There is a considerable debate around this concept, and it not only goes about what should be included but also about the name itself.
Let’s start with the name.
In many circles, the given name is “cheat meal” and all the possible associations to “cheat”, which I’m totally against and I’ll describe the reasons during this article. For me, it’s a re-feed meal.
Where does this concept come from?
The concept is quite old and it is related to the fact of following an eating plan and having one meal and in some cases one day off that plan. It applies to low carb, low fat, low protein, you name it.
The reason for doing this is well explained by science and it addresses two important factors:
When you start following an eating plan that restricts any of the foods you normally ate, your body is sensing that restriction as some type of starvation and might have the tendency to decrease the metabolic rate in order to compensate for that restriction. Interestingly enough, this is a survival mechanism that ensures that your body consumes or uses less energy when the sources for that energy are scarce. With time, the body adapts and avoids the downregulation of the metabolism if no other variables are changed or if no other restrictions are added.
The way to avoid this problem is to have one meal per week where you consume the restricted nutrient or calories if you follow a controlled calorie diet, which by the way, I’m totally against, but the calorie subject won’t be addressed in this article. How much of that nutrient should you consume? Research doesn’t have a straightforward answer, and it will depend on every person, but I’ll give you the best way to assess it for you in the following lines.
If you don’t provide your body with a re-feed meal, then your metabolism will decrease and your fat loss results along with it. It is really important to do it.
So keeping your metabolism up to par is cheating? I don’t think so and that’s one of the reasons why I don’t like the term “cheat meal”.
Another important aspect is the concept of reward. If you did things right during the week, training hard and following your nutrition prescription, on top of taking care of your metabolism, your brain and your body will appreciate that you give them what they might be temporarily missing or what you’ve been looking forward to. For example, if you are following a low-fat plan and you enjoy eating fatty foods like a nice aged manchego cheese with dried tomatoes in olive oil and macadamia nuts, the re-feed meal is the right moment to have them. Your brain will feel the reward immediately from doing things right and deserving that meal.
I hope you read the previous paragraph carefully and realized that I said “If you did things right during the week, training hard and following your nutrition prescription”. So going back to the example of the low-fat program, if you ate nuts and/or fatty food every day and they are not part of your eating plan, which in this case is something I consider cheating, probably you don’t deserve your re-feed meal, since you did it every day.
So rewarding yourself for doing things right is cheating? Again, I don’t think so, and this is the second reason why I don’t like the term “cheat meal” as the word “cheat” normally involves guilt.
How to re-feed properly
When you start a nutrition plan, you should follow it religiously for 2 weeks and after those 14 days, you can have your first re-feed meal. From there, your re-feed meal can be every 5-7 days. How do you define the number of days? I’ll address it in the following paragraphs. In my personal case, I do it once a week, as Saturday is a special day for Aliona and me and we like to enjoy it eating food we normally don’t consume during the week.
Types of food:
I’m totally against the concept of eating anything because that can include pernicious seed oils, trans-fats, processed carbohydrates, processed meats, etc. and definitively you want to re-feed your body with healthy, clean, and unprocessed food. The results will be so much better and more rewarding. For example, I eat low carb all week, so on my re-feed meal I consume carbohydrates and my favorites are yuca and plantain. In that sense, my starter will be yuca-based and the main dish will be plantain-based, both with protein of course. For dessert, I normally go for berries and dates. Eating healthy food will definitively do wonders for your body, while choosing crappy options will actually hurt your body, normally leading to inflammation and all the problems that it brings.
Amount of food:
The rule of thumb is to find the quantity that makes you leaner. Allow me to explain as this also applies to the frequency. Every time you do a re-feed, the next day you should be leaner. The best way to assess the frequency and the amount is to have one of our Metabolic Balance Practitioners measuring you on a weekly basis, the day after your refeed meal. If you are leaner than the previous measurement, you are on the right path, but if you gained fat, whether the amount was too high or the frequency too close. This way you can adjust the parameters and keep going on your way to being leaner and healthier.
What is the best time of the day to do it:
I always recommend the last meal of the day and the reason is very simple. Consuming something you really like will induce a satisfactory and rewarding response in your brain that can make you relax and increase your GABA levels. On top of that, you want to avoid converting a re-feed meal into a re-feed day, as it will be natural to try to find that satisfactory effect during the rest of the day if you don’t do it as your last meal. Finally, if your re-feed meal is carbohydrate-based, carbs will help to decrease cortisol and induce sleep.
What if I don’t miss or want any of the foods I don’t eat?
That is not a problem. Simply have a larger meal that day of things you really like and enjoy, and that will take care of your metabolism and your brain.
One final little trick. If my clients did everything right during the first 14 days, I instruct them to go and eat anything they want, unrestricted, unlimited. The vast majority will go and eat all sorts of crappy food. I even had one client that spent 5 hours on a food court eating at least one dish of every single one of the restaurants. When they go and eat that way, they feel so bad and sick that day and the following day, that they understand what happens inside the body when they feed it with the wrong food. From there I instruct them to do their re-feed the way described in this article, and the results are simply phenomenal.
It’s re-feed and it is mandatory.
Choose your foods wisely and go for healthy and clean options.
Do it in the evening every 5 – 7 days
It should never make you gain fat
Follow these simple guidelines and enjoy a healthier and leaner body
Coach Carlos Castro