We already talked about the consequences of chronic energy restriction [1, 2, 3], and now it is time to see how we can avoid them. Cheat meals are one of such strategies. Many see these cheat meals as a kind of reward to relief the psychological stress from a very restrictive diet. But they are much more than that. Cheat meals are in fact metabolic reactivators which allow to obtain consistent results for a longer period of time. The goal is to stimulate leptin, a hormone that plays a central role in the regulation of energy homeostasis. Often misunderstood, the importance of cheat meals is overlooked and the consequences can be the ones you already know. As such, it is important to understand the role that these meals have on a calorie restrictive diet, and how to include them in your regime for optimal results.
Learning to deal with leptin, and with all the hormonal system of our body, is the secret of body composition, and the secret of fitness. Leptin is produced by the adipose tissue and it controls the energy metabolism as a ‘lipostat’. When fat levels are low or when there is a deficient energy input, leptin is inhibited and its levels decrease. This leads to less activation of the sympathetic nervous system and reduced energy expenditure, as well as the inhibition of the secretion of pituitary hormones such as LH and TSH. This last one is responsible for thyroid stimulating. On the other hand, when we get fat or when you eat more calories than you should, leptin increases and signals the hypothalamus to spend this surplus energy. Metabolism gets faster, we feel satiety and thus our fat levels remain stable. This is why our weight does not fluctuate much when we make a sporadic “excess”, even if we are talking about a brutal energy intake. We have a lipostat which regulates our “set-point”, in other words, the normal fat level for a given physiological state.
When we submit ourselves to a hypocaloric diet for a long time, leptin levels fall chronically and our metabolism becomes slower. Obviously this is not favorable when we want to lose fat, especially because one of leptin’s roles is precisely to favor fatty acid oxidation in the muscle and increase energy expenditure. Unfortunately, leptin reduction is the normal physiological response to caloric restriction, a defense mechanism adapted to protect us in times of need which no longer exist nowadays. It is necessary to somehow “trick” our organism and reactivate leptin signaling so that we can continue to lose fat effectively. This is where the cheat meal comes in.
The concept of “cheat meal” is often confused with “cheat day” or ” trash day”. As its name implies, cheat meal presupposes a meal of “cheating”, outside the usual dietary restrictions, and not all day. The aim is precisely to increase leptin leading to a metabolic reactivation. In this regard, carbohydrates are particularly effective as insulin stimulation in a sensitive environment favors leptin production. Thus, the cheat meal should be rich in carbohydrates, or even sugars. A true sacrifice I guess… Cheat meals wouldn’t be useful if it wasn’t for leptin. In response to an energy bolus, adipose tissue produces a large amount of leptin that can be kept high for more than 24 hours. This is a signal for the body that the ‘fuel tank’ is full and we can start using it. In response, lipid oxidation in the muscle increases, we feel more satisfied, and our metabolic rate accelerates.
Leptin sensitivity is a critical point for a successful cheat meal. After a cheat meal, you should feel good, with lots of energy, more muscle definition and volume, and more vascularized, instead of being tired, hungry and with a fluid retention that covers any hint of muscle. If you are already with a good body composition, have been in a strict diet for a some days in a row, have been training with intensity and regularly you should certainly be more sensitive to leptin. This is what we seek: a primer for the cheat meal. Depending on the starting point, this level may take a few weeks to achieve. It takes experience to detect the right time, but this is precisely the feature that highlights an excellent athlete or coach and distinguishes from the ordinary. You can always go by trial and error, paying attention to your physical condition and energy in the hours following the meal and the day after.
Leptin sensitivity goes hand in hand with insulin resistance. Leptin causes insulin resistance, interfering with cell signaling pathways. What does this mean? It means that in the period following a well made cheat meal, which may extend for 24 hours, you’ll experience more insulin resistance. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense from a physiological point of view. Insulin inhibits the use of fatty acids as energy source and promotes the glycolytic pathways. Meanwhile, leptin facilitates the oxidation of fatty acids. The two processes should not occur in parallel. As such, the following day should be low calorie and with some carbohydrate restriction, which will be easier due to the elevation of leptin. Basically one more day with your normal fat loss diet.
There is no ideal frequency for these meals. Some do them once a week, some twice, some even more frequently. It depends on your fitness level, metabolism and conditioning, but they are not recommended right from the beginning of the diet. The first 2-4 weeks, or even more, can and should be something linear with no cheat meals. This will promote greater initial sensitivity to leptin and insulin with diet and exercise. In addition, the metabolic depression is not as pronounced in this initial period, which can and should be leveraged to make the most of caloric restriction. After this period, a weekly cheat meal is usually enough for most people and and may become more frequent as we grow thinner and with an optimized metabolism for such.
A question I am often asked is what is for the best time of the day to have this meal. Not sure why some people think it should be in the morning or at lunch. I have a contrary opinion: dinner is the ideal time. Not only because the body will be more receptive and with higher levels of leptin, thereby synchronizing the peak induced by the meal with the normal circadian rhythm (leptin is higher at the end of the day and night), but also because it will be easier to ensure that the cheat meal ends there. It is not easy to maintain control after an insulin spike of such magnitude, which can generate a snowball of successive ‘cheat meals’. Going to bed a few hours later can help. Moreover, the carbohydrates will stimulate relaxation neurotransmitters, including serotonin and melatonin, which will make you sleep like a baby, something that is not always possible on a calorie restrictive diet.
The day following the cheat meal you should train, using glycogen stores filled to the maximum that will enhance the session. In addition to this, training will enhance insulin sensitivity and muscle tolerance to carbohydrates. We have seen that in the day after the cheat meal there is a greater physiological insulin resistance. It is not crucial that you do so, and when resting glycogen stores may actually remain high for several days, however it is always useful to be able to train the next day, spending the glycogen stores and again increasing the muscle tolerance to carbohydrates. Likewise, it is useful to make the cheat meal in a training day, preferably in a period of a few hours after the session. This way enhancing recovery and taking advantage of the muscle’s insulin sensitivity induced by exercise.
It is important to understand that cheat meal refers to one and only one meal, not the whole day. I am not a fan of the concept of “trash day”, which I think is in many cases counterproductive. What I do and what I recommend is a time limit in which you can eat whatever you want, giving preference to foods that are rich in carbohydrates and even sugars. In my case, I have just over 60 min to empty the nearest sushi buffet, without any sense of guilt. It could be pizza, but not even in a cheat meal I eat gluten… The bails don’t go that far (or rarely…). But in the conscious that I did it not because I was weak, but because that was the goal. Results come before any mental block that I may have or some self-harm desire. After that I go back to being a good boy, and the next day I’m in the gym, more motivated and with an incomparably greater performance.
But caution is needed when recommending this type of strategy to “common people” with a determination and diet consistency way different from athletes (I love working with athletes!). The cheat meals are usually programmed to set days, usually opting for the end-of-week. But the truth is that we are always being tempted to slip in the diet. Many will make several cheat meals, whenever the opportunity appears. It is important to have this sensibility to it, because a cheat meal can quickly turn into two or three. Sometimes it is preferable to recommend them when the situation provides itself, say a dinner with friends or family lunch, simply because they provide too many times. But it is important to do so only when your body is ready. Not before.
For many, cheat meals also become a psychological relief that allows maintaining sanity during the diet. Eagerly await the big day! But actually, it is not only pleasure we seek here, but rather the restoration of a depressed metabolism by energy deprivation. It is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of intelligence. However, we should not underestimate the psychological impact of an overly restrictive diet. The cheat meal is also a way to relieve anxiety and stress, factors that negatively influence the results we want to achieve. We are social animals. Hanging out with friends and family is an important part of our life, and cheat meals are an opportunity for that.
These cheat meals are so satisfactory and desired that is not easy to understand their importance. How can pleasure be good on a diet? It should be hard! They are seen as a slip, compromising results. On the contrary if they are well applied, and this is a key point. It is important to understand that these “time off” ensure that the results continue to appear over time, also favoring a more “stiff” and vascularized look (we are talking mostly about most men) instead of that “flat” and “soft” look which is achieved when the restriction of carbohydrates and energy is too severe and prolonged. But more importantly, they help to reactivate the depressed metabolism and to promote fat loss “telling” your body: “I’m not into deprivation … I do not need to store fat”! The cheat meals are part of your strategy, and achieving any goal requires the prior design of one. Then just go for it.
– Cheat meals are important to reactivate a depressed metabolism
– Cheat meal refers to one and only one meal
– They should be rich in carbs and energy
– You should not include cheat meals since the beginning of your diet
– One per week is usually enough
– It should be done after a training session
– If possible, you should train on the day after
– Dinner is the best time for a cheat meal