foods.”

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in Jersey City, NJ, echoes that sentiment. It’s time to banish your guilt! “I don’t believe in all-out cheat days, and I’d encourage people to think of ‘cheat meals’ as actually just indulgences that fit into your eating plan,” she says. “I think the word ‘cheat’ makes us feel guilty, when it’s actually normal behavior to eat a balanced diet that includes a few indulgences here and there!”

Prepare for a cheat meal

If you’re hoping to satisfy your sweet (or salty!) tooth, you can avoid a full on snack-palooza by just thinking ahead.

“One of my key strategies is to ‘safeguard your environment,’” Bannan says. “For example, when you have a toddler, you childproof your home. When it comes to food, it’s smart to fat-proof your home, office, and car. Of course you can’t control every environment, but you can take steps to help yourself. For example, I tell clients to keep portion-controlled, 200-calorie snack packs of nuts and trail mix in their cars in case they’re on the road and get hungry.”

Other strategies include following the “out of sight, out of mind” strategy. “In other words, don’t keep fattening foods where you can see them,” Bannan says. “If you tend to inhale the bread basket at a sit-down restaurant, ask your waiter not to bring it—or take it away after you have one piece. If you love sweets, don’t keep them in house – especially where you can see them. Instead, when you are out at a restaurant have something sweet once in awhile and since the servings are often so large, try splitting it with a friend.”

Be honest with yourself

In order to keep yourself from going overboard, sometimes it’s best to ask yourself some real questions, experts say. “No food rules,” Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, author of Body Kindness, says. “If I can have it anytime, I don’t have to gorge on my fair share as if I’m about to go to jail. Instead I do boundaries. I ask, ‘Is now a good time to enjoy [blank]?’ Usually if I am tired or stressed or the stuff I want is not easily around, I can say ‘not right now’ and instead make tea or water while I think about what I’ll enjoy later.”

Pair a treat with an activity

In order to keep yourself from going overboard, why not try combining your indulgence with some exercise? “Go back to your regular eating after you eat your treat!” says Gorin. “And try to incorporate activity into your day. I love to make my treat part of my activity. So, for instance, I’ll take a walk with a friend to get ice cream, or I’ll walk to a far-away coffee shop to pick up a latte.”

The best cheat day treats

It’s no shocker that many nutritionists have a soft spot for sweet things, just like the rest of us. “I have a major sweet tooth, so my favorite treats are typically desserts,” Gorin says. “My favorite candy ever is licorice, so that’s a treat. I’m also a big ice cream fan!”

Bannan says, “I’m a big fan of dark chocolate and peanut butter. Sometimes I’ll have a small amount of dark chocolate (about 1 ounce) with some natural peanut butter on top. If I’m in the mood for a frozen dessert, I’ll often make my signature chocolate banana smoothie with frozen ripe banana, low-fat milk, unsweetened cocoa and some natural peanut butter.” Sign us up!

They don’t call it the most important meal of the day for nothing. Breakfast really is the setting for some of our fave food options. “My favorite meal is breakfast, so I love to make a hearty French toast once in awhile,” Gorin says. “Of course, as a dietitian, I’m always trying to make it on the healthier side—so I’ll make sure it has plenty of protein and fruit, such as in my Protein-Rich Cherry French Toast.”

Sometimes a food associated with a group of friends, or a family tradition makes it all the more special to enjoy. For Scritchfield, one of her favorite indulgences are foods she bakes with people in her inner circle. “We use real butter and ingredients without any ‘healthification,’ but also important, we are making great memories in the kitchen.”

What to do after a cheat day

First things first, don’t jump to immediately labeling a food “bad”–instead think outside the box and brainstorm ways to incorporate some healthy elements.

“I think it’s completely normal to like foods health-conscious people call ‘bad,’” Scritchfield says. “We have pizza, burgers, and quesadillas on the regular at my house. These are easy and nutritious foods that you can balance with fruit, salad, and roasted veggies. Plus it’s OK to have meals that aren’t balanced at all, without considering it ‘cheating.’To me, the healthiest diet is the ANTI-DIET. No diets are associated with the least body image problems and food anxiety. So look at the whole picture of health–mind and body.”

If you feel like you overdid it, take a second to breath, thank your body, get hydrated and get in a little movement.

Kelsey Butler is a reporter and editor living in New Jersey. She has written for health and lifestyle publications including Women's Health and Brides. A proud dog mom of one, you can find her skiing or on the bocce court in her spare time.