No matter how grueling an athlete’s workouts are or how strict their training schedule, most bodybuilders will tell you that the most difficult part of getting stage-ready is staying disciplined with their diet. It’s notoriously tough to follow a contest prep diet, but sticking to a nutrition plan can make or break a competitor’s success.
Enter cheat meals, which give bodybuilders, athletes, or anyone following a diet strategy the chance to put the pen and paper or diet tracking app down and enjoy some of the foods that are typically not a part of their plan.
Whether or not you plan on taking the stage, if your goal is to lose weight, any trainer will tell you that diet is well over half the battle. When that’s the case, it can feel like there’s no room for cheat meals or that you’re speeding up your progress by eating less. But you can—and should—enjoy cheat meals as part of a weight-loss diet.
“Physically it can be great to keep your metabolism strong, avoid plateaus, and avoid hormone damage from prolonged calorie deficits,” Randy Frankel, nutrition coach, trainer, and co-owner of RevolutioniZe Nutrition, told Muscle & Fitness.
Research has shown that when someone is on a calorie-restrictive diet to lose weight, significant hormonal changes happen. Thyroid hormones like T3 play a key role in regulating metabolism, and when they decrease due to lower body fat and calorie restriction, they can make the body reduce its energy expenditure, leading to weight-loss plateaus and making it difficult to stick to a diet from a mental standpoint.
Calorie restriction and body fat loss also leads to drops in leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite; and ghrelin, which boosts appetite. Yet another hormone, insulin, may also drop. Given its role in protecting muscles from breaking down, this might lead to muscle loss. Those and other changes can work against a trainee aiming to lose weight and maintain muscle.
Regular cheat meals can combat those hormone fluctuations, and keeping an eye out for signs of those changes can help competitors or coaches determine the ideal frequency of cheat meals or higher calorie days in general.
Incorporating cheat meals into a nutrition plan can also have positive mental effects during a time when many might feel fatigued from often monotonous diet plans.
“For me and for our athletes, the mental health component is tremendous,” said RevolutioniZe co-owner Michele Zandman-Frankel, an IFBB Pro League Figure athlete and coach. “Although I don’t like to call them ‘cheat meals,’ but more of a ‘relaxed meal.’ It is not a ‘dirty’ meal, or a chance to stuff yourself or binge. It’s more of a chance to not think, lay back, and relax—and enjoy something untracked.”
Michele stresses the importance of a healthy view on dieting. In an industry where it’s not unheard of to develop an unhealthy relationship with food, she and Randy recommend a more flexible approach to nutrition overall. This can help athletes avoid post-competition binging or even eating disorders.
When and How to Use Cheat Meals
We’ve made a case for cheating, but remember: It shouldn’t be an everyday thing used to justify constant unhealthy eating.
“A cheat meal can usually fit in once every week or every two weeks depending on the person’s metabolism, genetics and muscle mass,” Randy says. He also recommends occasional “refeed” meals, which are typically designed to increase an athlete’s calorie intake while still keeping tabs on macros, not veering from the diet plan entirely.
One approach to cheat meals is scheduling them ahead of time. That can be a good way to give yourself something to look forward to in your diet plan that isn’t plain rice and chicken. That said, you shouldn’t take it as an opportunity to go overboard.
“You still need to be smart and mindful with how much you’re eating. You should not be making yourself sick by consuming too large a quantity of food,” Michele says. “Eat until you’re full and satisfied, not stuffed.” She also advises against fasting all day and indulging in an over-the-top cheat meal. Go about your day as usual, eating breakfast and your earlier meals to avoid going too crazy if dinner will be your cheat meal.
If you find that you tend to overdo it, Randy suggests taking more of a refeed approach, still keeping your cheat meals within certain calories or macros.
Even if you haven’t scheduled a cheat meal, there are signs to look out for that your body might be in need of one, particularly if you’ve been consistently strict on a lower calorie diet. “Low energy, plateaus, the scale being stuck, and sometimes actually if you’re feeling bloated or retaining too much water, these can be signs that a relaxed meal or refeed is needed,” Randy says.
Michele and Randy agree that if your goal is fat loss for a competition or otherwise, it’s not a great idea to step on the scale the day after a cheat meal. “Most likely, your weight will be up due to the weight of food still in your digestive tract, you haven’t gone to the bathroom yet, and water retention—all things that will pass,” Michele says.
It’s also important to remember that cheat meals are an opportunity to have some fun with your food choices, so they shouldn’t be viewed as a negative thing or something to punish yourself for after the fact. But they also shouldn’t be an excuse to throw your diet out the window for the rest of the day or week.
“After your relaxed meal, get right back on track. Don’t deprive yourself of food the next day, and do not ‘punish’ yourself in the gym,” Michele says. “Carry on as usual with your regular tracking of macros or calories, and your regular training routine. Some people like to train a big body part the next day, such as legs or back, and will put their extra energy toward something positive and exciting, such as a new PR, a hike, faster run time, or a personal best of some sort.”
At the end of the day, a healthy relationship with food overall can prevent cheat meals from going to extremes. Neither food nor exercise should be considered “reward” or “punishment,” Michele says, because they all serve a purpose reaching any fitness goal.
Pick that Cookie Up, NOW!
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