French fries and onion rings. Double-digit scoop sundaes. This is the stuff of cheat meal fantasies. But more often than not, it’s also the stuff of weight gain nightmares. The problem most guys run into when they’re straying from their diets is they don’t know how to properly splurge.
Eating like garbage for damn near 24 hours once a week doesn’t equate to renewed resolve in your diet and exercise regimen any more than it stimulates muscle growth and fat loss. There are scientific and personalized components to a cheat meal you’ve probably been overlooking—until now.
“A cheat meal is high in calories and all macronutrients—protein, carbs, and fat—and is not something that would normally be part of a proper diet plan,” says nutritional scientist Eva Lana. It’s not to be confused with a cheat day, which is an eight- to 12-hour window in which you go outside of your grilled-chicken-and-roasted-veggie diet, and straight out binge. In fact, cheat days aren’t really recommended for the average guy who’s in the gym four or so days a week.
When it comes to cheating (on meals, that is), there are two hormones you need to be concerned with: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is the “hunger hormone.” It’s mainly produced by fat tissue, and it regulates your appetite and energy stores. Grehlin is a hormone mainly produced by the stomach. It’s an appetite stimulant that signals the release of growth hormone.
Weekly cheat meals that are higher in calories and carbohydrates can help raise leptin levels and lower ghrelin. When your hormones return to normal, they can help reverse or even prevent any negative effects on metabolism, hunger drive, and energy expenditure.
What’s more, the increased calories may also help to increase thyroid function, further boosting metabolism; so a scheduled cheat meal may actually help optimize your body’s hormones to avoid weight loss plateaus and prevent chronic metabolism depression.
And hey, if nothing else, it’s a welcome reprieve from your typical diet that can help you stay on track the rest of the week.
Plan and Schedule
Pick a day of the week that will be your designated ‘cheat’ day—and stick to it. If you don’t, and just abide by what you’re feeling or craving, you’re way more susceptible to caving to cravings every other day. Also, you need to remember that cheat meals are meal replacements. They need to fit into your current eating regimen, and aren’t meant to be a day-long gorge fest where you eat twice as much and twice as often.
Just because you’re going rogue on your diet doesn’t mean you get a pass to skip the gym, too. Actually, it’s super important to work out before and/or after feasting; it can actually promote bigger, better gains. The purpose is to deplete muscular glycogen and activate the glucose transporters in your muscle (GLUT4 and GLUT12), which creates an insulin sensitivity. When activated, and in the presence of glucose, GLUT4 and GLUT12 will move glucose from the blood into the muscle. Once this happens, you need ample amounts of carbs and calories to restore glycogen.
Refrain from Gorging
Despite popular belief, cheat meals are not an excuse to overindulge. Sure, you can have a calorie-rich meal, but you don’t want to stuff yourself sick. Here’s an obvious rule of thumb (that you learned when you were little): Don’t eat to the point of discomfort and potential sickness; eat until you feel full and satisfied.
Avoid Nutrient-Poor Foods
Small sugary indulgences are fine, but try to avoid sugar-laden, nutrient-poor foods. Opt for a well-balanced meal that is higher in calories and carbs than your typical go-to—especially if you’re trying to bulk up.
Here are some delicious options to get you going:
- Cheeseburger with the bun
- Two slices of pizza
- Pasta dish with a protein source
- Chicken stir fry with rice or noodles