More often than not, I hear what seems like far too many people excited for their “cheat day”...which usually falls on a Saturday….when there’s a big event...and all the worst foods.
You also hear many variations - cheat day, cheat meal, refeed, etc. It’s time to make some sense of it all.
What is a Cheat Meal?
First off let's start with the fact that today’s focus is cheat MEAL. NOT day. There is no reason to dedicate an ENTIRE day to eating like crap convincing yourself you deserve it, when really it just hurts your progress.
The point of a cheat meal isn’t to hit up Taco Bell and McDonald’s the same day you downed an entire large pizza. It’s a much higher than normal caloric meal to help get you out of a plateau, readjust your metabolism, or in smaller cases, a psychological break. After your cheat meal you should feel like “ahh that was just what I needed”, not placing an order for pickup.
What are the benefits?
● Increased Thyroid hormone output - metabolic rate increases because of the presence of extra calories (although this was very individual) (1)
● Increased glycogen stores - provide more fuel for energy in the gym as this is the preferred source (2)
● Increased serum leptin levels - in a calorically restricted diet, your body is basically in starvation mode. Your body being built for survival, slows down this satiety hormone because it wants to hold onto the fat that's left so you can live. (3)
When can I implement one?
● When you’ve been dieting for an extended period of time, adhering to the plan and just need a mental break.
● You’re 10% or lower, glycogen levels are low and you’re looking flat
● Your workouts suck, your fat loss has plateaued for more than 2 weeks, and you’re feeling cold and lethargic
● The leaner you are the more you can cheat - 10% or lower every 5-7 days, 10-12% - 7-9 days over 12% once every 2 weeks is a very ROUGH guideline
Who doesn’t need them?
If you are over 15% body fat and just starting a diet, you do not need a cheat meal. I don’t care if it’s Sunday football and there's nachos and beer. You can lie to your friends all you want but the body fat doesn’t lie, and neither does the truth.
When you’re holding onto more fat, it’s more likely to store that meal as fat because the deficit isn’t drastic.
Additional tricks, tips
I get it. We’re human. We may all have a moment (keyword: moment, not weeks and months) of weakness where we slip up. If that happens by accident, don't let it throw you off. Just get back on the wagon and see it as a lesson learned.
Considering fasting the day before. Not only is fasting in general good for you in terms of recycling old proteins, increase in GH production, and clearing the body out, but it’ll create a bigger deficit for when your cheat meal comes allowing for a better metabolic response. (4)
Try adding it on a lower body day, or workout day you’ll be pushing the hardest. This will help ensure the extra glucose gets shuttled to the muscles as insulin sensitivity will be at it’s best.
When it comes down to it, you really don't need a cheat meal unless a huge roadblock presents itself. Lack of progress usually means having a reality check on your consistency, adherence, and hitting your goals.
In the wise words of Arnold Schwarzenegger - “PUT THAT COOKIE DOWN!”