Most diets these days allow for some sort of cheat meal or cheat day during the week. This makes sense because it enables the dieter to stick with the plan while allowing for some light at the end of the tunnel.
A cheat meal also prevents the metabolism from dropping. It also comes in handy if you have to attend a social event like a wedding or birthday party.
The question is: what is a cheat day, how much of a cheat meal/day is needed, and can a cheat day be counterproductive?
What Is A Cheat Meal?
A cheat day can mean two things: carte blanche (eat what you want) or have one meal to your liking while the remaining meals are still within the diet plan. The answer depends on how much of a calorie deficit you are in and what kind of diet is you are following.
Let’s cover the deficit aspect first. If someone goes into a really deep deficit (cutting calorie intake by 50% while still training hard), a cheat day would actually be needed.
Why A Cheat Day Makes Sense
Unfortunately, your body hates you. Actually it loves you so much that it wants to keep you alive and prevent death by starvation. So it makes some adjustments, which were great for the hunters and gatherers but bad for a physique athlete.
What are those adjustments?
After a couple days of dieting, the metabolism slows down, hunger increases, and more and more muscle mass is sacrificed by the body for energy. The human body is very efficient at adapting to new conditions.
In short, thyroid hormone T3 levels drop by thirty percent; conversion from T4 to T3 in the liver is being slowed down, the half-life of cortisol increases and the production of Insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) is down.
Your muscles are so low on glycogen that they become resistant to growth despite training. In fact you are probably losing muscle. At this point, we need to talk about leptin for a second since it is also an important player in the diet scenario. Normally, it is a messenger hormone that inhibits your appetite to prevent you from overeating and gaining weight.
Now when you are dieting, the opposite holds true. With the reduced calories, leptin levels drop and appetite goes up. This means that a person who lowers his body fat is at an immediate disadvantage: His metabolism is automatically slowed down by as much as 30% within days, while suffering from hunger pangs.
So during a diet, all of a dieter's nightmares come together: higher protein turnover combined with a lower levels of T3, IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor, one of the strongest muscle building hormones), leptin, and testosterone. Why is that a nightmare? Because not only will you not lose any more fat, you will actually look worse than before.
The loss of muscle will create a skinny fat version of yourself, the type you can see on most treadmills in the country. All this happens despite training and after only several days, not months, of dieting. Very soon you’ll reach a plateau; no fat is lost and instead lean body mass is sacrificed.
What? All this work and I look worse while feeling awful? Yes, this one reason is why most diets fail. But the madness can be stopped.
Yes, in some cases people simply use drugs. Testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin are injected, combined with oral thyroid medication, thereby restoring the hormonal imbalances. For us, this is not an option. We need to find a way to manipulate the body’s hormones for a short time.
This can be achieved with a refeed. In order to prevent the above-mentioned adaptations, it is necessary to increase the calories and to refeed every five to seven days. A refeed is basically an intelligent cheat day where calories are increased to anywhere from 130 percent to 150 percent above maintenance.
Increasing the calories for a short period of time reverses the process described above. Testosterone, IGF-1, and leptin levels are brought up; the production of cortisol is slowed down; muscle loss is stopped, even reversed. As a result, the rate of metabolism increases, which then sets the stage for further fat loss.
Cheat Meals: How To Do A Proper Refeed
The calories during a refeed should come mainly from carbohydrates, moderate protein, and very low fats. I recommend four to five grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight over a 24 hour period with about one gram of protein per pound of body mass and trace fats (i.e., only what’s in food, no actual fat sources such as oils, fatty fish, nuts and beef). So our 100 lb dieter would be eating 400 to 500 grams of carbohydrates and 100 grams of protein.
Why Should I Eat Carbohydrates? Won’t I Get Fat By Eating So Much?
You will not. Adding carbohydrates to a diet at this particular point, as opposed to protein or fats, has several advantages. Leptin, insulin, and blood sugar levels are being up-regulated, but due to the temporary lack of enzymes, the body is unable to store body fat.
The body’s first order of business is to refill glycogen storage, which takes about 24 hours. After that fat storage starts. Imagine someone with a $10,000 credit card balance with twenty-four percent interest. If this person gets $10,000 he will pay off the credit card, not start a savings account.
The credit card balance is your muscle and liver glycogen; the savings account your fat cells. Too bad this awesome window is only open twenty-four hours.
A cheat day or refeed can be made more effective if the dieter does a heavy workout after his carbohydrate day. This ensures the glycogen gets taken into the muscle. The refeed day would be an ideal time to work on a weaker muscle group and use the insulin response for new growth.
So, let me sum up how I would structure a diet and training program for an already lean athlete.
Example Diet and Training Program
Monday: very low carbohydrates high fat/medium protein. Training:
Tuesday: repeat diet. Training:
- 3x10 pull downs
- 3x10 incline bench press
- 3x10 one arm rows
- 3x12 overhead presses
- 2x10 curls
- 2x10 dips
Wednesday: same diet, 20-30 minutes of medium intensity cardio if needed, no weights.
Thursday: whole body workout, start consuming carbs right after the workout. Training:
Friday: no training, refeed. The rule of thumb would be 10 grams of carbohydrates for every kilogram of lean body mass (or 5 grams of carbs for every pound of lean body mass) within a 24-hour period.
Saturday: eat a regular zone diet, no calorie deficit. Training (here you should be able to train heavy, since your energy levels are up):
- 5x5 deadlifts
- 4x12 leg presses
- 3x8 decline bench
- 3x8 lat pull down
- 3x8 arnold presses
- 3x10 hammer curls
- 3x10 triceps press downs
Sunday: back to Monday’s diet, cardio if needed.
Moderate Calorie Deficit Training And Diet
Now what about someone with a more moderate calorie deficit? Assuming a caloric deficit of 300 calories, the question is whether that person should also have a full fledged cheat day.
It’s not really necessary but you’ll still need to modify your diet after a couple weeks.
The body’s hormonal response during the diet is similar to that of an extreme calorie deficit. Cortisol will be elevated, testosterone suppressed, and the metabolism slowed down. However, since glycogen stores are probably not completely empty, I suggest only a single high-carbohydrate cheat meal to avoid the possibility of fat storage.
Depending on the size of the athlete, 200 to 500 grams of carbohydrates should be sufficient in order to replenish glycogen, speeding up the thyroid as well as creating a general feeling of happiness and unity with the world.
Varying caloric intake every few days is a great way to keep your metabolism running. A popular way of doing it would be a two days low, one-day high carbohydrate scheme like this:
Monday: moderate deficit, 100 to 150 grams of carbohydrates. Training:
- 4x10 squats
- 3x10 lunges
- 3x10 stiff legged deadlifts
- 4x30 calf raises
- 3x10 curls
- 3x10 dips
Tuesday: repeat Mondays diet. Training:
- 3x10 pull ups
- 4x10 incline bench press
- 4x10 0ne arm rows
- 4x10 shoulder presses
- 3x10 cable flyes
- 2x10 side raises
Wednesday: consume twice the amount of carbohydrates, in this example 200-300 grams, cut your fat intake in half, no weight training. Here you can have a small desert or a bowl of pasta to fill your carb need and restore mental sanity.
Thursday: back to Monday’s diet, work on weak body parts. Let’s assume those are chest and back:
- 4x10 floor flyes
- 15 12 10 8 8 incline dumbbell press
- 3x20 cable flyes
- 4x10 pull ups
- 3x6 rack dead lifts
- 100 seated rows
If you don’t feel fuller or more energized by Thursday, you might be overdieted and would need to switch a two days high/two days low diet.
Friday: would be a rest day, follow your regular diet, then you would start the cycle again.
Refeed Frequency Chart
Here is a quick chart for refeed frequency.
- < 8% body fat - Refeed every 5 days
- 9-19 % body fat - Refeed every 10 days
- >20 % body fat - Refeed every 14 days
- < 20% body fat - Refeed every 7 days
- 20-30 % body fat - Refeed every 10 days
- > 30 % - Refeed every 14 days
Disclaimer: I don’t believe in all-out junk fests. Even on a cheat meal you should consume mostly clean foods and maybe have a small dessert or a side of fries with your steak.
So the cheat meal is not a myth; it is a necessity if you diet correctly.
For anyone who has further interest in this topic, I highly recommend Bodyopus by Dan Duchaine and The Ultimate Diet 2.0 by Lyle McDonald.