The In’s and Out’s of the Cheat Meal


So, what exactly is a cheat meal?

A cheat meal is most commonly viewed as a high calories meal that often incorporates foods types deemed unclean or unhealthy by the consumer.
In my personal opinion there are two types of these…

The standard cheat meal

This is a planned cheat, consumed on top of the individuals usual calorie intake offering a refuge from their normal (most likely bland) diet. It usually consists of foods that have no played part in this persons diet day to day, and therefor something they have been craving. Its used an excuse to indulge once every week to 10 day period. There is generally no real structure around the cheat meal and calories are not really a concern. An example of a standard cheat meal might be a large dominos to go served with a healthy dose of Ben and Jerry’s!

Strategic re-feed meal

This is slightly different to a cheat meal in that it is macro specific and adapted to the individual with regards to timing of the reefed and specific amounts.

An example of a re-feed meal could be:

Taking a male on a linear 2500kcal 250g P/200g C/77g F to introduce a meal of 700kcal 30g P/70g C/33g F, every 4-10days (depending on the individual and results).

Weight and BF calliper readings would be taken both before and after, as well as 3 days post the re-feed meal. If things are progressing (e.g. weight/calliper site readings down) then most likely the re-feed has been a success and you have hit the nail on the head! If the individuals progress has seen to stagnate or specific calliper readings have increased, likely hood is you’ve over shot it. Next time you would decrease the amount of carbs/calories and try again. Unfortunately there is no real formula to work out your specific macros for a cheat meal, its simply a case of a trial and error.

Science Behind a Cheat/Refeed Meal

Asking any human being (no matter how strong their will power) to stick in a calorie deficit plan for months is just cruel. It’s also not viable! Don’t fear, in amongst the low calorie and high volume there is a place for both cheat meals and re-feeds. We’ve even got the science to prove it!

You have two main hormones in your body that have been recognised to have a major influence on energy balance.

Leptin – Anorexigenic hormone that is produced by the fat cells regulating appetite and energy balance. In essence, it suppresses food intake by sending the message to your brain telling it you’re full and satisfied. It stimulates the use of energy, or calories inducing fat loss.

Grehlin – An orexigenic hormone that is produced in the stomach to initiate the hunger feeling. It informs the brain know your stomach is empty and needs feeding.

Obese people often suffer the onset of leptin resistance meaning they never really feel full/satisfied, even though their level of circulating leptin is high.

As Leptin is produced by the fat cells, the leaner you get, the less leptin is produced. As a result the longer you follow a calorie deficit diet, the lower your levels of circulating leptin become.

A high calorie meal, especially one full of carbs and fats can substantially increase the levels of leptin and decrease the levels of grehlin during a state of progressive calorie deficit. This therefore decreases hunger and increases energy (calorie) utilisation.

Another point to note is that a low calorie diet will cause the body to conserve energy. One way it will do this is by decreasing the level of thyroid hormones (T3/T4) present to help regulate metabolism. A cheat or re-feed meal will also help to raise the T3/T4 levels, increasing your metabolic rate and core temperature. ‘Meat Sweats’ sound familiar?

What Will Work Best for me?

There are a few things to consider when planning a cheat or re-feed meal…

  • 1.Firstly, understand the the basic science behind a cheat meal. (Hopefully we’ve helped a little with this!)

Know YOUR reason for incorporating a cheat meal

  • 2.Do you really need a cheat meal? If you’re achieving the desired results you may not be in need of one. If you are able to create a negative energy balance through intelligent training and keeping around your maintenance calories, you may be in a good enough position without the need for a re-feed. For you, a cheat meal meal may simply be a way of reducing cravings.

If you are in a low calorie diet, likely hood is you will need a cheat or re-feed meal at some point to stimulate both your leptin and thyroid hormonal levels.

  • 3.What sort of ‘cheater’ are you?

Are you a controlled person? Do you see food as fuel? Or are you constantly craving ‘slutty foods’? If you are the type of person that views food as fuel, then the makeup of your cheat meal would really not make much of a difference, and you are unlikely to be tempted to turn your cheat meal into an all out binge! If you are constantly craving junk food during a diet, and you incorporate a standard cheat meal into your week, likely hood is this will turn into an episode of Man Vs Food. You would be far better to plan a re-feed meal based around specific macros, have it on a plate, sit down to eat, and once it’s done so are you.

  • 4.Plan your meal (when and how much)

You have all heard the phrase ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. Well in this instance the phrase resonates. The better you plan your cheat or re-feed meal, the less likely you are to cheat your cheat meal. Also tracking your results based on your cheat or re-feed meal will give you a good indication as to whether it is benefiting you, or possibly holding you back.

  • 5.Meal Timing

My preference for a cheat or re-feed meal is just before bed! This way there is much less chance of you picking or snacking after your meal. If you start off the day with a massive cheat meal, likelihood is you will continue cheating throughout the day due to you feeling sluggish and heavy. It’s all a bit of a mind game.


  • There is no warrant for a cheat meal when you are in a calorie surplus.
  • There is no specific formula, it’s a matter of trial and error. My advice would be start off small and increase if needed.

My preference would always be a strategic re-feed meal rather than a cheat meal. I’m not saying a re-feed meal cannot contain so called ‘slutty foods’ but you should have a set calorie and macro count, and ensure your meal fits (roughly) into those boundaries.

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