Cheat meals: yay or nay?

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Many bodybuilders in the cut have a cheat meal every now and then. But is that really sensible?

BENEFITS

Long-term cutting can be tough, all the more so because as a bodybuilder you have to keep doing strength training, on top of a calorie-restricted diet, possibly supplemented with cardio.

Taking a cheat meal regularly, for example weekly, could reduce the burden of cutting. And in two ways.

First, cheat meals provide a psychological break during heavy dieting.

Second, the carbohydrates in the cheat meal ensure that the glycogen stores in your muscles are replenished. And the latter means that you have more energy for your training the next day.

MYTHS

Other benefits are often attributed to cheating while cutting. However, these are incorrect and thus belong in the land of bodybuilding myths.

For example, it is often claimed that cheat meals have positive changes in metabolism and hunger hormones. This is basically true, but these changes are only there in the hours after the meal. A hearty meal can therefore speed up your metabolism (a little) and reduce your feeling of hunger, but a few hours later this is already over and you are back to square one.

In addition, a cheat meal could ensure that you have fuller-looking muscles for a show or at the beach. But according to bodybuilding coach Mike Israetel, cheat meals are not so suitable for that. They mainly ensure the intake of liquids and sodium, making you look puffy rather than ‘dry’. According to Israetel, it is better to increase your food intake with carbohydrates from healthy foods one or two days in advance.

CONS

For some people, a cheat meal is a welcome distraction from strict self-discipline. Such a meal helps them to maintain their dedication and motivation. But for many others, a cheat meal is counterproductive.

Many see a cheat meal as a reward for dieting. But this makes it seem as if healthy and low-calorie food is only a temporary, unpleasant means to lose weight, while you should actually embrace a healthy diet. The latter means that you continue to eat healthy and keep an eye on your calories and macros, even when you have finished losing weight. For bodybuilders, this simply means bulking with care.

In addition, the reward is usually disappointing: with every bite there is less of your cheat meal left, and before you know it your plate is already empty. And then you have to go through that dark tunnel for another week until the next momentary moment of eating joy arrives. That makes dieting psychologically heavier.

According to Mike Israetel, therefore, from a psychological point of view, a diet should be completely free of rewards or escape moments:

You’re gonna diet? Embrace the darkness. Once you’ve embraced it, you’ll find out it’s really not that bad. One of the last things you want, is flickers of light and of hope, because they actually make things worse.

Finally, cheat meals can cause you to consume far more calories than you should. Cheat meals usually taste like more. But even if you control yourself, the calorie balance on the day of the cheat meal will be a lot higher than on the diet days. And perhaps in such a way that the diet effect of those days is negated in one go. Therefore, do not cheat too often, stick to one meal a week, and do it in moderation.

ALTERNATIVES

Cheat meals are a form of non-linear diets: you deviate from the course for a while, in order to make dieting easier in the long term. Other non-linear diet strategies exist:

  • Cheat days: instead of one meal, you deviate from your diet for an entire day, something that can give you some breathing room during a heavy cut. However, make sure that you do not consume too many calories, because with a day of cheating you can ruin your entire diet week. And that while one day of cheating is too short to have a beneficial effect on your metabolism and hormones.
  • Refeeds: A refeed is a conscious, sophisticated diet strategy. So it is not a reward or escape moment, such as a cheat meal or cheat day. A refeed means that you will eat at a maintenance level for two to three days (so there is no energy deficit, but also no surplus), by increasing the intake of mainly carbohydrates. Two to three days is just enough to reverse some of the negative dietary effects on metabolism, hormones and glycogen stores. Research suggests that refeeds don’t help you lose fat faster, but they do help you maintain your muscle mass. Refeeds require an accurate approach, where a calorie app is indispensable.
  • Diet breaks: a diet break is the same as a refeed, but for one week to several weeks. You must therefore have the time for this strategy. During a diet break, you eat at a maintenance level, by increasing the intake of carbohydrates in particular. In this way you can almost completely reverse all negative effects of dieting (metabolic adaptation, unfavorable hormone levels, depleted glycogen stores). Then you continue your diet from a physiologically much better position than before the diet break. According to research, however, the benefit of diet breaks is mainly psychological: they help you to stick to the diet better, because you are less bothered by metabolic adjustments and hunger.

Are non-linear diets better than linear diets? A difficult question to answer, because there is very little research in this area, let alone into the situation of a bodybuilder. We love refeeds and diet breaks, but these strategies do require psychologically that you don’t go straight to your goal in one go. Non-linear diets do not seem to be of added value if you do a minicut or if you are going to lose weight from a very high fat percentage.

CONCLUSION

Non-linear dieting means that you interrupt your diet for a short time – from one meal to several weeks – in order to have a break and to partially or completely reverse any negative effects of the diet (in terms of metabolism, hormones and glycogen).

Cheat meals are also a form of non-linear diets. However, we are not in favor of it. This is on the one hand because such a feast often makes dieting psychologically more difficult, and on the other hand because you consume a lot of calories with a cheat meal, which can be at the expense of the diet effect of the previous days. And that while a single cheat meal is again too little to reverse any of the negative diet effects.

Better methods are refeeds and diet breaks, especially with a prolonged cut. These help you to stick to a diet better and to maintain your muscle mass. 

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