Look, I’ll be the first to admit it: I love me some cheat meals. When my focus was solely on powerlifting, I still followed a fairly strict diet in terms of food choices, but now that I’m bodybuilding, too, I’ve had to be even more careful with what I eat. And I’m seeing great results from that – but at the same time, from a mental perspective, it’s simply draining to pay such close attention to everything you put in your mouth every day.
Now, I’m not cutting my calories or carbs too dramatically right now, but if you are – or if you’ve dieted hard in the past – you know that this kind of regimen can be physically draining, too. Eventually, your performance in the gym probably starts to suffer, and you have to use lighter weights and the pump becomes more and more elusive.
If your goal is purely aesthetic, at some point, you’ll have to suck it up and push through regardless, but until the very end of a diet, cheat meals are an incredibly useful tool for managing these symptoms of depletion.
But what if your goals aren’t purely aesthetic? What if you’re a strength athlete who’s dieting to make a weight class or even to just get in shape for summer? In that case, maybe you’re not willing to sacrifice performance for the sake of maintaining a diet. Can cheat meals be useful in that situation, too? The answer is a little more complicated than what you might expect.
The Benefits of Cheat Meals
I think most readers will be familiar with cheat meals and their benefits, but it’s worth noting them anyway, because the benefits can be significant. First, from a physiological perspective, cheat meals can offset some of the hormonal changes associated with hard dieting that slow your metabolism. (Remember, though that any decrease in basal metabolic rate from most diets is pretty small – it’s actually really damned hard to put your body into “starvation mode,” so don’t fool yourself into thinking that cheat meals are going to be the super-secret tool to smashing serious weight-loss plateaus.)
From a psychological perspective, cheat meals are arguably more beneficial. Remember that “drained” feeling I mentioned in the introduction? Mentally, that feeling stems from the fact that humans simply have a limited amount of willpower, and maintaining a diet – even a moderate diet – requires a lot of willpower. Even a short break from a rigid regimen can be a huge relief in that regard.
Why Cheat Meals Might Not Be the Best Choice
Both strength and physique athletes can benefit from the positive aspects of cheat meals. For strength athletes in particular, however, I believe there are some drawbacks that aren’t often discussed, and they’re very much worth considering before implementing them into your plan.
Basically, if you’re a strength athlete, your diet should be structured such that every time you walk into the gym, you’re feeling the best you possibly can given the other aspects of your recovery. A good diet can’t make up for a lack of sleep; nor can it compensate for a poor training program. But eating the right foods at the right times can help to make you feel more comfortable and energetic.
If you’re like most people, though, “comfortable and energetic” isn’t a feeling you associate with a cheat meal. Cheats are usually borderline binges – most people eat way too much, and they eat foods they wouldn’t normally eat. That can result in lethargy, bloating, and other intestinal distress. Obviously, those feelings aren’t going to set the stage for a great training session.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “okay, well, I’ll just have my cheat meal after my training session, and it won’t matter whether I’m feeling ready to do a heavy, high-rep set of squats later in the day.” There’s a problem with that, too: your body is primed for protein synthesis after training, and your best bet for taking advantage of that opportunity is a high-carb, moderate-protein meal that’s very low in fat. Again, not typical of a cheat meal, which tend to be high in fats and carbs and fairly low in protein.
What’s the Verdict?
In my opinion, if you’re training for strength, you’re better off simply avoiding very restrictive diets in the first place. They’re not necessary for the minor changes in body weight or composition that come with moving down a weight class or getting in beach-body shape. Instead, take a slower, more moderate approach – one that doesn’t subject you to feeling drained (mentally or physically) in the first place.
I’m certainly not saying that cheat meals are useless for strength-related goals. If you use cheat meals successfully, or have done so in the past, you should absolutely stick with what’s working. And it’s absolutely possible to schedule cheat meals to fit within the context of optimizing performance in the gym. But if you’re just starting a diet, and you’re already planning your weekly cheat meal, you might want to reevaluate your approach. There might be simpler – and easier – ways to reach your goals.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image provided by Ben Pollack.