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Unless you've been training under a rock, you've undoubtedly heard of the term cheat meal.
The idea behind them is to stick to your diet during the week, then at the weekend (or whenever you choose) indulge in one "cheat meal" to prevent your body entering 'starvation mode' by re-setting your metabolism and give you some mental reprieve.
For this one meal, you can eat whatever you want and the story goes, that by doing this you'll be "ripped" in no time.
You know how people say, "if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is"?
This is one of those times.
Not only do cheat meals usually lead to overeating, an excessive calorie surplus and the undoing of all your hard work, but 'starvation mode' for the average gym goer is a myth, period.
To be anywhere close to entering starvation mode you'd have to eat less than the body requires to function for a prolonged period.
Research shows that even after fasting for 60hrs, resting metabolic rate (RMR) is reduced by only 8%. Think about that, if after eating nothing for 60hrs your RMR is only decreased by 8%, then missing a meal or fasting for a day will not put you anywhere near starvation mode.
Why do people bother with cheat meals?
In a word, Leptin.
Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells in your body to control metabolism and hunger. When you eat in calorie deficit your Leptin levels decrease as you lose weight, this reduces your resting metabolic rate and increases your hunger.
Cheat meals are allegedly used to restore Leptin levels, reduce hunger and raise your resting metabolic rate.
Whilst this now makes them seem like a great idea, they're not and I'll show you why.
Cheat meals encourage binge eating and excessive consumption
There is this phenomenon in the fitness industry that to be successful at dieting you must be miserable, to reach your goals you have to struggle and to lose weight you can't have a social life.
With this being the norm for you and many others, it's no surprise that your diet is structured around a restrictive diet during the week with a cheat meal being the saving grace.
The problem is, when you get to the weekend your cheat meals quickly turns into a binge as you eat the foods you've been craving.
This shouldn't be too surprising when you consider that research shows that restricted eaters consumed significantly more than their unrestrained counterparts, whilst also displaying greater craving, liking and desire to eat cued foods.
This means that when you smell, think of or see adverts of food you've been restricting you'll be more likely to overindulge than someone who eats a balanced diet.
Cheat meals create and reinforce the idea of good and bad food
Cheat meals contribute to the development of the mentality of "good" and "bad" food, when in fact, no food should be labelled good or bad.
However, the view that foods like ice cream, pizza and burgers are bad persists.
This is because these foods are generally:
• High in fat
• High in sugar
• Low in vitamins and minerals
Of course, not all food is made equal but to demonise foods that don't have a low-calorie count or high levels of vitamins or minerals was a foolish step by the diet/fitness industries. This whole concept or "good" or "clean" foods will lead you to a place of restrictive eating, guilty feelings and self-loathing.
Whereas if you were to include the foods you love in moderation you would avoid this whole saga.
Cheat meals are often high fat and bad at raising Leptin levels
Research shows that carbohydrate overfeeding is superior for raising Leptin levels whereas fat overfeeding has no significant effect at all. The same study and another also showed that carbohydrate overfeeding resulted in increased energy expenditure over a 24-hour period whereas fat overfeeding didn't.
Add to this the fact that your body is predisposed to use carbohydrate over fat (when both are present) as its primary energy source, you can see why it's time to do away with sloppy, uncontrolled cheat meals that lead to binging, overindulgence and weight gain.
Refeeds - the solution to cheat meals
A refeed is commonly described as a planned increase in calories used when dieting to negate the downsides of eating in a calorie deficit by boosting leptin levels.
If you are pretty lean (10%) or have been eating at a deficit for a long time, then it's best to start with one refeed day a week. If you're above 10% body fat or in the early stages of your fat loss diet then start with a refeed every 2 weeks and adjust from there.
To set yourself up for the refeed you want to raise your calories to maintenance level and set your macronutrients as follows:
Keep protein constant, reduce fats to approx. 20g and put everything else to carbs.
What if you're not eating in a deficit?
The fact of the matter is if your diet is set up properly and you meet your daily calorie and macro needs cheat meals aren't necessary. It's all about balance, if your diet includes foods you love there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, you just have to account for it.
The bottom line is that dieting shouldn't be a struggle!