You’ve been good all week.
It was tough, but you resisted the office pastries and drive-through windows. You kept things nice and Paleo…
But now you’re feeling deprived.
You’re craving the foods you used to eat—anything to break up the routine. After all, you’ve been really disciplined lately. And you even read somewhere that cheating can actually help you get and stay healthy.
But one question remains:
Should you cheat?
What’s the best way to do it without undoing all of the progress you’ve made by going Paleo? Let’s get to the bottom of this.
A Hotly Debated Topic
This question—whether to “cheat” on your diet—has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years. Some people argue it’s just a gateway to sliding back into unhealthy habits. Others say it’s one of the keys to their success in sticking to a Paleo lifestyle.
Like most of these hotly debated topics, the truth is somewhere in the middle. “Cheating” on your Paleo diet from time to time can be a healthy way to enjoy life without sacrificing your health.
Unfortunately, the way many people go about cheating sabotages their chances of success. If you want to eat non-Paleo foods every now and then, some thought up front about how to do it will help you find the perfect balance.
Cheating Can Be Healthy… If You Do It Right
There are tons of ideas about what “eating Paleo” means (dairy vs. no dairy, white rice vs. zero grains, etc.). And it seems there are just as many opinions about what “cheating” on that diet means.
Your definition of cheating is probably different than mine. That makes sense. We eat different things and have different physical activity levels. Our experiences with diets and our physique goals are unique. Hopefully you don’t suffer my almost constant craving for pizza!
That makes sticking to a universal answer like “one cheat day a week is best” shortsighted and possibly harmful. A cheat day might work fine for me, but it could send you off course.
The key is to figure out what works best for your unique situation—a sustainable solution that strikes a balance between occasional non-Paleo foods and staying as healthy as possible.
We’ve already established there isn’t an ideal “one size fits all” way to cheat.
But how can you figure out which works best for you without undoing any of the progress you made by going Paleo?
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ways to cheat, their pros and cons, and how to apply them without putting your health at risk.
Option One: Cheat Days
The idea of a cheat day is simple.
You stick to healthy Paleo foods six days of the week. Then you set aside one day when you let yourself enjoy foods you don’t normally eat.
Just how far you can stray from your routine varies. Some people eat anything they want on their cheat days while others—like John Romaniello—are stricter and just eat more Paleo-friendly treats than usual.
A cheat day gives you something to look forward to while you’re being strict every other day. It can definitely be motivating to stick to the program now when you have an upcoming free day to cut loose.
Allowing yourself one cheat day a week can help break up a monotonous routine. And you get several meals to satisfy your cravings, eat different non-Paleo foods, and get back on track the next day.
Instead of stressing about staying 100% Paleo every meal, you can relax a bit, go out to eat with family and friends, and stop worrying for a while.
The biggest potential issue with cheat days: allowing yourself to eat whatever you want all day (across multiple meals) can create a mini eating pattern that rekindles old habits. If you struggle with food cravings or have an addictive personality, cheating all day can make it harder to get back on the wagon. One cheat day becomes a day and a half, then two. And it might not stop until you’ve fallen back into bad habits.
It’s one thing to cheat with high-carb, high-fat Paleo foods. But going straight for the pizza and Cheetos sets you up to consume a huge amount of calories if you aren’t careful. It’s easy to overeat these energy-dense foods, which can undo weight loss from the week before and kill your motivation to work out.
How to Do It
Most people arrange cheat days so they fall on the weekend or whenever they don’t have to work. They get to spend time with family and friends, cut loose, and wake up the next morning and get right back on track. That’s the idea, at least.
First things first. I wouldn’t even think about cheat days if you’re 1) new to the Paleo diet, 2) have more than 10-15 pounds of weight to lose, or 3) both.
I tried cheat days when I was just getting started with Paleo. I told myself I’d give my new lifestyle a shot all week while I was at work. Then I could eat whatever I wanted on Saturday.
I stuck with it during the week. But by Saturday I was ravenous for grains, refined sugars, and processed foods. Eating whatever I wanted on my cheat days—before I got adjusted to the Paleo diet—just reinforced old habits and made the next week even harder. It got easier to justify cheating because I never gave my metabolism the chance to adjust.
If you have the discipline to eat a few cheat meals and get back on track the next day (you might not know until you try), you can make things easier on yourself by focusing on Paleo-friendly cheat foods.
By all means, eat that slice of pizza if it’s killing you not to have it. The extra stress that comes from feeling deprived isn’t worth it. But if you can, go for Paleo versions of your favorite foods. These taste great, satisfying cravings without the toxins found in non-Paleo foods.
Try to work at least some Paleo foods into your cheat-day meals. You can still live it up without scrapping every food that’s good for you.
Cheat days are also prime chances to skip a meal and try intermittent fasting. You could sleep in and limit yourself to fewer meals, lowering your chances of eating too many calories or falling back into bad habits.
Option Two: Cheat Meals
Another popular way to cheat: allowing yourself one (or a few) cheat meals each week.
For the right person and situation, this approach is a good middle ground of not being too strict and still staying Paleo 90 or 95 percent of the time.
With cheat meals, you get to enjoy non-Paleo foods as an occasional treat. You jump off your routine for a meal, enjoy it as much as you can, and hop right back on when it’s time to eat again. Not having to worry about being perfect for every meal can be very freeing.
Cheat meals also give you a ton of flexibility to adapt when your life veers from your normal routine. Have an important client meeting at an Italian restaurant? No problem—just use a cheat meal. Your persistent aunt won’t leave you alone until you try one of her famous chocolate chip cookies? No problem. Cheat meal.
Limiting yourself to just a few cheat meals can take a lot of discipline. The processed foods so many of us love are engineered to be addictive (1). It might take only one or two times a week to make your cravings even stronger.
Using cheat meals instead of a cheat day also removes a built-in deadline. With a cheat day, all you have to do is look at the clock to know when your cheating is over. But with cheat meals, no one is going to stop you but yourself if you cheat three times this week instead of two.
Finally, massive cheat meals can wreck your digestive system. You might be tempted to get all your cheating in all at once and end up eating a ton of non-Paleo foods in one sitting. Digestive nightmares can definitely take the fun out of cheating.
How to Do It
One of the biggest advantages of the cheat meal approach is the flexibility. If something unplanned comes up and there’s food involved, you can enjoy non-Paleo options without worrying so much about getting off track.
I’ve had the most success scheduling cheat meals. Leaving things too open-ended is a recipe for slipping back into old habits. You might have to experiment with free-floating cheat meals versus scheduled ones to see what works best for you.
You can also mix the strategies. So if you’re allowing yourself two cheat meals a week, you could schedule one for Saturday night and keep the other floating to give you a nice combination of flexibility and structure.
How many cheat meals should you have per week? It depends on how far away you are from reaching your fitness goals and your tendency to binge. In some situations, it might be easier to stick to one cheat meal a week—or none at all.
Increase your chances of success by allowing yourself a wide food selection but limiting the quantity. You can have that milkshake you’ve been craving without going for the extra large. This gives you the taste you want without all the extra calories that stall weight loss.
Option Three: Cheat Foods
You don’t have to have designated cheat days or meals. Something that could work well is occasionally eating non-Paleo foods with your regular Paleo meals.
Mixing cheat foods in with your normal diet from time to time offers the ultimate flexibility. Instead of planning out exactly when you’ll cheat and which foods you’ll eat to do it, you can go with the flow and satisfy cravings when they come up.
This can work great—if you’re the type of person who has cravings rarely. You maximize your time spent complying with Paleo foods while still giving yourself a psychological release. In the off times when you do want something non-Paleo, you can just eat it and move on.
Mixing in non-Paleo foods with what you eat normally is like a double-edged sword. There’s a ton of flexibility, which is great. But with all that flexibility comes just as much responsibility to keep yourself in line.
This method is probably best for people who: 1) have lived a Paleo lifestyle for at least a few months, 2) don’t have many cravings, and 3) have plenty of willpower. If you’re still new to Paleo or have a tendency to slip up and binge, this method isn’t good for you.
How to Do It
First of all, go strict Paleo for at least 30 days (several months are better) to get used to the lifestyle and give your metabolism a chance to adjust (2). Cheating in general is a bad idea until after you’ve established a solid track record of Paleo success. And mixing and matching here and there can be a slippery slope back to unhealthy habits.
Don’t keep non-Paleo foods in the house. Just the extra step of having to go out and get the food you’re craving adds some inconvenience, which is exactly what you want if you’re trying to limit how often you do this every week.
Watch out for “hot button” foods. These are the foods you take a single bite of and your willpower goes out the window. Skip them completely or try Paleo versions instead.
Option Four: Don’t Cheat
There are plenty of ways to “cheat” on your Paleo diet from time to time, but you have another option:
Don’t cheat at all.
This can be tough if you deal with a ton of food cravings. But if you’re used to Paleo and don’t really miss anything, not cheating is the best way to keep a good thing going without risking going back to your old ways.
Once you’ve given the Paleo lifestyle a fair shot, you might surprise yourself when your cravings disappear and food you used to love starts to seem disgusting. You might feel so great you never want to look back!
Finally, people with serious conditions or food sensitivities (Hashimoto’s, celiac disease, etc.) will feel much better avoiding non-Paleo foods altogether.
Finding a Way That Works for You
“Cheating” on your Paleo diet from time to time doesn’t have to wreck your health.
What’s the best way to do it? The way that keeps you satisfied while still eating as many healthy foods as possible. Figuring out what works best for you depends on a lot of factors like your goals, self-discipline, and severity of food cravings.
It might take some experimenting before you nail down a sustainable method, but it’s time well spent. You’ll end up with the best of both worlds: great health and a feeling of enjoying that health to the fullest.
What’s your philosophy on cheating and your diet? Which method works best for you? Why? Share your experience by leaving a comment below.
(Related: 3 Steps to Stopping Cravings in Their Tracks)