My first experiment with diet cheat days came during college. While I was taking a steady dose of nutrition courses, I decided to diet hard during the week and pick one day on the weekends to eat whatever I wanted. The funny thing was, no matter how many pizzas and cookies I ate on Saturdays, I was still leaner than ever on Wednesdays. I took my nutrition log to one of my professors to find out exactly what was going on, but he was stumped.
As I achieved my leanest physique ever, my cheat days grew to 10,000 and sometimes even 15,000 calories. Looking to the Internet to find someone who could help me sort things out, I finally came across legendary trainer Scott Abel, who had actually produced a DVD on the subject, Cycle Diet. I eventually hired Scott as my coach and have since learned a great deal about cheat days. Here's what you need to know if you're going to start implementing them in your diet. (You can learn more about the science of what and when to eat through these two articles: Carb Backloading: A Nutrition Hack for Supercharged Performance and Why the Number of Meals You Eat Per Day Doesn't Matter)
Why Cheat Meals Work
According to author Lyle McDonald, after just four days of caloric restrictions, hormones like testosterone, leptin and IGF-1 start crashing. This happens even before you start to lose fat, which shows how smart the body is. The body was built for survival, not to get lean or pack on muscle. Cheat meals reset hormone levels by refilling muscle glycogen, intramuscular fat and leptin levels. Cheat meals also help reset metabolism levels by sending your body the message that you aren't starving.
Perhaps most important is the cheat meal's effect on the psyche of the dieter. Successful dieting is more psychological than anything, and having a day or even a single meal to look forward to gives many people the resolve they need to make it through the rest of the week.
Start Cheat Meals
How much you eat during your cheat day depends on your level of "super-compensation" (a Scott Abel term). Super-compensation happens when your muscles are like vacuums, running on nearly nothing. If they're all the way empty, you can opt for a full cheat day, but if the tank is only a quarter of the way empty, you will want a smaller cheat meal. The leaner you become, the more often you need to "spike" calories to refill the tank.
Start slow by introducing one cheat meal a week into your diet. Gauge your level of super-compensation by noting your body's reaction to your cheat meals. Slowly expand to a three-hour window and eventually a full day in which you aim for three to four times your dieting calories. If you've just started your diet, I recommend waiting 10-14 days before your first cheat meal to get in the right mindset for the journey you're taking.
What to Expect From Cheat Meals
Cheat meals have a number of effects on the body, including:
- Increased body temperature. You may actually begin to sweat due to thermogenesis, the body's burning of macronutrients. This is often welcomed as your body temperature drops when you get leaner.
- Increased appetite the next day. This signifies you gave your metabolism the bump it needed.
- Weight spike. This is due to increased muscle glycogen storage and intramuscular fats/water. I have gone up as much as 15 pounds after a solid cheat day. If you are truly in a super-compensated state, your weight will drop back down to baseline or below within a few days.
- Increased commitment to diet. If you haven't incorporated a cheat day into your diet before, try it and see just how much more enjoyable your life becomes.
- Better workouts. Your best workout will be early in the week following the cheat day.
Start with one cheat meal per week and enjoy! If you have questions, email me at email@example.com.
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