Lose Fat

How Cheat Meals Can Be Good for You

If you want to get lean, top pros recommend cheating on your diet once in awhile.

Man eating hamburger
Erik Jonsson / EyeEm / Getty

Question: I'm trying to lose fat and am strict with my diet, but a few people in my gym recommended that I cheat once in a while. How can I do that without getting fat?

Answer: Getting lean boils down to one thing: creating an energy deficit. Besides doing aerobic exercise, many precontest bodybuilders follow fairly strict low-calorie diets, most of which stress lean protein like skinless chicken breasts, egg whites, tuna and protein powders.

In addition, many dieting bodybuilders limit their carbohydrate intake to 200-350 grams a day, depending on their size, metabolism and level of activity. Keeping carbs low increases the energy deficit and helps control insulin, a hormone that stimulates hunger and plays a role in fat storage. It's believed that lower insulin levels facilitate the burning of bodyfat.

But the downside to creating an energy deficit is that the body often adapts to the shortfall in calories by burning fewer of them. A break from a low-calorie diet (i.e., a cheat day) can interrupt this slowdown.

There are other benefits to cheating. Fat-busting diets can cause a decline in levels of thyroid hormones and leptin (which directly affect fat-burning) and IGF (insulinlike growth factor, which supports muscle growth). Splurging a bit can bring them back to normal.

Restrained Indulgence

Most bodybuilders diet strictly enough, along with doing added cardio, to create a weekly energy deficit of at least 3,500 calories and sometimes as much as 5,000 calories a week. So adding one cheat meal a week (a typical splurge may consist of 500-800 calories, which, in the big picture, isn't that enormous) won't affect the overall fat-burning process.

In fact, says IFBB pro King Kamali, cheating actually helps. Known for always coming into a contest in superb shape, King cheats about once every 10 days. "My precontest cheat meal will primarily be a McDonald's Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese or a Big Mac." That's about 600-770 calories, though he might go even higher. "If I'm ahead of the game, I'll have both!"

King feels the cheat meal provides a much-needed mental break from dieting while jump-starting his metabolism. "This meal gives my metabolism a good kick in the ass," he says, adding, "I'll make sure to drink a lot of water to prevent fluid retention from the salt in the fast food."

1, 2, 3 Splurge

Like all bodybuilders, Troy Alves, just off a sensational rookie season on the IFBB circuit, relies heavily on nutrition to help hone his physique. But he, too, believes in cheating and splurges every third day. "I like to go with something like a cheeseburger, no bun, wrapped in lettuce. If I want a carb meal, I'll eat an extra-large sweet potato with a little butter and brown sugar. Believe it or not, my body always seems to look harder the next day."

Keep in mind, when trying to strip off bodyfat, a cheat meal—not an all-out gorge-fest—can be part of the overall picture. As long as you're eating 5-6 times a day and controlling your calorie and fat amounts while increasing your protein somewhat, a cheat meal shouldn't set you back.

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