Cheat meals are often the only excitement a contest dieter gets for a few months in a program of regimented monotony in days filled with timed bland meals and repetitive work outs. They are a great break from the dullness of the same boring, bland, restrictive day-to-day diet. This usually means eating copious amounts of non-diet foods (greasy or sugary junk foods). While it seems like this is nothing more than a mental escape from the doldrums of the diet, there are actually quite a few advantages to be had from a well-executed cheat session. Not only will your mind get some temporary solace from the confines of your program, but pending the baseline diet is restrictive enough, there is a great deal of physical benefits to be had as well. A well-executed cheat meal will spike your metabolism, refill your energy stores, refresh your mind and ultimately improve the way your body processes food, recovers from workouts and uses energy for the next several days. In order to reap the benefits of a cheat, you must first sufficiently deplete energy/glycogen stores in the body to a point where the increased food will shock your system. If, however, your base diet is not restrictive enough, you may instead end up storing the extra calories as fat.
When is it beneficial to cheat?
To explain why a cheat is beneficial, first understand how the body stores and uses energy. The body stores glycogen (carbohydrates) for energy in large amounts in both the liver and the muscle tissue. These energy stores are our primary source of fuel, particularly during intense exercise where they are quickly and readily accessible to meet high energy demands. The liver is capable of holding an average of 100-120 grams of glycogen when fully fed. The muscles hold from 1-2% of their total weight in glycogen. So, for a 200lb bodybuilder carrying a lot more muscle than the average person, this can mean he has 110-120lbs of pure muscle, equating to his muscles having the ability to hold as much as 1000 grams of glycogen when fully fed. Added to the glycogen capacity of the liver, he can hold a massive 1100 grams of glycogen. (That’s 4,400 calories!) For a smaller female, cut this number in half, so she can still hold about 550 grams of glycogen to use for energy (2,200 calories). These energy stores usually stay most of the way full for the average person on a normal “eat as I get hungry” diet. The body will always go to these glycogen stores when available as opposed to drawing from other sources (stored body fat and muscle tissue). When glycogen stores begin to deplete and are insufficient to support our activity level, the body then must shift its focus to other sources for energy and draw from fat stores and muscle tissue. It also greatly slows its energy expenditure (metabolism) to conserve as much energy as possible, not knowing when it may be fed again.
Combine a diet very low on carbs and a pattern of intense exercise over a few days and we can deplete the vast majority of our energy stores, leaving us tired, depleted and our body in conservation and starvation mode, now geared to spend as little energy (burn as little fat) as possible. This is the time when a cheat meal can be very beneficial. Take the 200lb bodybuilder for example; should he deplete his glycogen stores down to 100 grams, he can eat up to 1000 grams of carbs (a 4,000 calorie cheat session) with virtually no risk of storing any fat. Instead, the carbs will be shuttled directly to the liver and muscles to replenish the glycogen stores, leaving him full, pumped, energetic and subsequently causing his body to switch from conservation mode to spend mode in terms of its energy expenditure and metabolism. Once he goes back to his old diet immediately after the cheat, he will quickly (1-3 days) burn through these energy stores. Since it takes the body time to readjust to the restricted diet, more often than not it will continue to rev its metabolism past the point where glycogen stores are depleted, resulting in burning fat stores for energy. This means he will have burned more body fat, and felt a lot better also, than had he just stayed on the base diet the entire time. Determining exactly how much to eat to optimize the effects of your cheat meal is up to the individual based on trial and error, but consider how much muscle you carry and how depleted you as the main factors. Further, while it is still best to eat clean, healthy carbs like rice and yams etc., when you are in a large glycogen debt; it is largely irrelevant what you eat to replenish these stores. Even the simplest of sugar will not be stored as fat until after the glycogen in the liver and muscle are replenished.
When is it bad to cheat?
Quite simply, it is bad to cheat when you are not in glycogen debt. Without being sufficiently depleted, your body will have nowhere to deposit the extra calories, and the two remaining possibilities are your metabolism burning through the additional food or storing it (as fat or muscle). Further, not being depleted for long enough greatly reduces the benefits of a cheat meal. For example, take a marathon runner who eats plenty of food regularly, then runs a marathon. After the run, her body will be beyond depleted, so a huge carb re-feed is needed to repay the glycogen debt. However, since she was only depleted for a couple hours, her body never acclimated itself into conservation mode, so the re-feed after the run will feel normal. In terms of a bodybuilder type diet, maintaining a diet with ample but clean carbs, then having a cheat with high-calorie junk food is not going to serve the same purpose as a cheat when in glycogen debt. This type of cheat can still serve a purpose, however it should more be looked at as a way to get further additional calories to gain muscle or used as a mental concession more than anything else.
Cheat meals do have a place in bodybuilder diets. Determining how often, how much and what to eat is largely a matter of trial and error for the individual. If you wish to begin implementing them into your diet, its best to start off smaller and clean and test the waters for how you react, then add in more food and longer cheats as you learn about your body. Pay attention to your weight, how you feel and how you look and most importantly, be honest with yourself about what is best for you to reach your goals, as it’s all too easy to use cheat meals as an excuse to overdo it.