One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make when following a program to get ultra-lean is to be way too strict with their diet and completely avoid any and all delicious food in the fear that it could ruin their physique. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, abandoning all of your favorite foods for a prolonged period of time while following a calorie and carb-restricted diet may be doing you more harm then good, and I’ll explain why in this article.

What Happens When You Diet?

In response to a reduction in calories and more specifically a negative caloric balance over the course of weeks and months, our bodies will respond by lowering the metabolic rate to compensate and balance things out. Fewer calories coming in sends the signal to the energy control centers of the body to preserve and protect the real estate from starvation. The end result – your body ends up burning fewer calories at rest (basal metabolic rate) in an attempt to preserve the change in energy demand. Our ancestors would have greatly benefited from this built-in regulation system during times where food was scarce. Nowadays, we should acknowledge it exists and do things like scheduling cheat meals to prevent it from potentially working against us.

The Science of Cheat Meals

Getting a little deeper into the physiology of it, some of the key regulators of the metabolism that can be negatively effected by extended periods of dieting are the thyroid hormones as well as leptin. The thyroid gland regulates output of the hormones T3 and T4 and their production can be reduced when a chronic negative caloric balance is detected. Loading up with the occasional scheduled cheat meal can help to boost production of these hormones and get them back to optimal levels so your body is burning through calories and fat like a finely tuned machine.

Leptin is a protein hormone that’s produced by fat tissue and plays key roles in controlling energy balance, metabolic rate, energy expenditure, appetite and bodyweight – quite possibly the most important hormone most people have never heard of!  Leptin acts on the hypothalamus (in the brain) – where the leptin receptors are primarily located. The rigors of a strict diet can supress leptin levels – sending a signal to the brain to slow down the metabolism in an attempt to prevent starvation and maintain bodyweight in a ‘normal’ range. A well-timed and planned out cheat meal can trigger an increase in leptin levels, resulting in a metabolic boost via increased thyroid output and energy expenditure. Too much or too little leptin can be detrimental. The take home message here is if you want to drop body fat and achieve that sculpted physique, don’t allow leptin levels to become supressed – resulting in a sluggish metabolism.

If you’ve ever felt hot or even noticed a little sweating after a cheat meal, you’ve already experienced the next physiological benefit of cheat meals – increased thermogenesis and 24-hour energy expenditure. The thermic effect of food can account for a significant proportion of our total calories burned in a day. The only problem is that many of the bird-sized meals people eat don’t effectively take advantage of this mechanism. An occasional cheat meal can put your body to work – in a good way. The metabolic cost to digest and assimilate the larger than normal influx of calories can get your body fired up again – literally. It’s also why many of my clients look their best the day after a large cheat meal – they’ve cranked up the metabolic furnace and torched some excess fat in the process.

Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrates in the muscles and liver and is primarily what our weight training workouts and other high intensity activity runs on. Training and dieting (moreso low carb dieting) can deplete muscle and liver glycogen, leaving you running with low levels of fuel for your workouts. This can make training exhausting, decrease strength, reduce endurance and make your muscles look soft and squishy. That’s because with low levels of glycogen in them, our muscles aren’t as full or volumized as they could be. Glycogen isn’t just fuel – it’s the stuff that makes muscles look hard and tight – largely because of the water content they store along with every gram of carbohydrates. This is why your cheat meals should always include a large portion of carbohydrates – to restock muscle glycogen, keep strength levels up and your muscles hard and full.

Closely related to carbohydrate intake is the hormone insulin – possibly the most anabolic, muscle building hormone that’s naturally occurring in the body. Insulin plays many key roles, but for the purpose of this article let’s focus on it’s ability to drive nutrients into muscle cells, keeping them extra-volumized with fuel and other beneficial components like amino acids, glucose and water. While it’s important to keep insulin somewhat supressed during most of the day if fat loss is your primary goal, you’re also losing out on the attractive physique-enhancing benefits if you become too strict on this rule. Your low calorie/low carb diet could use a little boost in insulin to get those muscles fully stocked up and looking hard and dense again. When muscles are topped off with glycogen, they push against the skin more – making you look even more defined and lean. It’s one of the great illusions and I call it shredded from the inside out. You achieve this glycogen supercompensation primarily with a high-glycemic carbohydrate based cheat meal that’s a larger than normal portion then your typical meal plan.

Cheat Meal Guidelines and Tips

One of the things I’ve learned about cheat meals is it helps to keep clients within certain parameters and guidelines to achieve the desired outcome. When you leave it open ended in an “anything goes” type of situation, people will tend overeat, eat the wrong types of food and then end up feeling sick, uncomfortable and even guilty about it afterwards. Here are some basic guidelines I’ve passed on to clients and now sharing here that can help the whole cheat meal experience run a little more smoothly.

Prior to cheat meal

-Do not have a cheat meal if you are not lean enough or haven’t been dieting for more than 2 weeks consistently. Your coach or trainer should be honest with you to help determine this.

-Do not have a cheat meal if you haven’t earned it. This means if you’ve been allowing yourself small cheats through the week, you haven’t earned a cheat meal. Your diet has to have been at least 90% to earn it.

Leading up to cheat meal….

-You may want to reduce carb intake leading into the cheat meal. This can increase insulin sensitivity and make your muscles more receptive to the larger than normal influx of carbs. The amount duration of carb reduction will vary from client to client and can be anywhere from a day of reduced carbs to a meal or two – depending on how depleted the client is and the carb tolerance factor.

Training prior to cheat meal….

-I generally recommend clients schedule their cheat meal in the post-workout period after a high volume weight training session of 20 sets or more. This can prime the muscles to take up the carbs more efficiently by upregulating transporters on the cell…’ll also probably train harder if you know a burger and fries awaits you on the other side!

Supplements prior to cheat meal ….

There are some natural supplements that could be of benefit in conjunction with a cheat meal that I would categorize into insulin sensitizers and insulin mimickers – or generally things that help insulin do its job of getting nutrients into the cells. Some examples of these supplement would be: chromium picolinate, r-ala, fenugreek, cinnamon bark, corosolic acid vanadyl sulfate . One or two of these is fine – don’t feel you need to stack them all!

Digestive enzymes can also be of assistance when you’re consuming foods that your body hasn’t processed in some time. Providing some extra enzyme assistance for a cheat meal can help with processing time so the meal doesn’t slow you down and bloat you afterwards.

Other things to note…

Try not to overeat and stuff yourself to the point of feeling like your stomach is being stretched out. Eat slowly, chew your food and pay attention to how you feel when you eat. Stop eating, put the food away when you first start to feel full. You’ll thank yourself later!

Your cheat meal frequency will vary greatly depending on your metabolism and how long you’ve been dieting. Once you’re about 8 weeks into a diet, most can handle a cheat meal every week to 10 days. Others will have to do one every two weeks.

I typically provide clients with their cheat meal macros to aim for, but as a general rule, you should be consuming about 2-3 times the normal calories of one of your typical diet meals. So if the average calories of your meal is around 450, you’d be shooting for around 900 – 1350 calories for the cheat meal.

With any planned cheat meal, it shouldn’t just be “anything goes” so to help guide people with some common options, here are some of my top choices for cheat meals:

Examples of “Dirty” Cheat Meals – Best for when clients are very depleted, ripped and need to fill out relatively fast.

  1. Pizza
  2. Burger and fries
  3. Ice cream (w/ whey protein before)
  4. Breaded sandwiches (i.e. chicken or veal)
  5. Ribs
  6. Breakfast platter – pancakes, sausage, bacon, etc.
  7. Fish and chips
  8. Donuts, cookies and other baked deserts
  9. Poutine
  10. Nachos

Examples of “Clean” Cheat Meals – A little more conservative and sensible meals, lower in calories and fats but still enough of a variation to provide a beneficial effect.

  1. Steak and potato
  2. Korean BBQ
  3. Sushi (nothing deep fried)
  4. Brazilian steakhouse
  5. Japanese teppanyaki
  6. Thai food w/ rice noodles
  7. Chicken or steak burrito
  8. Pasta dish w/ tomato sauce
  9. Pho
  10. Fajitas
Recent Posts