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September 26, 2022
Most people want to be lean, strong, and muscular. Unfortunately, they also think that to achieve this, they have to give up their favorite foods. The thought of never eating another donut derails many a would-be dieter before they even get started.
While it's true that an incredible physique does require some dietary restraint, the more knowledgeable fitness enthusiast realizes that it doesn't mean avoiding great-tasting food forever.
When used strategically, your favorite foods may actually help you get lean. The successful use of strategies such as cheat meals by physique competitors and fitness models has made this fact more widely known.
As such, it has caught the public's attention more than any of these strategies, but is it a fast track to fat loss or a shredding saboteur? Interestingly, studies show that as many as 50% of competitive physique athletes prepare for competition using cheat meals1,2. So it's little wonder that cheat meals have gained popularity.
Who wouldn't love being able to plow through a pile of pizza or demolish a dozen donuts in the belief that it was going to help them build a better body and lower body weight?
Ready to learn the ins and outs of cheat meals? This article will cover:
The idea behind cheat meals is to eat clean for the better part of your week, follow your 6-day split, or whichever best workout split you follow, perfectly, and reward yourself by indulging in something you want to eat.
Research defines a cheat meal as one that causes someone to abandon their restrictive and calculated dietary regimen with no consideration for food quantity or macronutrients3.
That definition is lifted from a scientific journal article on the science of refeeding strategies. Given its academic audience, it is understandably "dry" as a definition.
In practice, a cheat meal is most often an opportunity to eat as much as you want of whatever you want, under the pretense that it will boost your metabolism and help prevent muscle loss while dieting. Take a look at The Rock's workout routine, for example, and you can see how insane a cheat meal looks for him.
The general idea is that consuming massive mouthfuls of calorie-dense, dietary fat riddled food will speed up your metabolism, regulate appetite hormones, decrease stress hormones, and assist you in retaining and building muscle mass, all in the hope that it will produce superior results once you go back on your diet.
A cheat meal, also known as a treat meal, grew in popularity through the trial and error of bodybuilders. As they became more mainstream, interest in how they actually worked increased.
Several theories were developed, and eventually scientists began examining cheat meals to understand them better. This research led to the primary theoretical mechanism for cheat meals' success as a hormone called leptin, which regulates appetite and energy expenditure.
Leptin is released by your fat cells, so the more fat you have, the more leptin you make. When leptin is elevated, your appetite is reduced, and energy levels tend to be higher.
This should make it easier to burn calories and be in the calorie deficit required to lose weight. Also, in response to a cheat meal, leptin levels rise substantially, which, in theory, helps you lose fat and work off those love handles.
Carbohydrates tend to boost leptin the most, so cheat meals, cheat days, refeeds, and diet breaks are likely to be more effective if they focus on boosting carbohydrate consumption. For example, one study found that three days of overfeeding your maintenance by 30% increased leptin4.
Theoretically, a cheat meal means you can stuff your face with the cheat foods you love and lose weight. Sounds good, right? Perhaps too good to be true. That's when alarm bells should start ringing. After all, if it were that easy, wouldn't everyone opt for a large meal over following a strict cutting workout and diet plan?
Here's the truth about some popular cheat meal beliefs.
The surge of leptin following cheating is just temporary. After the sharp peak, levels quickly drop to normal.
Sadly, the fleeting rise in leptin does not significantly lead to a mastered metabolism, reduce hunger signals, help you maintain muscle mass, or significantly change your body image.
Many cheat meal proponents sight the psychological benefits of cheat meals as their main benefit. It is often claimed that indulging cravings keeps you focused on adhering to your diet until the next cheat meal.
Then that post cheat meal, packed with things like French fries, deep fried foods, chocolate, and high calorie foods, rejuvenates your motivation to stick with the diet plan. But research shows this concept is largely unsupported.
Anecdotally, they can be helpful for some people by satisfying the cravings they had during their restricted diet earlier in the week. However, it's essential that a cheat meal, day, or refeed doesn't get out of hand. This can undo a week's worth of strict dieting very quickly. You are probably better off following a diet like the metabolic confusion plan, which provides you with lower and higher calorie days.
In reality, the supposed benefits of a cheat meal probably do not outweigh the effects of consuming massive amounts of calories over a short time. While a cheat meal may temporarily feel great, it is more likely that all it does is derail your fat-loss efforts.
In fact, eating a substantially excessive amount can actually increase your appetite on the following days rather than decreasing desire. In addition, there is growing research that says once "hyper-palatable" foods (the type of food most commonly consumed in a cheat meal) are consumed, cravings for these go up, and diet adherence goes down.
One study established that a 60% surplus day increased appetite for several days without decreasing it5! This explains why some individuals might have trouble returning to their Greek god body diet and workout plan after tasting a hyper-palatable cheat meal.
The more calories, saturated fats, and indulgent foods like pasta, cheese, and pancakes, are consumed during a cheat meal, the harder it can be to return to your previous strict diet. This failure to return to your plan is most common among first-time dieters. In addition, this type of restrictive, followed by binge eating, may potentially lead to eating disorders.
Another theory amongst the pro cheat meal community is that it will increase your energy levels, which means you are more active over subsequent days. They argue that you then burn more calories through elevated activity levels and an increase in energy that makes you power through your assault bike workouts.
Sadly, this appears to be false. In one study, participants were overfed by 40% beyond their maintenance calorie needs6. This only resulted in a 7% increase in energy expenditure.
And when you run the math on this, they ended up with an excess of 530 calories to be stored as fat. Another study provided a 50% surplus over four days that only translated to a 7.9% increase in energy expenditure7.
That equates to a 42.1% surplus over this period. Keep that up for long, and it could result in some serious fat gain. Even when done for just a few days, it will set you back several weeks' worth of dieting.
It is a commonly held belief among experienced lifters that cheat meals can help you train harder. From a physiological perspective, this makes sense. Stored glycogen is the primary fuel source for high-intensity exercise like weight lifting. And if we're going to tackle a program like the strongman workout plan, energy is a must.
The increase in carbohydrates from a cheat meal or day will boost muscle glycogen. Thus, short-term gym performance will be enhanced. So, it is not unusual for dedicated lifters to strategically have cheat meals before a particularly demanding workout. However, those who want to increase their energy in the gym but not cause unnecessary weight gain may just want to consider a pre-workout supplement in place of a cheat day.
On top of the physiological benefits, there may also be psychological benefits to having eaten lots of calories and carbohydrates before a hard workout. Your mindset and motivation to train hard is crucial to maintaining training quality when dieting.
The placebo effect is also one of man's most potent performance enhancers. If you believe it will boost your performance, it might very well prove to be the case.
Cheat-meal advocates frequently claim they decrease stress hormones like cortisol, increase mental focus, reduce the mental fatigue of dieting, and improve general brain function.
The increased concentration, which reduces the mental stress when returning to a diet, is commonly mentioned by many coaches and athletes as the reason for cheating. However, research does not back this theory up. On the contrary, it suggests just the opposite.
First, fat-burning techniques like intermittent fasting increase cortisol, while total calorie restriction does not. Studies indicate cortisol has no change even during very low-calorie diets and sometimes even decreases with fat loss8.
Taken as a whole, the research indicates that dieting is not as physiologically stressful as many people would have you believe. As long as your diet does not affect your sleep or appetite, calorie intake does not have much impact on stress hormones.
There does seem to be one exception to the studies mentioned above, which is when you have been dieting for a very long time, or you are highly lean (think contest ready lean). But likely the only effective remedy would be a break from their diet (more on that below) and increased calories beyond maintenance to regain body fat.
While the scientific research about cheat meals does not support using them, a growing body of research is available about variations of cheat meals. Cheat days, refeeds, and dieting breaks are all strategies that have been studied.
Cheat meals are the best-known dieting strategy among fitness enthusiasts, but there are a couple of other approaches to consider, which we've highlighted below. The question is, will they help or harm your aesthetic workout routine?
Cheat days involve a series of consecutive cheat meals, leading to significantly higher-than-normal calorie intake. Usually, those extra calories are derived from carbohydrates and fat.
Typically, a cheat day will put calories substantially above your maintenance needs. An excess of about 10% seems to be standard, lasting from one to three days. But even for healthy individuals, one day with a 50% surplus of food does not make them eat less on the second day.
And if you're trying to increase your calorie intake due to muscle-building goals, you're far better off following a nutritionally sound 7 day meal plan for muscle gain, as opposed to loading up on calories on cheat days.
A refeed is a short period of excess feeding where the intake is increased a little beyond the maintenance level, typically through increased consumption of carbohydrates. So rather than eating a saturated fat meal of cheeseburger with fries, you eat more rice with your meals. Speaking of, if you're trying to bulk and enjoy rice, you may want to consider the gut-friendly vertical diet plan.
Since questions about the physiologic benefits of cheat meals and cheat days have started being raised, refeeding has grown in popularity. One study found that eating more than you are supposed to for 30 days increased leptin, which is good for decreasing your appetite4. However, when participants reduced their energy intake back to their dietary levels, the increase in leptin disappeared almost immediately.
As our understanding of leptin has advanced, it appears that it is controlled more by your level of body fat than by your short caloric intake. It would help if you changed your body fat level to change your leptin levels noticeably and for a sustained period.
Just eating a big meal, or even a string of big meals, won't do it. For example, bodybuilding competitors will not completely regain leptin until their body fat levels are back at their pre-competition prep training levels.
Taking a more consistent diet approach on your fitness journey may be superior to cycling calories for two reasons. First, determining your protein needs and figuring out how much protein you need per serving can help you feel full and preserve muscle.
Secondly, adapting your training regimen for consistent caloric intake is much less complicated than trying to adapt to the wide variations of caloric intake daily.
Despite these practical advantages, the appeal of eating great-tasting food while getting shredded has caused people to experiment with variations of the traditional cheat meal theme. One that has gotten a lot of attention and showed promise in studies is diet breaks. Intrigued? Let's get into it.
Becoming increasingly popular is diet breaks, also called intermittent dieting (this is not the same as intermittent fasting). A diet break is where someone goes off their diet for approximately one or two weeks. The theory behind a diet break is similar to the theory that popularized cheat meals.
The claims about diet breaks are that by eating more calories temporarily, you can boost your metabolism, prevent metabolic adaptation, improve appetite hormones, reduce stress hormones, increase muscle retention and support muscle hypertrophy, make it easier to diet, and speed up fat loss.
This approach is different from the sugar-riddled junk food bonanza most cheat meals become for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that it lasts a week or more, not just one mega meal.
The second is that rather than blowing way past your average calories, you will eat slightly above what you were eating before your diet break, but you aren't going to indulge in high-fat, calorically dense junk foods. For the most part, you'll stick with healthy eating and making good food choices, like these bulking breakfasts.
This means a balanced meal with healthy fats, whole grains, and portion control. Choose a healthy meal or snack without limiting how much of it you eat. If you're using this period as a way to gain muscle, consider it similar to a clean bulk plan.
Diet breaks can work, but they don't necessarily outperform a regular healthy diet. Most studies report that fat loss is about the same in a consistent deficit diet versus a diet that incorporates diet breaks.
The significant difference is that it generally takes a bit longer for the participants to lose the same weight. A study by Wing & Jeffrey examined three groups of dieters' diets for 12 weeks9. One group dieted for 14 weeks straight. Next, they had a short break group that took a two-week break every three weeks. Finally, they had an extended break group. This group took a 6-week break at the halfway point.
All three groups lost the same amount of weight. However, the group who continuously monitored their calorie intake achieved this in 14 weeks. The other two groups took an extra six weeks to achieve these results. Now, just imagine if you stuck with a consistently healthy diet and paired it with an awesome 5-day split? Oh, the possibilities!
Being effective is not the same thing as being optimal. While cheat meals can be used to lose weight, it is likely better reserved for savvy dieters, like physique competitors and the best bodybuilders, as well as individuals who have a hyper-focused short-term goal in mind, such as getting on a stage, getting in a photo shoot like one of these top female fitness models, or making an appearance at a strong competition.
If you're considering adapting cheat meals as part of your dieting strategy, consider the following factors:
A cheat meal is effective only for individuals with plenty of experience dealing with the aftermath of such a meal, and those with a goal coming up and essential to work toward. However, following a steadier deficit and choosing a healthy meal will produce similar, and likely better, weight loss results.
From a pure physiology standpoint, it is difficult to argue the case for using a cheat meal for something like body recomposition. From an ecological, psychological, and adherence standpoint, you will inevitably "cheat" on your diet. Everyone breaks their diet eventually.
Don't beat yourself up over this. You are human - not a robot. Sometimes it's worth going off plan, especially if you can accept this, move on, and get back on your plan quickly afterward.
Life is to be enjoyed, and your health and fitness pursuits should enhance your life, not dominate it. Instead of trying (and failing) to be perfect all the time and then suffering guilt over your imperfection, you would probably be better served to aim to be consistently good. We'd suggest focusing more on what to eat before a workout and what to eat after a workout, and worry less about the slice of pizza you had last Friday night.
Long story short, you can get lean using cheat meals, but they are not some super-shredding fat loss strategy. We'd pick getting shredded using this full-body bodyweight workout and a healthy diet focusing on mindful eating over relying on a cheat meal. The overall body of literature on dieting strategies shows that continuous and intermittent dieting results in very similar body composition outcomes.
The use of cheat meals or refeeds likely doesn't affect progress compared to dieting with healthier foods and good eating habits with the same energy intake each day and the exact total weekly macronutrient intakes. The essential thing is that you find a style of dieting that works for you. Determining your body type may be a good start to honing in on the best dieting and workout strategies for you.
You can sustain something that makes life enjoyable but moves you toward your physique goals. Breaks from a regimented health plan tend to work better for most people than weekly cheat meals. Remember that none of this is magic. Fat loss will require you to create a net calorie deficit over time. The best diet for you is the one that you can adhere to that achieves this.
Author: Tom MacCormick (BSc in Sports Science and Coaching, MSc in Strength and Conditioning)
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