Sticking to a strict, restrictive and boring diet plan along with a regular workout can feel more than just monotonous. For that reason many nutrition professionals have incorporated the concept of “cheat” days into their food plans. We are on slippery ground again. Because suggesting to someone who has finally refined their diet and adopted a balanced diet habits (which brings him/her visible results), to add a cheat days can be a way back to the beginning for some.
We’re not in favor of this; they’re like a full-day food bender from which it is hard to recover. A cheat day is, according to our understanding, when you allow yourself to consume any foods you want (mostly unhealthy junk food) over an entire day – which would mean that all meals on that day can fall under this category. However, what we certainly support is to have a cheat meal from time to time – single meal which totally breaks the strict diet rules. Remember, moderation is key.
For many people, the word cheat is associated with feelings of guilt. It would be much better to use the term treat for any nutritional dalliances because it’s much better to focus on “treating” yourself – and following LBT strategies – so that you don’t feel like cheating.
In this article you’ll find out everything you need to know about cheat meal. We’ll answer all the questions you might have:
- What exactly is cheat meal?
- What is the main idea behind a “cheat meal”?
- What are the physical and psychological benefits of cheat meal?
- Cheat day or cheat meal? And how often?
- What is the best time to have cheat meal?
- What should you eat for a cheat meal?
What does “cheat day” mean?
A cheat day is a scheduled break in a diet. It’s a day on which you’re allowed to have one meal where you eat whatever you want – from pizza to burgers, ice cream, chocolate, pancakes, soft drinks, alcohol… In other words, it’s a meal that contains whatever junk food you’ve craved for in the past week or two. A cheat meal is, therefore, a meal that is typically much higher in calories and deviates from the usual restrictive diet.
What is the main idea behind a “cheat meal”?
If you consume healthy food consistently (“clean eating” or strict diet), then you would eventually succumb to junk food because over the time, the desire to eat junk builds stronger. We wouldn’t be surprised if some athletes go to the closet at night and cry while munching on some delicious chocolate-glazed donuts.
A cutting diet will most likely yield the expected result at first. However, this magic will soon disappear. And here’s why. Our body, no matter what requirement we place before it, over time makes its internal “fine tuning” and returns to balance. Therefore, your body quickly adapts to the new situation in which calorie consumption is reduced and achieves a new balance at that new level. And when the body is in balance, it does not progress. In such a state a person’s metabolism slows down and the loss of unwanted pounds stops. If we continue after that in the same restrictive tone, not giving the body adequate sources of energy, it begins to sacrifice proteins, ie muscle tissue.
When the body is deficient in calories, the production of thyroid hormones T3 and T4 (important for the regulation of metabolism) decreases, which is one of the reasons for the slowdown in metabolism. And here we come to the cheat meal from which, if properly timed, we can have multiple benefits. The original thought of a cheat meal is to help “reset” your metabolism so that you could continue to lose weight and not “stall out”.
What are the physical and psychological benefits of cheat meal?
- Cheat meal satisfies your cravings as it lets you eat your favorite foods;
- Another benefit of scheduled cheat meal is that for some it makes eating a strict diet the majority of the time easier to handle! Of course, many people are content to eat clean whole foods all of the time but for those who struggle, the cheat meal can help break up the monotony and prevent discouragement. A regularly scheduled meal out helps people in this situation stay focused on reaping the benefits of eating almost all healthy whole foods while still being able to look forward to favorite foods and social meals with friends;
- It actually tricks your body into thinking that there is a lot of calories to be burned so that it speeds up metabolism. In effect, even if you are taking up all these extra calories, your body will actually react and make you burn even more calories especially if the cheat day is followed by your low carb day;
- Consuming richer and more concentrated calories than you are accustomed to will cause your body to release two important hormones in abundant supply: insulin and leptin;
- Insulin pulls nutrients from your bloodstream into your muscle cells, giving them ample fuel to recover and grow. When you eat food that is richer and a more concentrated calorie source than you are used to, the amount of insulin you release after the meal is much higher than usual, which immediately halts muscle breakdown and simultaneously engorges the muscle cells with calories and nutrients;
- Leptin is one of the most important hormones for regulating fat burning. It increases your BMR (basal metabolic rate), increases your use of body fat for energy, and can decrease your appetite. After a cheat meal your body releases an abundance of leptin, which stimulates your metabolism and, as long as you immediately return to eating clean, stimulates improved fat burning;
- Increased TEF (thermic effect of food), which is accompanied by increased thermogenesis, is also worth mentioning;
Cheat day or cheat meal? And how often?
A cheat day is when you eat junk food for more than one meal in a day. Not many people have cheat days. Moderation is key. If you want to get into good shape, then we advise you to have one cheat meal a weak.
Tip: sit at a table with everything you plan to eat in a cheat meal and when we get up, that meal is over and you continue with the usual regimen.
When is the best time to have cheat meal?
You can schedule your cheat meal during the week however you like, as long as you don’t indulge in them too often. However, there are some times at which you can reap even greater benefits from a cheat meal:
- After training a stubborn body part. Everyone has a muscle group or two that lags behind the rest of their body. The anabolic nature of a cheat meal can help stimulate a weak body part.
- On leg day, after your workout. It’s no secret that legs are the most demanding and strenuous muscle group to train. These are the biggest, strongest muscles in your body with the greatest stamina. They require the most oxygen and calories to train and training them elicits the greatest anabolic response post-training. This puts your body in an excellent position to use extra calories from rich foods.
- On a high intensity cardio day, after your workout. Performing high intensity cardio, such as track sprints, has a similar effect on your body as a leg training workout, making it another excellent time to schedule some excess calories.
What should you eat for a cheat meal?
A cheat meal is your opportunity to eat some of those less-than-healthy foods you’ve been avoiding on your normal diet, but rather than engaging in an eating free-for-all, stick to these guidelines:
- You do want extra calories, but more is not better. Rather than hitting seconds and thirds at the all-you-can-eat buffet, go out to your favorite restaurant and order a salad, get an appetizer, an entree, and share a dessert with a friend. This way you’ll be getting a big bump in calories and having a decadent meal, but portions will still be controlled to some extent.
- In terms of metabolic boost, carbs are king. The primary hormone you want to increase with a cheat meal is leptin, and this hormone responds almost exclusively to your carbohydrate intake. Great choices for cheats are everyone’s favorite carb-loading foods like pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and pastries. Read this article to find in more detail how carbohydrates affect hormones.
- Since carbohydrates are your target food, try to go easy on your fat intake to avoid overshooting your metabolic boost with too many calories. Stay away from fried foods, and high-fat entrees and desserts.
- If you feel you went a little too far with your cheat meal, go ahead and reduce calories the next day by 10% or add 30 to 45 minutes of extra steady-state cardio and you should be fine!
Tip: most of such a meal should consist of carbohydrates because then the effect is best!
Closing thoughts: The importance of cheat meal in sports nutrition
There are some physical and psychological benefits to an occasional “treat” meal. It’s important to note that the above benefits of cheat meals only apply if the schedule is rigorously adhered to and they are an infrequent occurrence of no more than one or two times a week. Eating rich meals at widely spaced intervals ensures that your body will be sensitive enough to reap the hormonal benefits of the unusually rich food, whereas eating these foods regularly, even in small amounts tailored to your macros, can limit the shock to your system and corresponding metabolism jumpstart, increase your insulin resistance, and make your normal healthy diet seem far less desirable.