My Ish With ‘Cheat Days’

Sarah JenksDuring The Daily Love Extravaganza, Mastin and I really got into it when it comes to dieting, emotional eating and what it really takes to lose weight.

After our interview came out I was flooded with emails saying “thank you so much for setting the record straight,” “I love how you talked about food, rewards and cheat days,” and “why haven’t I heard this before?”

Today I want to expand on a very important topic we briefly touched on in the interview: Cheat Days.

Traditional diets recommend that you follow a strict set of eating rules (green juice only, gluten-free, low-glycemic, etc.) for a set period of time, or until you lose a certain amount of weight. If you read my last article in TDL then you know that I think this way of doing things is ridiculous, but we’re not going to harp on that today.

Then there are diets that try to make the plan seem less ‘Stalin’ by deeming one day a week a “cheat day” when you get to eat anything you want.

Here are the 5 reasons cheat days are setting you up to fail and what to do instead that actually works:

1. They make you feel like crap.  Let’s face it, if you’re restricting your food all week, you’re going to go hog wild on your cheat day.  Ice cream, burgers, a bottle of wine, cupcakes, chocolate, chips, caramel popcorn, more ice cream… this only leads to a major stomach ache, low energy, water retention (hello chipmunk cheeks) and a crazy food hangover the next day.  Why spend a whole day feeling terrible?

2. You rob yourself of a real “reward.”  During our interview when we were talking about this Mastin asked, “Isn’t it important to give yourself a reward after having such a great week?”

“YES!” I screamed, “but food should never be a reward.”  A real reward is a massage, a long bath, a trip to the spa, a walk in the park or a new dress. We are so programmed to reward ourselves with food that we miss out on the pure joy of real rewards.

3. You can’t have a life: What happens when it’s your friend’s birthday on a non-cheat day and you’re at one of the best restaurants in your city?  You’re either going to order a salad and grilled chicken (what a waste), or say “screw the diet” and stuff yourself with pasta and dessert until you want to puke.  I mean, if you’re going to cheat, you might as well get the most out of it… right?  There’s no room for spontaneity or flow when you’re tied to strict diet, and it can put a real damper on your life –  both when you hold back and when you’re so stuffed you can’t fully show up.

4. It makes you fat. When you deprive yourself during the week, our bodies start to think that we are in a famine and will significantly lower our metabolism.  So when our bodies get hold of some sugar and fat on your cheat days, it holds onto as many calories as possible and stores everything you eat as fat, so you’re well prepared for the next famine. Pretty smart when you think about it.

5. You become obsessed with food.  When you’re on a diet, all you can think about is food and how many days you have to get through until cheat day.  It just takes up so much energy.  Can you imagine what you could accomplish if you took all that energy, planning and stress and put it towards something like a new hobby or nurturing your relationship?

All right, now that I’ve given you an ear full, here’s what I have found to be way more effective than cheat days for weight loss: I call it, “Eating Like a Human.”

Here are the rules: Eat foods that support your health 75-80% of the time. Eat foods just because you want to eat them 20-25% of the time.

I believe in being healthy, I believe in having a body that supports who you want to be in the world and I believe in feeling amazing all the time… and I know from personal experience and working with thousands of women worldwide, that Eating Like a Human is the only way to accomplish that. Let me walk you through a typical week.

On Monday I’ll start with a green smoothie, have a salad for lunch and a beautiful dinner with salmon, asparagus and roasted sweet potatoes. No snacks because I don’t eat when I’m not hungry.  If you find yourself wanting to snack all the time, I suggest you check out my free emotional eating training here. I eat lots of vegetables and organic protein not because I’m trying to lose weight, but because it makes me feel amazing.

On Tuesday I may make eggs, kale and gluten free toast for breakfast and plan to have another salad for lunch.  But, gasp, my friend calls! She wants to meet at our favorite French cafe for lunch. Hells yes!  The mussels and fries are too good to pass up and perfect with a glass of Pinot Gris. I know that this is just a normal part of my week, part of my 20%, and I leave lunch feeling satisfied, but not full as I know this isn’t the last time this week I can have fries. I am totally guilt-free making it easy to go home, get some work done and cook a healthy dinner.

The week goes on much the same with lots of veggies and a brownie Wednesday afternoon, and maybe a bowl of ice cream Friday evening, all enjoyed with gusto.  Now, on Saturday I’m not rushing to a donut shop or looking forward to putting extra butter on my popcorn because I’ve been on a diet all week.  Instead I’m off for a hike, going to the beach or planning an amazing date with my husband.

When all is said and done, my weight is exactly where it’s supposed to be, without restriction, calorie counting or spending hours at the gym.

In the comments below I’d love to know:

1. What do you think of this approach?

2. What things are you going to shift in your eating habits going forward?

I can’t wait to hear from you.


Sarah Jenks


If you want some free training on how to make your life a frickin’ blast and end your struggle with emotional eating, check out

Sarah Jenks helps women who’ve been struggling with weight for years finally have a life and body they love, even if they’ve tried everything. She’s been featured in ForbesWoman, The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Martha Stewart Weddings and The Knot. Connect with Sarah via her website, Facebook and Twitter.

  • S

    This sounds great – but does it work the same way when in fitness competition?

  • Debs

    Amen sista! This works. I’ve been eating this way for over 10 years and I’m 5’6″ and weigh around 115lbs (And I’m in my mid 40’s!). My weight hasn’t changed more than a couple pounds. The reason I think this works is the mindset and healthy attitude of not judging the foods, and therefore yourself for eating them. If I have ice cream one day, I never sit around and feel guilty or bad about my choice because the ice cream is “bad”. The people I see struggle with weight are the ones who will carry every percieved “wrong” food decision with them and hate themselves for the choice they made to eat the brownie, or cookie or pizza. I enjoy them without guilt and am as healthy as I can be the rest of the time. And my healthy means steamed vegetables, fruits, organic chicken or fish and REAL food, not processed food that comes in a box. So I’m with you on the 75/25 way of eating…and still enjoying life!

  • Desi

    This is exactly how I try to eat. I make an effort to eat as many fruits, veggies as possible. I also make an effort to be “choosy” when I splurge on a certain item ie: I like ice cream brand A but I’ll skip it & wait until I can eat brand B-cause I really, really like it. I have many people call me a “picky” eater which I take offense to. I feel I’m singled out just because I won’t eat just anything in front of me!
    Thanks for the info-good to know I’m not alone.

  • Sam

    As a fellow nutritionist I LOVE this article. Eat well 80% of the time and save 20% for the snacks and treats you want. Otherwise it becomes far too easy to become obsessive, starved and frustrated! Great article.

  • Lisa Baker

    Love! But I do have trouble with “all or nothing” thinking. I don’t diet, but on days that I feel I’ve “blown it” in some way–maybe had Chick Fil A for lunch or such–it’s so much easier to end up bingeing later that day. Then I get very discouraged and feel I’m never going to change. Any thoughts?

  • Liz Ford

    I absolutely love this approach and it is the one I try to live by. It’s just living. Eating right to fuel your body, but allowing you to enjoy treats when you want in, and not over-doing it. WHen I use this approach I am still able to lose weight (or stay the same when I’m at my body’s comfortable weight). It’s all about listening really. To your body and what it is it really wants to do. Love it!

  • Ruthie

    In all honesty, I think the plan works for you because you’re young. I ate and lived the same way as you described and felt and looked fantastic for many years. In the past 2 years, I have been going through menopause, and despite not changing my eating/living habits, I have gained 15 pounds. I don’t feel or look fantastic at this weight…and it is very difficult to determine the correct course of action.
    I don’t believe in beating myself up or going on fad diets and I also don’t feel happy this way. I am seeing a bio-identical hormone specialist and am hopeful that she will help me to correct any deficiencies I may have.
    I love your outlook on eating and on life and I also want to be honest about what I am experiencing.

    • Wendi126

      I have been following Sarah’s way of living and eating for almost four months now and have lost 15 pounds and I’m 52 and going through menopause like a sonofabitch. This is only my experience however I’ve been overweight since age 17 and this has been the most successful for me and I’ve done a bunch.

  • David H. Breaux

    Reading this, I recognize the word “cheat” and ask, “What part of one’s Self is doing the cheating and who’s being cheated upon?” I also ask and look at the moral implications if one looks at it in other facets of one’s life–cheating in an intimate relationship 20% of the time as a reward, cheating at school 20% of the time as a reward, cheating at life 20% of the time as a reward.

    I think this approach allows one to deviate from the simple Truth in diet–eat healthy. I also consider that the cheating involves sugary foods and the physiological consequences it causes.

    With compassion,
    David H. Breaux

  • VR

    I wish “no snacks” was realistic…

  • Tiye

    1. What do you think of this approach?
    This is the way I try to approach to food at least this is how I’ve been doing it this year. I’m an emotional over eater and it has been really hard to control my urges to binge in anything. But I’ve learned to enjoy food, specially good food as veggies and fruit. I’ve had to learn to live without things like soda drinks. But I’m happy like this.

    2. What things are you going to shift in your eating habits going forward?
    I don’t know. My mom says I should stop drinking milk and eating bread and eggs. I say I’m still young (31) and I can still eat a lot of things if I do it with moderation.

  • Jill_Hallgren


    I LOVVVVVVE this!

    I follow a similar plan, eat what I want when I want, but consciously make good food decisions. I made a facebook status after feeling some frustration around a conversation with someone about “what I am” as far as what I eat. I posted, “I am just going to eat what makes me feel awesome and not call it anything. Cool?” I feel like fighting a losing battle with co-workers who binge diet with major restrictions and even go on medications to get to their “goal weights”. I am often asked how “I do it” and finding my happiness doesn’t seem to elicit as many positive responses as I would like, however, leading by example is helping as several people are getting into juicing as I make sure to leave my juices out on my desk or make sure that I head into the breakroom at a peak time to make my gluten-free toast with avocado for breakfast.

    For the poster who claimed that it works because you are young, I would like to say that for the first time in my entire LIFE people comment on how thin and fit I am. This is NOT the reason why I eat the way I do, but it’s a by-product of it. In my entire LIFE, i am 34 and have struggled with being overweight since I was a child. I believe in constant re-evaluation of what works and what doesn’t, if something stops working something that does needs to be discovered like my intolerance to wheat or red wine or sugar. Just play around until the solution is found!

  • Katie Cummings

    I love the idea! Now I need to put it in action 🙂

  • Johnna Perry

    I succeeded with triple-digit weight loss in part by eliminating the word “cheat” from my vocabulary. I don’t think it’s a fair description of how I treat myself and choose to say “exception” instead. I had an exception…and I’m good with that!

  • Erin

    I think it depends on your health AND fitness goals. Just as one does not want to be judged for not being in their best shape or for being chunky, neither do women, or men for that matter, want to be judged for being in the best shape of their lives or skinny, as well as the work they do and the things they do not do to achieve their goal. In my experience, when it comes to weight, the 80/20 rule only works once I reach my goal. Before that, I need to raise the bar to 90/10.


    What do you think of this approach? What I saw was too much sugar, Look up Diabetes 3. I have completely cut sugar of all kinds out of my diet and I feel so much better and my brain can actually function.

    2. What things are you going to shift in your eating habits going forward? I am going to work with a nutritionist to learn about combination of foods, hot cold foods.

  • Susan

    Totally love this!

  • Erin

    I agree fully and I want to live this way all the time. Unfortunately, it is not easy. I lost 97lbs 3 years ago and I work out 6 days per week to maintain that. I will never eat without thinking about the calories, it is just not possible. I try to eat good, healthy food because the pay off is two-fold, I get to fuel my body for running, which I love, and I just feel better. I have the most success when I am mindful but not obsessed. It is a fine balance. Cheat days are setting people up for an eating disorder.

  • Maryann

    I only came upon your approach about a week or so ago, and found that I’ve actually been doing this for a few months–since being diagnosed pre-diabetic. I’ve spent decades doing the fads, the extremes, the restrictions. I would lose, then when I stopped the diet I’d gain. Now I allow myself anything, just a tiny bit, but find most of the time that since I CAN have it I don’t WANT it as often. BTW, I’m 48 and have lost 18 pounds with this philosophy and the trackers on Sparkpeople.

  • Jess

    For me, cheat days do not work. I have a history of disordered eating, and restricting too much can send me down a rabbit hole. Some balance (letting myself have dessert after a healthy dinner tonight) works best for me. I am not even sure if I adhere to the whole 80/20 thing, but I try to eat healthy and allow myself a small treat once a day or a bigger one less frequently. Without them, life is boring 🙂

  • Brooke Yool

    As someone who lost so much of my life to disordered eating (college was miserable and antisocial…), I love this approach. I teach college nutrition and will be sharing this page/post on my course website! Thanks so much.

  • Katriel

    I totally love this, but it’s also something I have a hard time doing. I’ve spent the last 8 years doing a diet or blowing one off. I need to work on this balance for myself emotionally for sure.

  • Sarah Ochocki

    I think that so much of what you’ve said is completely true. I used to eat like complete shit on my cheat days and I felt AWFUL afterward.

    That being said, I do still have a cheat day, but now I know how to do it right. My cheat day is not defined as “eat anything I damn please.” It is “eat 2000 calories instead of 1500.” That’s an extra 500 calories, which is enough to allow for a splurge – a big piece of cake, or a few cookies, or a second helping at dinner. But it’s not enough to go nuts and binge on disgusting food. I feel like I’ve treated myself, but I don’t go into caloric overload.