How to Make Cheat Meals Work For You
I put quotation marks around “cheat” because is it really a cheat if it is a strategically planned dieting tool? In my opinion, no.
I use the term cheat meal to reflect a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate meal composed of foods not normally found in my day-to-day or pre-contest diet. I also use this phrase to stress that it is a singular meal, not an all-out free-for-all, (don’t even get me started on the concept of cheat days).
Maintaining my physique six weeks after a competition.
Cheat meals are a tool I use to ensure I maintain hormonal balance, micronutrient fulfillment, and a healthy metabolism to achieve sustained weight loss while achieving extremely low levels of body fat. After being in a calorie deficit for an extended period, I implement cheat meals to continue losing body fat, avoid plateaus, and maintain general physical, psychological, and metabolic health.1
Cheat Meals are Not Refeeds
A cheat meal is defined based on macronutrient type, food type, meal timing, and quantity. A cheat meal differs from a refeed in that is made up of non “clean” foods, is normally not weighed or measured, is made up of a high percentage of carbohydrates, and takes place after a sustained amount of time in a caloric deficit, normally for a fat-loss diet (pre-contest or competition).
"Cheat meals are a tool I use to ensure I maintain hormonal balance, micronutrient fulfillment, and a healthy metabolism."
Although a refeed is often implemented to achieve similar results, it is normally used during a less extreme calorie deficit and provides a smaller percentage of calorie/micronutrient increase coming from clean foods already found in the athlete’s day-to-day diet. Refeeds are often used to provide higher levels of carbohydrates on taxing training days, as well as to provide hormonal and metabolic boosts through a process of carb cycling. Refeeds are often prescribed in grams.3
How a Proper Cheat Meal Works
When implemented correctly, cheat meals are an effective method for achieving dieting success. As an individual begins a period of caloric deficit, the body’s hormones naturally begin to down-regulate as the body enters “starvation” mode. This is the body taking precautions to protect itself as it is forced to output more calories than are coming in.
The hormones responsible for this reaction are crucial in controlling an individual’s metabolism and are also the hormones responsible for satiety, fat loss, and overall energy. The most directly affected hormones include leptin, thyroid hormones T3 and T4, and ghrelin. These are responsible for many things, including overall energy expenditure, fat storage, mood, metabolic rate, and hunger.
I never let dieting get in the way of having energy for quality workouts.
When the body realizes it’s in an extended hypo-caloric state, thyroid and leptin hormones decrease in attempt to conserve energy, while ghrelin increases to stimulate hunger and encourage calorie intake. Although these hormones are affected by overall calorie levels, they are also directly influenced by individual macronutrients, particularly carbohydrate intake.2
By providing the body with spikes in both calories and carbohydrates, you are able to trick the body into forgetting it’s in a calorie deficit. This keeps it from entering starvation mode and avoids the negative side effects of sustained caloric deficit. If the body is not provided these calorie/carbohydrate spikes, it will continue to down-regulate the thyroid. This leads to lower metabolic rate, decreased fat burning, and increased hunger and cravings - a state of hypothyroidism.
By providing the body with one high-calorie, carbohydrate-dense meal you are stoking the metabolic fire by driving these hormones back to normal levels, cutting off the metabolic slow-down that has begun, and increasing metabolic rate. As the body has become accustomed to restricted calories (and probably restricted carbohydrates, too), this high-calorie, high-carb meal is unlikely to be stored as fat as the bodies energy stores are already extremely depleted.1
When to Cheat
The timing of cheat meals will vary for every individual in terms of both initial introduction and frequency during the duration of the diet. That said, they are most effective during periods of definite and prolonged caloric restriction.
"When implemented correctly, cheat meals are an effective method for achieving dieting success."
As your hormones don’t immediately experience the negative effects of a calorie deficit, there is a certain grace period between the start of a restricted-calorie diet and the need for an initial cheat meal. The need for cheat meals will be based on an individual’s metabolic and hormonal profile, the magnitude of calorie and macronutrient deficit, and the duration of the calorie deficit.
The longer and more restricted the diet and the leaner an individual becomes, the more frequently a cheat meal will be beneficial to recover hormonal levels and ensure sustained fat loss. Although every individual experiences these hormonal changes at different rates, by listening to your body you can assess when a cheat meal is needed (not wanted) to rehabilitate any compromised hormones.2
How to Achieve Cheat Meal Success
The Initial Period: Ensure your body has reached a caloric deficit by assessing a two- to six-week period of sustained fat loss (this can be measured by body fat levels or the scale). After consistent fat loss for at least two weeks (for those with high metabolisms), but more likely a three- to six-week period, you can implement an initial cheat meal to assess your body’s hormonal response.
Responsible eating and planned cheating helps keep my close to my physique goals year-round.
What to Eat: This meal is meant to be a shock to the system, so it is necessary for it to be both high calorie and high carb, but without massive amounts of volume. Therefore, to achieve a calorie and carbohydrate dense meal in one sitting, it’s often necessary to use more refined carbohydrates that are high in sugar, low in fiber, and outside the dieter’s normal foods.
After the Initial Cheat: If the body responds well to a cheat meal, you will notice increased vascularity, little to no excess water (bloating), and no significant increase in scale weight (i.e. within one pound), as well as an increase in energy. Alternatively, if the cheat meal was unnecessary for metabolic and hormonal recovery, you are likely to notice increased scale weight, water retention, and no obvious changes in energy levels.
Frequency: If your cheat did not have the intended results, it is likely you were not depleted to the point of needing a hormonal boost, but upon a more extended period of dieting and lower caloric intake, you may notice signs that warrant another attempt. The tell-tale signs that it’s time for a cheat meal include lethargy, insatiable hunger, decreased performance, and weight-loss plateaus. If your initial cheat meal was a success, it is expected that another cheat will be necessary within at least the same time frame, if not sooner.
"[M]any athletes can benefit from the inclusion of cheat meals into their programming as long as they are implemented strategically and with purpose."
A combination of appearance, energy levels, and body composition changes can be used to assess the need for regular cheat meals and develop a consistent schedule to pre-emptively avoid weight-loss plateaus. When the body begins to look smaller as it becomes depleted of glycogen, as gym performance and strength are compromised, and as body fat levels are no longer declining despite a continued caloric deficit, it is likely time to cheat.
Make Cheat Meals Work for You
By treating cheat meals as a strategic and integral tool within a fat-loss diet, you can not only achieve greater levels of leanness through maintaining a healthy metabolism, but also benefit from the psychological break a cheat meal often brings. Although I do not implement cheat meals to give myself any sort of emotional break from diet, it’s a bonus for many who struggle with extreme restriction. This works, as long as the dieter is able to practice self-control and avoid unplanned cheats.
Cheat meals have never held me back from my competition goals.
Although cheat meals are not something all coaches implement, I have found success in using this method both personally as well as with clients, especially in combination with a traditional whole-foods diet. I believe many athletes can benefit from the inclusion of cheat meals into their programming as long as they are implemented strategically and with purpose.
Check out these related articles:
- When "Clean Eating" Goes Too Far
- The Female Guide to Getting Lean
- Reverse Dieting - What It is and Why You Should Try It
- What's New On Breaking Muscle UK Today
1. Jean L. Chan, Kathleen Heist, Alex M. DePaoli, Johannes D. Veldhuis, & Christos S. Mantzoros. "The role of falling leptin levels in the neuroendocrine and metabolic adaptation to short-term starvation in healthy men." JCI, (2003) 111(9), 1409-1421. doi:10.1172/JCI17490.
2. Marion, J. The Cheat to Lose Diet, (2006).
3. Schurman, L., & Schurman, D. The Outdoor Athlete, Body Results Inc: Champaign, IL, (2008).
Photos courtesy of Kalli Youngstrom.