Contest Prep, Nutrition

Dirty Cheat vs Refeed

There are two common ways that one can “cheat” on their diet without throwing all their progress out the window. You can either do what’s called a Dirty Cheat or a Refeed meal. Both have their benefits and both equally have the potential for drawbacks too. Ultimately the choice is yours, but it’s I important to have a solid understanding of the reasoning behind these options.

The Dirty Cheat or cheat meal are what most people (including non-fitness enthusiasts) are fairly familiar with. The idea here is to eat a meal that’s more decadent than usual, but in the hopes of it staying balanced in terms of macros (protein, carbs and fat). In reality though, many who go for this type of cheat meal go all out and opt for fast food, deserts, junk food snacks or any combination of these into one massive meal. The good thing about a scheduled and well-timed cheat meal is that it can help you hormone-wise, especially if you’re trying to lose weight or diet-down. When calories are restricted and your bodyfat drops the hormone Leptin (which signals satiety or the feeling of fullness) can decrease while the hormone Ghrelin (which signals that you’re hungry) increases. What this means is that your brain isn’t going to let you feel full and your hunger is going to feel way more intense that it actually is. That’s why it’s so difficult for people to lose weight and keep it off; at a certain point the your body and it’s hormones are going to fight you as hard as possible to keep you hungry and reaching for food all the time. This is where the Dirty Cheat can come in handy. It has been proven time and again that a weekly cheat meal will help to raise Leptin levels and drop Ghrelin levels in the days following that big decadent meal. On the flip side, this style of eating can lead to some pretty nasty side effects. Many cheat items are unbalanced and tend to be super high fat and high carb (for example deserts or pasta with cream sauce or french fries) or super high fat and high-ish protein (for example chicken fried steak or baby-back ribs). It’s also very easy to go overboard on the portion size and overeat to the point where you are overly stuffed and may even feel sick. All of this can lead to some serious indigestion, discomfort and bloating not to mention weight gain. When you are losing weight, your metabolism becomes very sensitive and a massive meal or entire day of overeating can cause a big rebound in a short amount of time leading you to pack on body fat once again. What’s more is that if you have ever struggled with self-control around food, this may not be the best option for you as it could lead to a binge. When it comes to the Dirty Cheat, know yourself and your triggers before you indulge.

The Refeed or carb-load is an entirely different concept. Essentially you eat one meal that is super high carb, minimal fat and moderate protein. This option is great for those with a low body fat percentage, which is why this is the preferred method for bodybuilders. Those with a lower body fat  can refeed more than the average sedentary person would, i.e. they can go for a much higher carb and sizeable portion than the latter. The body can respond very well to this method of cheating, especially if you’ve been going low carb or working towards fat loss for a while.  When you carb-load your body takes in extra glycogen which promotes muscle protein synthesis (or muscle growth) and ultimately helps to bring your hormones back to an optimum level. This is why so many athletes who practice refeeds always have their best workouts the day after this meal. Their bodies and muscles are holding extra fuel so they end up pushing harder at the gym and getting a great post-workout pump. Ideally, you want to aim for the refeed to provide an extra 20-50% of extra calories than you typically take in. Bare in mind though that it depends on your body fat and how advanced you are in your training. The down side to this is that you have to be careful to what you choose to eat and ensure that fat is kept to a minimum, in fact don’t add any fat to this meal if you can help it and try to avoid eating this close to bedtime.

For many bodybuilders pre-contest carb-load is essential in the days leading up to a show. I personally take 2 days to load up on carbs before hitting the stage, but it’s always very easy to digest sources like white rice, cream of rice and sweet potatoes. The reason why we go for these types of carbohydrates is that during this time we’re also cutting and manipulating water in order to dehydrate and if you go high carb without enough water it can make you very sick. It’s best to avoid flour based refined starches as they are harder to digest and just sit heavily in your belly when you eat them without sufficient water. So forgo the pasta and breads.

I have seen bodybuilders go for the Dirty Cheat pre-contest instead of the carb-load, but it can backfire if you’re not careful. Again, you’re dehydrated so if you eat a big fatty, sugary meal without enough water it’ll cause serious bloating pre-contest which is a no-no. So a lot of athletes end having to take a harsh laxative to make sure it gets out of their system before they hit the stage. Ultimately you run the risk of going to an extreme here…proceed with caution. At each show I’ve seen people backstage eating chips, chocolate bars or pastries right before prejudging and going out for a Dirty Cheat meal before finals. I personally am sitting there with my white rice and tempeh or sweet potatoes and brown rice protein powder and I only take in sugar right before I hit the stage in the form of white rice and maple syrup (and it’s a tablespoon at that). I don’t want to risk anything at that point and bloat or feel uncomfortable while trying to pose.

This may all seem a bit intense to figure out what works best for you as there really is a science behind all of this. I was always doing a traditional weekly treat meal, but now especially with my training being more advanced and getting closer to show day I switch to weekly refeeds. My body responds very well to this and  get to enjoy some really nice food while refueling my body at the same time. Some weeks I’ll go for salty and have whole grain pasta with a homemade tomato sauce (no oil!) or I’ll go for sweet instead and have homemade donuts made from oatbran, banana and maple syrup. Last week I really treated myself to something awesome where I had cereal treats from a brown rice cocoa breakfast cereal with vegan marshmallows (made from cassava instead of gelatin). It was sooooo good. The carbs hit me fast and I felt like jogging for about an hour after I had eaten, but my workout the next day was awesome. Thanks to my replenished glycogen I hit some new PRs and crushed it at the gym!

Give both cheat options a try and see how your body feels after and how well it impacts your progress. Keep in mind that these meals are meant to help you physically, recharge your batteries and reset your metabolism. This can be invaluable to anyone regardless of their goals, so try to fit one meal like this into your week. Enjoy it, savour it and use those extra calories to your benefit.

Start Strong, Finish Strong



Cheat or Treat?


Now that we’ve explored how to eat right and plan for nutritious meals, let’s have a look at indulgences or I as call them treat meals. In most literature for fitness and nutrition, you may hear the words cheat meal or cheat day, but I prefer to think of them as treats and treat meals. Saying that I’m cheating puts a bit of a negative spin on an experience that should be enjoyed and savored, and it makes me feel guilty. If you’re eating a well balanced clean diet, then enjoying a meal that’s a bit more decadent than usual can be good for your mind and soul. It’s hard to eat right, especially with all of advertisements right in front of us that really push for fast food or pre-packaged store bought franken-foods, and it’s a good thing to acknowledge that. It takes a lot of will power and discipline to turn them down, so take a moment to appreciate that and understand why you’re choosing to eat well and take good care of yourself.

There are several different ways that you can go about enjoying a treat, and they really depend on your goals and level of comfort. If for example your goal is to build muscle or to maintain your weight and you’re working out and eating clean, then consider 1 meal each week that is really rich and decadent. Go ahead and have a couple slices of pizza and piece of dessert, or cheeseburger with fries, or have some pasta in a cream sauce with a glass of wine. The key here is to have one indulgent meal each week, note I said meal and not day; a full day will wreck all of your hard work and make you feel like garbage, it’s basically binging and it takes a lot to bounce back from a binge day. I typically will have one treat meal each week, this for me usually Sunday when my family gets together for lunch. Usually lunch is very balanced; we always have veggies and some kind of grain with a protein, but we also have lots of bread and we always have dessert and maybe some other salty snack while we watch a movie. I love Sunday lunch, not only for the delicious food that I treat myself to without feeling guilty, but for the experience of spending time with my family. Maybe for your treat meal it’s going out to a restaurant on Saturday night or meeting up with a few friends for a cocktail hour. If you choose to have 1 treat each week, enjoy the entire experience and take it all in.

If your goal is fat loss or if you find that you don’t have the willpower and one treat will sent you into a full binge day, then consider one day each week where you allocate more calories to carbs. In this case your protein allocation would remain steady, but you would decrease your fat and increase your carbs. Say for example your allocation is 35% carbs, 40% Protein and 25% fat, then maybe change it up to 50% carbs, 40% protein and 10% fat, and go ahead and include whole grains in each meal and snack along with some fruit throughout the day. For example, have oatmeal with berries with your breakfast, have a sandwich and an apple at lunch, some rice crackers with your snack and barley with your dinner.

If you happen to be one of those rare people who can have just one bite of something decadent and walk away, then kudos to you! It takes an incredible amount of inner strength to have just one bite of pizza or a few potato chips. Keep in mind that one bite of something won’t derail all of your hard work, but if that one bite leads to two and three and then a whole slew of treats, then you’re binging so just be honest with yourself. If you really can handle this and feel perfectly comfortable eating this way, then you can include one bite of something each day if you choose instead of having one treat meal a week, but remember that these bites do add up so just be mindful. I personally know that this is not for me at all. If I keep these things in my house and I happen to have a rough day or if I haven’t eaten enough, then I know I will turn to junk food. So unless it’s my treat meal, I avoid this completely.

If you’re still not sure what’s the best way for you to have a treat then consider what I call a healthy alternative treat. These are versions of homemade recipes for typically heavy meals that are transformed into a healthier option (see below for some alternative treat ideas). A good example would be making our own version of French fries where instead of deep frying the potatoes, you bake them with a little drizzle of olive oil. These are ideal if you’re not sure what’s best for you of if you are following strict regimen, that way you feel like you’re indulging without actually eating the not-so good for you stuff.

When it comes to indulgences, choose to treat yourself instead cheating on your diet; eat what you really like, but be reasonable and mindful of the choice you make. Whether you decide to have one treat meal or one high carb day, or if you chose healthy alternatives instead, make sure that it’s what you really want. Go ahead, enjoy your treat and really take your time eating so that you can savor every bite. Remember that you don’t have to indulge at all; if you don’t feel like having a treat and you can keep going without it then skip it altogether. Should you choose to have one though, don’t feel guilty; eat it, enjoy it and move on.

Healthy Alternative Treats:

  • 1 slice sprouted grain bread with 1 teaspoon non-dairy buttery spread, 1 teaspoon agave nectar and a sprinkle of cinnamon (I strongly suggest that you try this, it’s delicious!)
  • Air popped popcorn
  • ½ cup Banana-Protein Nice Cream (see my previous post “How Often Should You Eat?” for the recipe)
  • ½ cup soft silken tofu topped with ¼ cup berries, 1 teaspoon agave nectar or honey and a pinch of cinnamon
  • 1 6 inch corn tortilla filled with ¼ cup mashed black beans mixed with 1 tablespoon salsa and 1 tablespoon avocado

*As always, consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet as they are the best resource for living a healthy life.


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