For anyone within the health and fitness industry or simply someone who practices a healthy lifestyle, two words that are often adored the most are “cheat meal”. A cheat meal is an expression used that describes a food type/s astray from the usual chicken, rice and veg which comes with an increased caloric content. The inclusion of something like ice cream and pizza into a weekly menu that consists of relatively mundane food can be a real luxury, however, is there purpose behind such a practice? Will this facilitate your goals? If so, how?
The purpose of enjoying a cheat meal will differ greatly between each individual, although for anyone looking in from the outset it would appear such an intervention would be purely for psychological reasons - a break from the tortuous norm to maintain motivation and hope! To some degree, they would be right, life seems to short not to enjoy the pleasures and variety that food can offer. It also provides a time in the week where the will-power can let its guard down and the mind can be more at ease, this will help with sticking to the following weeks nutrition plan.
Others don’t sit down and enjoy the cheat meal for the same reason, they use it to assist them with losing weight drawing on the adaption in bio activity as a consequence of a large bolus of calories. When someone diets to lose weight the objective is to bring a caloric intake into his or her favor by remaining in caloric deficit over a prolonged period of time. This allows for stored calories - such as intracellular fat – to be burned off to provide day-to-day energy requirements. The issue with this is the human body is a survival machine which will adapt accordingly to a given environment. In the instance of a caloric deficit the body will often view this as starvation, at which point the brain will orchestrate the endocrine system into chemical environment which aims to store excess energy (fat) and reduce the body’s metabolic rate in a bid to survive. Specifically, the brain will down regulate the secretion of leptin that leads to biological changes such as increased inulin resistance and increased appetite.
It is key to remember, all bodybuilding is, is tricking the body. The body is one of the most intelligent designs known to man, which does not have a purpose to be 110kg and 6% body fat, its sole purpose is simply to survive. Therefore in order to make such gains you must be intelligent with your approach, an uninformed approached will only reap unimpressive results.
With this in mind we must create a stimulus adequate of up regulating levels of leptin and creating an environment that allows the body to continually utilize fats as energy. In order to achieve this, a large bolus of calories is needed to signal to the brain that the body isn’t starving and there is sufficient energy being provided to keep the body in homeostasis.
The ideal way of achieving this is to get the majority of the calories through carbohydrate intake. When dieting, people will often/correctly reduce their carbohydrate intake in a bid to keep inulin levels low and up regulate lipid fighter glucagan. A consequence of this is that glycogen stored within the muscle gets depleted leading to a flat/soft appearance of the muscle. This is far from desired when the objective goes beyond simply weight loss and into the realms of sculpting an aesthetic physique. The large influx of carbohydrates will allow the muscles to replenish glycogen stores giving the muscles that fullness and shape whilst also bolstering those leptin levels.
The degree to which you take a cheat meal both in terms of volume and frequency is dependant on your particular phase of training and your goal. An ectomorph who has just started out on a mass gaining journey may have 3+ cheat meals weekly. Whereas a bodybuilder 4 weeks out from a show may just have 100g extra rice on a particular day!
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