Cheat meals... we all love them, but do we really need them. The term 'cheat meal' has become a fitness industry haven. Cheat meals were first introduced for people who are aggressively dieting and occasionally need a bit of sanity and are allowed to indulge in their favourite cheat meal before getting back onto their diet the following day.
Do you need a cheat meal?
Cheat meals can be beneficial in a number of different ways and can be strategically used with people who are cutting. However... if you are in a gaining phase, cheat meals are definitely not needed! Chances are you are just greedy and want to indulge. Unless of course you are someone who struggles to gain weight and sometimes needs easy dense calories from foods like pizza, burgers etc. as a way to comfortably pack in a lot of calories.
What happens to your body when dieting?
When dieting in a calorie deficit over a prolonged period of time there are a few key hormonal changes that take place when your body tries to adapt to being in an energy deficit.
One impact is a reduction in leptin. Leptin plays a key role in regulating body weight and fat. Many studies have shown a reduction in leptin levels when in a calorie deficit. Eating a high-calorie cheat meal and putting your body into a calorie surplus for a short period of time can dramatically increase leptin levels to allow for continued fat loss when going back into a calorie deficit immediately after.
Ghrelin is another hormone which is effected when dieting, Ghrelin is an appetite stimulant which increases hunger. When following a low-calorie diet, studies have shown Ghrelin hormone increases which can lead an increased food intake or food binges which can massively effect your weight loss goals.
It doesn't stop there... when following a low-calorie diet your body will do everything possible to adapt to this change in energy input and therefore tries to conserve energy so your body burns fewer calories to balance the low-calorie intake. Your body goes about this by decreasing levels of thyroid hormones T3 & T4 which play a role in maintaining metabolism.
Finally, a prolonged low carbohydrate diet depletes glycogen stores which in time leaves you feeling sluggish, tired and weak. This can negatively effect your training performance as well as leaving you deprived of energy.
What are the benefits of incorporating cheat meals and re-feeds?
Cue the cheat meal! If you are someone that is following a low-calorie diet over a prolonged period of time then you are in luck, you might just be due a cheat meal!
All the above negative impacts on the body's hormones when dieting can be slightly overturned with the occasional cheat meal.
Weekly cheat meals that are high in calories and leave you in a calorie surplus for that day can help to raise leptin levels and lower ghrelin. This can be very beneficial as it will help reset your metabolism, decrease hunger and improve energy expenditure. The increase in calories will also help to increase thyroid function which will also help to boost metabolism. This spike in metabolism can last for days and offset the negative effects of dieting on the body's hormones. Adding a weekly cheat meal into your routine can avoid you hitting weight loss plateaus and prevent starvation mode where your body aims to burn as little calories as possible to survive a severe calorie deficit.
A less scientific benefit of incorporating weekly cheat meals is to satisfy any food cravings and offer a moment of sanity and enjoyment which we all know is hard to come by when in a low-calorie diet. Having one cheat meal a week can play a large part on you sticking to your diet throughout the week if you know you have got a cheat meal to work towards.
Can eating too much on your cheat meal effect your fat loss goals?
Now before you go and stuff your face with a weeks load of junk food in one listen up. Although we have stated the many benefits of incorporating cheat meals there is a limit. At the end of the day losing weight boils down to being in an overall calorie deficit over the week, If your cheat meal is so large that you end up eating so many calories that it brings you out of your weekly deficit then this is going to have the complete opposite effect and offset your weight loss goals. Limit your cheat meal to one reasonably sized dish. Something like a cheeseburger and chips, a medium pizza, fajitas, steak and chips are all good choices.