For many of you it’s the time of year to start dieting down to reveal the awesomeness you built during the colder months of the year. Or maybe you’ve been steadily pilling on muscle for years, accumulating some fat due to eating to support maximum muscle growth, and now you want to chisel that big rock into an amazing statue. But one this is for certain, being muscular absolutely make you a better human being (ok, not really), however being muscular and lean is even “awesomer”.
If you are someone who wants to look as impressive naked as fully dressed, you will likely have to diet the fat off at one point. A big part of modern dieting is the refeeds or cheats that we eat. These consist of significantly increasing caloric intake for a meal (or several), mostly in the form of carbs. If the foods you eat are “clean” or if you are simply eating more of the foods already in your diet we are talking about a refeed. If the foods you eat are something you do not have in your diet and are what we would normally consider “bad foods” (fast food, pastries, syrup, candy, etc.) we normally call it a cheat.
These are pretty novel concepts and date back around 20-25 years. Sure, even before that people who dieted down had “incidents” where they would splurge here and there. But using planned refeeds/cheats for a physiological reason is a pretty new concept.
The Potential Benefits Of Refeeds/Cheats
Physiologically speaking there are benefits to refeeds and cheats. While they are not necessary, they can make it easier to lose fat and maintain muscle mass and performance.
- They can help prevent the drop in leptin that comes with dieting, or at least slow it down.
Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells and that tells your brain that you are well fed. As you lose fat, less leptin makes it to the brain and this increases hunger, cravings and can even play a role in decreasing metabolic rate. A short-term increase in caloric intake can slow down that decrease in leptin (reversing it requires a longer period of overfeeding) and carbs are more effective than fat for that purpose.
- It can replenish muscle glycogen stores. Storing more muscle glycogen will improve lifting performance and can even be anabolic: more glycogen increases intramuscular pressure, which can be a signal to increase protein synthesis/muscle building. This could help you avoid losing muscle (or even gain some) while dieting down.
- It can increase T3 levels. The body produces T3 (the thyroid hormone playing a role in elevating metabolic rate) by converting T4 (which is much less impactful). This conversion is highly dependent on caloric and carbohydrate intake (more = higher conversion) as well as cortisol levels (more cortisol = less conversion).
Boosting calories and carbs could spike the T4 to T3 conversion both by providing more calories/carbs and by lowering cortisol. It’s likely not a huge deal, but it can happen to a small extent and might help out a bit, especially in the later stage of a fat loss phase.
- A large caloric/carbs intake can spike mTOR activation, IGF-1 and insulin levels. All of these are highly anabolic. If they occur after a training session, the growth from the session might be enhanced. A refeed/cheat meal around a workout for a lagging muscle might be helpful in bringing up that muscle.
- It can restore mental clarity and lift brain fog. The brain runs mostly on glucose (and ketones). When dieting down you can have bouts of brain fog or mental fatigue due to lower fuel availability when your carbs intake is low. Refeeds can help with that.
Psychologically, refeeds can help while cheats can go either way (help or hurt) depending on the person. When you eat more of the foods already in your diet it is likely to strengthen your resolve (because it makes you feel better and can reduce cravings) whereas when you eat cheat foods it could make you crave them more and more and make your life a living hell.
The biggest Drawback Of “Cheats”
I’ve had lots of clients ask me “when are my cheat meals?” before the diet even starts. With very few exceptions, those who start-out wondering about cheat meals never reach their goal. They see the diet as a necessary and unpleasant restriction. As a sacrifice they make to get lean. A suffering. And they associate the cheat meals as their reward for enduring the horrible experience.
This mindset dooms you to fail. As soon as the diet becomes uncomfortable (it will) you will focus on those cheat meals more and more. You will fantasize about them for days, you will plan them in advance. They will become bigger and bigger.
Cheat meals will turn into cheat half-days and then cheat days until eventually your life is either completely miserable and you turn to more and more frequent cheats meals or stop dieting altogether.
Successful dieting is all about mindset.
Discipline Doest’n Work
Being disciplined entails forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do. Relying on that fails more often than not. Rather, you need to be driven by a strong desire to reach your goal. When desire is your engine, things feel different.
Listen, NOBODY (at least in the fitness world) is worse than I am with nutrition. That’s why I never post or talk about what I eat: I eat crap pretty much all the time! But when my mind is set on being shredded. When, for some reason (photoshoot, competition, vacation on the beach, dropping weight to make a weight class, wanting to get jacked when hitting on Instababes) I have a strong desire to get super lean, I’m a robot. I will not cheat or even think about cheating.
I will have to force myself to refeed once in a while when the dieting is starting to affect my training. And this is coming from a guy who once gained 26lbs in 6 hours, ate 24 burgers in one sitting and who routinely eat cake as a main course.
Thib’s 10 Rules Of Cheating/Dieting
- I don’t have refeeds or cheats built in. I use them when they are needed (significant performance decrease, weight dropping too fast, flat muscles for several days, problems sleeping and excessively cold).
- Always diet for 3 full weeks before thinking of adding a refeed or cheat. Prior to that, unless you did some seriously excessively restrictive dieting it is not needed physiologically. And if you mentally need a cheat less than 3 weeks in, you’re already in trouble.
- Most of the time and for most people I go with clean refeeds not cheats. I’m not gonna lie, if the macros are fairly similar there will be no real difference in the efficacy or impact of a clean or “dirty” refeed.
However, dirty cheats can shift your mindset and make it harder and harder to stay driven. At one point your desire to eat the dirty foods you like can become stronger than your desire to be shredded and from that point on it’s only a matter of time before you fail. A coke addict who is trying to come clean can have a drink on the weekend, but having a “coke cheat” once a week will make it a lot harder to come clean.
- The Rock can have cheat days, you can’t: The Rock is known for his massive cheat days. But he is already pretty much at the level of leanness that he wants to be. He just wants to stay there; he doesn’t need to be 5% body fat.
He is also 260lbs+ at a pretty low body fat level. The more muscular you are, the more crap you can eat before it starts to pile up as fat. Basically, the more fat you want to lose, the lesser your frequency and “volume” of refeed/cheating you can have.
Once you are at the level of body fat you want, it’s perfectly fine to have a full cheat day per week. But not if you still have a lot to lose.
- Ideally, refeed/cheats meals are eaten after a workout. And if possible, after a workout for your weakest muscle group. Might as well use the extra food to enhance anabolism: caloric surplus, especially in the form of carbs will increase mTOR, large amounts of carbs post-workout can also increase IGF-1 levels, which is very anabolic.
- Do not adjust after cheats. If you have a cheat meal (planned or not) or even a splurge day. Go right back to your diet. Do not try to cut calories even more or do more training to “compensate” for the splurge the next day. This will do more harm than good. It just puts your brain in a privation-reward cycle that is very hard to break. You splurged, it was a mistake, move on.
- Do not prepare for cheats. I generally recommend against planning a cheat ahead; like thinking about what you will eat for days and visualizing the experience, etc.
Ok, if your cheat is a meal at a nice restaurant with your significant other it’s fine to plan.
But if your plan is to sit alone and eat boxes of cakes and pastries while watching Netflix, please do not think about it in advance. Why? Because you make it harder to stick to your diet in the days preceding your cheats. And by romanticising your cheat meal, you will either be disappointed (it cannot live up to your fantasy) which normally lead to bigger and bigger cheats, or you make your regular eating even more bland by comparison.
- In an ideal world, do not cheat alone. You are much less likely to pig out and do something stupid if you are at the table with someone. It helps you keep things under control.
- Do not watch TV (or your laptop) while cheating. Watching TV or a streaming service increases the pleasure response to the meal almost threefold.
Your brain has mixed pleasure signals from the food, from the movie/show and the blue light emitted by the device (blue light creates a strong dopaminergic response, which gives your brain more pleasure).
Your brain will not dissociate the three sources of pleasure and it will start to associate the cheat food with an even greater pleasure response than it provides by itself. This makes it a lot harder to avoid cravings because your desire for the bad food can more easily exceed your desire to get lean.
- Cheat as late as possible. This has two benefits. First, you cannot turn a cheat meal into a cheat day when the day is over. If you have a cheat meal early it’s likely that you will be craving more for the rest of the 12-15 hours left. A cheat meal will turn into a cheat day (the “I’ll get back to my diet tomorrow” phenomenon).
Also, a cheat meal in the evening will lower cortisol and adrenaline which will help you relax and sleep better.
Refeeds and cheats can be useful tools for dieting success. But if used improperly they can actually make things worse. And while epic cheat meals (or days) can make for some cool Instagram pictures, they can be self-inflicted obstacles in your road to leanness.
If you hope to achieve your body composition goal and be able to maintain that condition once you have reached it, utilizing a refeed/strategy that fits with your current composition and mental state is key.
I hope this article will help you get in the best condition of your life, if that is your objective for this summer.