You diet hard all week, eat nothing but clean foods, train your butt off in the gym, and feel like you’re making real progress. Then Saturday comes—Cheat Meal Day.
Feeling a little run down and beat up, you grind through the morning, sticking to your oats and egg whites for breakfast, followed by chicken breast, asparagus and brown rice for lunch. All the while those donuts, tubs of ice cream and waffles you bought earlier in the week are calling your name.
Finally, 3 p.m. hits, and you go for it—it’s game time.
Caring for neither man nor beast, you raid the cupboards. As soon as your boxed and baked goods are gone, it’s on to the freezer for your frozen goodies. Before you know it, you’re curled up on the couch in a sugar coma, clutching your aching stomach and wondering why on earth you ever started your cheat day.
The Trouble with Cheat Days
Cheat days, or even cheat meals, sound all well and good on paper. You eat well all week, in a calorie deficit to help you lose body fat. Your cheat day gives you a break from the mental challenge of dieting and eating healthy, and raises your metabolism, giving your progress a boost.
But here’s the real deal: Cheat meals are terrible. For an idea of how bad they are, take a look at these unhealthy “healthy” foods.
For one thing, the notion of restricting yourself to certain foods or food groups for six out of every seven days, then binging on nothing but junk for a day (or even just one meal or for a few hours) can create a disordered relationship with food, encouraging a binge/restrict mindset.
Second, although a small increase in calories can boost your metabolic rate, the amount an athlete typically eats during a cheat meal way overshoots the number of calories needed to raise leptin, the main metabolic regulatory hormone.
It’s easy to put away 5,000, 6,000, or even 10,000 calories in an entire cheat day, which not only cancels any calorie deficit you created throughout the week of eating clean, but can push you into a surplus, leading to fat gain.
And for athletes? If you’ve ever tried to train or play a game on the day of a binge—or worse, the day after—you know just how bloated, stuffed and lethargic you feel. Not exactly conducive to perfect performance, right?
How to Cheat Right
So what’s a budding athlete or serious trainer to do?
It’s true that eating in a calorie deficit slows your metabolism. And even if you follow a flexible diet and don’t restrict any foods, aiming only to eat a certain number of calories and macronutrients, dieting is still mentally very tough.
Enter the re-feed. Re-feeds have the same premise as cheating, but they work much, much better. A re-feed involves increasing calories slightly once, twice or even three times per week, primarily from carbohydrates, which have the biggest effect on leptin.
The huge advantage of re-feeds over cheat days is that they’re regulated. You can easily track and monitor how you feel, how you perform, and how your body composition changes when including re-feeds in your diet, and adjust the frequency and severity to suit.
The more infrequently you re-feed, the larger your re-feed should be.
A Practical Example
Assume a daily diet of 180 grams of protein and 60 grams of fat. These stay the same every day of the week, but the carbohydrate intake changes.
To work out the carbs needed for a re-feed, you need an average daily carbohydrate target. If you aim to eat an average of 300 grams of carbs per day, this works out to 2,100 grams of carbohydrates over the course of a week.
If you were to incorporate just one re-feed per week, you would multiply your daily carb target by 2.5. This would give you 700 grams of carbs for the re-feed day, leaving 1,400 to spread over the other six days, for an intake of around 235 grams per day.
For two re-feeds per week, double the average daily carb intake to 600 grams for each. Subtract these 1,200 grams from 2,100, and you’re left with 900 grams of carbs to spread over five days, or 180 grams per day.
For three re-feeds per week, your average daily intake is multiplied by 1.5, giving you 450 grams of carbs per re-feed. Subtract 1,350 grams (450 x 3) from 2,100, and you’re left with 750 grams of carbs to spread over four days—or around 185-190 grams.
RELATED: How Much Protein Do Athletes Need
When to Re-Feed
When you re-feed largely depends on personal preference.
The best course of action is to experiment and see what you respond to best. Athletes training multiple times per week or playing in a game or competition during the week and during the weekend, will likely do better with two or three re-feeds per week, with lower carbs on rest days or light training days.
Rules of the Re-Feed
1. Stick to your designated amounts of protein, fat and carbs.
2. Fiber plays an important role. Consume too much fiber, and you could experience digestive issues, bloating and discomfort, especially if you’re only re-feeding once per week, and your carb intake for a particular day is very high. On the other hand, too little fiber could make constipation an issue.
A good rule of thumb to avoid digestive discomfort is to stick mainly to foods you know and tolerate well. A mix of carb sources is always best, so aim for some fibrous starches such as brown rice and sweet potatoes, some non-fibrous starches—e.g., white bread and white pasta—a mix of fruits and vegetables, and a modest amount of “junk food” you enjoy.
By ditching your current cheat day protocol, you will not only remove any mental hang-ups about clean eating; you will also optimize your nutrition to enable top performance, while staying on track with your diet, getting leaner and feeling great.
RELATED: Why Carbs Aren’t the Enemy