Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Everyone knows about this, the infamous cheat meal. That one meal a week where you just go nuts on the biggest meal you can without any thoughts about your weight loss/fitness goals. But is the cheat meal actually any good for you?
There are a lot of coaches out there that will have you believe it is okay. The reality is, it could be doing you more harm than good, both mentally and physically. Before we break it down we need to understand the purpose or the why of a cheat meal.
I personally believe that a lot of coaches out there actually have no idea what it’s for and do it simply because other coaches do it. The purpose of a cheat meal is meant to be to refuel your bodies glycogen stores (primary energy) when in a caloric deficit in order to maintain exercise intensity and performance. There is also a mental component to having these meals. For a lot of people when dieting, that one meal a week can help with compliance to the rest of the diet throughout the week.
The idea behind how a cheat meal works is the extra calories you consume through this meal end up refilling your glycogen stores (both muscle and liver) in your body. Herein lies the problem with cheat meals and why they aren’t necessarily good. In order to understand this a bit better we need to delve a little deeper into the physiology of the human body.
In our bodies, we have two forms of energy reserves. The first and primary is glycogen. Glycogen is a form of glucose and when not being utilized it is then stored inside our liver and muscles as glycogen. The second form of energy our bodies can use is triglycerides which is stored in adipose tissue (fat). Glycogen is by far the more superior form of energy for our body for shorter bouts of exercise like weight training.
So with that little bit of an explanation out of the way we can now get back on to the how of a cheat meal. The premise of having these cheat meals is that all the food you consume will go into your body and refuel these stores of energy which have been depleted from being in a caloric deficit. The problem with this premise is this.
In order to refill our glycogen stores we need to consume carbohydrates. What you end up seeing with cheat meals is while there are carbohydrates in there, the vast majority of the calories is made up from fats. So what ends up happening here is your body doesn’t really know what to do with all these extra fats and calories, and even extra carbohydrates to an extent (maybe more on that at a later time).
Now we have the issue of your body has quite quickly refiled its glycogen stores and now has all this extra energy just sitting there with nothing to do. In a VERY summarised way what it now does is then stories it as adipose tissue (fat) as a survival mechanism. In essence you have now possibly undone a week’s worth of work dieting (yes I have seen some truly scary cheat meals).
What should I do then?
We firstly need to look at rethinking our whole approach. No matter what your fitness goal is we need a reasoning for doing this.
I mentioned earlier the mental side of this. People always underestimate how hard mentally it can be sticking to a meal plan/diet. The biggest problem isn’t that meal plans fail, it’s that people find it hard to consistently stick to them. This is where a cheat meal *can* be helpful. It is that one meal which they don’t have to worry about and can enjoy food. They get mental satisfaction from it has been shown to lead to increased consistency throughout the rest of the week with their eating. There can however a bad mental side to cheat meals. People can become so fixated on this one meal a week that all they care about is getting through the week to this meal. While this can sound good because it could come with increased adherence, it is a very slippery slope from there to an eating disorder.
All of us coaches here at UFQ however do not advise you just go out and find the biggest unhealthiest meal you can to splurge on. What we advise our clients is to go have a meal they actually enjoy, myself for example I love a good of Chicken Parmigiana or steak and chips from the pub.
Both these meals aren’t over the top but it is something I will actually enjoy and feel satisfied from.
From a physical point of view, the harsh reality is that only a very small of amount of people dieting need a cheat meal. But from a physical point I am no longer going to call it a cheat meal, but rather refer to is a refeed meal/day. As we covered in the “how” section, our goal is to refill our glycogen stores from carbohydrates. Because this is our goal we are going to be wanting an increased carbohydrate intake compared to other days. How much is always going to differ per individual because of things like BMR, NEAT, muscle mass, length of current dieting phase and a few other variables. Depending on the individual this may mean simply a larger meal could be sufficient or we might need a whole day to get the necessary carbohydrate intake.
In conclusion, cheat meals may be something that is holding you back from reaching your fitness goals, especially if they are the just ludicrous excuses to consume as much as possible. They are also clearly not needed for a lot of people as outlined above. Finally though, it is important to note that like everything when it comes to dieting, there is a huge individual aspect involved here. Everyone is different, has different goals and reacts differently. The best advice I can offer is seek out a well-educated coach who is qualified and work with them.