Editor & Fact Checker
Whether you’re trying to bulk up and cut fat while gaining muscle or want to lose weight and get fitter, you may be asking yourself whether you have to stick to a strict diet every single day with no exceptions – or if you’re allowed to have a cheat meal every now and then.
Well, luckily for people who are on a strict diet – and opposite to what many people may think – cheat meals aren’t there to throw you off track. They’re not here to make you lose your motivation and have to start over.
In fact, adding cheat meals to your bulking or weight loss program can make it possible to stay on track – as long as you stick to a recommended number of cheat meals per week, and they don’t turn into binging sessions. You have to be smart about “cheating” your diet – and it has to be well-planned, rather than spontaneous.
So, what is a recommended number of cheat meals per week – and what are the benefits of having a cheat meal? Let’s find out.
What Is A "Cheat Meal"?
When we’re talking about “cheating” on your diet or bulking plan, we are talking about giving yourself permission to temporarily break the rules and enjoy the foods you love – foods, that may not usually be allowed in your diet.
The foods you eat on cheat days (or cheat meals) are often high in calories – and wouldn’t otherwise be permitted on your diet. For example, it could be a slice of pizza, a grilled cheese sandwich – or anything else that you've had to give up since going on a diet.
Employing a cheat day or cheat meal approach when you’re on a diet means you either give yourself a whole day to cheat your diet – or allow yourself a set number of cheat meals per week.
Which of the two you go for depends on you, your diet's preference, and goals. That said, allowing yourself to have a cheat meal every now and then is more popular than giving yourself permission to cheat for an entire day.
While having an entire cheat day sounds pretty good (especially if you’re on a super strict diet!) – it comes with a higher risk of binging, which could undo all of your hard work.
So, it’s better to stick to a cheat meal rather than a whole day; a meal which you can plan and look forward to, without being worried that it will slow down your progress.
Why Are Cheat Meals Important?
One of the things people find the most challenging when they decide to go on a diet, get fitter, or bulk up is making the new healthy eating habits they’ve formed part of their everyday life. In other words, the tricky thing is making these new habits stick.
Chances are, your new fitness and nutrition program has made you give up many of the foods you’ve loved for years – and you miss having them. You can’t help but imagine what it would be like to treat yourself to them every now and then. Sometimes, you find yourself craving them so much that you think you won’t be able to control yourself – and are afraid you’ll slip-up!
Missing out on our favorite foods can be really difficult – and it can leave us feeling down and unmotivated to stick to a healthy diet. Which is why incorporating cheat meals into your diet, weight loss, or bulking plan is so beneficial in achieving your nutrition and fitness goals in the long-term. Fitness enthusiasts have already been using it for a while – and, thanks to social media, it is now also making its way into the mainstream culture.
Knowing that on most of the days, you’ll be following a strict diet and exercise plan, but there will be days when you can “cheat” – enjoy the foods you absolutely love! – you’ll be more likely to feel less trapped by your new healthy eating habits and may even feel excited about this new chapter in your life.
Moreover, because you know that cheating has been accounted for – you won’t feel disappointed in yourself and won’t beat yourself up as much. Having a cheat meal won’t be seen as a slip-up by you, your personal fitness trainer, or anyone else – and that completely changes how you perceive yourself and your progress.
Beating yourself up for slipping-up and having some foods you love can make you feel unmotivated to carry on with an eating plan and stop trying to achieve your goal altogether. You may feel like you’ve failed – and quitting is the only option. A cheat meal, however, is more of a “planned indulgence” rather than an unplanned slip-up – so the feelings of guilt aren’t there to the same extent.
Another benefit of having cheat meals is that it may actually help you resist temptation. If you know that a cheat meal is coming up soon, you can get excited about it – and resist the temptation to slip-up on other days. 
So, incorporating cheat meals into your strict diet is actually a very smart long-term strategy, allowing you to indulge every now and then – and making your new diet more likely to stick.
Of course, we all have different body compositions, and there isn't a way of knowing how those cheat meals will affect your diet – but, assuming you’re committed to your exercise and nutrition plan for the rest of the time – it will not ruin your progress.
How Many Cheat Meals Are You Allowed A Week?
Now, onto the next big question: how frequently should I allow myself a cheat meal?
How many cheat meals you’re allowed depends on your weight loss and fitness goals, and there is really no specific guideline for how frequently or when to indulge in a cheat meal.
However, many athletes who are serious about bulking up would typically have one cheat meal a week – and not more than two.
Having a cheat meal once a week means your hard work won’t come undone, but you will have one meal you’re particularly looking forward to each week.
You could make it a regular thing – for example, treating yourself to a big Saturday brunch every week. It could be like a reward you're giving yourself for working out so hard during the week – a reward which you planned and waited for patiently.
Let’s Call it a Treat Meal!
Regardless of whether we’re talking about eating or infidelity, you’ll probably agree that the word “cheat” has quite negative connotations. It associates with feelings of guilt rather than motivation. Research backs this up: one study conducted in the U.S. showed that the feelings we associate food with might affect our weight loss goals. 
The study examined the participants' default association of emotions with a "forbidden food item" (chocolate cake) – and then found that those who associated it with guilt reported lower levels of perceived behavioral control over eating, as well as were less successful at maintaining their weight over 18 months. Those who associated chocolate cake with celebration rather than guilt actually had more success in losing weight!
So, if you're incorporating a cheat meal into your diet once or twice a week, perhaps calling it a "treat meal" would help your body see it more positively. Reframing it this way may send a positive message to your body, and help you stay more motivated to achieve your weight loss and fitness goals – as well as help you manage your eating behaviors better.
Careful: Don’t Let a Cheat Meal Turn Into Binging
Remember that cheat meals are beneficial in the long run, but they shouldn’t become an opportunity to binge. If you’re treating yourself to a few slices of delicious, high-fat and carb pizza, it’s about enjoying those few slices – not two pizzas.
If you’re having cheat meals, they have to be pre-planned – because having accidental, opportunistic cheat meals can more easily get out of control. The whole point of it is to feel like you are in control – you are allowing yourself to indulge in some of your favorite foods – and it's a conscious decision which will enable you to stick to the diet you are on. But cheat meals should never become an excuse to overindulge.
The best thing about cheat meals is eager anticipation. If you've planned the cheat meal, you'll be having, that means you'll be looking forward to it – and, as mentioned before, that could even save you from temptation.
One way to prevent binge eating is to stick to one meal only. For example, instead of going for pizza, a sugary drink, and a donut as a cheat meal, only allow yourself to enjoy the pizza. Focusing your attention on just one treat will mean you're less likely to be tempted to overindulge.
Having a cheat (or treat!) meal once a week is an excellent way to stay on track with your fitness goals – no matter how strict your diet is.
However, it is important to be mindful of what you’re having as a cheat meal – even if it is a cheat meal.
Pay attention to what your body really craves – and make sure you stop when you’re full (or getting full) rather than just eat as much as you can, even though you’re full. It has to be an enjoyable experience – so make sure you slow down while eating to savor your meal fully.
If you're not careful, a cheat meal can quickly turn into binge eating, and that could stand in the way of your fitness goals. Eating it mindfully and allowing yourself only one portion can stop that from happening.