Put down the pizza. Elite Trainer Andy Vincent reveals the right way to refeed
Social media’s effect on the fitness industry has been unparalleled over the past two years. Knowledge that was once the preserve of coaches and elite gym goers is now making a splash in the mainstream media. This is making the average, social media savvy, fitness fanatic better equipped to achieve their goals, be it physique or performance based. No bad thing, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Nutrition advice is at the core of this new wave of information. As the underpinning factor of everyone’s success in the gym, it’s unsurprising that so many are looking for the one tip (or cheat) that can help them to progress more quickly and easily. Today esoteric topics like IIFYM, nutrient timing, nutrient cycling have become commonplace discussions on gym floors up and down the country. But is too much knowledge in the wrong hands a bad thing? Especially if that supposed ‘knowledge’ has been wildly extrapolated or misinterpreted to fit a clickbait-y agenda – or compose an Instagram picture worth double-tapping?
Which brings me to the topic of cheat meals. I don’t know about you, but not a day goes by when I don’t scroll though Instagram to see a half-naked model with ripped abs and a dirty burger in hand talking about the benefits of their cheat meal.
So What Is A Cheat Meal?
Cheat meals have been used for years within the bodybuilding world and are a mainstay in pretty much every diet that coaches practice. The purpose being:
a) to provide a mental break from dieting, used as a reward for a strict 7-14 days.
b) to replenish muscle and liver glycogen and therefore bulk up your energy stores.
c) increase leptin levels (a hormone that regulates energy levels).
All sounds positive, right? But before you run off and order a Dominos pizza, I want to rant a little bit. There are a lots of bodybuilding extremes that get used by recreational gym-goers: split body part routines (chest day, legs day), fasted cardio, super high protein diets, fish and green vegetables on rotation…the list goes on. However, just because bodybuilders do it doesn’t mean it’s something we all have to do. You’re talking about a group of people that spend years trying to learn and understand what works well for their bodies while attempting to fine tune the smallest perceived weakness.
When a bodybuilder is prepping for a show it involves 8-12 weeks (sometimes more) of brutal dieting, working at a calorie deficit throughout. I admit that cheat meals can be a good tool when you’re doing extreme dieting, however the average gym-goer is a long way off this extreme. Speaking from professional and personal experience with cheat meals, having had varying degrees of success over the years, they can be very tempting, but often lead to fluctuations in energy levels, gastro-intestinal issues and overeating.
The Difference Between Right And Wrong
Having said all that, if you are doing a 12+ week diet, working at a deficit, they certainly can help keep you sane, as long as you follow some guidelines. Firstly, I want to change the name from cheat meals to refeeds. The aim is to increase the carbs you eat and restock your muscles with energy. Sadly, what often happens is that those high carbs come packaged with high fat and low-quality protein. And, invariably, lots of melty cheese. Delicious? Definitely. Effective? Not really. You would be much better sitting down to a load of jasmine rice and potatoes, which would do a great job at replenishing your glycogen levels rather than a burger and pizza.
The other main benefit to refeeds are increasing the hormone leptin, which controls satiety (hunger). When leptin levels drop it signals to your body that you need to eat more, and that is when cravings kick in. This happens to most people that do extreme dieting. When leptin is low for too long your metabolism slows and getting rid of that last bit of fat becomes infinitely harder. A refeed can reverse this and help keep your progress moving. However, if your new training plan only requires you to hit the gym three times a week and eat a bit more broccoli, your leptin levels are fine. Trust me.
A good baseline for a cleaner refeed is to take the protein down to no more than 1 gram per pound of body weight for the day, and then up the carbs to 150% of what you have been eating each day. Another factor to consider is how lean you are and how long you have been dieting. If you are really lean and have been dieting for several months, you may need to refeed more often, possibly twice per week, this is where getting to understand your body is really important. If you are not below 15% body fat then you don’t need to refeed. Go below that, however, and then we’ll talk.
The Final Word
And before you accuse me of joylessness, consider the other 20 meals you have during a week. If you’re serious about losing weight, no doubt you’re monastically sticking to macro and calorie counts, trying desperately to fight back against temptation and maintain a daily deficit. So why run the risk of undoing your hard work?
In the end, a steady and sustainable diet plan with a less aggressive deficit allowing you to eat a bit more of what you like daily will get you to your goals more quickly and leave you having a better relationship with the process of fat loss.
A blow-out cheat meal might make you feel good in the moment, but ultimately it is only prolonging the time it takes for you to progress. Dominoes will still be there in 12 weeks time.