“Cheat Meal”… The two most holy words in the diet vocabulary that every single client or person on a diet ever wants to hear from their coach…
I get it; trust me I do, for two reasons.
First being that I used to be the chubby kid, so you know I got a fat tooth – different than a sweet tooth, I crave fatty burgers with melted cheese and bacon or pancakes topped with peanut butter and maple syrup.
Secondly because I’ve been in those shoes, possibly your shoes depending on who’s reading this. I’ve been through many diets and phases of cutting. I’ve done the crash diets and I’ve done the “can’t eat anything from this entire list” diet, which is my least favorite. I’ve done a physique competition and am planning on my next one as we speak.
I’ve even hired multiple coaches, just like I currently have right now, and I’ve been on the other end of that email waiting to hear those words of – “Go have a cheat meal”.
Now most of us justify this meal with the “science” behind it helping our hormones, things like leptin, ghrelin and therefore our metabolism, and it makes us feel better about it. That’s all fine and I still believe everyone needs those free meals; I hate the word cheat because it implies you’re doing something wrong.
But more and more science has come out and we’ve begun to understand that these “cheat days” are just not as beneficial as we once believed they were.
“Ok, Ok… That’s fine, but I don’t do cheat meals or days, my coach has me doing refeed days.”
That’s the next comeback from most, definitely was my comeback and it has some validity to it. Before I debate all the different approaches, I’m going to explain what my goal is with todays article for you.
My goal today is simple, break down the different types of “Diet Breaks” out there and explain what works, why it works, and what the best form of implementing it truly is. Because at the end of the day, they all work in different ways so none of them are truly wrong or negative.
[One of my top 3 go to free meals – A random Hole in the wall BBQ joint]
In my personal opinion and experience, these are the most dangerous. Not only because the title implies that you’re going against what you’re supposed to do during your diet, but also because a cheat meal usually turns into a cheat day.
Maybe this rings a bell… You are 100% on point with your diet Monday – Friday, meals prepped and entered into your food tracker. Saturday morning hits and you realize you have no meals prepped for the weekend… What do you eat? Well screw it, it’s the weekend and you already woke up 4 hours later than normal.
So you graze throughout the day, maybe go for a salad lunch but nothing bad or crazy yet. Well now it’s dinnertime, you’re hungry and quite frankly tired of dieting. So you tell yourself you deserve a burger, so you hit up your buddy and go for a burger.
The burger turns into an appetizer to share (rarely healthy), the burger, some fries, and of course you need a couple beers. Before you know it, you’ve downed 2,000 calories pretty easily. Let’s assume it ends there, you’re way over calories for the day and that’s ok – because to be 100% honest, 1 out of the 7 days in your week is not bad at all for having a little fun and freedom from the diet.
But does it end there? The issue becomes when it does not. Many times 1 beer turns into 5 and that turns into drunken munchies. The next day you wake up and regret it so what do you do? Say fuck it all over again and have another day of fun.
Ok, so we discussed the wrong way to do it, which unfortunately is usually the common way as well. But how do you have a cheat meal the right way?
First step, stop calling it a cheat meal. This is just as much a mindset thing as it is a caloric thing and if we can remove the word cheat from it, we’re not doing anything bad, wrong, or worth regretting the next day.
Second step, if you’re on a calorie and/or macro based protocol – fit it into your calories best you can or give yourself a limit. With most of my clients who are on these types of plans, we have a “high day”. This means calories are set a bit higher on one specific day and they can fit whatever they want into that limit, but the big key there… There is a limit.
Think about it like this – If you are supposed to eat 2,000 calories and one day you slip up and eat 3,500 calories, you likely feel like shit. You messed up the diet and progress is lost. (Really it’s not the end of the world, get back on it tomorrow and you’ll be just fine after the bloat settles)
Now think about that situation a little differently, like this – Your coach tells you, “On Saturday I want you to bump up calories to 3,500”. So you enjoy a couple sushi rolls and a few beers with your best friend. You feel great, stayed in your calories, never cheated on your diet, and the next day you’re ready to get back at it.
That’s what makes a cheat meal ok, structure. And that actually included the third step; get back on track the next day.
Your diet isn’t over after one day of higher calories, even if it wasn’t a planned free meal – if it wasn’t, simply draw back some calories the next day or two and your weekly total will be in check WHICH is actually the main key to long term fat loss.
So what are the benefits of a cheat meal? Sanity.
Seriously, that’s it. Science has now proven that a cheat meal isn’t long enough or significant enough to have a serious effect on ghrelin, leptin, or our metabolism.
And it’s not really a meal that can “refuel” performance either because it’s typically full of fat – that’s called a refeed meal, which we’ll break down next.
The main point of a free meal is simply to give yourself a small break and enjoy a normal meal with friends and/or family. Dieting week after week can be tiring mentally, physically, socially and emotionally, therefore having a break for one night or meal can be all you need to keep motivated for the long term goal you have.
( If you’re someone who falls off the wagon on the weekends, struggles with binge eating, or having too frequent cheat meals, all which take you out of the progress you’re making – Click Here to Apply for a Free Transformation Call with me )
Similar to a cheat meal, these only happen for a short duration of time. I think most literature shows the most benefit from a 2-8 hour eating window – so you could call this a refeed meal or day.
The difference is within the macros of the meal(s) you’re eating. A cheat meal is whatever, could be pizza or donuts – both things that contain high amounts of fats.
A refeed is strictly a meal or meals based around starchy carbohydrates. The goal with a refeed meal is to fully store your muscle stores with glycogen (carbs) so that you can continue to or start to again, perform at your optimal level.
As we know, carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source. When we diet, we typically drop calories and part of those calories will likely come from carbs. When we eat less carbs, or calories in general, we slowly burn out of the stored glycogen we have and after some time our performance starts to drop.
If performance drops we cannot continue to build/retain muscle as well and we definitely will slowly stop burning as much calories during exercise, because intensity suffers.
So the primary goal of a refeed is to boost that back up. The good thing? It’s a carb heavy day! And the best kind of carbs, starches!
It’s not that fruit isn’t allowed on these days, but it’s less beneficial as the liver stores will prefer that and suck it up. Remember that we’re trying to fill up the muscle glycogen so our muscle cells can use it as glucose, for fuel to train.
My go too refeed meal… You may have guessed, sushi. Without a doubt. It’s full of rice and I like traditional raw fish on rice sushi, which leaves it relatively lower fat and that’s a good route to go with macros on these meals – high carb, moderate protein, and lower fats.
So who can benefit from these? Anyone who has been dieting or plans to diet for a decently long amount of time, really.
The leaner you are, the more frequent you’ll need these because as you can imagine – when you’re really lean, you have less stored fuel to burn.
So for a male in the 7-12% body fat range this would be about once per week and for some really lean guys with insanely fast metabolisms, sometimes twice per week.
For females in the 15-22% body fat range, it would be about the same exact situation as the males above.
These days are best placed around your most difficult training sessions or the sessions that fall on your largest body parts. For example, if you were training legs today and back tomorrow – today would be a great day.
Or if you were doing some HIIT cardio today and training full body strength tomorrow morning, tonight would be your refeed meal.
Not only will these help you get a pump again and fuel a hard training session, but also just like a free meal – they’re a great break from the norm. Many of the good eats we crave and want to have are full of carbs and if you can manage your fats earlier in the day, you can enjoy those (Froyo, sushi, teriyaki, pasta, breads, etc…).
[2 reasons I used this picture… #1 – It’s Ronnie Coleman, enough said. #2 – Last time I went out of town for 3 days, I used it as a controlled diet break – also met Ronnie at iHop during that trip]
Last but not least, let’s talk about least frequent yet probably most science based and beneficial options we have here – diet breaks.
This is literally where you take 3-7 days off you diet. This can be structured or unstructured, but both options have been shown to have the most beneficial effect on the hunger hormones of ghrelin, leptin, and metabolism.
Before I break it down, lets define what leptin, ghrelin, and metabolism truly are.
Leptin – “A protein produced by fatty tissue and believed to regulate fat storage in the body”.
It’s also been called the fat hormone, the starvation hormone, and the obesity hormone. Why? Because it’s really just the signal that tells the brain your energy stores are full, AKA “I don’t need anymore food”.
As you can imagine, when we diet our body’s leptin gets lower and lower because it is attached to the fat cells which means that the more fat we have the more leptin we have. The more we diet, the less fat we have and the less leptin we have – wonder why hunger/cravings get worse as we diet? Here’s why.
It’s also one of the main reasons why after a bikini, bodybuilding or physique show, we want to eat ALL the damn food…
Ghrelin – “An enzyme produced by stomach lining cells that stimulates appetite”.
Ghrelin is increase before a meal, which causes more hunger, and it is decreased after a meal, signaling satiation (this isn’t a rapid process, which is why it may be good to eat and wait 10-20 minutes to truly determine if you’re full. Eating to 80% full is a great way to build intuitive eating habits).
“Weight reduction brought about by caloric restriction causes the ghrelin level to increase, suggesting that ghrelin might contribute to the drive to eat that makes long-term success with dieting so rare.—Jeffrey S. Flier and Eleftheria Maratos-Flier, The New England Journal of Medicine, 23 May 2002”
Learning ability and brain function has actually been shown to be higher when ghrelin is higher – could possibly the reason people feel more focus and mental clarity during periods of fasting.
Metabolism – “The chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life.”
Metabolism truly is a survival hormone and it adapts as things change within our body to maintain health and homeostasis. One of the main reasons why it slows down as we add more cardio and eat less calories, the two main components people use to lose body fat or weight.
Our metabolism adapts to the amount we’re taking in and burning out, but when that changes the metabolism begins to adapt and try to change as well.
Let’s say you’ve been eating 1,800 calories for the past 6 months, well your metabolism has become adapted to this and it has become your new maintenance – the amount of calories you need to maintain weight and survive.
Well you don’t want to maintain, you want to lose weight… So you lower that by 150-200 calories and start burning an extra 200-300 calories per week. The scale starts dropping again.
2 months go by and you’re plateaued again, what now? Looks like we have to burn more or eat less, again.
The issue with this is that we’re down regulating our hormones, one by one again and again. It’s not healthy in the long run, but neither is having a lot of body fat.
This is where things like a diet break come into play. We take 3-7 days to be at maintenance or surplus (calories) and essentially stop dieting – this could and more than likely should mean removing some cardio as well.
This is what has been shown to actually reset the hormones leptin and ghrelin, therefore also giving us a big bump back up in our metabolism.
When we go back to dieting after the 3-7 days, we can start burning body fat again without dropping to significantly low levels of calories or doing hours of cardio.
Does this mean you should eat pizza and ice cream every day? Probably not. You may be able to fit that in here and there, but don’t make that the entire week!
The goal should be to track your diet and focus on a higher level of calories than you have been consuming for the entire time given.
There is still structure, you still have a number to shoot for calorically, you’re still training hard and still getting your protein in – but you’re giving your hormones the reset they need.
Now, this can also be used on vacation using mindful eating. It may not be as accurate, but if you make sure to stay somewhat active and don’t binge during the time period then you can very well have the same effect without tracking exact calories and macros.
Even for myself, this is better to have structure created by someone else… Meaning I don’t give myself a diet break, because lets be honest here – When we’re cutting, every other week should be a diet break in my mind! So I have a coach to help me.
And if you’re not on a serious diet, have a lot of weight to lose, or are not on a severe calorie diet – then you probably don’t need a diet break.
If you’re someone who has been on chronically low calories for a long time now and/or has done crash diet after crash diet, then something more specific is probably needed in order to fully restore your hormones and start losing body fat again (permanently).
It may take longer and more coaching, but reverse dieting is probably your best bet.
If you’re someone who does need help creating structure and support, with any of the above, click here now and get on a free consultation call with me within the next 24 hours. That’s the first step in helping you achieve not only better health but also the body you want.
So how do you choose what’s best for you? Here’s some help:
Free Meals (No More “Cheat Meals”!) – You’re trying to lose weight, you’re not in a rush, this is a lifestyle for you, and you don’t have any specific deadlines where you need to be in _____ shape for (photo-shoots, competitions, etc…).
Refeed Meals/Days – You’re pretty serious about what you’re doing, you always want optimal performance, and you may or may not have a deadline but you definitely are on a mission to be jacked, ripped, or shredded.
Diet Breaks – You probably have a specific deadline for a photo-shoot or serious competition, you’re pretty focused on this deadline, you’re attempting to become extremely lean, and you have been or plan to be on this diet for ~6 months or more.
If you need more help or have further questions, comment below and we’ll get you some answers!
If you know others who experience or struggle with any of the above, please share the article so we can reach a wider audience!