Cheat Meals, the Benefits of Taking a Break From Your Diet.
One of the highlights of the week for athletes, bodybuilders or anyone on a strict diet is the day you have your cheat meal.This is the meal where nothing is off limits, it’s the chance to get any food cravings out of the way.
I believe the benefits are just as mental as they are physical. You need super human powers of mental strength to stick to a strict diet seven days a week for twelve weeks or more. In the case of bodybuilding preparation that could be up to twenty weeks. You may go crazy trying to do so. In other words, a little junk food might go a long way to help your mental game.
The Basic Science
Cheat meals benefit dieters in many ways. The basic science being it restores glycogen in the muscles. It can also speed up your metabolism which can help bust through any weight loss plateaus. When cutting calories for an extended period your weight loss will stall, it's inevitable. The large meal can offset that because its function is to be a metabolic re-activator by refueling leptin levels.
Leptin is also known as the "Anti Starvation Hormone" , it helps to regulate the amount of body fat we carry. The higher the body fat, the higher the Leptin levels you have and vice-versa. During long periods of dieting leptin levels drop significantly. Within the first week of a diet, studies have shown levels can reduce by as much as 50%. As leptin levels drop, so do the levels of glycogen in the liver. This then lowers the level of other very important hormones such as testosterone, oestrogen, T3 and growth hormone. Not only that, but this will also drive up the levels of Cortisol levels (the stress hormone), which has the undesired effect of making you fat. The complete opposite of the dieters goal.
A high carbohydrate meal sets leptin levels back up high again and allows the body to keep dieting on lower than normal calories. Making it more effective at burning fat than it was with the lower leptin levels. It will also slow down muscle being used as fuel and therefore muscle loss, a crucial element if you are stepping on stage as a bodybuilder.
Use The Extra Calories To Fuel A Big Lift Day
The extra calories a carbohydrate rich meal brings can also be used on the heaviest training day. The extra glycogen will fuel a big lift day in the weights room, or a training session with high energy expenditure such as sprints or plyometrics. An athlete on a strict diet may over time experience a loss of energy or strength and the cheat meal will go some way to restore the losses.
You Don't Have To Eat That Dirty
It may defeat the purpose especially if the cheat is being used as a mental tool but it is possible to keep my cheat meals as nutritional as possible and relatively clean. You don’t always have to head straight for pizzas, cakes, pastries and the millions of other delicious treats on offer. One strategy is to turn plain chicken and rice into chicken korma and rice, or steak and vegetables into a homemade burger and sweet potato fries. Some athletes choose not to have a dessert during competition preparation, this of course changes during the bulking phase of the year when most will indulge in something sweet.
You still have to show restraint, your cheat meal is exactly that, a meal. It’s a chance to satisfy your cravings not eat until you explode.
The Four Rules of Cheat Meals
The rules of cheat meal:
1. No guilt, savour it, enjoy it, if you allow yourself to feel guilty you’re missing the point.
2. Plan the meal if you can, this will lead to good choices and not spur of the moment blow outs.
3. Don’t forget all you know about portion control, it’s a meal not a license to binge.
4. Don’t allow it to be a trigger to worse eating, do it, love every second of it, move on.
Do You Need To Cheat?
Some people question whether a cheat meal is needed at all. For some people this may be true, but I find I can get down to 4-5% body fat with one included in my plan. I firmly believe that the effects it has on your metabolism help a great deal in further weight loss and busting through plateaus when your weight loss has stalled. This is especially true if you find it hard to gain muscle or weight during a bulking phase.
I would even go as far as advocating a whole cheat day if you are not competing in bodybuilding and are just trying to lose weight. I find that most people don’t have the willpower to stick to a long term diet plan as most are too restrictive. The chance to eat anything you want for a whole day will not result in gaining weight back over the long term. This whole day works best if the other six days are very low in carbohydrates.
It also gives the dieter a target to aim for that isn’t long and stretched out in front of them. Let’s face it if you can’t go six days without breaking your diet you really need to take a long hard look at yourself and your motivations.
Ketogenic Diets & Re-feeds
Some advocates of ketogenic diets (the aim of the diet is to try and burn unwanted fat by forcing the body to rely on fat for energy, rather than carbohydrates) argue that cheat meals take the dieter out of ketosis and it's likely to set them back. However if correctly cycled cheat meals will benefit the ketogenic dieter in the same way it benefits other types of diets.
Something to also consider is the mindset of the dieter. Are you someone who will crack once you have that pizza and ruin your diet by quickly derailing and stopping dieting altogether? Then maybe a re-feed would suit you better.
A re-feed is the “cleaner” cheat meal, it would be a meal or day where good quality fats and carbohydrates such as brown rice are increased and junk food and sweets are avoided altogether. The result will be the same on the body but not necessarily the mind and it takes a tough mind to diet long term with no treats at all.
When a Cheat Meal is needed
Some athletes have a cheat meal only when its needed and not necessarily have one programmed into their weekly diet. When would a refeed or cheat meal be needed? When you have lost a lot of weight in a short period (not the first week or two of a diet when a lot of weight loss would be water), when your weight loss has stopped and lowering calories has not helped or when your workouts are seriously affected (poor strength, no muscle pump, poor mental focus).
To cheat or not? That's up to you, but if you do, enjoy it and move on.
Pizza and Ribs
In a drug free arena most athletes cannot take diuretics or fat burners in order to lose weight so have found cheat meals to be a useful tool in their preparation.
Strict dieting need not be excruciating when you implement a planned cheat meal. Not only does it do your body good but just as importantly it gives your mind a break from the restrictions too.
For those interested my favorite cheat meal is a meat feast pizza with BBQ ribs and ice cream for dessert.