There are two common ways that one can “cheat” on their diet without throwing all their progress out the window. You can either do what’s called a Dirty Cheat or a Refeed meal. Both have their benefits and both equally have the potential for drawbacks too. Ultimately the choice is yours, but it’s I important to have a solid understanding of the reasoning behind these options.
The Dirty Cheat or cheat meal are what most people (including non-fitness enthusiasts) are fairly familiar with. The idea here is to eat a meal that’s more decadent than usual, but in the hopes of it staying balanced in terms of macros (protein, carbs and fat). In reality though, many who go for this type of cheat meal go all out and opt for fast food, deserts, junk food snacks or any combination of these into one massive meal. The good thing about a scheduled and well-timed cheat meal is that it can help you hormone-wise, especially if you’re trying to lose weight or diet-down. When calories are restricted and your bodyfat drops the hormone Leptin (which signals satiety or the feeling of fullness) can decrease while the hormone Ghrelin (which signals that you’re hungry) increases. What this means is that your brain isn’t going to let you feel full and your hunger is going to feel way more intense that it actually is. That’s why it’s so difficult for people to lose weight and keep it off; at a certain point the your body and it’s hormones are going to fight you as hard as possible to keep you hungry and reaching for food all the time. This is where the Dirty Cheat can come in handy. It has been proven time and again that a weekly cheat meal will help to raise Leptin levels and drop Ghrelin levels in the days following that big decadent meal. On the flip side, this style of eating can lead to some pretty nasty side effects. Many cheat items are unbalanced and tend to be super high fat and high carb (for example deserts or pasta with cream sauce or french fries) or super high fat and high-ish protein (for example chicken fried steak or baby-back ribs). It’s also very easy to go overboard on the portion size and overeat to the point where you are overly stuffed and may even feel sick. All of this can lead to some serious indigestion, discomfort and bloating not to mention weight gain. When you are losing weight, your metabolism becomes very sensitive and a massive meal or entire day of overeating can cause a big rebound in a short amount of time leading you to pack on body fat once again. What’s more is that if you have ever struggled with self-control around food, this may not be the best option for you as it could lead to a binge. When it comes to the Dirty Cheat, know yourself and your triggers before you indulge.
The Refeed or carb-load is an entirely different concept. Essentially you eat one meal that is super high carb, minimal fat and moderate protein. This option is great for those with a low body fat percentage, which is why this is the preferred method for bodybuilders. Those with a lower body fat can refeed more than the average sedentary person would, i.e. they can go for a much higher carb and sizeable portion than the latter. The body can respond very well to this method of cheating, especially if you’ve been going low carb or working towards fat loss for a while. When you carb-load your body takes in extra glycogen which promotes muscle protein synthesis (or muscle growth) and ultimately helps to bring your hormones back to an optimum level. This is why so many athletes who practice refeeds always have their best workouts the day after this meal. Their bodies and muscles are holding extra fuel so they end up pushing harder at the gym and getting a great post-workout pump. Ideally, you want to aim for the refeed to provide an extra 20-50% of extra calories than you typically take in. Bare in mind though that it depends on your body fat and how advanced you are in your training. The down side to this is that you have to be careful to what you choose to eat and ensure that fat is kept to a minimum, in fact don’t add any fat to this meal if you can help it and try to avoid eating this close to bedtime.
For many bodybuilders pre-contest carb-load is essential in the days leading up to a show. I personally take 2 days to load up on carbs before hitting the stage, but it’s always very easy to digest sources like white rice, cream of rice and sweet potatoes. The reason why we go for these types of carbohydrates is that during this time we’re also cutting and manipulating water in order to dehydrate and if you go high carb without enough water it can make you very sick. It’s best to avoid flour based refined starches as they are harder to digest and just sit heavily in your belly when you eat them without sufficient water. So forgo the pasta and breads.
I have seen bodybuilders go for the Dirty Cheat pre-contest instead of the carb-load, but it can backfire if you’re not careful. Again, you’re dehydrated so if you eat a big fatty, sugary meal without enough water it’ll cause serious bloating pre-contest which is a no-no. So a lot of athletes end having to take a harsh laxative to make sure it gets out of their system before they hit the stage. Ultimately you run the risk of going to an extreme here…proceed with caution. At each show I’ve seen people backstage eating chips, chocolate bars or pastries right before prejudging and going out for a Dirty Cheat meal before finals. I personally am sitting there with my white rice and tempeh or sweet potatoes and brown rice protein powder and I only take in sugar right before I hit the stage in the form of white rice and maple syrup (and it’s a tablespoon at that). I don’t want to risk anything at that point and bloat or feel uncomfortable while trying to pose.
This may all seem a bit intense to figure out what works best for you as there really is a science behind all of this. I was always doing a traditional weekly treat meal, but now especially with my training being more advanced and getting closer to show day I switch to weekly refeeds. My body responds very well to this and get to enjoy some really nice food while refueling my body at the same time. Some weeks I’ll go for salty and have whole grain pasta with a homemade tomato sauce (no oil!) or I’ll go for sweet instead and have homemade donuts made from oatbran, banana and maple syrup. Last week I really treated myself to something awesome where I had cereal treats from a brown rice cocoa breakfast cereal with vegan marshmallows (made from cassava instead of gelatin). It was sooooo good. The carbs hit me fast and I felt like jogging for about an hour after I had eaten, but my workout the next day was awesome. Thanks to my replenished glycogen I hit some new PRs and crushed it at the gym!
Give both cheat options a try and see how your body feels after and how well it impacts your progress. Keep in mind that these meals are meant to help you physically, recharge your batteries and reset your metabolism. This can be invaluable to anyone regardless of their goals, so try to fit one meal like this into your week. Enjoy it, savour it and use those extra calories to your benefit.
Start Strong, Finish Strong