A: That’s a great question. I’d bet that over the past month at least a dozen people have asked me about cheat meals. My personal philosophy is, don’t do cheat meals. I find that the most difficult part of dieting is getting through the first two to three weeks, when there are things that I have had to cut out. For the first few weeks I crave those things, but once I’ve gotten used to not eating something, I don’t miss it. On the other hand, if I do a cheat meal and remind myself of what that “bad” food tastes like, I start craving it again.
That’s the biggest reason that I don’t do cheat meals—I don’t want to keep refreshing my desire for something that I’m not supposed to be eating. It makes dieting a lot easier for me!
Another reason for not eating cheat meals has to do with fat loss. Dr. Joe Klemczewski has given this explanation at seminars that we’ve done together over the years: It takes several days of dieting in order to get your body into the zone where it has to tap into bodyfat stores to meet energy demands. When you eat a cheat meal—depending on the number of total calories—you take yourself out of that fat-burning zone. Then it takes two or three more days of dieting to get back into it.
So let’s look at it on a weekly basis. You start dieting on Monday. By Wednesday or Thursday you’re forcing your body to consistently tap into stored bodyfat. You’re in the fat-burning zone for two or three days, and then on Saturday you have a big cheat meal. If you go back on your strict diet again on Sunday, it may take you until Tuesday to get back into the zone.
So, if you’re consuming a big cheat meal once a week, you’re spending only about three days in the fat-burning zone and then bumping yourself back out of it. I prefer to stay in the zone seven days a week.
Right now you’re probably thinking, “Won’t I get flat?” If you are creating a huge calorie deficit and losing weight too fast, the answer would be yes. You need to increase your calories across the board so that you are losing weight more slowly.
I recommend losing not more than a pound per week. At that rate you can be certain that everything you are losing is bodyfat and not lean tissue. Even when you’re meticulous about your nutrition and dropping fat slowly, sometimes you’ll find yourself glycogen depleted. The symptoms include inability to think clearly, inability to get a pump, not getting a burn in the muscle even when doing high reps and feeling like you’re walking around in lead boots. When you get to that point, the smart thing to do is increase your carbs for two or three days to let your body restore glycogen. It doesn’t take a cheat meal to do that.
At this point I’ve rained on a lot of people’s parades. I’ve given this talk about a dozen times in the past month, and I’ve seen the looks of sadness that appear with the prospect of giving up the cheat meal. “But, Dave, I look forward to that (fill in the blank with your favorite cheat food) on Saturday evening, and that’s what keeps me strict on my diet the rest of the week.”
Okay, if that’s you, here’s my suggestion: Have your cheat meal, but make it a limited cheat meal. Reduce the calories of your other meals that day so you have a little more wiggle room. Then structure your cheat meal so that you don’t go more than 200 to 300 calories over your limit for the day. Too often people will have such a big cheat meal that they ruin a whole week of dieting. Take a look at these numbers:
•Domino’s Ultimate Pepperoni Pizza, 1 medium: 2,180 calories, 128 grams of fat, 183 grams of carb
•PF Chang’s Combination Lo Mein: 1,968 calories, 96 grams of fat, 236 grams of carb
•Cheeseburger and fries: 1,377 calories, 82 grams of fat, 106 grams of carb
You get the picture, right? Don’t pig out!
Before closing, I’ll admit it, I’m human too. When I first started competing in bodybuilding, the diet was very hard for me. I had a tremendous sweet tooth. So in order to maintain my sanity, I actually gave myself a daily treat, and I worked it into my total calories for the day.
Every evening I would walk about a mile to a convenience store, buy an ice cream sandwich and eat it on the walk home. The ice cream sandwich was 150 calories with five grams of fat and 22 grams of carb. I burned up about 200 calories walking to and from the store, so I still created a 50-calorie deficit even though I ate an ice cream sandwich. Would I have done better fat burning by just walking two miles and not eating the ice cream? Of course! But it kept me sane at the time. I eventually got used to the bodybuilding lifestyle and lost the sweet tooth, but that didn’t happen overnight.
The point: If you absolutely have to have something that isn’t bodybuilding diet food, be smart about it. Please let me know what you decide to do and how it works for you.
Train hard and eat clean.