It's been said that "men and women do not live by grilled chicken and vegetables alone." Actually, nobody ever said that, but they should have!
Smart nutrition is an important part of gaining strength and stamina from an aggressive training regimen like CrossFit. Nobody argues with this. Food is fuel and it takes some high-octane fuel – not empty calorie crap – to power a grueling workout and its recovery.
Having a diet that helps to regrow the muscles shredded by vigorous exercise and lifting is a given. However, this doesn't mean cheating on a meal of high-calorie foods is out of the question. In fact, some fitness experts feel strongly that this "cheat meal" is an important part of maintaining motivation to hit the gym 3 or 4 times a week and eating good-for-you food every day.
There are several ways to eat the foods you crave – pizza, pasta, hamburgers, ice cream and every other "bad" food you've ever been warned about – without blowing all the work you've been doing in the gym. It involves cheating 2 or 3 times a month.
Cheating to Win
We've all heard that maintaining a healthy weight is simple physics - calories in and calories out. Actually, it's not quite that simple. Part of the trick of getting leaner and (oh yes!) meaner involves maintaining a positive mental attitude. This is where a cheat meal can really supercharge the process.
To be clear, this does not mean you should binge on junk for days at a time. The best effects of this counterintuitive strategy come from cheating on ONE MEAL, a couple of times each month.
"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 BuiltLean 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 diet and straight out binge."
She notes that a cheat day is recommended for those who are serious, competitive athletes and body builders. A cheat meal is best for the rest of us.
According to an article in Men's Fitness, "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.
Periodic 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 piece notes, the increased calories may also help to increase thyroid function, further boosting metabolism. This means that a scheduled cheat meal may actually help optimize the body’s hormones to avoid weight loss plateaus and prevent chronic metabolism depression.
Again, it very much about motivation. Many nutritionists believe that looking forward to a few slices of pizza or steak and baked potato (complete with butter, sour cream and bacon bits!!) on Friday will help the athlete make better choices on Wednesday.
Tips for a Successful Cheat Meal
It is important to plan when the cheat meal is going to occur and then stick with this plan. This is often more difficult than it seems because food urges can sneak up on you.
Eat your favorite food, for one meal but don't go crazy. If it is Mexican food, eat the enchiladas and stay away from the guacamole and chips.
It's very important to work out before and/or after feasting; it can actually promote bigger, better gains.
"If I have a cheat meal, I know that I’ve consumed a lot of calories, and I want to burn them off. So, I might want to go heavier metabolically—like going for a high-intensity workout or lift heavier that day, or throw in some extra plyos to continue to burn calories after I’ve stopped.”
Creator of A.C.C.E.S.S.
"I vary my workouts between HIIT, Olympic Lifting, heavy days of big muscle group training (bench press, back squats, front squats, pull ups, etc.) and kickboxing. Because I train with a lot of intensity, I'm not as worried about counting calories. I enjoy what I’m eating and move on. If I'm not training hard, I don't usually crave an ‘off’ day as much.”
Fitness and Lifestyle Consultant
People who are in large calorie deficit (more than 750 calories per day) need a cheat meal more often than those with smaller calorie deficit.
"Leptin concentrations (hunger hormone) typically reflect total body fat mass; the leaner your physique becomes, the less leptin your body produces, at which point eating cheat meals is more ideal. All in all, you need to recognize the changes in your body and how your body reacts to different cheat meals."
The best approach is to go for a well-balanced meal that is higher and carbs and calories than the normal (training) meal.
The Best Choices for a Cheat Meal
There are as many opinions on the BEST cheat meal food as there are cheaters. However, the fitness experts suggest the following as good choices: