The cheat meal appears to be becoming a staple of the weekly diet of gym goers all over the globe. However, when to have a cheat meal and the benefits they may (or may not) have are often misunderstood.
FIRSTLY… WHAT IS A CHEAT MEAL?
Well this is different things to different people, but for the sake of this post, for me it is a scheduled increase in calories that are not counted within the diet. There’s a few key words in there we need to pay attention to and the first is scheduled.
Scheduled means that there is a time and place for this increase in calories, not just on a whim when you decide (that’s just cheating on your diet!). So why would you schedule an increase in calories that are not within your normal diet plan? Well, there are a few reasons.
ON OFFSEASON/WEIGHT GAIN
Firstly, if you are on an offseason/weight gain diet then this might purely be for psychological or social reasons. The likelihood in this situation, is that you are eating enough calories on a day to day basis that cheat meals are not required from a muscle growth point of view, however they can be a good way to increase calories in those who struggle to put on muscle, due to the typically energy-dense foods that are included in a cheat meal. So why have them? Well, since people are social animals who have friends, families, and jobs, elements of these parts of our lives involve social eating. Bodybuilding at the highest levels is, of course, a year-round demanding sport, however with the rigors of having a strict diet for most of the year, in my opinion, there needs to be a balance for most people to take care of their mental and social well-being; social eating is a great tool to help provide this balance.
This is probably the reason why diet strategies like IIFYM/Flexible dieting and carb cycling have become so popular. Because they allow you to have foods that would be typically seen as cheat foods, but are instead included in a person’s daily or weekly intake, they are, in effect, never eating off-plan. However, this can pose issues with having to plan every meal way in advance, not that this is always a problem, but it is far from a relaxed, normal view of food that some people need to have to find balance in their lives.
ON FAT LOSS/CONTEST PREP
On a fat loss or contest prep diet, cheat meals can be used for the same psychological and social reasons, but in my opinion, should only be used if a person reached their weekly goals. Otherwise, if your weekly deficit is not enough to create fat loss or positive physical changes then this unscheduled increase in calories is only going to hinder progress. As a person becomes leaner they often need cheat meals more frequently. Why? Well, as calories in the diet are reduced and/or exercise output is increased then the body will be depleted of energy more quickly and therefore this can impact glycogen levels (appearing more flat), thus impacting on training during the diet and the potential for initiating muscle loss. Obviously, this is not something we want!
As we get leaner, levels of hormones such as leptin get lower, which causes a reduction in our metabolic rate. Periods of higher calorie intake (especially higher carb days) may help restore leptin levels, and thus our metabolism. However, the impacts of this on metabolism are not yet fully described. Whatever the exact physiological effects, they do serve a useful purpose when dieting, but remember if you’re not losing weight at the rate you want then adding in these extra calories comes in at a cost you might not be able to afford.
MASS Head of Fitness Education