The cheating manifesto
I have a love-hate relationship with cheating meals and cheat days. On one hand, I do not believe that eating junk and crap has any specific benefits over-consuming more clean carbs and/or fats at some specific times in your diet and might have detrimental physical and psychological effects. I also believe that if someone asks about cheat meals before even starting his or her diet, that person will fail. In fact, when I work with clients most of the time I do not include ‘cheat’ meals or days in their programs.
And on the other hand, I’m a world-class cheating expert myself! I once gained 26 lbs in 6 hours. I also ate 24 hamburgers and a side of fries (probably gained more than 26lbs but I didn’t measure so it doesn’t count) on a different occasion. I have also eaten a dozen doughnuts before even leaving my bed in the morning.
Yeah, I know how to cheat. And I enjoy it!
So, is it a case of “do as I say, not as I do”? No, because not all cheating is created equal and not everybody can cheat to the same extent. Some people should avoid pure cheats altogether while others can get away with two all-out cheat DAYS per week. It depends on your degree of leanness, depletion and psychological mindset.
First, let’s get some (important) generalities out of the way.
Cheating general info
- There is a difference between a “cheat” and a “refeed” (although I prefer the term “carb-up” over “refill”). In both cases, one of the purposes is to refill the glycogen stores when the muscles are flat and depleted. Either completely fill them up (which requires 300-600g of carbs depending on your size) or partially refill them to have enough fuel for some time and to feel fuller (mentally important for us who like to looked jacked), in which case and 200-300g of carbs is sufficient. The main difference is in the selection of the foods used to accomplish that purpose. A refeed/carb-up uses clean/unprocessed carbs (potatoes, rice, oatmeal, yams, fruits, etc.) whereas a “cheat” uses food items that are not included in a diet and fall more into the junk/crap category. Besides the difference in glycemic load and insulin response, the refeed foods tend to provide you with some valuable micro nutrients and are less pro-inflammatory whereas the “cheat” foods are highly processed, give you more bad things than good and can be pro-inflammatory.
- The leaner you are, the more frequent the refeeds/carb-up or cheat are needed. The reasons for this is that these strategies can help prevent leptin from decreasing too much or even bring it back up. Long story short: leptin is secreted by the fat cells and goes to the brain. When it connects to the right receptors, leptin tells the brain that we are well fed and that metabolic rate and body function can be maintained. If less leptin makes it to the receptors (or if the receptors are resistant, which is the case with obese people), the brain is led to believe that we are starving or lacking nutrients. When that happens, the body will use various strategies to solve the problem (give you cravings to force you to eat more, make you “lazier” to reduce caloric expenditure, reduce the conversion of T4 to T3, slowing down metabolic rate or even catabolize muscle tissue). The more fat is being lost from the fat cells, the more leptin is likely to go down. As such the leaner you are, the easier it is for leptin to crash. That’s why the leaner you get, the more often you need to refeed. Why? Because a higher carbohydrate intake can prevent leptin from coming down or even bring it back up. Note that increasing fat intake doesn’t have the same effect.
- You don’t need as much carbs as you think when you are refeeding or cheating. A lot of people use a free-for-all carb binge, justifying it by the need to refill their glycogen stores. Well even in a truly depleted state, where the muscles are almost empty of muscle glycogen, you can only store 300-600g of carbs depending on your size. For most of you reading this article, it is probably around 400g. So binging out on 1000-1500g of carbs in one single day serves no purpose (as far as glycogen replenishment is concerned) over consuming 400-500g.
- The only people who will benefit from a monstrous carb intake (either as a refeed or a cheat) are those who are very lean (photoshoot or contest lean) and are depleted. When you are in that state, ingesting a large amount of carbs and fat will improve your look as both the carbs and fat will be stored inside the muscles (intramuscular triglyceride are underrated when it comes to giving your muscles a full look). But more importantly, when you are that lean and depleted you are at the greatest risk of leptin crashing down and a huge caloric intake is necessary to prevent that. Consuming only the amount of carbs needed to refill glycogen stores will likely not be enough. You would need 3-4 days of consuming 500g of carbs to prevent that leptin crash whereas one very large cheat day might do the trick. Furthermore, when you are that lean (8% or less) your insulin sensitivity is much better so it is very unlikely that this “binge” will have any negative impacts on your fat level. You will retain water for 1 day or 2 but you will look better once the excess water is flushed out.
- If your goal is fat loss, it is best to refeed/cheat on a workout day. A good strategy is to train your weakness(es) on that day. When you are trying to maintain the same fat level while gaining strength I like to put the refeed/cheat on an off day, prior to a heavy session to boost performance. If your goal is to maintain fat levels while gaining size both approaches will work.
- I’m pretty much a “cheat Nazi”. In my ideal world, nobody would cheat and only clean refeeds would be used. But I understand that this is unrealistic for most people, which is why I’m writing this article. Because of my nature, my recommendations might seem excessively conservative by many (a lot of times by people who like to eat crap want to be given the permission to do so). This is how I do things; other coaches might do it differently.
- If you are asking “when can I have my cheat meals” before you even start the diet, you will fail.
- I believe that nobody should cheat (or even refeed in most cases) the first 3 weeks of a diet. You need 21 days to change a habit. If you have cheats before that you will constantly crave bad foods during your diet. And unless you are lean when you start your diet there is no risk of losing muscle or slowing down metabolic rate during those first 3 weeks (unless you do something completely stupid like consuming 800 calories per day of only protein and train 2 hours a day).
Now let’s look at the various types of cheats.
As I mentioned, to me a cheat is eating foods that are not on your regular diet plan and that are high in sugar, fat, sodium or (ideally) a combination of these three. Typically, we refer to the type of food ingested during a cheat as “junk” or “crap” (yep, these are the scientific terms).
Ok, here we go.
The small cheat add-on
This is the lowest level of cheating and it consists of eating your regular diet all day long and on one of your meals (ideally the one immediately post-workout or your last meal of the day), you add just a small portion of a reward item. A small piece of desert or a glass of wine for example. The key here is “small”. Maybe 250-350 extra calories here. So, something like a piece of chocolate cake that is 1″ at its widest, not half the cake!
That small portion of crap is not enough to put fat on you (a pound of fat would require over consuming around 3600 calories, not 350). And while it might stop fat loss for that day (the insulin spike will shut down fat mobilization for 4-8 hours depending on your insulin sensitivity), you will be back to normal the next day. That’s why I recommend having the cheat on your last meal of the day: you still had the whole day spent in fat burning mode and when you put yourself in storage mode you don’t give your body a lot of fat to store.
The “good food” cheat meal
Not all cheat food is created equal. A cheat from Sushi or fries made only of sweet potatoes, spices and olive oil will not have the same impact as a pizza or a burger and fast food fries.
Our second option is a change of pace using fairly healthy food choices. Yes, it might have more sodium, carbs and fats than what your diet prescribes but it’s better than highly processed foods or fast food.
Sushi, the sweet potato fries I mentioned, a turkey or buffalo burger, I mean you can easily find “good” cheating recipes out there.
My recommendation is to once again avoid going more than 350 calories over your normal meal consumption. For example, you would follow your regular diet all day and replace your last meal with the “Good food” cheat meal. If your regular meal was around 400 calories, you shouldn’t go above 750 with your good food cheat.
You could go higher, but I find that such a meal will cause problems with the fat loss process. More than that might slow down fat loss for a day. This is not scientific, don’t ask me for research, it’s from experience.
And of course, some people can get away with more (heck some people can get away with an all-out cheat day), but this strategy is specifically designed to be a mental break for foodies who have a hard time losing fat and sticking to a diet
The isocaloric cheat meal
This is not that different from the IIFYM theory. Basically, it’s a cheat meal where you eat junk/crap but the caloric content of the meal doesn’t exceed what you would normally have at that meal.
To use our example from above, if your meal is supposed to provide 400 calories then you would replace that meal with 400 calories of anything you want. It’s all about portion control.
I do not want to get into a debate whether IIFYM is good or not. In my opinion, it’s a bad idea as a diet model. But occasionally, maybe once or twice a week, having a meal of whatever you want provided that you stay within your normal caloric intake level will be fine.
The issue here is that if you are like me, having 400 calories of crap is harder than not having it at all. When the gates are opened, watch out! But some people can get away with it.
If you stay within your regular daily caloric intake and have the cheat meal last in your day, it should not affect fat loss. Of course, that is not a license to do that all the time, because from experience if you start with that, then you are slowly increasing portions and soon you are back to eating crap all the time.
The isocaloric half-day cheat
This is in the same spirit as the strategy above, but for half the day instead of just one meal. This means 2 or 3 meals and they all have to be on the same “half” of the day (AM or PM for example) and ideally in the “half” where your training is in.
Just to recap what I said earlier: on those 2-3 cheat meals, you can eat whatever you want but stay pretty much at your normal planned caloric intake. Don’t replace 500 calories of clean food by 1000 calories of junk!
Note that you can decrease the meal frequency in that half day to consume more calories per meal. For example, if your normal diet has 6 meals of 400 calories (on average) then your half day has 3. Instead of having 3 meals of 400 calories (1200 calories total) you can decide to eat two meals of 600 or one meal of 1200 calories. You still have 2-3 “diet meals” in your day anyway.
The all-out cheat meal
This is where the fun starts. While the previous strategies can give you a mental relief, if you are like me and once you start to eat crap you can’t stop, a cheat with a limited amount of calories isn’t that much fun (but for most, that’s all they should do if they want to reach their goal). In this strategy, you have one meal in which you can eat whatever you want. Be smart about it, eating for 2 hours non-stop might constitute only one meal in the technical sense, but that’s not what I have in mind here. I simply mean that for one meal you can eat anything you want until full, but don’t overfill either. If you have the mindset of “I won’t be able to eat stuff like this for a week might as well go all-out”, it won’t work.
The maintenance level cheat day
In this strategy, you can eat whatever you want, anytime you want as long as you do not exceed your maintenance level caloric intake. If your maintenance level is 2400 calories it means that you can eat anything you want for the whole day but when you total up caloric intake it doesn’t exceed 2400. You can have the number of meals you want, although at least two is best and three is likely better.
The all-out cheat day
This is the hardcore cheater’s paradise: anything goes for the whole day! As we will see very few people should do this. Only those who are very lean (fitness photo shoot lean or near physique contest shape lean) and who are coming into the cheat day depleted. More on that later. This one is simple since there are really no rules. Just try not to die by blowing up your stomach!
Who can use which strategy
I will first define the various levels of body composition. I don’t like to use body fat levels since very few actually do get a good body fat assessment and just guess their level (normally guessing at least 5% lower than they really are). Even with calipers the results are not always super reliable.
Obese: You are grossly overweight. This is one of the easiest condition to pinpoint (along with “shredded”). At that level, even someone with a good amount of muscle will look bad. Big belly (for guys), can grab a good amount of fat everywhere.
Fat: A lot of you fit in that category but don’t like to admit it. The “permabulkers”, those of you who are always bulking and like to take up a lot of space while wearing XXXL hoodies are often in that category. When they carry a lot of muscle these guys can actually look decent in baggy clothes because they will look thick and powerful (and they often are). Just because I say they are “fat”, doesn’t mean that they can’t be muscular. A lot of high level powerlifters and strongman competitors. I’m only talking degree of leanness here.
Normal: These are the hardest to pin-point. A lot of the guys in that category see themselves as “lean”. They might have a little bit of muscle definition. Maybe the beginning of a biceps vein or an abdominal outline under the right lighting. It’s even harder to pinpoint them if they carry a good amount of muscle because at normal levels of body fat, more muscle gives the illusion of being leaner (just like when you are super lean it gives the illusion of having more muscle). These are the guys who claim to be “around 10-12% body fat” while they really are 15-18%.
*From experience, most serious gym rats fall in the “fat” or “normal” categories when it comes to body fat level.
Lean: This is what I would call the “beach body” leanness level. Lean enough to look good on the beach but nowhere near contest shape. For those who like numbers, this is around 10-12% body fat (for guys). Someone who is lean and somewhat muscular should have decent abdominal definition under pretty much any lighting (not just the flattering ones). There should be muscle separation across the body (delts and arms separation, biceps/triceps separation, some quadriceps separation, etc.). In a normal commercial gym, these guys, if they have some muscle, will stand out. They are also those who go on social media, post pictures in very flattering light and claim to be 6%. Or believe that they are 4 weeks away from contest shape (they aren’t). But it’s a degree of leanness at which you look good if you have some muscle.
Photo shoot lean: By the numbers this would be around 7-9% body fat (for guys). Guys at that level and who have built some muscle will be asked in their gym if they are doing a competition. They are leaner than everybody in there. The skin will be paper thin on the arms, delts, chest, abdomen and sometimes legs. Most guys will have a little bit of fat on their back (especially kidney area), glutes and hamstrings. Of course, some people carry fat differently but at that level of leanness it’s pretty much the norm. Not only are your muscles separate, they are striated. You can see all three heads of the deltoids, you have striation across your chest, vascularity is up and you can hardly pinch fat anywhere on your body. This is normally what a physique athlete looks like 4-5 weeks out of a competition and is likely the leanest that you can maintain without feeling like crap all the time.
Contest lean (shredded): Except for physique competitors and some genetic anomalies you will pretty much never see these people in a commercial gym or walking around (they are likely too tired to be walking around!). At that level, every part of your anatomy is visible and skin is paper thin everywhere. The face is gaunt and body. It’s an unmistakable look
Now that we established the various levels of leanness, let’s see who can cheat and with what type of cheat.
OBESE: It’s simple: they can’t cheat at all! They likely have a crap food addiction and for them the introduction of the food they have an addiction for is very likely to make them derail completely. Anyway, with the amount of fat they carry, they aren’t likely to have a decrease in leptin production for a long while. In fact, obese people have the highest leptin production of all. Their main problem is that they are resistant to leptin because it’s been too high for too long. In fact, lowering their leptin will be a good thing in the long run because it will make them sensitive to it again. Obese people aren’t even likely to need a refeed for weeks or even months. Physiologically speaking it will hurt their fat loss progress because they are bad fat mobilizers; the enzymes responsible for mobilizing fat and having the body use it for fuel are very low, while the enzymes leading to fat storage are high. As a result, they are always using glucose for fuel even when they should be using fat. The last thing you want is to give their body a reason to continue avoiding using fat for fuel by having days of high carb consumption. Obese people need to go on a lower carbs, higher fat diet to program their body to use fat for fuel. They still need some carbs in there initially because they are so bad at utilizing fat that cutting carbs to zero will give them a huge mental crash. You want to keep around 150g of low glycemic carbs in their diet (ideally no more than 30-40g per meal, even less if possible) for the first two weeks so that their brain will still be able to function. Then you lower it to 100g for two weeks while adding 25g of MCT oil. After 2-4 weeks of this, they can go down to a regular ketogenic diet consuming 50g of carbs or less. All through the process they should not have a carb-up meal (much less day). No carbs refeed until they are fat adapted, which is normally after 3 weeks of a full on ketogenic diet. That’s 2 weeks at 150g, 3 weeks at 100g and 3 weeks at 50g. This means they should not have a carbs refeed until they have been on their diet for 8 weeks. It sucks? Well I think being obese sucks more, but that’s just me!
FAT: Just a reminder. When I’m talking about being fat based on serious lifters standards I’m not saying you are out of shape or sloppy. A lot of elite powerlifters, strongman competitors, football players, olympic lifters, shot putters are in that category and are great athletes. I’m merely saying that they carry plenty of extra and unnecessary body fat. Could be anywhere from 18 to 25%.
Which cheating strategy can they use? It depends on their objective. See while the obese should always prioritize fat loss (for aesthetic and health reasons), the “fat” level individuals might want to get lean, just lose a little bit of fat while they focus on getting stronger or maintain their level of body fat (not let it go up any higher) while they are trying to maximize their strength. Of course, the first two goals are those that are really related to this article since they will require a caloric deficit and better food choices (what most call “dieting”). The main difference will be in the severity of the diet and also which cheats they can use.
If someone in that category is looking to get lean (lean, photo shoot lean or even contest lean) then until they have dropped a fair amount of body fat (are actually at or very close to the “lean” category), the cheating strategies they can use are: a clean carbs refeed, the small cheat add-on, the good food cheat meal and the isocaloric cheat meal. Remember these options are not to manipulate leptin levels. Anyway, at the body fat level they are at, decreased leptin production should not be a problem for a while (until they are in the lean category). The only reason for those cheats are mental relief and some glycogen replenishment (which can be done just as well with clean carbs). Since these cheats are in there for a psychological reason and not a physiological one, we can’t go overboard. It would mess up the dieting effort (people in the “fat” category are still bad at mobilizing and using fat for fuel and if you flood them with carbs you are slowing down the process of becoming better at using fat) and it might get them hooked-on-crap again. They need to have a clear limit set as to how much junk they can eat on their cheat.
How frequently can they have their cheat? As infrequently as possible. As I mentioned, the cheats are not used for physiological reasons, so they are actually not needed at all. They are for mental relief. You should use them when you are about to break down, when you know that if you don’t get a little diet relief in a few days you will binge (but don’t wait for the moment where you know you won’t be able to control yourself) and you know that a clean refeed won’t do it. This could be once every 2-4 weeks, depending on your mental fortitude and your degree of junk food addiction. However, don’t plan them! When you know that you are about to reach the danger zone, use one, but follow the guidelines, and certainly don’t use them every week.
If they are simply looking to lose a little bit of fat while focusing on getting stronger then the cheating strategies should be the same, the main difference will be the frequency. In that case once every 1-2 weeks will be fine.
NORMAL: The “normal” guys should use cheats pretty much like an individual in the “fat” category would when trying to lose a little bit of fat while gaining strength or size. That means only using the clean carbs refeed, the small cheat add-on, the good food cheat meal and the isocaloric cheat meal. Until someone is in the “lean” category, the other approaches should be off-limits. The frequency of those refeeds/cheats should be once every 1-2 weeks, ideally closer to the 2 weeks mark and only if truly needed.
LEAN: This is when things start to get fun! Remember: the leaner you are the more leeway you have with your cheats because a) you have better insulin sensitivity and b) you are more likely to have your leptin levels decrease to a point that might hinder your progress or make it a lot harder to stick to your diet. Remember that “lean” is when you are at or close to 10% body fat… a REAL 10% not the estimation that people make when they really are 15%!
But I want to emphasize again that cheat days/meals are not a regular, planned thing. They are to be used as a last resort. A clean refeed should always be your first option. Only cheat if you know that a clean refeed will not take care of your profound desire to eat crappy food. A cheat might also be in order if you are lean and your body temperature suddenly drops (1 – 2 degrees if you measure it, or you feel cold all the time) which can indicate that your T4 to T3 conversion decreased.
When you are lean and trying to get down to photo shoot lean or contest lean, I like the more permissive cheats (all-out cheat meal and maintenance level cheat day) at most once every 3 weeks.
PHOTO SHOOT LEAN: This is likely the leanest most of you can get, and in my opinion it is the point where most look their best. To get down to contest lean you will suffer, you will lose fullness and your face will look gaunt making you look much older than you are. Getting to contest lean also basically takes the joy out of everything in life, so it’s not something that anybody should strive to accomplish unless they are competing. And provided that you use a smart dieting approach and non-excessive training you shouldn’t risk losing muscle until you get down to photo shoot lean. Going from photo shoot lean to contest lean is where there is a big risk of losing muscle, especially if you are natural. But until you are photo shoot lean, losing muscle should not be an issue. The risk of losing muscle is in large part responsible for the need to refeed or even cheat more often. I find that when you are at a true 7-8% body fat you need to refeed every 2-3 days (eating more carbs but staying at maintenance level) and might benefit from a cheat once every two 10-14 days. The strategies used can be the same as the “lean” people, it’s just the frequency that’s higher. Note that if you are really depleted they CAN get away with the last strategy: the legendary “all-out cheat day”. BUT only if these three conditions are met:
- You are at a TRUE 7-8% body fat. Meaning that you look almost stage-ready.
- You are very depleted going into the cheat day. Personally, my “normal” weight at the moment is 202 at 6-7% body fat. When I’m 198, I’m somewhat depleted… it’s not enough to justify a whole all-out cheat day. When I’m truly depleted, I’m 194-195. At that point, I can have an all-out cheat day if I feel the need.
- You are not trying to get a lot leaner. For example, at the moment my goal is to maintain my degree of leanness while gaining strength and some muscle. So my diet is simple: Sun/Mon/Tues I eat a gradually lower carb diet (Sun: 175g, Mon: 100g, Tues: 50g) and low calories (roughly 2000-2400 calories), come Wednesday I’m normally down to 194-195 and I then have an all-out cheat day (I normally end up at 205). Thu/Friday I’m back to low carbs (Thu: 100g, FriL 50g) and low calories. By Saturday, I’m down to 198-199 and proceed to have a refeed day which provides around 400g of clean carbs. That approach allows me to slowly build muscle while staying just as lean (in fact in 3 weeks I got a little bit leaner). BUT it only works if you are really lean and not trying to get much leaner.
CONTEST LEAN: This won’t happen to many people. If you are getting to that level to prepare for a competition I prefer to stay away from cheats BUT I include clean refeeds every 3rd day (2 low carb days, 1 refeed day to maintenance level). Staying super low all the time when you are that lean will prevent you from dropping those last few pounds to get the lower back, glutes and hams tight.
If you are at that level and like me, you simply want to stay close to it while living a happier life while being able to train hard, I suggest the same approach I’m using but I would actually consider having one all-out cheat meal on Saturday and 2-3 meals containing 75-100g of clean carbs. With that approach, you will be able to stay within 1-2% of your contest condition while being able to train harder, feel better and build a little bit of muscle. It’s also a nice transition between all-out contest dieting to off-season eating. Going straight from super strict dieting to big eating to build tons of mass is a great way to get fat, bloated and depressed! This “in-between” period will minimize the risks of that happening.
There you have it. This is my opinion in regards to cheats. We can actually resume this 5000-word article in one sentence:
“Cheat as infrequently as possible, only when it’s truly needed and using the most conservative approach possible“.