The biggest question I get with this subject is obvious, “Do cheat meals/days actually work?!”.
The answer is simple, yet scientifically complicated… but overall, yes cheat meals work.
The reason this is complicated is because there actually has been some studies done of why these cheat meals can work. This goes from looking into metabolism, physiology, mental effects, and hormonal balances/changes from the cheat meal.
Now, these things can either help you burn more fat or build more muscle… but if you’re not at a specific point or leanness than it could possibly hinder your results.
So I guess the real question people should be asking is this, “Am I ready for a cheat meal?”
But before I answer this question, I will break down why cheat meals can work in your favor.
So first I want you to think back to when you started a new diet and got on a new program. First week or so was great, probably lost anywhere between 4-10lbs depending on your size and you were pumped.
After that the results started slowing down. The next week was 2lbs… next was 1 and then before you know it your plateauing… ALREADY?!
Well the reason for this is completely hormonal. People underestimate the power of hormones and how if we work with our hormones or practice things that can benefit the production of specific hormones, we will see much better results.
Now, the main hormone in this case is the hormone called Leptin. This is known as the “Anti-Starvation” hormone. This is the hormone that controls the rate at which you lose fat, simply because it has control over some metabolism effects and hormones (Thyroid Hormones).
The key with this is to keep Leptin high, because when this hormone level is high than you can continue burning fat. As is drops lower and lower, your rate at which you burn fat dramatically slows down.
So what would cause this “Anti-Starvation” hormone to lower? DIETING!
We all know, plain and simple, low-calorie diets will work temporarily. You need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight and/or burn calories. But after being in a calorie deficit for anywhere from 7-20 days (depending on weight and BF %) your body goes into “Anti-Starvation” mode and lowers Leptin. In other words you start holding onto the calories to survive, at least that’s what your body is trying to do.
So what can we do to raise Leptin back up to continue burning fat? It’s quite simple… CHEAT! You can have a cheat meal, or in some cases if your extremely lean a cheat day. A cheat meal is anything that is higher in calorie than the average meal/day your body is used too. This could be an ice cream sandwich or it could be a huge steak with fries.
So your Leptin lowers because you’ve been dieting hard for 2 weeks and your starting to slow results. You take a cheat meal and your body says, “Oh SHIT! That’s more than I’m used to, better turn up the furnace!”
Next thing you know, Leptins back up high and your ready to diet for 2 more weeks and burn some fat!
Remember, this is the “Anti-Starvation” hormone. It is meant to regulate our metabolism and conserve energy in scarce times when we need to survive. So it is a smart hormone, but you can still trick it.
Leptin is linked directly to fat cells, so knowing this we know that the amount of fat mass/cells on your body will determine how often you need to take cheats. Therefore the more fat cells we have, the further we are away from needing to be in “Survival Mode”. So it will take Leptin longer to drop down for those of who need to lose more body fat.
This can also explain why it gets harder and harder to lose fat/weight the closer you get towards your goal. But this is why you get more cheats the closer you get and it can actually help you get back into the fat burning zone (but don’t get too carried away with your cheats ;).
So now you understand why cheat meals work and you know that the leaner you are the more often you get to cheat. Now the question is, “How do I personally know how often to cheat?”
Well lucky enough for you I am about to break that down as well.
1.) First off, if you’re not in a huge calorie deficit you don’t NEED to cheat very often. Although most everyone who is trying to lose weight is usually in a calorie deficit and quite often guys trying to gain weight in muscle don’t eat enough as well. So usually cheats are in your scope, but assess your daily caloric intake as well as your goals first.
2.) As said before, the leaner you are the more carbs your body and glycogen system can tolerate. In other words, the leaner you are the more you can cheat. With that said, you should assess your body fat % when trying to determine your exact cheat day frequency. For guys, if you are 10% or below you can plan on cheating once a week (if trying to go from skinny to build, could be twice). Same goes for women 16% or below, once a week is safe. For men up to 15% or women up 21%, every 7-14 days is recommended (comes down to personal adaptations to a cheat). If you’re above 15% for men or 21% for women, plan to cheat every 2-4 weeks (these are purely guidelines).
3.) Remember, although these numbers help us plan out cheats and will work very well to keep you and your Leptin in check, it is also determined by caloric intake. If your BF% says you can only cheat every 3 weeks, but you’re in an extreme calorie deficit you can probably get away with a cheat every 1-2 weeks. Figure this out first, and then ask your coach their opinion as well.
4.) Always remember the difference between a cheat meal and a cheat day. Cheat days will have a bigger effect and aren’t always needed. If you are higher body fat %, or if you have 35+ lbs to lose, a cheat MEAL is what you’re looking for. Rarely should people take cheat days anyway. Your better off with a smaller cheat meal, more frequently.
5.) Always hit the gym hard on these days. You need to open glycogen stores and get muscles primed for recovery so you can extract as much of the nutrients (mainly carbs) as possible. Strength training and high intensity weight training work best for this and should be done the day of, preferably right before meal. And if your body can handle training the next day as well, I would try or plan to do so.
6.) You personally know whether or not you’re prone to gaining fat easily or not. So that should help you regulate your cheats.
7.) A great addition to bounce back after a cheat, one I always use, is a fast day. This could be anywhere between 14-24 hours fasting after the meal depending on how familiar/used to fasting you are.
That concludes my guide to a cheat meal!
Everyone deserves to enjoy themselves on occasion. Busting your ass in the gym is great and I live for it, but I’m also a foodie and love to eat a variety of foods that don’t fit my plan. So I’m a cheat meal advocate and now you can be too!