"Cheat"-- Everyone seems to have their own definition as to what this is in terms of dieting/healthy eating.
To one person, it may just be a cheat treat-- one small, out of the ordinary food choice incorporated maybe once a week or so into the typical eating routine. Someone else may consider it a cheat meal-- a bit larger than a treat, taking the place of an entire, usual meal once a week/month/whatever. Then, there are those that use the term in reference to cheat day(s)-- a day, or multiple days, where all routine is out the window and every meal/snack is whatever you please.
With such a wide array of definitions, determining whether or not "cheats" are good or bad isn't so cut and dry.
In my opinion, a cheat is necessary to keeping you consistent and sane, and your new diet/lifestyle sustainable. I firmly believe in the 90/10 rule, where the majority of your food (90%) is micro-nutrient dense, then a small amount (10%) per week can be more "fun" foods. This lessens the chance of an over-indulgence by not restricting any particular foods, just limiting them. Psychologically, it makes it much easier to stick to healthy foods for the majority of the week knowing that you may be able to fit in a few scoops of ice cream or a slice of pizza in there somewhere.
The catch is knowing how much and how often to "cheat".
For example, a slice of pizza versus a pie of pizza, a few scoops of ice cream once a week versus a few scoops of ice cream multiple days of the week.
The fact is that excess calories add up over time, so by cheating too frequently and too much, you're ultimately just cheating yourself of your goals and progress. This is the problem with having "cheat meals" or "cheat treats" far too often, and it is also the problem with having full-blown "cheat days".
Many people believe that being "good" during the week justifies them pigging out on the weekend. I'll admit, I (half-heatedly, in a wishful thinking type-way) believed I could do the same without it affecting me too much, but the truth is that one full day of over-indulgence is enough to undo a few days of hard work--and consistently incorporating that one day is enough to hold you back from reaching your goals and truly seeing your hard-work pay off.
Throughout the last 6 or so years, I've been all over with my "cheats". I've gone from about 50% of the week eating "healthy", to just eating right on weekdays, to cheat days on Fridays/Saturdays, to just "cheating" or taking entire cheat days Saturdays, to only a cheat meal on a Friday or Saturday, to just a cheat meal once a week, to no cheat meals, just cheat treats here and there-- and basically any other combination that has been out there.
My findings? Well...
Cheating on just the weekends (Friday-Sunday): Those of us that have done/typically do this routine start by getting a case of the "Fridays" Friday morning. We may kind-of-sort-of stick to our usual eating during the work day, but once work is out, it's drinks and whatever else we want to eat the rest of the night (and workouts get pushed aside). We may get a workout in Saturday if we're feeling up to it, or we may be feeling lazy and want to just lay around, eat/drink whatever all day, do it all over again that night. Which leads us to Sunday morning brunch and a day of "recovery"-- aka no gym, and probably no brown rice and chicken breast meals if we're being honest...
The result: Saying "I'll start again on Monday" every Sunday night--only to continue in the same pattern where, in the end, you're 2 steps behind where you started. Progress can't be made this way.
Cheating on just Fridays/Saturdays: Similar to the situation above, you're mainly going to be hurting yourself, not helping. 2 full days of overeating and drinking is definitely enough to undo 5 days of "clean" eating.
You're keeping yourself in a stand-still with this approach, eventually hurting yourself in the log run.
Cheating just one (well, more like 1/2...) weekend day: This was my go-to for quite some time, and when I say "cheating" I mean I still ate relatively right the first half of the day, would get my workout in, but then would let loose from about dinner on. To be honest, I was still seeing progress, but it was slowwww progress and I was mostly just maintaining --which makes sense seeing as though I was taking in a lot of excess calories, but not days and days worth.
All in all, a much better choice over taking one or two (or three) FULL cheat-days with no disregard for your food/drink choices, but don't expect to see major changes in response to all that working out/mostly clean eating you're doing.
Cheat meals once a week: This was different from my "half-day-cheat-day" mentioned above as it was simply just ONE meal and it was of average, correct portion! Incorporating this once a week has honestly worked wonders. Why? Because I'm keeping myself consistent. One not-so-healthy meal replacing one healthy meal ONCE A WEEK isn't going to shock the system too much. Consistency is absolutely key, and one full cheat day is enough to keep your body in a state of instability--just one (smart) meal every so often, though...
You'll notice your progress and hard work much quicker with this approach.
Cheat treat once a week: A treat is smaller than a meal, so throwing one of these in a week (again, at a correct portion) will help you much more than hurt you. This is the perfect option if you're feeling pretty good all week and don't need a full meal to psychologically keep yourself together!
I found myself mainly just needing a little treat every now. This was a quick fix that didn't rock the boat too much and definitely allowed my progress to still shine through.
So what does this all mean? How do you cheat without cheating yourself??
Well, all-in-all, your best option is to AVOID FULL CHEAT DAYS and head for cheat meals or cheat treats every week or so (if you don't need it once a week, then more power to you--you're putting yourself in an even better position).
Remember, the majority of your food per week (90-95%) should be dedicated to healthy food-- the remaining can be used towards the cheat meal/treat.
1.) Keep cravings under control by making/eating "clean cheats" that still meet your macro/micro nutrient needs and are good for you, but feel like a cheat (a great mental game that helps keep the consistency of your weekly eating and can remove the need for an actual cheat meal/treat).
2.) Keep your portions appropriate. You're no idiot, you know how much of something you should be eating-- don't spring for a 4-course-meal and categorize it all under your "cheat meal" for the day...
3.) If you know your cheat meal is going to be a bit heavier than a typical meal, save up! Cut down on the carbs/fats for the day leading up to that meal so you have more to spare. Then, aim for mainly just protein from the end of that meal and on--this way you're really not going that far over your typical caloric intake for the day.
4.) When eating out, assume the worst. Restaurants pack many extra calories to their food through sauces, butters, oils, etc. So, don't assume that just because you got mixed veggies with your meal, you can go extra big on the entree itself-- those vegetables likely have double the calories than the ones you usually eat when you make them at home.
5.) Watch the drinking. Many people like to think liquid calories don't count--but believe me, they do. And the junk food eating that often comes hand-in-hand with drinking counts as well.
6.) If you have a cheat day, don't freak out. One day every once in a blue moon will not erase months of hard work thanks to the consistency you've CONSISTENTLY put in prior. Just make sure that after you've had your fun, you get back into your routine.
And lastly, be cautious. "Cheating" can have a snowball effect where cheat meals turn to cheat days, cheat days turn to cheat weekends, and before you know it, you're only eating "good" 50% of the time and feasting away the previous days' progress.
Use these tips/all of this info to find your balance and learn what works for you and your body, then before you know it, you'll have the best of both worlds: progress without deprivation! I cannot preach it enough...
Don't stress out.