The Art and Science of “Cheat Meals” vs “Refeed Days”

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Democrat or Republican, Christian or Agnostic, American Football or Soccer… , we’re going to delve into one of the biggest debates of our generation- structured reefed days or cheat meals!

In the quest for a ripped physique women faint over and men admire (or vice versa), the age-old cheat meals question has created many a controversial stand off.

Keyboards have been tapped to their breaking point. Many an online friendship severed in the name of this nutritional nuance. The ironic part, after we look at what modern nutrition research and practical experience is showing us, it really shouldn’t be much of a debate at all.

When it comes down to truly maximizing progress, whether you’re preparing to step on a physique competition stage or just look better on your next date, those weekly untracked “cheat meals” may be cheating of you out of more progress than you may realize….

Meal Make Up Matters

cheat meals or refeed

One of the most basic benefits of a cheat meal or refeed is simply having a temporary mental break from the rigors of dieting phases.

Being able to enjoy some tasty high protein meals after a week working our butts off (somewhat literally) is always a welcome occasion.

Rigorous or not, we don’t want this break creating a lasting setback in the grand scheme of our dieting efforts.

Depending on what you eat, following a cheat meal (or worse yet, a cheat day) strategy can make that setback more likely. A really high fat, moderate carb meal/day is going to have far different effects from a carb-focused, moderate fat strategy because of the thermic effect of food…

The Thermic Effect of Fat & Carbs

The thermic effect of food (TEF) in basic terms means the amount of calories you burn in the digestion process.

When your protein intake is kept constant, dietary fat has a TEF of roughly 0-2%. This means that if you eat 100 calories of fat you only use 0-2% to digest it, so you’re body digests and uses 98 of those 100 calories.

Carbohydrate TEF ranges around 5-6%. It also takes additional energy to convert carbohydrate into stored fat, increasing it’s total energy usage a bit further.

What this means is that a day much higher in fat than carbs, or for some really embracing their cheats, both, pushes the risk of storing more body fat in the process as your calorie intake rises. This is especially true in the case of full on cheat days where calorie overages can easily reach into the thousands.

Glycogen Replenishment

Glycogen replenishment however is a huge aspect of refeed days that shouldn’t go unmentioned. It is often overlooked when using a ‘cheat meal’ approach.

As a diet progresses and folks reach lower and lower body fat levels, muscle glycogen (prime energy source during training and daily activities), continually declines.

This is why some fitness competitors look soft and flat as they get leaner.

Low glycogen levels can leave you feeling weak in the gym, foggy headed at work and at times making it look like you ‘don’t even lift bro’.

If you follow structured reefed days, you can strategically replenish your glycogen levels, while keeping total food intake in check to avoid disrupting fat loss. Win!

Could I have a high fat ‘cheat day’ instead?

Yes, technically you could structure a calorically comparable refeed with dietary fat and notice temporary, general energy improvements.

However, those glycogen levels may remain less than optimally replenished, which may leave some potential benefits on the table.

You may look vascular as hell after a good ole cheat meal. But just because a ton of sodium, carbs and fat are circulating in your blood stream temporarily doesn’t mean those calories won’t also disrupt fat loss in the days following. Nor will they successfully help with training performance in the immediate days to follow.

Carb Refeeds For Physique Competitors

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If you’re simply dieting to improve body composition and look better. But not to step on stage in your skimpies, this aspect isn’t anything to be too concerned with.

Following a structured refeed days can provide valuable data that can be used in constructing your peak week plan the week prior to your bodybuilding show (bodybuilding being any of the divisions referred to as a whole).

During peak week, the goal is to maximize muscle glycogen replenishment through strategic manipulation of sodium, water and carbohydrate intake.

In an ideal prep, peak weeks aren’t based solely off educated guesses as the final touches are in place.

Instead, those carb, water and sodium adjustments can be made based off previous weeks’ refeed day goals. They are then adjusted weekly or biweekly based on how the physique responds to each refeed.

If really ahead of schedule, which is a very prudent idea if serious about your placing, full-on practice peak weeks can be ran in place of traditional refeeds. This willreally nail down the best peak week approach to use once it’s officially game time.

If you’ve been following structured refeed or “high carb” days throughout your prep, the transition into more comprehensive refeed runs or practice peaks can be a very productive strategy.

Cheat Meal Alternative

On the other hand, if each week has ended in untracked, random cheat meals, there’s virtually no opportunity to collect this data. You won’t know how variations of carb, water and sodium adjustments affect your ability to properly fill out.

You’re just left to guess how your peak week should be structured.

Although it may feel much better to be liberated of dietary distress as each week comes to a close, it’s best to put the untracked meals on hold and take advantage of every opportunity available to ensure show day is as enjoyable and successful as possible in return.

We Suck at Guessing

Another fact we should just go ahead and embrace is that we as human just suck at guessing how much food we’re actually eating.

In the heat of the moment, when energy is low, hunger is high and that buffet is calling our name 3 months into our diet, a chubby little devil on our shoulder may tell us otherwise, but you must resist!

In all seriousness, the longer the diet, the more folks lie to themselves in order to justify snacking or entire meals that an objective eye could clearly see it a pretty bad idea.

“Oh yeah? Prove it guy!” Ah, I’m glad you asked!

Luckily there have been some studies on dietary recall and calorie estimation that help shine some light on this.

One study showed an example of the “flat-slope syndrome” which suggests populations are likely to under-report high food intakes and over-report low food intakes.

We tell ourselves that we’re eating less than we actually are

When we’re dieting, we subconsciously tell ourselves that we’re eating less than we actually are when overeating.

Another study resulted in food intake being consistently under reported by an average of 22% from actual caloric intake.

Sure some people may inherently be better at eye balling meal content than others. But by looking the averages, it’s not likely that you or I will beat the system.

Plain and simple, the likelihood you will eat within reason during a cheat meal and not far overshoot your caloric needs, as your diet progresses, is slim…pun intended.

This fact alone is one major reason I prefer to incorporate structured re-feed meals. I like tracked macro goals rather than untracked cheat meals.

Nutrient Deficiency & Caloric Restriction 

Anytime folks aren’t dieting or in early stages of a reverse diet, I strongly encourage a flexible dieting approach.

Tracking food intake and focusing only on “health foods” is not only extremely challenging to do year round, but also quite arguably unnecessary.

“Health bases” can typically be covered while still having additional macros leftover as food intake peaks in the offseason.

That being said, dieting phases are quite different. As a physique coach that has published research on the effects of contest prep dieting on natural bodybuilders, I have a close appreciation for the various effects dieting has on metabolism, hormones and various other health factors in order to reach stage conditioning.

As a diet progresses, if you’re working toward very lean conditioning such as for a natural bodybuilding show or advanced photo shoot, that lower and lower food intake provides fewer opportunities to consume nutrient dense foods that could be promoting better overall energy levels, but more importantly, sufficient general health.

Lower carbs reduce the opportunity for large varieties of fruit and whole grains. While fat declining leaves less chance for beneficial mono and unsaturated fats. All of which have nearly countless micronutrients that we normally want to maximize intake of anytime calorie intake goals allow.

Don’t Cheat Your Health

During an extended dieting phase, having a structured refeed can benefit not just physique goals, but also health markers. This allows a focused attempt to consume nutrient dense whole foods.

Whole grain, starchy carbs, continued focus on unsaturated fat intake as always, and depending on refeed carb goals, some additional fruit* for health support can be achieved.

Take your typical cheat meal as an opposing example.

Often moderate carb, high fat “fun” foods like burgers or pizza just don’t provide the same health-promoting nutrients. Sure, it’s probably a bit better than no refeed at all, but not by much.

Considering how challenging an extended dieting phase can be, our goal should be to maximize results. You also want to maximize your health too!

Cheat meals may be fun. But when it comes down to the grand scheme of applying nutrition principles to maximize results and minimize negative health effects when dieting, it just makes sense to take advantage of every opportunity we have to keep the ball rolling and not feel deflated along the way.

*Fructose is less likely to replenish muscle glycogen than starchy carbs when consumed. I encourage 1-2 daily servings of fruit whenever possible until the very latter stages of prep when calories are very low. I only encourage additional fruit when dieting if refeed carbs are quite high and athletes have plenty to support glycogen replenishment along with additional wiggle room to take advantage of extra fruit consumption.

The Bottom Line

It would be outright obsessive to suggest serious athletes should never enjoy an untracked meal for the sake of “making gains.”

At the end of the day, what we do the majority of the time is what will dictate our progress in the gym, and really life in general.

Taking time to enjoy family meals, celebratory dinners and the like are part of being human.

When deep in a diet or contest prep, or in the early transition stages from of a diet, it’s as important as ever to be mindful of your weekly eating habits to avoid rebound weight and reduced performance along the way.

In other words, there’s no need to be constantly 100% accurate with tracked macros year round, but when it comes time to run a dieting phase or contest prep- it’s important to eat like an adult and keep the current goals in mind if we want to maximize results and minimize pain along the way.

Andrew Pardue

Andrew Pardue is a full time, online contest prep coach as the owner of APFitness LLC. With a degree in Exercise Science, minors in Chemistry and Entrepreneurship, and being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA and Certified Sports Nutritionists (CISSN) - Andrew focuses on science-backed research to develop the most effective training and diet for physique athletes, while keeping long-term health a top priority.