The Science of the Cheat Meal


By now, anyone who has dieted once or even skimmed through a popular exercise or fitness magazine has probably heard of the infamous ‘Cheat Meal/Day/Week’. The term itself is not well defined, so a ‘cheat meal’ can mean anything from having a small dessert once a week to seemingly becoming a black hole and devouring food for several hours. So my goal herein is to shed some necessary light on the issue and address what exactly a ‘cheat meal’ is, who needs it, and how it can be used most effectively.

Basically, there are two ways to benefit from a cheat meal: physically & psychologically.

Anyone that’s been dieting for an extended period of time will understand the mental demands that will inevitably be encountered. Having a planned cheat meal built into your diet alleviates some of the social pressures associated with dieting while allowing you to feel human again. After all, bringing a Tupperware to your brother’s wedding is not hardcore – just really awkward.

A ‘cheat meal’ can assist in maintaining a diet while additionally making the diet itself more successful since it helps fend off some of the negative physical adjustments which occur during times of food restriction.

What are these food restrictions and why do they occur?

When we start dieting everything is great; we’re highly motivated, energized, and the fat is falling off. Then suddenly, it all comes to a screeching halt! Maybe not completely, but as we get leaner a lot of negative actions occur as a result of the dieting process:

  1. The conversion from T4 to T3 in the liver slows down along with the body’s overall metabolism.
  2. Testosterone, estrogen, IGF1 and HGH are lowered, leading to a higher rate of muscle loss.
  3. Leptin rises significantly, signalling hunger to your brain and making you an impossible person to be around.
  4. Due to the low glycogen levels in your muscles, training becomes less effective and the stage is set for further muscle loss.

The reason for this experience is purely evolutionary. Your body doesn’t understand the message that a) you need to look gorgeous at the beach or b) there is plenty of food around you but you simply choose not to eat any of it. From your body’s perspective, starvation has kicked in and has sent your body into survival mode in an effort to keep you alive. Remember: the person who is short, chubby, and hairy can survive far longer than someone who is lean and muscular. It all boils down to energy expenditure. From a bodybuilding perspective, in the words of fitness professional Lyle McDonald, “Your body hates you.”

A cheat meal will assist with reversing some of the negative hormonal adjustments without using drugs, making your diet far more successful in the long run.

How so? The moment the body is supplied with adequate nutrition, Leptin drops and your hunger pangs disappear. This in itself is pretty great.

The production of T3 is increased during a period of overfeeding, setting the stage for higher metabolism in your body’s foreseeable future. The sex hormones do rise as the body enters an anabolic state, as do both insulin and IGF1. This will stop muscle loss in its tracks and provide you with a fuller look from the next workout.

Please make a note that I wrote “stop muscle loss” not “rebuild muscle” as the time frame is too short to truly build muscle. Muscle loss during a diet is inevitable and especially so for the natural athlete, but it should be kept to a minimum.

When do I get a cheat meal?

The above is a fantastic question. Let me set some simple ground rules before I dive deeper into the subject of when to take a cheat meal. Since the majority of readers here are female, allow me to boldly state that most women do best with low carbs overall.

The primary reason for this is that women have less overall muscle mass than men. The more muscle mass you have, the more glycogen you can store (i.e. the more carbs you can get away with consuming).  More muscle mass also helps with levelling out insulin since you can use more glycogen during the workout.

Why is this important? Simple.

Since insulin and HSL (hormonally sensitive lipase a.k.a. fat loss) are mutually exclusive, meaning that if there is an insulin spike fat loss will stop. Therefore, a low carb diet makes far more sense.

That being said, going without carbs for too long does have negative implications. My point is that a cheat meal for women should be more along the lines of a ‘carb up’.

At this point, I know you’re thinking that this is all well and good…. but Maik- for the love of everything good – when do I get my cheat meal?

Patience Ladies… There is an old saying in the fitness world that states,“You must ‘earn’ your carbs.” In other words, the frequency and magnitude of the cheat meal depends on two things: leanness and calorie deficit.

Let’s cover the deficit part first.The steeper the caloric deficit is overall, the more often a cheat meal is warranted. This also makes sense since this person will be far more food deprived and ready to kill due to hunger pains. As a rule of thumb, if your deficit is 30% or greater of your BMR, you should re-feed/cheat every week. If you diet is more on the moderate side, such as a 10% deficit, one cheat meal every 10-14 days should suffice.

The second factor is leanness. Leaner athletes have better insulin sensitivity; hence, they can handle carb ups & cheat meals better. Additionally, the leaner you get, the harder your body will fight for survival, so it needs to be refed more frequently.

The following is a simple break down of how to implement refeeds:


Take enough time so you do not need to lose more than 0.5 – 1lbs per week. This rules out crash dieting and excessive cardio as they’ll ultimately guarantee giving you the dreaded ‘skinny fat’ looks. As well as a horrible rebound due to a hibernating metabolism.To sum it all up, here are my recommendations for a successful diet:

  1. Your first weapon of choice is weight training; only add cardio as needed.
  2. Reserve the stimulant/fat burner use for the last third portion of the diet, as stimulants elevate cortisol levels.
  3. Plan your cheat meals according to the chart above.

The cheat meal in itself should be kept relatively clean, as I do not believe in all-out junk fests in general. Aim for 130% of your BMR calories on the cheat meal days with the extra calories coming from carbs. This rules out pizza or donuts and such, but leaves room for my personal favourite: Gummi Bears!

One of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City, Maik Wiedenbach is a world renowned athlete and two-times Muscle Mania Champion. Educated on a swimming scholarship from Fordham University he holds a double Masters Degree in History & Philosophy. Fluent in multiple languages including Dutch, English, French and his native German, he is an Adjunct Professor teaching Exercise Sciences at New York University.

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