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Cheat Meals vs. Refeed Days

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Two important concepts that must be discussed when creating your own Bodybuilder Nutrition Program are cheat meals and refeed days. Cheat meals and refeed days have their place in your nutrition program. It’s important that you understand when and why to utilize each of them. A cheat meal is a single meal eaten during the course of a day, outside of your regularly planned meal. A cheat meal consists of any foods you crave, usually with no (or very loose) quantity restrictions. Refeed days include a series of meals eaten over the course of the day with increased calorie and altered macronutrient content, with the goal of elevating leptin levels, and boosting metabolism. While cheat meals can have their place in a fat loss diet, a refeed day will have a more significant impact on boosting your metabolism, and keeping your diet progressing at an optimal rate.

The Role of Refeed Days

The main purpose of a refeed day is to boost your metabolism while in a calorie deficit to continue fat burning at an optimal rate. This is accomplished primarily by increasing calorie and carbohydrate intake over the course of a day, which causes an increase in production of the hormone leptin. Leptin is a hormone primarily synthesized in adipose (fat) tissue whose job is to regulate metabolism and hunger. It accomplishes this by signaling to your hypothalamus the amount of energy your body has stored (in terms of body fat) and how much energy you have coming in (amount of food you eat). When you are in a calorie deficit your leptin levels start to drop as your withering fat cells release less leptin. As leptin levels decrease the following negative metabolic adaptations begin to occur:

  1. Reduced thyroid hormone levels — lowering metabolism;
  2. Reduced sex hormones (Testosterone, LH, FSH) levels — reducing muscle anabolism;
  3. Reduced CNS output — increasing lethargy;
  4. Increased cortisol levels — increasing water retention and muscle catabolism;
  5. Increased ghrelin levels — increasing hunger;
  6. o put it bluntly, leptin helps keep you alive when your body thinks it’s starving to death by shutting down energy-costly systems.

Increasing leptin levels through a refeed day helps temporarily reverse some of the negative effects of dieting. The most effective way to accomplish this is by increasing carbohydrate intake as this is the primary macronutrient that causes an increase in leptin levels. Carbohydrates cause a release of the hormone insulin which directly increases leptin levels. Insulin release also inhibits the production of cortisol sparing muscle tissue from cortisol’s catabolic effects. Protein has minimal impact and fat does not have any effect on increasing leptin.

How often you refeed depends primarily on your body fat percentage. Adult males above 15% body fat do not need to refeed more frequently than once every two weeks. As you start approaching 10% body fat you should begin having refeed days every 7-10 days. Finally, when you get into the single digits, you may need to refeed as often as every 3-4 days to prevent down regulation of your metabolism.

Here are a few things to watch out for that indicate you might need a refeed day:

  1. Increased lethargy throughout the day (even while taking stimulants);
  2. Reduced workout performance or motivation to train;
  3. Body weight stays the same for over a week or weight increases;
  4. Wake up feeling soft (like you’re retaining water) and flat (muscles glycogen depleted);
  5. Keep in mind, dieting is going to be hard. Just because you feel hungry doesn’t mean you need a refeed day.

The bottom line is that as you lose more body fat you will need to refeed more frequently to curtail the negative effects of dieting.

Refeed Day Guidelines

The following nutritional guidelines can be used by anyone who wants to incorporate a refeed day into their fat-loss nutrition program:

  1. Increase training day calories to maintenance level;
  2. Reduce protein intake to 1g/lb body weight;
  3. Reduce fat intake to 0.2g/lb body weight, the rest of the calories should come from carbohydrates;
  4. The additional carbs should be divided evenly amongst all meals;
  5. Consume as little fructose as possible — fructose does not impact leptin levels;
  6. Stick primarily to complex, starchy carb sources (rice, pasta, bread, cereal);
  7. Waxy Maize is also a good complex, low-glycemic carb option.

What About Cheat Meals?

Even though refeed days are a superior tool to increase metabolism and optimize fat loss while dieting, cheat meals still have their place. Cheat meals can actually be considered for two different phases: cutting and bulking.

Cheat Meals While Cutting

The main purpose of a cheat meal while cutting is mostly psychological in nature. It gives you something to look forward to and a break from your normal meal plan. Unfortunately a single cheat meal, while providing a large amount of calories, does not have a significant impact on increasing leptin levels.

Something to keep in mind is that not everyone does well with cheat meals. While some people eat their cheat meal, and feel great afterwards, others end up feeling worse. For some, a cheat meal boosts their motivation for their next week of dieting Others end up with intense food cravings the next day — making them more likely to cheat on their diet throughout the week. My advice for cheat meals while cutting is to hold off on them as long as possible. Eventually you may get to the point where you need that weekly cheat meal to keep you sane, but until then, try to avoid them as long as you can.

Cheat Meals While Bulking

Believe it or not the best time to utilize cheat meals is actually when you are trying to BUILD muscle. While eating in a hypercaloric state your body is being flooded with nutrients at all times. This removes the need for a refeed day. However, cheat meals can be used effectively when bulking to increase total calorie intake for the week without having to adjust your current nutrition profile. Anyone who has followed a bulking phase knows it can be rough to consume all the food you’re supposed to eat in a day. Especially when you eat healthy, whole-food sources and limit junk food. A large cheat meal once or twice per week can help increase total calorie intake for the week with foods you enjoy eating and can eat in large quantities.

Cheat Meal Guidelines

The following cheat meal guidelines can be used regardless of what bodybuilding phase you are currently in.

  1. A cheat meal should be used as a replacement for your second post-workout meal after a resistance training workout. This way the added calories, carbohydrates, and fat can be best utilized by the body in the repair and replenishment of the glycogen reserves of the muscles.
  2. A cheat meal should not be eaten in your first post-workout meal. The immediate post-workout window should always be very low fat.
  3. A cheat meal should be consumed on a training day where you will also be training the following day. The additional carbs and calories will insure you have a solid training session.
  4. A cheat meal must be consumed in under one hour. This prevents excessive, prolonged binging.
  5. A cheat meal should still contain a high-quality protein source. Approximately the same amount as a normal meal. Don’t just eat all junk.

If you’re dieting, and also utilizing refeed days, limit total calories of the cheat meal to approximately 5x your body weight. If you’re also getting the positive metabolic effects of a refeed day an all out cheat meal with no restriction will most likely just lead to excess fat gain.

One last thing to keep in mind is that the amount and quality of your sleep also affects leptin and ghrelin production independent of diet. Lack of sufficient sleep decreased leptin levels while increasing ghrelin levels. Basically making you hungrier while simultaneously reducing metabolism.

Author: Jon Mahoney

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