college bodybuilder tips: the cheat meal

Dear K***,

I know that I’ve told you that you get one “cheat meal” every week. However, I still hear you asking questions like “Can I ever eat cake again?” and “Will I have to give up cheese forever?” and so on. Just because you are lifting weights and trying to get ripped doesn’t mean you can never eat particular foods. Even if you want to be a competition bodybuilder, you won’t have to swear off any food “forever.” Even a competitive bodybuilder can eat cake.

But actually I have even stronger advice for you: not only “can” you, but you should.  I know that every time you have one of your cheat meals you hold back, because you think that it is “bad”, and you imagine that your body would be improving even faster if you didn’t have the cheat meal at all.  But this is wrong, and I think it’s time that I explained to you why. It is time for me to explain the real philosophy of the “cheat meal” to you.

The “cheat meal” has two purposes: one is psychological, the other is physical.

The psychological purpose is the most obvious one: it keeps you from becoming insanely bored.  It gives you something to “look forward to,” which in turn makes it easier for you to not cheat in the days leading up to the cheat meal.  After all, if you know you can pig out on Saturday, then it becomes easier for you to not cheat on Thursday because you can just think, “only two more days!”  Without a cheat meal, when you are thinking, “I can never eat a cookie again in my life!” it becomes much too easy to say “screw it” and have a cookie on Thursday…. and then again on Saturday… and then again the following Tuesday… and so on.  So in the end, having one specific meal a week do to all of your “cheating” on means you probably will end up cheating less often.

But I know you, K. You think you’re a superhero. You think you have the iron psyche and the self-control of a bomb-shelter. So I know that deep down there is part of you that thinks, “I don’t need silly tricks like that! I can simply eat a strict and perfect diet all of the time, and it will make my body achieve my goals even faster!”

This is actually wrong.  Not that I doubt that you are a superhero who could eat a perfect strict diet all of the time: let us assume that that is true. But the “cheat meal” actually serves a second purpose, a physical purpose. And the truth is, you will build lean muscle faster and you will get stronger with the weekly cheat meal than without.

It comes down to physiology.

Over time you are keeping very careful control over your carbs and your fat intake. Right now you are bulking, so we are keeping your carbs relatively high: when we move to the “cutting phase” your carbs will drop even lower. Because your body uses carbs for energy, the body’s natural reaction to this will be to slow things down, make you more tired, and try to conserve energy. Over a long period of time, this means you will feel more exhausted, and might not be able to lift as much.  In the end, this means you won’t be able to build strength or muscle as quickly as you otherwise would.

So part of the idea of the “cheat meal” is to trick your body into jacking your metabolism up into high gear again. If you completely saturate your system with carbs and fats–the things that you usually keep tight control over–then your body will react by “freaking out” a little.  It will suddenly jack up your metabolism. However, there is an upper limit to what your body can process and digest in a short period of time. So if you inundate your body with carbs and fat in the span of just a meal, your metabolism will kick into high gear but your body will simply not be able to “take it all in”.  It will not be able to convert it all into energy, but it will not be able to convert it into fat, either. It will just pass out of you.

The end result of this is that your metabolism will stay in high-gear for several days after the bad meal, even though you have gone back to your regular diet just after the single meal. For all of that time, the next few days after your bad meal, your metabolism is jacked up compared to where it would otherwise be, but you are only getting your normal strict diet.  That means you have more energy for your workouts, but you are also burning more calories (and burning more fat) than you otherwise would.

Metabolism after a cheat meal

That is a very real physical effect of the cheat meal, above and beyond the mental tomfoolery.  If you absolutely pig out for one meal a week, you will have more energy and you will burn more fat than if you have a supposed “perfect” strict diet every day.

So do it. You will actually get leaner and stronger with the cheat meal than without. And make sure you take full advantage of it, too. DO NOT hold back. Remember that your body has an upper limit on what it can process, calorie-wise, in a single meal. So do not eat two slices of pizza: eat the whole pizza.  Do not eat a slice of cake: eat the whole cake.  There  is absolutely no reason that you shouldn’t.  In fact, if you want to be a real bodybuilder and get totally ripped, then as long as it’s just one meal per week… there is every reason that you should.




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