Here's what you need to know...
- Cheat meals prevent catabolism, boost metabolism, refill glycogen, and give dieters a break to look forward to. But they can backfire.
- Feeling cold all the time, hitting plateaus, losing lots of weight in a short period of time, and having poor workouts are signs a cheat meal could be in order.
- A re-feed, unlike a cheat meal, consists of a healthier high-carb foods, whereas the cheat meal is whatever you want it to be – often not healthy.
- Having cheat meals without needing them may destroy your progress.
Junk Food + Fat Loss
There's value in an occasional cheat meal or re-feed. A proper one can:
- Stave off potential catabolism from prolonged dieting
- Refill glycogen stores to support hard training
- Recharge a stagnant metabolism
- Give the dieter something to look forward to, which helps him get through the tougher days of restriction
Only problem is, a lot of dieters miss the boat when it comes to implementation. They cheat at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong way. But you don't have to be one of those people.
Bodybuilders have long been at the forefront of dieting breakthroughs. We can attribute the concept of strategic overfeeding to the dieting bodybuilder who, after a long pre-contest diet, goes on a post-contest binge and ends up looking better because of it: freakier and fuller.
"Damn, if I'd looked like this yesterday, I would've won the whole thing!"
The non-competitive lifter can pull the same trick, get right back on his diet, and notice a few days later that he's even leaner than before – while having even better workouts than before. How's this possible?
The cheat meal is packed with calories coming from all the macros: carbs, fat, and protein. These calories will give your metabolism a temporary boost. If you've ever had a big cheat meal, you'll know about the accompanying perspiration.
Related: How Many Carbs Do You Need?
The additional carbs will replenish muscle glycogen, and the fat will fill out the muscle a bit too. Then the elevated sodium will help with glycogen storage and water retention – both of which improve strength.
Add all these together and you're in for an awesome diet and training boost, one that can take your progress to the next level... if properly implemented.
Follow the Signs
When used incorrectly cheat meals can derail progress. When is it really time for a cheat meal? Look for the following signs:
- Your workouts are shitty on a regular basis – no pump, poor strength, lack of focus.
- Your body temperature is starting to drop; you feel cold ALL the time.
- Your fat loss has plateaued and lowering calories isn't helping.
- You just dropped a lot of weight in a short amount of time – more than one percent of your total bodyweight in a week, not including the first week of dieting when you drop water and glycogen weight.
If one or more of these apply to you, a cheat meal is warranted. If none of these apply to you, you probably don't need a cheat meal, regardless of how much you may want one.
Cheat Meals vs. Re-feeds
The term "re-feed" usually refers to a carbohydrate feeding designed to elicit similar results as a cheat meal. Quantities are pretty high, and the goals, like with a cheat meal, are to refill glycogen stores, stave off catabolism, recharge metabolism, and also provide some mental relief.
The main difference between a cheat meal and a re-feed is mental. Cheat meals are for those who need a momentary break from their diet. If you can't stick with a diet, it obviously won't work for you.
So if having a periodic cheat meal allows you to continue dieting longer, then obviously it's the method of choice.
Most will do better on a diet that allows them to have a weekly break where they can eat whatever they want for a certain amount of time, as opposed to just eating a bunch of their usual "diet foods" in higher quantities.
The person who goes 35 mph for ten years will always beat the person who goes 100 mph for two years, gets burnt out, and quits.
Consider Your Psychology
Here's something else to consider in the cheat meal vs. re-feed scenario: your individual psychology.
For some, eating junk sets off a shark-like feeding frenzy and they end up bingeing for hours – or days – setting themselves way back in the dieting game. For them, a more controlled re-feed of healthy food in higher quantities would be the wiser option.
Some will also use a carb re-feed day, similar to a "high day" when carb cycling. It serves the same purposes as the cheat meal or re-feed meal, but is spread across an entire day rather than just one meal.
Related: The Carb Cycling Codex
The main downfall with a full day of carbing-up like this is that you lose a day's worth of fat burning, rather than having just one meal, contained in just an hour.
There are times where full days are needed though, depending on how depleted an individual is and how lean they are. And that brings up another note: the leaner you are, the more often you will need to re-feed or cheat.
When you're really lean, you flirt with a fine line of potential catabolism, so more frequent re-feeds are usually necessary to maintain as much muscle as possible.
Three Cheat Meal Guidelines
It's a little more sophisticated than just "eat a bunch of crap," but not by much. When implementing a full-on cheat meal – as opposed to a carbohydrate re-feed, I typically use the following guidelines with my clients:
Guideline #1: Have the cheat meal replace the last meal of that day. This keeps you from extending the cheat and ruining a whole day of eating.
Guideline #2: Keep it around 45 to 60 minutes. Again, this keeps you from making it an all-out binge that will set back your progress rather than accelerating it. Other than that, have whatever you want, as much as you want.
Guideline #3: Have your cheat meal the night before you train a large (or weak) body part, like legs or back.
The additional glycogen and fullness will ensure that you have an awesome, powerful training session. Some people like to have the cheat meal after a big training session in the hopes of aiding recovery. That can work as well, but my preference is the night before.
Bonus Trick: Sometimes I'll instruct a client to have a cheat meal, then the next day, increase his cardio and/or decrease his calories a bit, usually via carbs or fat.
So have a re-feed, then starting the next day, reduce calories by 10% on all days going forward. You can also add another ten minutes of cardio daily.
Related: Fat Loss & High Protein Breakfast
This is sort of a one-two punch of metabolic trickery. You increase the metabolism (and caloric expenditure) via the cheat meal, then you decrease caloric intake. This hits fat loss from both sides.
What to Expect
Muscles swell from glycogen. So the cheat meal will fill you out, which will help immensely with training. Your next day or two of training will probably be the best you've had in a while.
Your weight will rise, as much as 5 to 8 pounds in some instances, and it may take up to a week to return to your previous baseline weight.
Or, you might not gain much weight at all depending on how depleted you are and how big the cheat is. This is normal, and not something to be concerned about. The cheat meal is still "working" even if your weight doesn't skyrocket.
Because of the nature of the hormone aldosterone, sometimes it may take longer than a day for the increase in weight to show up. I'll often take a cheat meal and only be up half a pound or one pound the next day, but be much drier.
Then, the following morning, my body rebounds, holds a lot more water, and I'm up another couple pounds. All normal occurrences.
Full-on cheat meals are easy: eat what you want within a limited timeframe. A re-feed is a little cleaner.
A sample, carb-filled re-feed for a 200-pound male might look something like this:
2 cups cooked rice (any kind is fine)
2 large sweet potatoes
3 pieces Ezekiel bread toast
1 cooked chicken breast
1 cup broccoli
1 piece of fruit
Cheat meals and re-feeds are frequently misunderstood and misapplied. But use the guidelines here and you'll be able to wisely harness the power of pizza in your next fat loss diet!