Nutrition and diet are undoubtedly the most psychologically demanding aspects of a health & fitness regime, particularly as the weeks turn into months, and the months turn into years on the path to reaching your health & fitness goals.
Be it a seasoned pro bodybuilder looking to claim another title, or a working mother looking to transform her lifestyle, everyone experiences food cravings at some stage of a diet, and far too often that late-night trip to the fridge “just to see what’s in there” turns into an all-out unplanned midnight feast which can unravel a whole week’s worth of hard work.
A lot of people fear the thought of strategically placing a cheat meal or refeed meal into their fat loss plan, and prefer to try and battle through their weekly cravings as their diet becomes more severe. However, using planned cheat meals or refeeds can actually enhance fat loss and body transformation results, particularly during the final stages of a diet.
In this article we delve a little deeper into cheat meals and refeeds, explore the difference between the two, examine their benefits, their pros & cons, and determine which one is best to help keep YOU on track with your health & fitness goals!
What is a Cheat Meal?
A cheat meal is one (emphasis on just ONE!) meal where you disregard the macronutrients and calories that the meal provides. You can eat whatever you want, in whatever quantity you want, but only for one meal sitting. It is called a “cheat meal” because you are essentially “cheating” on your standard macronutrient and caloric goals… “cheating” on your diet.
But before you go do a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and devour a stack of pancakes, 4 family size pizzas and a container full of goey chocolate brownies, there’s a number of things we need to consider first, including refeeds.
What is a Refeed Meal?
A refeed meal is a monitored/controlled increase of macronutrients and calories for a specific period of time. It may be one meal, a number of hours, or and entire refeed day, in which case it can also be referred to as “Carb Cycling”.
Generally speaking, most refeed meals will involve an increase in carbohydrate intake and a corresponding slight decrease in protein and fat intake. Refeeds meals are not a case of eating carbs until you feel sick, but instead consuming an elevated, yet calculated, amount of carbohydrates over a predetermined period of time.
Carbohydrates are generally used in refeed meals because of their ability to replenish glycogen stores, support insulin sensitivity, boost metabolic rate and increase fat loss hormone levels such as thyroid hormone and leptin. The reduction of protein and fat intake during refeeds serves the purpose of controlling total caloric intake and promoting muscle glycogen replenishment instead of body fat storage from the excess carbohydrates.
What are the Benefits of Cheat Meals and Refeeds?
Before we move onto the great Cheat Meal v Refeed Meal Debate, it’s worthwhile understanding the biological mechanisms underpinning the very basis for justifying cheat meals and refeeds.
Humans have an adaptable characteristic to lower energy expenditure in the event that energy intake is lessened. When we are chronically deprived of energy and nutrients we compensate by lowering the demand for energy and hence our metabolic rate. This is known as metabolic adaptation, a basic survival mechanism that ensures we are not rapidly burning through energy when replenishment is not readily available.
Consequently, a number of hormone levels may fluctuate with chronic energy deprivation, most notably the lowering of thyroid hormones and leptin.
Thyroid hormones are primarily responsible for controlling the body’s metabolism. They are secreted from the thyroid gland within the body and are involved in regulating many bodily functions, such as heart rate, metabolic rate, and digestion.
Leptin, the “satiety hormone”, is a hormone that regulates energy balance through inhibiting hunger. Leptin is produced by adipose cells found in adipose tissue (body fat) and can drop in as little as 24 hours of consuming less than maintenance calories.
Combine this drop in leptin with a drop in thyroid hormone levels and you are setting yourself up for a fat loss plateau.
So how do you avoid this diet-and-exercise-induced metabolic adaptation and subsequent stall in fat loss? Enter the refeed and/or cheat meal; an increase in energy intake, whether it be for a single meal or an entire day, can help to revive hormonal levels and metabolic factors.
Yes, that’s right! You can actually increase fat loss by eating more calories for a certain meal, or in some cases, over multiple meals for a given period of time.
When Should You Have a Cheat Meal or Refeed?
Cheat meals and refeeds, when used incorrectly or too frequently, can derail your progress. Knowing when you are in need of a cheat meal or refeed can be tricky, but with time you will learn to know what signs to look out for. Those signs will include:
- Your workouts are poor on a regular basis with no pump, low strength, minimal energy and lack of focus.
- You find it takes far longer to recover from your workouts, including increased muscle stiffness and soreness.
- Your body temperature is starting to drop and you’re feeling cold all the time.
- Your fat loss has plateaued and lowering calories isn’t doing anything to combat this plateau.
If one or more of these apply to you then a cheat meal or refeed may be warranted. If none of these apply to you, you probably don’t need a cheat meal or refeed just yet, regardless of how much you might want one.
Choosing To Use A Cheat Meal or Refeed
So how do you choose between the two? How do you determine whether a cheat meal or a refeed is better suited to helping you bust through your fat loss plateau and reinvigorating your fat loss hormones?
It really does come down to personal preference, so to help you make the decision on which method is going to work best for you, let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of each.
- Eating whatever you want, and however much you want of it.
- Satisfies any and all food cravings without restriction.
- Provides a psychological break from tracking and monitoring your macronutrient and calorie intake.
- Provides a good surge in caloric intake to boost energy and hormone levels.
- Conducive to binge eating and overindulging.
- Not tracking or controlling macronutrient or calorie intake makes it difficult to replicate in the future and hence difficult to incorporate into a structured dieting plan.
- “Cheat” foods are typically high in sodium and starch which can result in severe bloating and discomfort.
- Tends to lead to feelings of guilt for “cheating”, which can negatively impact psychological state.
Cheat Meal Guidelines:
As cheat meals are essentially unstructured meals that stray from your regular diet, they have the potential to result in binge eating or “overindulging” which can set fat-loss results backwards. Here are some guidelines to help you stay in control:
- Place a cheat meal at the end of the day after an intense training session if possible. This can help keep you from extending the cheat past one meal and ruining a whole day of eating.
- Allow yourself a designated time of between 45 to 60 minutes to finish your cheat meal. This keeps you from turning one meal into an all-out binge that will set back your progress rather than accelerating it.
- Have your cheat meal the night before you train a large (or weak) muscle group, like legs or back. The additional glycogen and fullness from the cheat meal will ensure that you have an awesome, powerful training session. Alternatively, have a cheat meal after a big training session to aid recovery and replace glycogen stores.
- Allows you to maintain complete control of total daily caloric intake.
- Easy to replicate and incorporate into a structured dieting plan.
- Replenishes depleted glycogen stores to help support energy for training and recovery.
- Satisfies “sweet tooth” via consuming carb-dense foods.
- Restricting the amount and types of foods consumed may cause you to still feel unsatisfied after a refeed.
- Maintaining precise measurement of food quantity and macronutrients doesn’t provide for a psychological break from the demands of dieting.
- Possiblity of falling into a “Carb Coma” which can result in drowsiness after a carbohydrate dense meal.
As refeeds are a very structured and planned increase in carbohydrates and calories, there aren’t too many extra procedures to follow when implementing them. The most important thing about a refeed is to not only plan and think ahead about what you are going to consume but also to document and record how your body reacts to different food types and quantities. The more information you document, the more you will learn about how your body reacts to certain macronutrients, and you will therefore be able to replicate the same refeed once you find the best combination of both food selection and quantity.
So Which One Should I Implement?
It really comes down to your personal preference and your partiality to following structure.
If you are a person that doesn’t have cravings for certain foods when dieting, or have a tendency to overindulge, then a controlled refeed will be the better option.
If you are struggling to keep on your diet, and are able to consume your favourite non-diet foods without overindulging, then a cheat meal is the way to go.
The most important thing to take from this is that whether you use a cheat meal or a refeed, they both aim to serve the same purpose and are both important methods that should be respected, not abused, when dieting.