This is something the bodybuilding community has debated about for ages. But the verdict? Cheat days are good for you!
We took a closer look at the science behind cheat meals and their effect on athletic performance, and we have a much more solid understanding of the mechanism.
First, to get the obvious answer out of the way, let’s talk about diet adherence. This is arguably the most important factor in reaching any dietary and fitness goals. And it’s potentially the main reason that keto, the carnivore diet, and “dirty” diets are so popular. Sticking to a strict way of eating can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. Fortunately, allowing for one day a week where food rules don’t apply certainly makes it easier.
So aside from the mental and emotional benefits of a cheat meal, what are the physical benefits? Here are three.
#1. No More Plateaus
The longer you diet, keeping your body in a caloric deficit, the harder your body “fights back.” There are a couple of ways it can do that.
For instance, low body fat and a large caloric deficit decrease the level of leptin. This hormone promotes satiety, so smaller amounts of it increases appetite. Your body also adapts its energy expenditure, making you less likely to want to burn those precious calories.
One well-planned cheat meal a week helps counteract those adaptations. It will increase muscle glycogen, decrease hunger levels, and allow for better athletic performance. So, your gym improvements won’t plateau.
#2. Replenished Glycogen Stores
Speaking of muscle glycogen, since your cheat meals are more likely to be heavy on carbs, they provide a great opportunity to restore your glycogen levels. If you’re dieting and still working hard at the gym, your muscle glycogen will tend to be on the lower side, as this is what your body uses for energy during exercise. That makes for tougher workouts and impaired performance. Consuming simple carbs and sugars in a controlled manner during your re-feed cheat days is a great way around this problem.
A great side-effect of occasional high-carb intake is that it helps your muscles retain more water, making you look bigger and more muscular for a few days after the cheat meal. Just make sure to stay hydrated, so it’s your muscles and not your face that’s swollen.
#3. Improved Hormonal Balance
Last but not least, a high-calorie cheat meal can temporarily speed up your metabolism and have a positive effect on hormonal health.
Aside from increasing leptin levels, a once-in-a-blue-moon cheat meal will also decrease perceived hunger by lowering your levels of ghrelin, the hormone your body uses to signal hunger.
If your guilty-pleasure meal is also high in fat, it can provide your body with the necessary building blocks to synthesize other hormones, including testosterone.
To Cheat Well, Follow the Rules
There’s one problem. Imagine you’re maintaining a caloric deficit of about 200 Calories/day. This means that one lazy, dessert-laden Sunday when you consume, say, 1,000 Calories above your daily goal, can cancel out the whole week of disciplined eating and moderation.
So, here’s one critical piece of advice when it comes to cheat days: Do your math. Know your maintenance, track your caloric intake, and think in weeks instead of days. If you’re planning to gorge on takeout during the weekend, “make room” for it and maybe fast for a day or skip dinner for a couple of days in a row.
To sum it up, as long as you’re doing a good job at managing your average daily caloric intake, a cheat day won’t hurt. From diet adherence to hormone production, there’s nothing some pizza and ice cream can’t make better.