Maintaining a successful diet means understanding moderation and finding a long-term balance that provides the best nutrition for your fitness goals. While it may seem contrary, many people have found they benefit from the occasional diet break. These weekly “cheat meals” – or an entire “cheat days” – serve as an opportunity to indulge in dietary guilty pleasures like cheeseburgers and pizza (though not just for the sake of indulging). Allowing yourself a brief departure from your diet, within limits, can reinforce your willpower over time and may even help to regulate how your body stores and burns fat.

When you’ve spent the week carefully watching your calories, the allure of enjoying some loaded fries or a bowl of macaroni and cheese can be hard to resist, and many people are more than happy to show off their choice of cheat meals. What do people pick for a meal when they are willing to pick anything? We turned to Instagram and analyzed 1,047,322 posts tagged with the hashtag #cheatmeal to find the top dishes for a diet break. Read on to see which dietary no-nos are the most beloved around the world – and learn how you can make the most out of a cheat meal.

Top 10 Most Liked Cheat Meal Posts

When used properly, cheat meals can help control hunger levels: The occasional treat serves to regulate hormones that tell you when you’ve eaten enough. A strict and uninterrupted diet, on the other hand, can potentially lead to excessive hunger and the temptation to binge. In this way, a judicious use of cheat meals (or “treat meals”) can play a key role in long-term diet success.

When taking a diet break, what’s likely to be the first food someone reaches for? The answer is a classic American comfort food: macaroni and cheese. This calorie-rich, carb-loaded, high-sodium dish doesn’t have a place in most balanced diets but remains one of the most craved by those who are giving their self-control a rest. In fact, the average number of likes of a mac and cheese #cheatmeal Instagram post were more than twice as many as the next most commonly liked food – which was cheese.


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Given the high fat content of cheese, it’s a strong temptation for those who are limiting their fat intake. French fries were the third most popular #cheatmeal food, followed by some other prominently featured starches, such as rice, baked potatoes, pasta, and waffles.

The Best Times to Indulge

Considering a cheat meal or cheat day is often a weekly practice, we decided to look at which days of the week featured the most Instagram posts related to these indulgences. What we found was that, while most people seemed to be steadily on track with their diets by Tuesday or Wednesday, the weekend brought the greatest temptation to give in and enjoy a rare treat.

Sunday saw the greatest number of Instagram posts by those looking to get their #cheatmeal in before the start of a new week, followed by Saturday. While a break from dieting may be tempting when resting after a long week, the best time for cheat meals may be immediately after working out, when the body is ready to use this increased caloric intake most effectively.


Most Mentioned Cheat Treats

When it comes to everyone’s favorite cheat meals, some of them are practically Instagram famous.


Frosted, old-fashioned, or even full of cream – doughnuts were especially popular online in Washington D.C. The nation’s capital had 12 posts these delectable balls of fried dough for every 100,000 residents. New York and Florida were also big fans.

In fact, D.C. came out on top for each of the five foods looked at, including tacos, mac and cheese, French fries, and waffles. New York was also a popular spot for social media cheat food postings (residents are apparently fond of all five foods), along with New Jersey, Florida, and Nevada. It might be safe to say that finding room in your meal plan for one of these treats while visiting these states might be worth your while.


Calories Add Up: How Much Exercise Offsets a Cheat Meal?

For a cheat meal to have a healthy place in your diet, it’s important to understand its purpose and limits. These treats aren’t intended as all-you-can-eat buffets, but as a healthy and rewarding source of variety – a deliberate break to avoid an unwilling loss of control while dieting. Even cheat meals must be chosen carefully. To put this in perspective, we translated some of the most popular cheat meal foods into the equivalent amount of exercise needed to offset these popular treats.


While cheesy foods were global favorites for a diet break, just three slices of cheese pizza contain more than 800 calories and 29 grams of fat. Burning off that cheat meal would mean over an hour of aerobic exercise for a 195-pound man and over an hour and a half for a 166-pound woman. French fries – another popular choice – would require nearly an hour of biking to compensate for indulging in this starchy, greasy treat. And even just one hot dog could cost you over an hour of yoga. Clearly, even a cheat meal needs to be understood in the larger context of your overall fitness plan.

Healthier Alternatives: Not-So-Guilty Pleasures

Cheat meals are far from a get-out-of-jail-free card for your fitness plan – as we’ve found, some of the most popular diet break temptations are also those with the biggest potential impact on your calorie and fat intake. Luckily, there are plenty of delicious options that are just as satisfying with far fewer calories and a better nutritional balance. For instance, hamburger patties can be substituted with low-fat veggie patties, while baked french fries have less than half as many calories as around the same amount of fast food French fries. Veggie pasta can be a nutritious alternative to starchy and carb-rich pasta, and opting for a taco salad (without the carbohydrates of flour based tortilla shells)  rather than traditional beef tacos can cut out almost 600 calories and 30 grams of fat. Finally, while doughnut holes can be an easy cheat treat to grab on the go, a wheat glazed doughnut can be just as sweet with half of the fat almost half of the calories.



Even when you know you’re making healthy choices in your diet, you may still find it hard to contemplate never again enjoying a milkshake or cheeseburger. Many people struggle with this, which is one source of stress on willpower that cheat meals are intended to remedy. By finding foods that satisfy your cravings without an outsized impact on the rest of your diet, you can keep these occasional treats in your life while sticking to your plan, resisting temptation in your everyday diet, and successfully pursuing your fitness goals.


We collected 1,047,322 Instagram posts tagged with the hashtag #cheatmeal, identifying the frequency of food-related terms and mapping the frequency of these keywords by state, according to geolocation data. Time to burn off calories from each food is based off the average weight of men and women in the U.S. and was calculated using MET scores and the formula Calories = METS x weight (kg) x time (hours).

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