If you’ve ever followed a diet, you’ve probably heard the term “cheat meal”. In fact, you’ve probably spent most of your diet looking forward to it! You keep all of your supplements stocked – DIESEL NZW protein isolate and BCAA Hyper Clear for recovery, and ALTRD State for pre-workout energy, but there’s still a small part of you that wants a break now and then, right?
People spend all week trudging through a calorie deficit with their full focus on the cheeseburger and french-fries on Saturday that a garbage fitness magazine told them would help burn fat faster. If this situation seems all too familiar, you’re either missing the right supplements or you probably failed on that diet. That being said, when approached correctly, the occasional cheat meal can be very beneficial.
“It’s not a Cheat Meal, it’s a Re-Feed!”
Before we discuss this any further, let’s stop calling it a “cheat meal”. You’re not cheating. You’re not a bad person or committing some sort of moral injustice. You’re either doing it because it can help or doing it because something’s not right with your current eating plan. For the purpose of this article let’s begin referring to this meal as a “re-feed” as I’m going to be outlining for you why it is exactly THAT and how you can use it to your advantage!
The problem with re-feeds (the meal formerly known as “cheat”) is that people tend to use them as an excuse to appease their food cravings, losing all structure from their typical eating plan and eating until their brain is satisfied.6,9 If your goal is weight loss, a single no-holds-barred meal can keep you from losing weight, even with a dedicated week before it.
If planned correctly though, a re-feed can improve fat loss and keep you on track. As you drop body fat, leptin, the hormone responsible for making you feel full, also lowers.7 When this happens hunger levels rise, making the desire to binge much more profound. When done correctly, a well-planned re-feed that keeps you in a caloric deficit for the week can be used to increase leptin levels, helping you adhere to your diet without the urge to binge into a caloric surplus.
That’s right. It should be earned. If your goal is weight loss and you’re not losing weight every 1-2 weeks then you’re not in a caloric deficit, plain and simple. Yes, there are some situations where it can be a result of water retention, but I find this to be very rare. This also doesn’t mean the right answer is “eat less”. Sometimes you just need to move more. Either way, the point of a re-feed is to backload the glycogen stores that were kept low throughout the week and create an increase in calories for the day. Even with your re-feed day being higher calorie than the other days of the week your daily average should still be in a caloric deficit if weight loss is your goal. With that being said… don’t wing it…
Going to a buffet with a YOLO approach is setting yourself up for disaster. You need to plan it. I’ve personally found that weekends, social events, and holidays are the ideal times. If you don’t plan it, you’re much more likely to have re-feds much more often than needed.4 If you know exactly where you’re going and what will be available it’s also a great idea to decide ahead of time just exactly what it is, you plan to eat and drink. Don’t show up without a plan and let your eyes decide for you on the spot.
Incorporating your supplements into this plan is paramount and, with nutrition facts labels being so detailed, it is extremely easy to ensure you’ve got the good stuff in your plan! DIESEL New Zealand Whey Protein Isolate is packed full of protein without anything hidden – it’s ultra pure! It’s also a good idea to plan it on the day of your toughest workout of the week or at minimum, make sure it’s not a rest day. Getting that level of high-absorption protein will spike blood levels of amino acids, boosts nitrogen retention and feeds muscles rapidly. This will help create a caloric buffer for the day since you know you’re burning more calories than normal. Keep in mind that you’re body is going to tell you when you need a re-feed too, you just have to pay attention – don’t force it when your body doesn’t need it “just because”.
If your goal is weight loss and the weight isn’t coming off regularly, you don’t need a weekly re-feed. My typical strategy is to begin applying re-feeds when bio-feedback such as fatigue, flat muscles, or prolonged soreness become an issue.1 I will start with one re-feed every two weeks and if progress continues start moving this to a more regular schedule. If your goal is to simply maintain weight or focus on performance, a slight caloric deficit can be used throughout the week in conjunction with multiple re-feeds per week to bring total weekly calories to a maintenance level. The types of calories you consume matter also – make sure they’re working in your favour!
A proper re-feed should involve an increase in carbohydrates with a simultaneous decrease in dietary fat. The increase in carbohydrates not only primes leptin, but it also helps replenish glycogen stores which may be low from lower carbohydrate dieting.2 Since the goal is to increase carbohydrates without pushing our calories into a calorie surplus, we lower our fat intake since 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories as compared to 4 calories in 1 gram of carbohydrate. Choosing a protein like CREED or PERFECT Whey can add extra carbohydrates to your diet.
The idea of a re-feed is to apply a slight caloric surplus and increase leptin levels.2 The best way to do this is by increasing your carbohydrates while keeping your dietary fat low for the day. Think sushi > cheeseburgers, pasta with red sauce > pasta with cheese sauce, authentic meat, and bean tacos without cheese > loaded nachos. So should I just pack the food in on my re-feed days?
No, take your time! It’s easier to know when you’ve had enough and reached fullness (satiety) when you take your time and eat mindfully. Slow down and enjoy the meal. After all you’ve probably been looking forward to it all week.5 Not to mention that those bio-feedback mechanisms also play a roll, but they need a little bit to inform your brain that nutrients have made their way into the system! You want to avoid unbalances as best possible – especially when it comes to sodium and water…
These re-feed meals, especially if eaten at a restaurant, are higher in sodium. When sodium intake is drastically increased, the body’s antidiuretic hormones such as aldosterone function improperly and can leave you bloated.3 This will continue until blood volume is restored by increased water intake. To get ahead of the issue, start increasing your water intake the day of your re-feed and keep it higher and steady throughout the day. Just having more water doesn’t give you a pass to eat the greasiest, glutenous food you can find though.
Just because it’s not a typical meal you’d eat throughout the week doesn’t mean it should be poor quality. Try to choose items that still contain a variety of micronutrients. Look for a wide variety of color. One day to ensure this is to make the meal yourself if possible. For instance, a homemade burger with purple cabbage and red onion slaw with a side of homemade sweet potato fries will go a lot further than a McDouble with French-fries. If you need help getting those nutrients in HULK Clean Mass Gainer has micronutrients worth a days worth in one serving!
THE BOTTOM LINE
Remember – give your mental health a break and remind yourself that there is no such thing as a “cheat meal”. You didn’t break some ethical code of conduct and, if done correctly, following the methods above is only going to help you towards your goals. If the re-feed becomes a re-feed day or week however, you’re very likely to lose some of your hard-earned results and fall into a chain of setbacks.9 Eat it, enjoy it, don’t regret it, and move on. Holding that negative image of your behaviour is only going to induce more stress and create a poor diet cycle.
Instead of completely forgoing your regular diet for a day of binging, set yourself up for success with a properly executed re-feed. If your weight loss has plateaued despite your consistent adherence to the plan, a re-feed may be the tool needed to jump start your progress. Utilizing this method can greatly improve your motivation to change, your behaviour when it gets difficult and your ability to truly BE GREAT. Get your diet in check, get your supplements calculated correctly, pay attention to your body and give yourself a break – have that re-feed and let it work for you, not against you!
- Badawi, M. Eid and Saddik, A., “Diet advisory system for children using biofeedback sensor,” 2012 IEEE International Symposium on Medical Measurements and Applications Proceedings, 2012, pp. 1-4, https://doi.org/10.1109/MeMeA.2012.6226642
- Dirlewanger, M., Vetta, V. D., Guenat, E., Battilana, P., Seematter, G., Schneiter, P., Jéquier, E., & Tappy, L. (2000). Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects. International Journal of Obesity, 24(11), 1413–1418. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0801395
- Gasparini, S., Melo, M., Nascimento, P., Andrade-Franzé, G., Antunes- Rodrigues, J., Yosten, G., Menani, J., Samson, W., & Colombari, E. (2019). Interaction of central angiotensin II and aldosterone on sodium intake and blood pressure. Brain Research, 1720, 146299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2019.06.018
- Kaur, H. G. S., & Chee, W. S. S. (2020a). Localising Structured Lifestyle Intervention for Dietary Management Success. The Singapore Family Physician, 46(7), 16–19. https://doi.org/10.33591/sfp.46.7.u3
- Leong, S. L., Madden, C., Gray, A., Waters, D., & Horwath, C. (2011). Faster Self-Reported Speed of Eating Is Related to Higher Body Mass Index in a Nationwide Survey of Middle-Aged Women. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(8), 1192–1197. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2011.05.012
- Murray, S. B., Pila, E., Mond, J. M., Mitchison, D., Blashill, A. J., Sabiston, C. M., & Griffiths, S. (2018). Cheat meals: A benign or ominous variant of binge eating behavior? Appetite, 130, 274–278. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.08.026
- Ostlund, R. E. (1996). Relation between plasma leptin concentration and body fat, gender, diet, age, and metabolic covariates. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 81(11), 3909–3913. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.81.11.3909
- Pila, E., Mond, J. M., Griffiths, S., Mitchison, D., & Murray, S. B. (2017). A thematic content analysis of #cheatmeal images on social media: Characterizing an emerging dietary trend. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 50(6), 698–706. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22671
- Yu, H., Chambers, E., & Koppel, K. (2020). Exploration of the food‐related guilt concept. Journal of Sensory Studies, 36(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/joss.12622
Author: Tyler Minton
Tyler “Melee” Minton is one of the most recognized Nutrition Coaches in the UFC. Having worked with hundreds of professional mixed martial artists including many world champions, Tyler’s coaching services are sought after by professional athletes and the general population alike. Applying his education and experience, Tyler promotes a no-nonsense, science-based approach to nutrition and it’s why he’s part of the PERFECT Sports Advisory Board. You can reach Tyler at his websites TylerMintonNutrition.com and EthosNutritionCoaching.com.