Cheat Meals: “How Often Should You Cheat Your Meal”? Eat Your Favorite Foods And Still Stay Lean, Ripped, And Shredded

Guess what? Many top bodybuilders love junk food and they cheat on their meals as well — and they consume it regularly. That’s right: in the offseason, many pros eat foods considered to be forbidden on a bodybuilding diet, items such as bacon, cheese, and sweets. For some, it’s a sheer necessity — with high metabolic rates, maintaining body weight requires extra calories. 

Many pros weigh well over 250 pounds in the offseason. The more quality (muscular) weight they carry, the higher the metabolic rate. For most off-season bodybuilders, as long as the greatest proportion of calories comes from nutritious lower-fat foods, there’s always room for additional fat and sugar. In this article, I explain how you can add some of your favorite but forbidden foods back into your diet.

It’s okay to “cheat” on your diet with foods like pizza, candy, donuts, and ice cream – as long as you know how to do it right. Here’s how to be lean without always eating clean.

If there’s one aspect of dieting that people obsess about more than anything, it’s cheating meals.

“Am I allowed cheat meals? If so, how often?” I get questions like this all the time. Here’s my take on the subject…

First of all, yes, you’re allowed to have cheat meals. We all crave delicious food, and not all of that food is perfectly healthy with optimal macronutrient profiles. Pizza, donuts, candy, ice cream, the list goes on – most people consider these cheat foods. But sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t.

Whether a given meal is a cheat meal really depends on your diet. You need to consider the meal in the greater context of what you’ve eaten previously that day and how you’ve been eating on previous days during the week leading up to that meal.

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“Cheating” On A Strict Diet

Consider someone following one of my fat loss diets (like Dieting 101) and getting into the later stages where carbs drop to half a gram per pound of body weight per day or less. “At this stage of a diet, I typically recommend having one high-carb day per week to keep your metabolic rate high and your leptin levels optimal as a means of delaying the inevitable fat loss plateau that most people reach on a diet”. Having a high-carb day once a week can help trick your body into not thinking it’s continually starving, which can help prevent it from adjusting to the diet as quickly as it would without a high-carb day.

Most people would consider this high-carb day a cheat day. However, if you do it properly and stick to low-fat, high-carb foods (like pasta, rice, or even jelly beans), it’s really not a cheat day. But even if you want to call it one, it’s at least a cheat day with a specific purpose that will help you in the long run.

“Cheating” Post-Workout

But what if you’re not following a strict low-carb diet? If you can work the foods you enjoy into your macros – whether it’s a donut, candy, or sugary cereal – in my mind that’s not a cheat meal. The most obvious example of this is the post-workout meal. I’ve discussed for years the importance of getting fast-digesting carbs into your system in the hour following a hard training session. (Read my Carb or Not to Carb? article for more on that.) Anything from gummy bears to Pixy Stix to white bread to Lucky Charms fits in here, and I wouldn’t consider that cheating. Plus, if you can satisfy a sweets craving by strategically eating the high-carb food post-workout and that helps you stick to your diet, that’s a huge benefit.

So there’s an easy food craving tip right there: If you’re dying to have a donut, skip your regular post-workout carb source and have a donut instead. Sure, a donut’s not the best post-workout carb you can have, as it’s fairly high in fat, but it’s a safe bet those carbs will be put to use by the muscles and not stored as body fat.

“Cheating” In General

If you’re not working a particular “cheat food” it into your post-workout meal, find another way to fit it into your diet. But try and do so in moderation. If you’re craving pizza, don’t go eat an entire large pizza by yourself. Enjoy the foods you love, but this doesn’t mean starting your day off at McDonald’s with two Egg McMuffins and hashbrowns and then crushing a Whopper from Burger King at lunch. If that fits your macros, your macros are probably way off and you shouldn’t expect to see very good physique results.

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Again, moderation. If you’re craving pizza, have one slice of cheese pizza for lunch with a protein shake and a nutrient-dense salad on the side. If donuts sound good to you, have one or two donuts (not five or six) post-workout or as a dessert treat after dinner. Feed your craving in moderation, and then move on.

If you’d rather indulge more than that, fine, but I’d recommend keeping your “cheating” confined to one meal and not going too far off the rail. Rewarding yourself for sticking to a fat-loss diet doesn’t mean pigging out the entire day from when you wake up until you go to bed. I’m talking about one meal where you don’t think about it and just eat whatever you want. Going out to dinner and having some pizza or a chicken parm dish, a couple of glasses of wine, and then some ice cream for dessert – that’s reasonable. Eating a whole pizza plus a sandwich, two pitchers of beer, and a bunch of Cheetos – that’s excessive and counterproductive to any goal that involves getting lean.

Balancing Act

What it comes down to for me is balance. Anyone who says you should “never” cheat or eat a particular food is not someone I find to be a credible nutrition expert. I’m a firm believer in enjoying yourself as well as being realistic about people’s abilities to diet and refrain from enjoying foods they love. I’m big on finding ways to enjoy the foods I like, which is one reason I do intermittent fasting.

People see photos of me eating donuts on my Facebook page and ask me, Bigflex Dogg, how are you able to eat all those foods and still be so lean?” As I said earlier, you have to consider those donuts in the context of what else I’m eating that day as well as my activity level. What people don’t always consider is that I fast for at least 16 hours every day, which allows me to hit my macros more while also enjoying my favorite foods. Plus, I train hard nearly every day, so my metabolism is still very high at age 48 and I’m constantly burning calories, even at rest.

My bottom line on cheating is this: “If you can make it fit into your macros for the day, it’s not cheating. And on the days when it exceeds your macros slightly, you’re at least enjoying yourself for a meal before getting back on track with your macros the next day”.

What’s that saying – “Have your cake and eat it too”? Personally, my mantra is “Donuts and abs – have them both!”

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