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To Cheat or Not to Cheat: Our Love/Hate Relationship with the Cheat Meal

I have had many competitors tell me that while they look forward to their cheat meal all week when prepping for a show, they cannot stand the way it makes them feel after and they wish they never had it.  So what gives? Is it better to cheat or not? In a nutshell, my opinion is to have 1-3 structured-somewhat-clean-carb-ups in lieu of balls-out cheat meals.  This assures that each meal will go towards muscle building and leptin resetting, rather than spilling over into fat storage and water retention that will have you scrambling until Wednesday to get back to your pre-meal look.

Some of America’s Favorite Cheats: Wings, Burgers & Cheesecake

Why carb up at all? The answer is hormones.

Contrary to what many competitors may think, the cheat meal is not just given as a psychological coping mechanism through the dieting process.  It is more a tool used to affect hormones in order to boost a slowing metabolism, an unfortunate result of chronic dieting.

Leptin: Many of us are familiar with the effect that carbohydrate intake has on the hormone insulin, and the potential for fat storing and insulin resistance if carb intake is consistently overindulged (i.e. bloat and fat storage).  One hormone, however, that many may not have heard of is leptin.  Leptin is a hormone produced mostly by the fat cells, and is a regulatory hormone for hunger and satiety.  One way leptin is released is in response to “refeeding,” or a sharp increase in carb and calorie intake after a period of lower carb and calorie intake.  Once released from stored fat cells, leptin moves into the blood stream and crosses the blood-brain barrier.  Here it acts as a feedback mechanism in the hypothalamus to effectively induce the feeling of satiety, telling you to stop eating and decreases hunger. Leptin also communicates with the thyroid and induces a speeding of the metabolism.

Low calorie and lower carbohydrate diets, such as a traditional contest prep diet over time can give the body and metabolism the opposite message: eat, conserve, don’t build muscle, slow down.  This is a concept that many of us have heard before—restriction of calories or carbohydrates for an extended period of time will cause the metabolism to slow.  A strategically-scheduled high-carb meal will help reset leptin levels to speed up a sluggish metabolism brought on by dieting, while spurring muscle anabolism.  Interesting side note: Ironically, obese people have high amounts of leptin, yet they can become insensitive to it–leaving them never feeling full!  In order for people who are leptin resistant to re-sensitize to its message, they must cut carbs and calories for a period of time.

Serotonin: Many may have also heard of the feel-good hormone serotonin.  It is a neurotransmitter that boosts mood and is often manipulated by drugs for those suffering from depression.  We all know that eating carbohydrates boost our mood, and the reason for this is that it boosts serotonin production.  Low serotonin can be associated with increased cravings for sweets.  This makes sense from a biochemical standpoint.  Tryptophan, an amino acid precursor to serotonin production, is allowed greater entry into the brain when insulin is around (as a result of decreased amino acid competition at the blood/brain barrier), consequently increasing serotonin production.  Thus, when a diet restricts carbohydrate intake for long periods of time, and especially when combined with strenuous exercise, serotonin production plummets and manifests itself by way of increased cravings and hunger.  Lower serotonin levels can also manifest via the “zombie” feeling that many competitors experience while in the throws of contest prep.  It’s not strictly an energy thing, it has to do with hormones too.  Adding a structured carb-heavy cheat normalizes serotonin levels and as a result may help curb cravings.  Also, from a psychological perspective, we know that having the carbs to “look forward to” encourages stricter adherence of the plan over all.

Cortisol: The final hormone that is manipulated through carb cycling is cortisol.  One way this stress hormone is released is in response to a fasting state, most notably when you wake up in the morning.  During an overnight fast, cortisol is released to tell the body to start breaking down stored fat and muscle to use for energy in this carb-depleted state.  Along with adrenaline, cortisol mobilizes stores from fat and muscle tissue to be used for energy; however in short term fasting like an overnight fast, a greater amount of muscle is used than is fat, thus it would be beneficial to shut off cortisol circulation to spare muscle. (This is also the mechanism behind long-duration, moderate intensity cardio’s impact on muscle wasting.  Enduring hours and hours of steady-state cardio will raise cortisol unopposed and may lead to muscle catabolism, especially paired with a low carb diet.)

Eating a meal containing carbohydrates will effectively shut off cortisol release; this is why many bodybuilders will eat a meal containing carbs and protein immediately upon waking. By strategically using carb-heavy meals 1-3 times per week, we can do our best to avoid long periods of excessive cortisol.  At just about the time that cortisol production begins to become excessively catabolic following a lower carb plan, a high carb meal is in place to lower this hormone and avoid muscle detriment.

The right way to cheat

My opinion is to incorporate 1-3 structured high-carb “refeeds” per week, depending on how much fat you need to lose.  Leaner people will be able to get away with 2-3 meals each week (say Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday), and not only will they not store fat, but the meals will actually help them burn more fat via the hormonal mechanisms described above.  People with more fat to lose will likely need to stick with 1 carb-up meal per week (like Saturday).  Here are my rules for getting the most out of your cheat meal and how to do it:

  • Complete a heavy weight workout the day of the cheat, choosing to either work legs or do a full-body workout
  • Start with a protein and a green veggie or low GI fruit, then
  • Add clean higher GI carbs like potatoes, rice, oats, pasta, bananas, pineapple, etc—stay away from lots of simple sugars and processed chemicals from candy, ice cream, cake, frosting, donuts, etc.
  • Eat to the point of feeling very full/stuffed
  • Make sure it is a single meal (i.e. not a continuous binge from 6pm to midnight), like one you would order at a restaurant—in fact, eating at a restaurant is a good idea
  • Do not drink any alcohol (this opens up a whole other can of worms and throws a big wrench in the muscle-building, fat-burning plan)
  • Try to keep it under 1500 calories
  • Wake-up the next morning and do fasted cardio, wait 12 hours from cheat meal to eat again

Here are some cheat meal ideas:

Option #1:
1-2 dinner rolls
Starter salad
Pasta dish with sauce and seafood
Split a single dessert among 3 people

Option #2:
Starter salad
3 slices of pepperoni pizza

Option#3:
1-2 dinner rolls
Filet mignon with broccoli
1 whole white potato
Split a single dessert among 3 people

Option #4:
1 large chicken burrito with rice/beans/veggies/salsa
Side of chips & salsa

Option #5:
1 bacon cheeseburger
1 small order of fries

Option #6:
Stack of 3 pancakes w/ maple syrup
Side of Canadian bacon
1 grapefruit

Happy cheating! ox Jill

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