Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

The Problem with Cheat Days

Cheat days that include foods prevalent in the Western Diet can diminish the cognitive benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. 

A recent study involving 5001 Chicago Health and Aging Project participants, over age 65, examined the cognitive health and diet choices of participants every three years from 1993 to 2012.  Researchers found that those who ate mostly foods from the Mediterranean Diet, while also limiting foods from the traditional Western diet, enjoyed slower cognitive decline than those participants who regularly ate foods from the Western diet.  Consumption of significant amounts of food from the Western Diet appeared to cancel out the benefits of eating some healthy food.

One of the researchers stated that the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet include reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and cognitive deterioration.  He said that study participants with the best adherence to the Mediterranean Diet, when compared to those who had the worst scores and ate more Western Diet foods, were the equivalent of 5.8 years younger in cognitive performance.  He recommended the best foods to protect our brains are leafy green vegetables, other veggies, berries, fish, and olive oil.

The Mediterranean Diet is:

  • Fruits and Vegetables
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Whole Grains
  • Olive Oil

The Western Diet is:

  • Processed Foods
  • Fried Foods
  • Red and Processed Meat
  • Full-fat Dairy
  • Sweet Treats
  • Pizza

Takeaway: Cheat Day foods cancel out the benefits of healthy eating. 

One idea for improving your diet is to gamify your approach.  This involves making a game out of tracking your food consumption and other metrics you care about, such as weight and Body Mass Index.  Mark Suster’s blog post below is an excellent example of an approach to gamifying weight loss.


Science Daily, Including Unhealthy Foods may Diminish Positive Effects of an Otherwise Healthy Diet, Jan. 9, 2021,

Puja Agarwal, Klodian Dhana, Lisa L. Barnes, Thomas M Holland, Yanyu Zhang, Denis A. Evans, Martha Clare Morris, Unhealthy Foods may Attenuate the Beneficial Relation of a Mediterranean Diet to Cognitive Decline, Alzheimer’s and Dementia, Jan. 7, 2021,

Mark Suster, How I Gamified my own Brain to Lose Weight and Improve Fitness, Jan. 10, 2021,

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