The Science Behind Cheat Meals
Cheat meals seem to be a highly debatable topic among bodybuilders. Do they work, do they hinder progress or even reverse progress? The science behind how cheat meals actually work revolve around a few principles that need to be discussed. These three principles are as follows: thyroid hormone output, 24 hour energy expenditure, and serum leptin levels. More specifically, cheat meals rely on increasing or the upregulation all of these factors. Some people use cheat meals and other use entire cheat days. The specificity of a cheat meal or day must be designed for the athlete in question because everyone is different and will respond different to specific types and amounts of food.
It is important to note the nature and extent of cheating. Cheating is not necessarily free eating or eating in absolute abundance. Cheating still needs to be planned and somewhat controlled, especially if it is within a contest preparation regime. The word cheating implies that it is a complete and utter break from the diet. This may or may not be the case for certain individuals. It is important to learn how your body reacts to certain foods and amounts of foods. Those who are not in a large caloric deficit (more than 750 calories per day) do not need a cheat as often as those who are in a smaller caloric deficit. A cheat meal should not be eating to the point of discomfort and potential sickness. A cheat meal should be eaten until the point of feeling full and satisfied and no more. Some individuals have a tendency to eat past this point, which can potentially hinder progress that can be achieved if done correctly. However, it is important to note, that with most all things in the world of bodybuilding, this is specific to the person in question. You may have a friend that can eat 5 hamburgers and never gain or lose a pound, but you must find out what works for you, not what has worked for someone else. This is because leptin levels are closely linked with genetics. There is actually a model for obesity that potentially links a defect of this particular leptin gene to obesity.
Leptin is a protein but is hormone-like in nature. It circulates in the bloodstream and regulates appetite. Leptin is an appetite suppressant. Leptin levels decrease while dieting and in a caloric deficit. This is where a cheat meal can be beneficial to a dieter. Cheat meals are beneficial to increasing leptin levels for a period of time. Now that leptin has been increased in the bloodstream additional physiological factors result. With increased calories from a cheat meal, the body then upregulates metabolism to expend these calories.
When dieting continues, the metabolism is still slightly elevated from the cheat meal, thus leading to an even greater energy expenditure and increased fat loss. Because metabolic rate is closely linked to thyroid output this is how the increased thyroid hormone is tied in to the cheat meal. Also, with an increased metabolic rate, thermogenesis increases as a result.
Cheat meals usually get a bad wrap because people tend to not understand how to cheat correctly. Yes, there should even be somewhat of structure to your cheat, whether it may be type of food, timing of the meal or the amount. The idea that cheat meals cause problems are derived from the idea of psychological factors rather than physiological ones. If cheating on a diet were to physiologically inhibit any bodybuilders’ progress, I can guarantee that no one would be using them. Psychologically, however, there is an argument. Certain types of food are addictive as we know, due to the chemical nature of these certain types of foods. However, some foods are addictive to some and not to others, which allows us to make the assumption that even the chemical nature of the foods themselves are not completely responsible for the addictive properties. That is, the individual himself/herself has preferences for certain foods and thereby weaknesses for some and not for others. Not all people have addictive tendencies for food or for anything for that matter. Yes, cheating allows things that are not on the diet, which may seem to pose a dangerous problem. However, as I discussed before, it the cheat is planned and constructed correctly there should be no worry of over indulgence or any other problems that cheat meals hypothetically create.
There is also reason to believe that a cheat meal or cheat day should be used as carb-up or carbohydrate loading day. This could mean that the cheat is not necessarily a meal that is not on the diet but rather increased carbohydrates (that are allowed by the diet) for a particular meal or day. By doing this the body can still act upon the principles of a cheat meal by upregulating the indicated factors discussed above, but do so without loading the body with unnecessary fats and processed foods items. This type of cheat is usually deemed a “refeed” day with increase carbohydrate consumption is best used during competition dieting. The manipulation of carbohydrates during competition dieting
is crucial as we all know, therefore, refeed days should be taken into account when you plan your next pre-competition diet in order to maximize your potential.
Sources and Photo Credits
McArdle, W. (1999). Sports & exercise nutrition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott
Williams & Wilkins.