If you actively read nutritional articles through fitness sites, are making the effort at leading a healthy lifestyle, or are a fitness competitor, you’ve likely heard the term “cheat meal” or a “re-feed”. Are cheat meals a good idea? How can they help (or hurt) your progress? Do you need them? I think it’s an important topic to discuss.
First off, I have to be totally clear that everyone is different – your body will respond to food in different ways depending on your body composition and activity level. Everyone has different goals and needs. I hope I can touch on something that speaks to everyone, but I’m sorry if I don’t.
Generally, there are two reasons to have cheat meals: psychological or physical. In my opinion, psychological reasons are used more by the general population who are looking to lose weight or get in shape, while the physical reasons are used by athletes / fitness competitors.
Psychologically, being on a restrictive diet for a prolonged length of time is tough. You’ve stopped eating the junk food you loved, and are likely craving sweet or fatty foods. In this category, a cheat meal is used to give the person a mental break, and allow them to taste the foods they’re missing. The obvious downside to this is that some people may not be able to stop once they’ve had these foods again. They have difficulty getting back on track and the cheat meals start happening more frequently – and results start to digress. Additionally, some people view a cheat meal as a “reward” for sticking to a plan for x length of time, or losing x pounds. One of my favourite quotes is “You are not a dog; do not reward yourself with food”. Maybe a little bit harsh, but it’s true. Your reward is your improved health and better body! This is like saying you’re only sticking to a plan BECAUSE you want to eat junk and feel justified in doing so.
Physically, a cheat meal (or “re-feed” meal) is beneficial for those who have been on a strict, limited diet and training at a high intensity for a prolonged length of time to replenish energy and glycogen / glucose stores. Especially in bodybuilding, athletes will go for weeks on a “depletion” diet, which does the job of dropping body fat slowly while retaining as much muscle mass as possible. However, with the occasional re-feed / cheat meal, your stores get replenished; giving you added energy to work hard again. Additionally, it’s hypothesized that these meals can give a boost to metabolism as you suddenly fill your system with heavy, calorie and fat-dense foods it hasn’t had to process in weeks. Your body kicks into high gear to process this, which can re-spark fat loss. Many athletes will report excessive sweating throughout the night after having a cheat meal as their body works hard to digest these foods.
Cheat meals are a little controversial in bodybuilding as some people see it as a way to justify bingeing on junk. Does that happen? Yeah, sure. But, cheat meals can also be more prescribed, or made “clean”. For example, a clean cheat meal might consist of a specified serving of steak and potatoes – giving you a fattier piece of meat, and some bonus carbs in your week. This may or may not be followed with a single serving of dessert for more fat and sugar. Either way, it can be used in a controlled method rather than just a full-out binge. It’s usually dictated by a coach depending on how far out you are to the competition, and how your body is looking and progressing.
Again, cheat meals are a personal choice. I’ve felt the physical benefit to them, especially after being in prep for a long length of time. I’ve also felt the pain of going way overboard! Something to remember, if you’re a competitor reading this, after weeks of being on a strict diet and being depleted, you have all these plans of everything you want to eat… but you just can’t do it. You’ll feel full so quickly, and the sugar and fat will make you feel pretty gross – even the following day. We call this the food hangover. Avoid it! Be sure to drink lots of water and eat slowly!! – my lesson from previous meals 😉 Don’t be like this: