Monday, January 9, 2012

To Cheat or Not to Cheat?

One of the most common questions I get is "is it okay if I have a cheat meal?" The answer to this question depends on several factors. A cheat meal actually can be beneficial in the right circumstances. However, it is up to the individual to determine if a cheat meal will indeed be beneficial and if it is, how to properly implement it to obtain the benefits.

The approach to a cheat meal is different whether you are bulking or cutting so I will discuss the approach in each scenario.


Due to the restricted calories when cutting, your body will not be able to run optimally for the duration of your cut. What I mean by this is that as you are following a continued caloric deficit, your metabolism will slow down, your muscles will become depleted of glycogen, and your hormones will not be at optimal levels. All of these factors can lead to strength loss and a lethargic feeling.

A cheat meal can actually help combat all of these problems. Some signs that you could use a cheat meal include:

- Continued bad workouts
- Feeling cold more often
- Fat loss has stalled despite dropping calories and increasing cardio
- Feeling irritable
- Lack of motivation

You need to be honest with yourself. If you are experiencing at least two of these signs, then you can have a cheat meal. If you convince yourself that you are experiencing these signs just because you want to cheat, then you will just be hurting your own progress.

A cheat meal that is high in carbohydrates can temporarily boost your metabolism, replenish glycogen stores, and increase the fat burning hormones such as leptin. Despite taking in more calories than normal, you can still lose weight due to your metabolism speeding up from those extra calories. Your metabolism will then be elevated for the next couple of days which should help you continue to lose weight. On top of that, the extra calories will provide you with extra energy which should enable you to have more intensity during your work outs.


The cheat meal is not just a meal where you eat whatever you want. You should plan what you will be eating in advance to ensure that the cheat meal is accomplishing what it is supposed to be accomplishing. The meal should be high in carbohydrates, low in protein, and moderate in fat. The reason carbohydrates should be high is because they have the largest effect on metabolic rate and are responsible for replenishing your muscle glycogen. The meal should be approximately 500 calories higher than the meal you would normally eat.

You should have your cheat meal the day before you train your weakest body part. This way, you make sure you have the most energy to train that body part and you have extra nutrients for that body part to repair itself. I also suggest replacing your last meal of the day with the cheat meal. The reason is to control temptation. If you cheat early in the day, you are much more likely to continue cheating throughout the day.

In most situations, you should only have one cheat meal every 2 weeks. I wouldn't go on a set schedule though. Once you begin experiencing the signs of needing a cheat meal, you should begin planning it. Just don't have more than 1 per week. Cutting is supposed to be hard. Some suffering is expected. If you are noticing that you aren't feeling any better the day after your cheat meal, try bumping up the extra calories in the meal from 500 to 750 or even 1,000.


When bulking, cheat meals don't have any physical benefits. Your body is in a calorie surplus already so a cheat doesn't stimulate your metabolism any further. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have cheat meals though. Although a cheat may not have any physical benefits, it can have great mental benefits. Restricting yourself day in and day out can take a huge mental toll on you. The restrictions may even lead you to snap eventually and cause you to binge. It's better to have an occasional controlled cheat meal than an uncontrolled binge.


A controlled cheat meal once per week is perfectly acceptable. The key word here is controlled. If you eat significantly more calories than usual, you can do a decent amount of damage in only one sitting. I would try to plan the meal in advance so you know what you will be eating. Otherwise, the meal may turn into a binge. The meal should replace one of your regular meals. I would try to replace your last meal with the cheat meal because if you cheat earlier in the day, you will be more tempted to continue cheating for the rest of the day. As a general rule, I wouldn't go higher than an 500 calories over your usual allotted calories for the day in your cheat meal. The extra calories can come from any macros you want because unlike cutting, this meal is just to satisfy your cravings. It isn't going to provide any physical benefits.

Although I wouldn't cheat more than once per week, on a bulk you can afford to cheat more than that. Your muscle gains will be the same. You will just pack on more fat with it. If you are mentally strong, you can cheat much more infrequently. As an alternative to a cheat meal, you can try fitting a food that you crave into your macros for the day. This way, it isn't really a cheat meal but you will satisfy a craving anyway.


A cheat meal can be beneficial both when cutting and bulking. When cutting, those benefits are physical and mental whereas when bulking the benefits are just mental. In both situations, I would recommend planning the cheat in advance and replacing your last meal of the day with the cheat to ensure you don't end up cheating for the whole day. A cheat meal can be a useful tool but be careful not to abuse it.


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