Cheat meals and cheat days have been popular in bodybuilding and fitness subcultures for ages, but many gym-goers seem to misunderstand that these food-fests can serve a purpose if you’re smart about how you approach them. On the same token, they can be detrimental if you get too carried away. Keep reading to learn all about how to cheat properly.
Cheating is a term that typically carries a negative connotation with it. Cheating on a loved one or on an exam is certainly not the kind of cheating that will help your muscles grow. But before you write off all forms of cheating as being bad, let’s consider that there is some merit to cheating in the context of building muscle and getting lean. The kind of cheating we’re talking about is cheating on your diet.
With that in mind, read on as we cover how to implement “cheating” properly so you can reap the benefits of newfound fat loss and muscle preservation.
DIETARY CHEATING DEFINED
Since most people spend a large amount of their week rigidly clinging to a diet and counting every morsel of food that goes in their mouth, a cheat meal/day typically serves as a brief respite from all of that. In this sense, a cheat meal is one in which you don’t track and/or care about what you’re macronutrient and calorie intake is. Essentially, you are “cheating” on your calorie/macronutrient goals and eating whatever foods you please (in an ad libitum fashion).
It’s worthwhile to have a rudimentary grasp of the physiological basis for having cheat meals/days and how they can boost muscle growth. Without going into too much detail, the human body, much like other organisms, is concerned primarily with survival. When energy intake is constantly low, such as when dieting for fat loss, the body lowers its energy expenditure; in simpler terms, metabolic rate decreases the longer you persist with a fat loss diet. If you think about it, there’s no need for the body to burn through a lot of energy when nourishment isn’t plentiful. Physiologically, diet-induced metabolic decline comes from the decrease of thyroid hormones and circulating leptin.
Naturally, for people who are trying to lose body fat, the best way to circumvent exercise-induced metabolic slowing is to increase energy intake for a short period to help revive hormonal and metabolic factors. This is precisely why many bodybuilders who are prepping for a contest will actually take a break from “dieting” for short periods of time when fat loss stalls, which leads us back to the topic of cheating…
PROS & CONS OF CHEATING
• Eat whatever you please—arguably the biggest upside to cheating is the psychological relief it provides, especially for people who stick to the same foods over and over on a fat loss diet.
• Provides a significant boost to calorie intake—the extra energy provisions can help provide some needed metabolic and hormonal benefits (as discussed earlier).
• Restores muscle glycogen—since most fat loss diets are low in carbohydrate intake, muscle glycogen can become depleted rather quickly. Cheating with sufficient carbohydrates can help restore muscle glycogen and “fill out”one’s frame.
• Enhances insulin sensitivity—insulin is known for enhancing the muscle protein synthesis response of protein-rich foods.2 Given insulin’s anabolic nature, it’s advantageous to be as insulin sensitive as possible on a fat-loss diet.
• No calorie tracking or tedious macronutrient manipulation—understandably so, many people like cheating as a brief respite from tracking their food intake. It may seem like a small benefit, but it helps nevertheless.
• Overindulgence/binging—probably the biggest caveat to cheating is that it can turn into gluttonous behavior for those who lack self-control. In such cases, cheating may not be a wise option as it could hinder progress and encourage poor psychological associations with food.
• Bloating/”spilling over”—since cheating typically involves highly-processed foods, there tends to be a lot of salt and starch consumed. In turn, excessive bloating can arise and cause people to think they gained a bunch of fat (which isn’t the case). This can take its toll, mentally, on individuals who become discouraged.
• No tracking—while not having to track food intake may be an “advantage” to some people, the lack of knowing what/how much you’re consuming leaves little room for structure and adjusting the next time around.
CHEAT MEALS VS. CHEAT DAYS
It’s pertinent to consider the goals of the individual and their psychological relationship with food when deciding how frequently cheating should occur. People who are getting ready for a competition and need to drop the last 1-2% of body-fat will likely benefit more from just one cheat meal per week (or more frequently if needed) as opposed to having a full blown cheat day.
On the contrary, if you’re just a gym-goer looking to cut some fat before Summer, then a day of eating whatever you want probably won’t ruin your progress as long as you maintain some control over your total calorie intake.
HOW TO CHEAT
While you may figure cheating is just as simple as stuffing all the foods you’re craving down your throat, there’s a little more method to it than that. It’s important to note that cheat meals and cheat days are not meant to be binges. Many people seem to view cheating like an all you can eat buffet, or rather an eat all you can buffet. Cheat meals are not a contest to see how much food you eat, but rather enjoy foods you’ve been craving in modest amounts. Same goes for cheat days.
If you lack self -control and/or have poor appetite regulation, it is suggested to approach your cheat meals like this:
1. Start the cheat meal with a fibrous vegetable (like a salad or steamed broccoli)
2. Drink an ample amount of water while you’re eating as this will help fill you up
3. Eat whatever you desire until you start to feel nearly full/satisfied, then stop
4. Give yourself 5 to 10 minutes to let satiety signals kick in
5. If you’re still hungry/craving something, have a small treat or dessert
If you are having a cheat day, simply follow that protocol for each meal. This will greatly reduce the likelihood that you overeat/binge when you have cheat meals.
IS CHEATING NECESSARY FOR EVERYONE?
In general, individuals who are very overweight do not need to worry too much about metabolic slow-down when starting out on a fat loss plan. Obese individuals are usually highly insulin and leptin resistant, and their thyroid output is typically somewhat elevated since their energy intake has been so excessive for so long.3 In short, cheat meals wouldn’t serve to do much but hamper fat loss in such cases.
This isn’t to say that these overweight individuals need to restrict themselves for months on end, since there is certainly a psychological relief provided cheat meals. As such, they should be viewed as a periodic reward for making good progress.
Now in the case of bodybuilders looking to shed 20lbs for competition or individuals who are already in decent shape and want to take their fat loss to the next level, cheating can certainly help for maintaining muscle mass and boosting metabolism. Since everyone is rather individual in terms of their goals, genetics, metabolism, it will take some experimentation to figure how frequently one should incorporate cheat meals/days.
The best way is to simply use trial and error; start by incorporating one cheat meal every week, preferably the day before your hardest workout. Once the cheat meal is over, go back to your regularly scheduled diet as soon as you become hungry again. If you have a cheat day, make sure to get back on your regular fat loss diet the following day.
When done properly, cheating can certainly be a great “tool” for helping you breakthrough fat loss plateaus and sculpting a leaner physique.
1) 1Krotkiewski, M., Toss, L., Björntorp, P., & Holm, G. (1981). The effect of a very-low-calorie diet with and without chronic exercise on thyroid and sex hormones, plasma proteins, oxygen uptake, insulin and c peptide concentrations in obese women. International journal of obesity, 5(3), 287.
2) Kimball, S. R., Jurasinski, C. V., Lawrence, J. C., & Jefferson, L. S. (1997). Insulin stimulates protein synthesis in skeletal muscle by enhancing the association of eIF-4E and eIF-4G. American Journal of Physiology-Cell Physiology, 272(2), C754-C759.
3) Enriori, P. J., Evans, A. E., Sinnayah, P., Jobst, E. E., Tonelli-Lemos, L., Billes, S. K., … & Cowley, M. A. (2007). Diet-induced obesity causes severe but reversible leptin resistance in arcuate melanocortin neurons. Cell metabolism, 5(3), 181-194.
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.