The carnivore diet can seem like a very restrictive diet to some people and having cheat days when they can eat whatever they want looks like a tempting strategy to help stick to the diet long term.
But are cheat days on a carnivore diet a good idea?
In my opinion, cheat days are not a good idea because cheat foods are unhealthy and highly addictive. There is a risk that one cheat day may quickly turn into many and that you might need to start all over again, especially for those who have not been on the carnivore diet for long.
However, I hope that you don’t even need to have a debate with yourself about having cheat days, cheat meals or cheat foods on the carnivore diet. Many people have reportedly found that they lost their cravings for junk food after they started the carnivore diet and that they were free from the control of food at last.
It is liberating when you are able to look at pizzas, muffins, donuts, cakes and the like as if they are table decorations or pieces of furniture.
Having said that, there are cases where cheat days or cheat meals may be okay if the overall net effect is they help you to stay with the carnivore diet long term. It’s definitely better to stay on an imperfect good diet than to fall back to a really bad diet.
The remainder of the post looks in detail at the reasons why cheat days are not a good idea, special cases where cheat days may be okay and, if you must cheat, how to do it smartly.
Why cheat days on the carnivore diet are generally not a good idea
The idea of cheat days on the carnivore diet goes like this: because I’ve been good at eating clean for the last 5 days, last week, last two weeks, etc., I deserve to eat whatever I want for one day or one meal.
The food people usually go for on cheat days or cheat meals are non-carnivore foods like burgers, pizzas, pasta, pancake, ice-cream, chocolate, and cake.
If they usually drink only water on the carnivore diet, they may have a smoothie, a beer, or a glass of wine on these occasions.
Cheat days and cheat meals are not a good idea for a number of reasons set out below.
Cheat foods are unhealthy and are more of a punishment than a reward
As mentioned above, the non-carnivore ‘cheat foods’ people often go for are unhealthy and would be more of a punishment to your body than a reward.
Pizzas, burgers, cake, chocolate, and ice cream are mostly empty calories that come with refined sugar, gluten, lectins, phytates, oxalates, vegetable oils, and chemical additives.
While these foods may bring you pleasure and happiness for a short time, your body will later suffer for them.
You’re likely to experience headaches, bloating, skin breakout, restless sleep, other digestive issues, and, potentially flare-ups of health problems you’ve previously been able to resolve.
You will also need to fight hunger and cravings later. Carb-rich meals increase blood sugar and make you feel good temporarily. But insulin is then secreted to bring down blood sugar levels and this subsequently makes you feel sluggish, sleepy, irritable, and hungry.
Such mood swings are common on high carb diets whereas, on a carnivore diet, your energy level would be very stable because you’d be in ketosis. 
You will also be knocked out of ketosis and your body will switch back to burning sugar and storing fat.
Depending on how much carbs you eat, it may take a day or two to get back into ketosis.
If you have cheat days regularly, there will be an unpleasant diet roller coaster of fat-burning, sugar-burning, fat-burning, sugar-burning and so on and experiencing adaptation symptoms over and over again.
Cheat foods are highly addictive
Carbohydrate-rich foods, especially processed foods, can also be addictive to some people.
You know you have it when you are unable to control your food intake when eating a certain food. For example, you may plan to have just two slices of pizza but end up finishing an entire pizza.
If you’re one of those and have been able to break your food addiction with the carnivore diet, it’s best to not go near those addictive foods again.
Many highly processed foods have been scientifically created with the right doses of fat, salt, sugar, artificial flavors, and other additives to appeal to our taste buds and make us addicted to them.
A study conducted by the University of Michigan found that “highly processed foods, which may share characteristics with drugs of abuse … appear to be particularly associated with food addiction“.
In the study, pizza was ranked as the food most associated with symptoms of addiction (using the Yale Food Addiction Scale). It was followed by chocolate, chips, cookie, ice cream, French fries, cheeseburgers, soda, and cake.
This finding is not surprising. Sugar has been found to trigger the reward center in the brain similar to the way addictive drugs do. Alarmingly, in animal studies, it is found that “sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive“. [4, 5]
Nobody is going to advise a cocaine addict to have it in moderation like once a week or once a fortnight.
If you think you have a food addiction, it’s best to stay away from those addictive foods in the first place because it is near impossible to consume junk food in moderation.
Cheat foods may result in overeating and weight gain
You are likely to overeat cheat foods due to the scarcity mindset.
Because you can only eat cheat foods on cheat days or cheat meals and you’d have to get back to eating meat only afterward, you may as well want to make the best of it and eat as much as you can. This can lead to weight gain.
Moreover, cheat meals were found to be associated with eating disorder symptoms and binge episodes.
If you start the carnivore diet to lose weight, it’s not a good idea to have cheat days.
A better alternative to cheat days or cheat meals is to have a small amount of non-carnivore food at the end of the day, for example, one cookie, one serving of ice cream, or one small slice of cake.
By doing it this way, you don’t create a scarcity mindset, you can have a small treat today and tomorrow and the day after if you want it. But this will only work if you don’t have a food addiction and these foods are not your trigger foods, i.e. one cookie doesn’t lead to a whole package or one serving of ice cream doesn’t lead to a whole tub.
The same applies to drinks. If a glass of wine leads to a bottle or more later, you know that consuming alcohol in moderation is not an option for you.
Risks of falling off the wagon due to cheat days and cheat foods
There is a risk that one cheat day a week will turn into a few too many cheat days and you’ll eventually fall off the wagon and have to start all over again.
If your cheat foods are highly processed foods, as mentioned above, they can be highly addictive, moderation is difficult to exercise, and the risk of falling off the wagon would be greater.
If you are doing the carnivore diet for the first time and haven’t been on the diet for long, I highly recommend staying away from cheat days and cheat foods. Also, get rid of all unhealthy and tempting food in your house. If possible, starting the carnivore diet with someone can help keep each other accountable and stay on track too.
The good news is the longer you are on the carnivore diet, the less craving you will have for carbs and the less likely you want to cheat.
As mentioned above, many people have found that they lost their cravings for junk foods after they’ve been on the carnivore diet for a while. They also don’t even want to cheat when they know how bad these foods are for their health.
Better ways to reward yourself than eating junk foods
Regular rewards can keep you motivated. But rewards don’t necessarily have to be junk food, you can reward yourself with good food or non-food things.
For example, you can reward yourself by:
- Go to a nice steak house and order the best steak you can afford
- Get a lot of carnivore food that you really enjoy but usually can’t afford and cook a feast for yourself (e.g. Wagyu steaks, ribeyes, caviar, lobsters, etc)
- Cook some special carnivore foods such as carnivore pizza, carnivore ice-cream, carnivore cake, etc. There are a lot of recipes for carnivore versions of common treats around.
If you must have non-carnivore foods, try whole food and avoid highly processed food altogether.
You can also have non-food rewards that don’t involve buying stuff.
Make a list of things that you enjoy doing, print it out, and hang it up. Next time you have a craving for junk food, either eat some steak or beef jerky or pick out one thing from the list as a reward.
Below are some examples of things you can do that don’t involve food or accumulating stuff:
- Get a massage
- Go to a movie
- Take a long hot bath
- Have a free lazy afternoon
- Stay in a fancy hotel or a cottage in the middle of nowhere for a weekend
- Go for a long drive and watch the sunrise or sunset
- Read your favorite book
- Watch or re-watch your favorite movie
- Head for the beach
- Go outside and enjoy the sunlight
- Have a manicure or facial
- Do some exercises
- Go for a nature hike
- Spend time on your hobbies
- Enrol in an art class.
When cheat days may be okay
If you are fully adapted to the carnivore diet, are healthy and have done occasional cheat meals before without falling off the wagon, you are one of the lucky few. If you think this lifestyle can help you stick to the carnivore diet long term, by all means, go for it.
If you are generally healthy, having a bit of plant food now and then can even be beneficial because it helps you maintain metabolic flexibility. After all, that was how our ancestors ate: they ate mostly meat but wouldn’t have hesitated to eat plant food in leaner times to survive.
If you have a family and haven’t been able to convince the rest of the family to go carnivore yet, you may want to join them once a week, eat like everybody else and enjoy some quality time with them. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Carnivore food can fully meet your physiological needs but may not meet your sociological needs.
On those cheat meals, try to go for the least unhealthy foods (e.g. fresh, whole, and low carb food).
Set some rules for yourself when you are eating those cheat foods, e.g. what food, how frequent and how many servings and stick to those rules.
If you find that you can’t stick to those rules, it’s time to re-think the idea of cheat meals.
If you happen to eat some high-carb food on a cheat day, try to exercise to burn off the sugar quickly and your next day’s menu should be steak, steak and steak.
If you give in to temptation and cheat unexpectedly, forgive yourself, don’t feel guilty and don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s all done and dusted, you just need to get back on track the next day.
Who should definitely avoid cheat days
I think the following people should avoid cheat days on the carnivore diet:
- People who are new to the carnivore diet
- People who have unresolved health issues and are trying to fix them with the carnivore diet
- People with food sensitivity issues
- People with previous junk food addiction
- People who are trying to lose weight with the carnivore diet.
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Disclaimer: The information in this post is for reference purposes only and not intended to constitute or replace professional medical advice. Please consult a qualified medical professional before making any changes to your diet or lifestyle.
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