From Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Kourtney Kardashian, many include “cheat” days or meals in their lifestyles. A cheat day for Johnson this past June, according to his Instagram account, for example, involved two 8-ounce double cheeseburgers with bacon and fries, brownies, blondies, cookies, cheesecake and a double shot of tequila. Meanwhile, Kardashian admits she opted for a matcha latte, chocolate croissant, and waffles with butter and syrup every Sunday while she was on the keto diet.

According to some advocates’ logic, indulging occasionally in decadent foods revs up their metabolism. Unfortunately, though, says Erin Coates, RD, health coach at the Cleveland Clinic, “study results have been insignificant in their metabolism-boosting results, and more research needs to be done to show metabolic effects of … cheat-meal episodes.”

Still, many swear that cheat meals help them endure dietary restrictions most of the time. For best practices from nutrition experts when it comes to the popular strategy, read on.

Ditch the perfection, aiming for consistency

Overall, abandon the idea of perfection when it comes to eating. What counts instead is sticking to nourishing fare most of the time or opting for a 90/10- or 80/20-based approach to healthy fare. “There is this all-or-nothing mentality in regard to food that most dieters have,” Coates says. “You are either perfectly in control of all foods or a complete failure. I argue the case for the gray area. … Wellness can mean many different things, including eating ‘sometimes’ foods on occasion without guilt, shame or feeling like you just derailed all your progress.”

For Elizabeth Rider, author of “The Health Habit: 7 Easy Steps to Reach Your Goals and Dramatically Improve Your Life” (Hay House, 2019), who eats mostly dairy-free, gluten-free and sugar-free during the week, indulgence means flatbread and a glass of wine with friends at a restaurant on Friday nights. Meanwhile, Katzie Guy-Hamilton, lauded pastry chef and author of “Clean Enough: Get Back to Basics and Leave Room for Dessert” (The Experiment, 2019), reveals that she generally eats healthfully so that “when a great moment, celebration or opportunity to try something amazing and indulgent comes, [she is] not afraid.”

Plan for indulgences

If you intend to order an ice cream sundae later in the day, for instance, plan for that treat in advance. By scheduling your dessert, you will “avoid choosing a cheat meal when you are emotional, ravenous or just having a bad day,” explains yoga teacher Kimberly Parsons, author of “The Yoga Kitchen Plan” (Quadrille Publishing, 2019). “And those are the moments when you are more likely to eat a larger portion than you should or take the indulgence too far and then later regret it.”

Before you break out the chips, though, try filling up on fare rich in protein, fiber and healthy fats (such as grilled salmon with guacamole, brown rice and heaps of steamed broccoli). That way, you’ll likely stick to a smaller portion size of your treat.

Don’t shame yourself

Unfortunately, cheat meals tend to be associated with eating disorders. “A study from the November 2018 issue of Appetite, a scientific journal covering research on normal and disordered eating and drinking, found that a cheat meal reflects psychopathological properties similar to eating disorders, like binge episodes,” Coates says.

So if you’re going to indulge, try choosing more positive phrasing, such as “sometimes meals” or “fun foods,” Coates suggests. She explains that “these terms have a positive feel but still keep an understanding that [treats] are occasional choices. …When we do something bad, we feel emotions of guilt and shame, which can lead to more eating. We should not feel guilt or shame in regard to eating any food.”

Consider giving treats a makeover

If you find healthier takes on the foods you crave satiating, by all means go that route. Whip up “nice” cream (with frozen bananas) instead of ice cream or sorbet; bake 100 percent whole-wheat donuts, prepared with less sugar; or puree avocado, cocoa powder and agave syrup for a take on chocolate pudding. Rider swears by her gluten-free, low-carb and low-sugar best ever black bean brownies, while Parsons makes pizza with polenta and plenty of vegetables and pancakes with spelt.

That said, for some, more wholesome versions do not approximate the real thing. “I suggest that if the ‘fake’ option isn’t going to satisfy your craving, then you go to the ‘real deal,’” says Sandra Arevalo Valencia, RDN, program director of community and patient education at Montefiore Nyack Hospital. If you instead pick the fake option, you will likely still crave the original and might end up overeating the copycat anyway, ultimately taking in more fat and calories.

“There is a satiety factor that comes from having a little of the real thing, especially if you slow down and savor,” Coates agrees. “Your body is able to register you’ve had the real thing, and it is less likely to overindulge. [Plus], healthier versions of some foods (like banana soft serve) do not signal a green light on portions. …You still have to practice portion control with these dishes, even if they offer a better nutritional profile.”

Try a small daily treat over a cheat day

Indeed, portion size is key—even with healthier treats. That’s why both Valencia and Coates recommend indulging in a small treat daily rather than in full-on cheat meals or days. If you eat, say, a 1-ounce dark chocolate bar each day, you might take in fewer calories per week than if you go for half a large pizza, a bag of potato chips, a soda and a giant brownie sundae every Friday night.

Eating a huge amount of fat and calories, even if only once a week, still “defeats the purpose of exercising, mainly if it’s for weight loss,” Valencia says. “What most people don’t know is that you need to run 4 miles in an hour to burn about 400 calories, which is the number of calories in a medium serving of french fries.”

“When the average restaurant meal is 1,200 to 2,000 calories, it’s obvious that cheating too frequently or with too much food can undo your weight-loss efforts quickly,” Coates adds. “In my perspective, having a small treat each day is a much better tactic than one huge treat a week that adds lots of extra calories and fat. You’re less likely to eat a huge portion if you can have a small something you love each day.”

Science backs up the nutritionists. According to one study, Coates says, “a single day of high-fat, overfeeding impaired whole-body insulin sensitivity in young, healthy adults. This highlights the rapidity with which excessive consumption of calories through high-fat food can impair glucose metabolism and suggests that acute binge eating may have immediate metabolic health consequences for the individual.”

Slow down and savor food

When you do indulge, make sure to truly relish the experience. Chew small bites slowly, and focus on the flavors, textures and temperatures of the food or drink. “When you eat too quickly, you don’t give your brain enough time to run its satisfaction signal, and you end up overeating,” Valencia explains. “There are studies that indicate that we need to take our time to eat to be able to feel satiety.”

Final thoughts

If only a few small bites of a treat per day doesn’t seem like a realistic strategy, consider opting for one cheat meal per week. That said, remember to limit portion sizes and to truly savor that sundae or pizza—and to eat without guilt.

Photo credit: Herson Rodriguez, Unsplash