We’ve all heard it before, “Have a cheat meal to break through a plateau. Go on – you’ve earned it”. In bodybuilding circles, cheat meals seem to be the go-to get out of jail card whenever someone hits a sticking point, or reaches a stage in their diet when the fat doesn’t seem to be dropping.
The theory is, that by suddenly ingesting a vast number of calories from mostly “un-clean” or junk sources, you shock your metabolism into action, ramping up your rate of calorie burn, and putting you back on track to fat loss progress. It almost makes sense to a degree.
The Leptin Theory
One of the most critical hormones that comes into play when you’re losing fat is leptin. Leptin is responsible for regulating hunger and metabolic rate.
Low levels of leptin result in a slower metabolism, and higher levels of grehlin (the opposing hormone that stimulates hunger). High levels of leptin on the other hand can increase metabolic rate, and make you feel fuller and more satiated. Therefore, we clearly want leptin levels to be higher when dieting.
Unfortunately though, leptin levels correlate with calorie intake, and the lower the calorie intake, the lower leptin levels are, so when in a calorie deficit, you simply can’t optimise leptin levels. However, leptin can be raised by a short-term increase in calories (particularly from carbs) and it’s here where the theory of a cheat meal comes in.
Not So Fast
You might be thinking that if a short-term calorie boost raises leptin, and leptin raises metabolism, then this means the cheat meal is a perfect strategy for getting over a weight loss hump. Here’s the deal though: the rise in leptin is only transient, and can actually be provided by a relatively small increase in calories.
Let’s break this down. A transient rise is one that only lasts for a short period of time, and is largely insignificant. Therefore, your massive cheat meal might contain 5,000 plus calories, but the reality is, any increase in leptin will contribute to a far smaller boost in caloric burn. Secondly, you really only need a small additional caloric intake to push leptin to its maximum production levels, meaning that the vast majority of the excess calories from your cheat meal will simply be stored.
The Carb Conundrum
Another key factor that the cheat meal idea fails to address is the fact that leptin is responsive to carbohydrate, much more than to protein or fat. That is why your “cheat meal” should be mainly carbohydrate based.
Some fat and protein is okay, but when you’re putting your body into a short-term caloric surplus in the attempt to give your metabolism a kick, it’s a wise move to make most of that surplus come in the form of carbs.
The Calorie Factor
Here’s a quick sum for you. If your maintenance calorie level is 2,500 per day, and you consume 2,000 calories (a 500 calorie deficit) 6 days of the week, then have a cheat meal containing, say 6,000 calories on the seventh day, here’s what happens:
· 500 calorie deficit x 6 = 3,000 calorie deficit
· 6,000 calorie cheat day = 3,500 surplus
· Total weekly calorie balance = 500 surplus
Not only does this mean you won’t lose any fat – you’ll actually gain weight slowly following this protocol.
Is There a Better Option?
The good news is yes there is. You can get all the leptin-boosting benefits of a cheat meal, without any of the unwanted fat gain. (Not to mention the lethargy, feelings of guilt, bloat, and the development of a poor relationship with food that cheat meals so often create.)
Instead of a cheat meal or cheat day, consider a re-feed. This is a structured, tracked cheat meal that focuses on increased carbohydrate consumption, without going overboard on calories, or putting you into a food coma. The idea of a re-feed is to put you back up to around maintenance calories.
So using the example from before, our dieter with a 2,500 calorie maintenance, dieting on 2,000 calories per day would go back up to 2,500 for a re-feed. These 500 extra calories would all come in the form of carbs.
There are 4 calories per gram of carbs, so this would mean that he would add 125 grams of carbs to his normal daily intake. An even more carb-heavy approach could involve dropping protein and fat a little, to allow room for more carbs, without the calorie intake going through the roof.
These guidelines aren’t set in stone, and should be adjusted to suit you. You might decide to re-feed two or three times per week, but make each one smaller. Perhaps you’d rather one big re-feed. Likewise, you could even lower your intake on your non-re-feed days, then crank up the carbs to a greater degree when you do carb load. There’s no “best” way to do it. Here is a bad way though – and that is a cheat meal.
Re-feeds are a far better option, as you still obtain the cheat meal benefits, yet keep progress under control, and are far better able to monitor your results, and adjust the protocol for optimal fat loss.