T-Nation: How do I know when to take a cheat meal or cheat day? I hear guys talk about them and they sound awesome. I'm pretty fat I guess and have been dieting for 3 weeks. Is it time for one?

Shelby Starnes: Sometimes I wish I never mentioned that I give my clients cheat meals or cheat days on occasion, because now every chubby guy with a treadmill thinks they 'deserve' a food bender after a few days of avoiding junk food. Sorry Charlie, it doesn't work that way.

Cheat meals (and days) should only be employed to accomplish the following:

  • To stoke a stagnant metabolism
  • To stave off catabolism
  • To temporarily refill glycogen stores (when you're REALLY flat)

Cheats serve a psychological benefit as well, but they should NOT be employed when:

  • You're bored with your diet. (Newsflash, asshole – it's a diet. If you want to indulge your inner epicurean, get a job at the Food Network. If you want to get lean, get used to eating a slightly limited selection of foods.)
  • You're feeling "entitled" to eat what you want cause you worked hard, trained hard, were feeling sad, Grey's Anatomy was lame, etc. Entitlement has no bearing on whether you get to cheat or not.
  • You hear the ice cream truck. 'Nuff said.

So when should you cheat? Well, it's hard to give clear-cut rules on when and how to incorporate a cheat meal, as every situation is different, but here goes:

  • If you've dropped a lot of weight in a short amount of time (more than three pounds in a week, not including the first week of dieting when you drop water and glycogen weight).
  • If you're starting to have shitty workouts on a regular basis (no pump, poor strength, lack of focus).
  • And, if your body temperature is starting to drop (you feel cold ALL the time).

Then, it's probably safe to say that a cheat meal is warranted.

Don't go nuts though – a cheat meal is a tool, not a license to go ape-shit and binge for hours on end. Keep your binge to around 60 minutes, tops. In an hour you should be able to fulfill a lot of cravings anyway, provided the ice cream truck driver doesn't know you're on a diet and actually stops for you.

T-Nation: I'm about four months into my off-season and am starting to get a bit soft around the middle. Would you suggest adding in some cardio? I eat about 300g of protein per day, 400g of carbs, and about 75g of fat. (I weigh 210 right now and was about 175 at my last contest, four months ago.)

Shelby Starnes: Considering you're in your off-season – which is supposed to be grow-get-stronger-make improvements time – I'd suggest taking a good look at your diet before adding in all sorts of cardio work.

If you're gaining fat, then you're consuming too many calories in some form. Although I don't know how your body "runs," at first glance your carbs look like they might be a bit on the high end, especially if you're taking in that amount day in and day out.

Carbs are great for growing muscle, but they can also add fat if they aren't used in a controlled fashion or if your insulin sensitivity isn't ideal. Now that you're four months into your offseason, you likely don't have the insulin sensitivity that you did when you first came off your contest diet, when every sweet treat you indulged in seemed to go straight to your hungry muscles. As they say, all good things must come to an end.

So here's what I suggest: Try lowering your carbs down to 300 grams on your training days (with most of them coming in at meal number 1 and peri-workout).

On off days, lower them even further – perhaps to less than 200 grams per day, depending on your metabolism. Lowering carbs on off-days makes sense for a number of reasons: Not only are you not as physically active on those days, but lowered carbs will also "prime" your body for the higher carb days to come. You want to be a bit glycogen-depleted going into the higher carb days, along with being a bit more insulin sensitive.

Regarding the other macronutrients, for your size, 300 grams of protein and 75 grams of fat should be a good level to grow with, but since we're lowering carbs you could play around with increasing protein SLIGHTLY.

Remember, we still have to cut calories to lean out a bit and prevent future fat gains, and too much protein can add fat too; still, 350 grams might be a better level to grow on now that you're reducing the carb intake.

Some guys make the mistake of WAY overshooting their protein needs (like 500 grams for a 160 pound guy) and that's not only completely unnecessary, but will lead to fat gain in the long run. Never focus on just one macronutrient – always look at the big picture, and how the macros affect each other.

T-Nation: I'm 8 weeks out from my first bodybuilding competition and my fat loss has really plateaued over the last couple weeks. I weigh 200-pounds at about 10% body fat and have been consuming about 350-400g protein per day, 80-100g carbs, and about 50g fat.

Shelby Starnes: Cardio has been steady at about 30-40 minutes per day for the last 4 weeks. Should I increase cardio? Reduce carbs? I'm afraid that if I reduce them too much more, I'll sacrifice muscle (even though protein is high).

Okay, now here's a perfect example of what I referred to in the previous question: overshooting protein needs while dieting.

At 200 pounds and 10% body fat, your lean body mass is about 180 pounds. When dieting, 1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean bodyweight is a good 'rough' starting point to go by, depending on how your fat and carbohydrate intakes are set up.

So 1.5 grams protein per pound of lean bodyweight (180-pounds) puts you at 270 grams of protein per day – and you're taking in 80-130 grams MORE than that, every single day. Thermic effect or not, those calories add up, and as you can see by your own experience, can limit your fat loss progress.

Try lowering your protein down to that 270-gram level (and possibly even raising carbs and/or fats SLIGHTLY) and see how things play out.

My guess is your progress will pick back up again, but remember – you'll probably need to continue tweaking things with your carb and fat intake, as well as your cardio, to keep progressing towards your goals. The body adapts quickly, so monitor and adjust as needed on a regular basis.

With only 8 weeks left until your competition, you're going to have to work fairly hard to get into winning condition if you're still 10% body fat now.


T-Nation: I totally blew it! I'm coming up on five weeks out from my first bodybuilding competition and last night I lost complete control and ate basically everything in sight.

Shelby Starnes: I had a very stressful day at work, and then got into a big argument with my girlfriend. It was all too much and I caved and just went nuts. My "therapy" included cookies, candy bars, almost a gallon of whole milk, 2/3 of a pumpkin pie, a box of Rice Krispie treats, and half a jar of peanut butter (at least it was the natural kind).

Am I screwed? Can I get back on track and still have a decent showing? I was doing so well until yesterday – already showing striations in my quads, good separation in my hamstrings, slight striations in glutes. I hate myself now! Please help!

First things first dude – you have to chill out a bit here. Your question is revealing more issues than Jeffrey Dahlmer's eHarmony profile. What's done is done and stressing out won't help matters, nor will it let you learn from your mistake and prevent it from re-occurring Besides, what you did may not be such a big deal after all. Let me explain:

With five weeks to go, you probably didn't "blow it." Fact is, you may have done the right thing in terms of giving your body a metabolic boost, refilling glycogen stores, giving leptin a temporary bump, and obviously serving an important psychological need – not to mention that you probably feel so guilty now that you'll be 100% strict from now through to the show.

You're not the first guy or gal to have a moment of dietary weakness. It's not uncommon at all for dieters to "break down" like this after a prolonged diet, even the gifted few who do this for a living. There's obviously not just a lot of physiology behind it, but psychology too, and often the two are interlinked.

So step one is quit stressing – just get back on track 100% with everything and you'll be back in shape in no time. Your weight will probably be up for close to a week, but it's just temporary glycogen and water storage.

If you were starting to see striations in your glutes like you said, it sounds like you're doing just fine for five weeks out and the binge will be no more than a speed bump, at worst.

If you were actually a bit behind and you did something like this, then that would be another story. In that case, you'd have to do things to mitigate the situation and hopefully not just get back on track, but ahead of where you were so you can be in shape on time.

It wouldn't be prudent to have a breakdown like this at one week out, but at five weeks out, given that your prep is going great, you should be just fine.

As an aside, to all you normal folks just trying to get in better shape for a wedding or a cruise or other personal goal – don't fall into the trap of thinking that a momentary screw up will abolish 8 or 12 or 16 weeks of otherwise sound dieting. You made a mistake. Big deal. Pick yourself up, refocus, and get back on the plan. In a few short weeks that minor setback will be nothing more than a distant memory.

T-Nation: I'm a few weeks away from starting my first precontest diet and I want to do a ketogenic diet. I'm planning to start at 16 weeks out, so I have ample time to get shredded. Right now my diet is moderate carb, moderate fat, and high protein. Should I just jump right into the zero carb diet right at 16 weeks out and get into ketosis as fast as possible?

Shelby Starnes: A ketogenic or "keto" approach is very effective for fat loss, but I would recommend waiting until you really "need" it.

You'll make great progress just by manipulating other variables first (lowering carbs, adding in a moderate amount of cardio, etc.), so it just makes sense to "milk" as much as you can out of those things first before diving into a full-blown keto approach.

Why go straight to the big guns? You always want to have something "up your sleeve" to implement when your dieting progress plateaus. If you jump right into a zero carb approach you'll surely make great progress and very quickly, but where will you go when you plateau? Your only option will be to lower calories further and/or increase cardio – both of which can eat up precious muscle when dieting.

Granted, you may have to do that stuff eventually anyway, but always start with simple changes first. With 16 weeks to diet, you have a long time to play around with things. You may not need to go zero carb until 6-8 weeks out, if at all.

The only time I'd recommend going keto right from the start would be if you have a significant amount of fat to lose and not much time to do it – like if you were 15% body fat and 9 weeks out.

When your timeline is short and progress needs to be rapid and considerable, you don't have time to dilly-dally with small reductions in carbs and things of that nature. In those extreme cases, the only solution is to jump in, whole hog, and hope (pray) that you can get your ass in shape in time. This isn't the best way to maximize muscle retention while dieting, but with short timelines it's usually the only option to get into shape fast.

T-Nation: I want to get lean, but I'm not going to weigh my food, count freakin' calories or carbs or do any other weird ass shit. Give me one thing I can do every day, whether it's dietary or exercise related that I could do to make some progress in losing fat. Keep in mind that I'm not doing a show, nor do I plan on being an Abercrombie model.

Shelby Starnes: Just one thing? Ummm.... Maybe try "eat less?"

While I appreciate your minimalist approach, unfortunately getting lean involves more then just "one thing," even if you're not getting onstage. It's not rocket science, but it does involve a bit of forethought and preparation. Some simple suggestions include:

  • Start eating 5-6 small meals a day, each consisting of protein and either a moderate amount of carbs or fat.
  • Keep most of your carbs in meal number 1, and then the meals before and after your workouts. On off days from training, nix the training carbs (of course).
  • Start doing some cardiovascular work – at least five 30-minute sessions per week to start.
  • Be consistent. Rome wasn't built in a day and you didn't get fat overnight. You can't expect good results if you only do the right things a few days a week, so make clean eating and regular exercise become new habits for you and stick with it – it's going to take more than just a few weeks to get the body you want.

That's probably a bit more complex than you want, but it's just the reality of the situation. If being lean, healthy and looking good was easy, going to Wal-Mart wouldn't be such a frightful visual experience.