Cheat Meal vs. A Planned Re-feed: What’s The Difference?

Take a detailed look at the pros and cons of planned refeeding and cheat meals (yes, there is a difference), and decide which is better for your physique and fat loss goals.

If you’re one who still believes in the dichotomy of “clean and dirty” foods than it may serve to your benefit to consider reading this article

Now granted some people will still want to dabble in the aforementioned debate over “clean and dirty” foods, this article will look at a more specific topic, which is having a planned, structured re-feed day/meal or a “cheat” day/meal. However, before we move on to the matter at hand, consider the goals you have and what somatotype traits your body exhibits; you may not even need a re-feed type event in your diet in certain circumstances (which will be addressed herein).

Cheat Meal vs. Re-feed: What’s the Difference?

If unanimously “clean” and “dirty” foods are rather ambiguous ways to classify foods, then how can we decipher the difference between a “cheat” meal and a “structured re-feed”?  Well the amended version of a cheat meal, as I see it, is a meal in which you don’t track and/or care about what you’re macronutrient and calorie intake is. I would essentially call it a “cheat” meal simply because you are “cheating” on your calorie/macronutrient goals.

That being said, I can already feel the wave of questions being prepared to blast that definition so allow me to clarify a few things before you open fire. Obviously, if you are hitting your macronutrient and calorie goals at the end of the day, it’s pretty much a moot point how you get there (assuming you’re not greatly unbalancing your macronutrient proportions). So in this instance, it wouldn’t make sense to classify something as a cheat meal (or day).

Thus, a cheat meal/day, pragmatically speaking, would be a meal/day where you greatly exceed your normal caloric intake in an ad libitum fashion and don’t necessarily care what your macronutrient intake is. Whatever foods you choose to eat are beside the point here, it’s still about the energy/nutrient content at the end of the day.

So in essence a “cheat” day would differ from a prototypical “re-feed” day where people aim more to load up on carbohydrates in an ordered fashion (e.g. tracking their intake and hitting macronutrient goals). The terminology is still a bit vague in this case, so for more precise clarity, I think it’s safe to assume that a re-feed is primarily an increase in carbohydrate intake (and may include manipulation of fats and proteins).

What’s the use of cheat meals/days and re-feeds?

Before we move onto the debate between these two protocols, it’s worthwhile to know what the physiological basis is to having cheat meals/days or re-feeds. Without going into too much detail, many organisms have an adaptable characteristic to lower energy expenditure in the event that energy intake is lessened; when an entity is chronically deprived of energy/nutrients, it compensates by lowering the demand for energy (e.g. metabolic rate slows).

This is a basic survival mechanism in many organisms since it would be counterproductive for an organism to be burning through energy rapidly without much replenishment available. Moreover, a medley of endocrine factors may fluctuate with chronic energy deprivation, most notably the lowering of thyroid hormones and the adipokine leptin. [1,2]

So intuitively, for people who are trying to lose body-fat, the prudent solution to avoid diet-and exercise-induced metabolic slowing is to “boost” energy intake for a short period to help revive hormonal and metabolic factors. This is why many bodybuilders who are dieting for a contest will actually increase their calorie intake when their fat loss stalls (i.e. they incorporate re-feeds or “cheats”).

Are cheat meals/days and re-feeds necessary for all people looking to lose fat?

I alluded to somatotype/body morphology in the preamble of this article since it is a useful gauge of which individuals may benefit from re-feeds or “cheats” and those who should avoid them. In general, obese individuals do not need to worry about intermittent metabolic slow-down when starting out on a weight-loss plan. Reason being is obese individuals are usually somewhat, if not severely, resistant to leptin and insulin, and their thyroid output is usually somewhat elevated since their energy intake has chronically been excessive. [3,4]

However, this isn’t to say that these more endomorphic individuals need to restrict themselves for months on end, since there is certainly a psychological relief provided by re-feeds/”cheats”. I like to think of re-feeds/”cheats” as rewards for very overweight individuals who have been consistent with their diet and exercise regimen for a few consecutive weeks.

Now in the case of bodybuilders looking to shed 20lbs for competition or individuals who are slightly overweight but not obese, re-feeds/”cheats” are almost always a wise thing to incorporate. However, the frequency and aggressiveness of these intermittent metabolic-boosting events will vary between individuals. Thus many people need to go through some trial and error to figure out what best suits their body.

Ectomorphic, highly insulin-sensitive individuals may need rather frequent re-feeds/”cheats” to maintain some decent muscle mass while losing weight; if you strip these individuals of nutrients/energy for an extended period of time they risk losing a lot of lean tissue. Whereas individuals who are more mesomorphic may only need to re-feed/”cheat” once every week or so. Again, this is highly individual and will take some experimentation.

So which one is better—structured re-feeds or cheat meals/days?

Naturally, people reading this are already clinging to one side of the fence or the other in this debate of structured re-feeds vs. ”cheat” meals/days. Much to my chagrin, there is no black-and-white answer to this topic. That being said, there is certainly some pros and cons to both protocols, and after examining them you can use your own judgment to decide which one suits you and your fat-loss efforts best.

Structured re-feeds (specifically increasing carbohydrate intake)

Pros:

  • Methodical macronutrient manipulation—this is advantageous in the fact that it gives you an idea of how sensitive your body is to certain macronutrients, especially if you’re primarily increasing carbohydrate intake.
  • Restores muscle glycogen—it is often advised to plan re-feeds around your toughest workouts for this reason since nobody (in their right mind) likes a brutal leg workout with no carbs in their system.
  • Satisfies your “sweet-tooth”—many individuals who chronically restrict carbohydrates fall off the wagon the minute a piece of sugar touches their tongue due to their craving for sweets being reinvigorated. Thus, re-feeds provide an opportunity for these people to enjoy some of their favorite carb-heavy foods without the “guilt”.
  • Bolsters insulin sensitivity—given insulin is a highly anabolic hormone, it advantageous to retain your sensitivity to it while on a fat-loss diet. Moreover, insulin enhances the muscle protein synthesis response of protein-rich foods. (5)

Cons:

  • Generally lower fat intake—it is usually wise to concurrently lower fat intake with a high-carb re-feed since you don’t want to blunt the insulin response or encourage fat-storage.
  • May cause some people to binge—people who chronically restrict carb intake and then give themselves a day of carb gluttony may blow it out of proportion if they have little self-control.
  • “Carb coma”—this phenomenon occurs in some individuals after a very high-carb meal; the drowsiness that ensues is likely derived from the high amount of serotonin released from the meal.
Cheat meals/days

Pros:

  • Eat whatever you please—this is probably the biggest upside to this protocol, especially for people who stick to the dogma of “clean” eating; it’s analogous to turning a 10 year old loose in the candy store.
  • Provides a good surge in calorie intake—the extra energy content will help provide some needed metabolic and hormonal benefits
  • No tracking/tedious macronutrient manipulation—some people just don’t want to sit around on their phone tracking nutrient intakes all day, so this is may be a slight moment of freedom for those individuals.
  • Satisfies cravings—this ties into the first “pro” listed above, but the freedom to indulge in whatever foods you please gives you opportunity to eat things you crave

Cons:

  • Overindulgence/binging—probably the biggest caveat with the “cheat” protocol is that it will turn into an onslaught of gluttonous behavior for those who lack self-control.
  • Bloating/”spilling over”—With the ingestion of many processed foods there comes a lot of salt and starch intake which  can cause people to drink a lot of water and induce some bloating.
  • No tracking—while not having to track macronutrient may be an “advantage” to some people, the lack of knowing what you’re ingesting gives you no baseline to go off of for your next calorie-boosting day.

It’s impossible for me to say which one of the two protocols discussed is “better” from a physiological standpoint since there a myriad of ways people could go about them. In reality, the difference between these two invents would likely be negligible assuming calorie content is the same and people aren’t greatly unbalancing macronutrient intake (e.g. eating 1000 calories of pure sugar in a sitting).

I think it’s pertinent to consider the goals of the individual and their psychological relationship with food. People who are getting stage-ready and need to drop the last 1-2% of body-fat will likely benefit more from a structured re-feed so they can track their intake and adjust and avoid any spill-over or binging.

On the other hand, if you’re just a general gym-goer looking to lose some weight, a day of “free” eating probably won’t ruin your progress as long as you maintain some control over your intake. Do what you think will suit you best and what you’ll stick to; if it works, great; if not, try a different approach and move on.

References:

1. Ahren, B., Mansson, S., Gingerich, R. L., & Havel, P. J. (1997). Regulation of plasma leptin in mice: influence of age, high-fat diet, and fasting. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology,273(1), R113-R120.

2. Krotkiewski, M., Toss, L., Björntorp, P., & Holm, G. (1981). The effect of a very-low-calorie diet with and without chronic exercise on thyroid and sex hormones, plasma proteins, oxygen uptake, insulin and c peptide concentrations in obese women. International journal of obesity, 5(3), 287.

3. Frederich, R. C., Hamann, A., Anderson, S., Löllmann, B., Lowell, B. B., & Flier, J. S. (1995). Leptin levels reflect body lipid content in mice: evidence for diet-induced resistance to leptin action. Nature medicine, 1(12), 1311-1314.

4. Enriori, P. J., Evans, A. E., Sinnayah, P., Jobst, E. E., Tonelli-Lemos, L., Billes, S. K., ... & Cowley, M. A. (2007). Diet-induced obesity causes severe but reversible leptin resistance in arcuate melanocortin neurons. Cell metabolism, 5(3), 181-194.

5. Kimball, S. R., Jurasinski, C. V., Lawrence, J. C., & Jefferson, L. S. (1997). Insulin stimulates protein synthesis in skeletal muscle by enhancing the association of eIF-4E and eIF-4G. American Journal of Physiology-Cell Physiology, 272(2), C754-C759.