Cheat Meals! Q and A with John Berardi

Diet and nutrition guru John Berardi answers questions on his view of cheat meals while dieting.

Q: Do you believe in following a strict eating plan year round?

A: No one should try to eat 100% on point year-round. Furthermore, unless one is on a strict contest-type diet, no one should try to eat 100% on point every week. Expecting 100% adherence is not only a recipe for psychological disaster; it’s plain old physiologically dumb. Would you train 7 days a week if you could get the same results from training 5 days a week? If so, you need some hobbies!

Sure, a lot of you hardcore youngins are sitting there thinking that only the weak cheat, or miss a meal, or eat something not listed in their diet sheet on the fridge. Well, come back in 10 years and tell me the same thing. I’ve been training for 11 years without an unplanned break and during this time I’ve learned that 90% is all you need to reach your goals. The extra 10% is only for the most intolerable zealots among you who are misguided enough to think that only the very strictest and most disciplined individuals are worth a damn (i.e. what I call “weightlifting snobs”). I assure you of this – if you try to follow a diet to the 100% level all year, you won’t last very long in this game. You’ll be another one of those guys who looks at me and says, “When I was your age, I was in great shape too” (only to learn that they are my age!).

Think about it this way. I have a diet posted on my fridge. This diet tells me to eat 8 specified meals per day. Multiplied by 7 days in a week, that means I have 56 meals (or feeding opportunities) per week. Now, if I can be perfect during 50 of the 56 (90%) feeding opportunities, I consider that week acceptable. Some weeks I hit my goal at 100%. Other weeks I fall somewhere between 90% – 100%. I never hit below 90% unless I’m on vacation or away for the week.

Make no mistake, hitting 50 out of 56 requires a great deal more discipline than most people have. But to suggest that someone isn’t doing enough if they follow their diet to the 90% mark is just absurd.

Q: Do you believe in cheat days or in cheat meals?

A: My classic cheat meal joke/response usually goes something like this: “You know, before today I wasn’t sure if the cheat meal existed but the empirical evidence located around your waistline has made me a believer.”

More to the point though, before we proceed, I think we should define the concepts of cheat meal, planned overfeeding, and refeed for our discussion (of course, these are my definitions).

Cheat meal = unplanned dietary transgression in which someone eats foods not on their diet (and not considered “clean”) and/or over consumes these foods. Cheat meals are usually the consequence of getting hungry and not having good food options available. An example of a cheat meal is being on the road and not having a chicken breast and vegetable dinner available so you stop at a restaurant and eat a burger, fries, and a milkshake.

Planned overfeeding = planned increase in calorie intake for a single meal. Planned overfeedings usually occur when eating maintenance intake or above since this meal will probably bump your calories up above the maintenance or habitual level of intake. Planned overfeedings can be carried out with excess amounts of “clean” foods or with other foods not considered bodybuilding friendly and are usually in place to allow time to eat “fun” foods so that athletes don’t feel so deprived as well as to help with recovery. An example of a planned overfeeding is ordering 4 large pizzas for yourself and 3 friends every other Sunday afternoon when in the midst of a serious strength and power phase.

Refeed = planned increase in calorie intake that lasts 8 – 12 hours and usually consists of a large increase in carbohydrates. Refeeds usually occur when dieting and are planned in order to provide a brief day of psychological relief as well as a number of physiological benefits that we’ll discuss later. An example of a refeed is following a strict diet of 1500kcal 5 days per week and consuming 2500kcal of clean bodybuilding foods (the additional kcal coming mostly from carbohydrates) on the other 2 days.

Now that we have our terms defined, it should be clear that the refeed and the planned overfeeding can be useful parts of any athlete’s eating regimen as long as they don’t have dramatically negative consequences on body composition. If an overfeed or refeed sets you back too far, then you either have to reduce the intake during these meals/days or drop them altogether. Cheat meals, while some are bound to happen, don’t really provide much benefit physiologically and certainly can wreak havoc psychologically.

Q: I’ve heard that you like to take advantage of the “second meal effect” during planned overfeeds. What is it?

A: Studies since the early ’80s have demonstrated this “second meal effect.” Basically, if you eat a “first meal” that’s low in fat and contains a high percentage of low-glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates, resistant starch (RS), and dietary fiber (DF), your responses to your “second meal” are improved. Specifically, you’ll remain satiated longer between meals and during your next meal and you’ll have decreased glucose and insulin responses as well as reduced serum triglyceride (TG) levels. In fact, this is the case whether your “second” meal has a high GI or a low GI.

Now, not only is this effect valid for a low GI/high DF carbohydrate breakfast followed by a high or low GI lunch, it also operates overnight as improved glucose tolerance is seen during a high GI breakfast if you eat a low GI/high DF carbohydrate meal the night before.

In addition, although this isn’t exactly a “second meal effect” recent data has also shown that post-prandial glycemia (blood glucose rise) is reduced if a piece of fruit (a small amount of fructose) is consumed prior to a meal. This probably occurs as a result of an up regulation of glycogen storage in the liver as a result of the fructose ingestion. We can call this the “fruit effect”.
Obviously the “second meal effect” and the “fruit effect” have implications for planned overfeeds or dietary transgressions. If you were going to have a meal that’s not necessarily “bodybuilding friendly”, my recommendation would be to consume a low GI/high fiber carbohydrate meal a few hours before your big feast. Then, have a piece of fruit about ½ an hour before the big binge. These dietary strategies will help control the glucose and insulin responses to your gluttonous meal as well as keeping high triglyceride levels at bay. The “second meal effect” and the “fruit effect” may also prevent you from going overboard during that “second meal”.

Q: What time of day would be best for an overfeed?

A: If I had to pick a “best time”, I would say the morning; perhaps after a glycogen depleting workout. For starters, glucose tolerance is slightly better during the morning hours vs. the evening hours. Furthermore, if you binge in the morning, you have all those afternoon and evening hours to workout again or to just move around and be active. So if you’re concerned with body comp during your cheats, you might choose a breakfast buffet over a dinner buffet.

However, most shameless binges aren’t done in a conscientious attempt to improve body composition. They’re done in order to let out the restrictive reins, to partake in a little dietary debauchery. It’s only reasonable and sane to do so from time to time. Therefore if you’re going to cheat, do it up right. Don’t get too caught up in the timing of your cheat meal. After all, who’s going to order and inhale a few large pizzas at 9am or hit the Chinese buffet for breakfast? Once in a while, enjoy yourself!

Q: What supplements do you recommend during an overfeed?

A: If we’re talking about a big-time overfeed here – the kind where caution is thrown to the wind and there isn’t even a cursory “reefed” justification for it, there are a few tricks to minimize the damage. In addition to the nutritional strategies listed above, there are a few supplement strategies you can employ. Before I share them, however, it’s important to remember that different individuals handle big meals differently. Those who respond to overfeeding by upregulating something called NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) or spontaneous physical activity, can probably get away with doing nothing but slugging down that whole pizza. In these individuals, the sympathetic nervous system gets jumpy, their thermic effect of feeding shoots up, they get more active, their thyroid hormone output increases, and the insulin response blunts some (but not all) of the lipid mobilization. With all this good stuff happening, these people might actually lose fat from an occasional binge! (Bastards).

However, there are others who binge and just get fat. In these individuals, the responses seen above don’t occur. Their sympathetic nervous systems stay constant, they don’t get much of a thermic effect of feeding, they actually get sleepy, they don’t get a thyroid boost, and almost all of their fat mobilization is blunted. Bad news!

Fortunately, in this latter group, certain supplements can mimic what’s happening in their leaner counterparts. In order to upregulate sympathetic nervous activity, in come our good friends ephedrine and caffeine. In addition to upregulating sympathetic activity, ephedrine alone can increase the thermic effect of a meal by 30%. Finally, ephedrine and caffeine will probably increase spontaneous activity. It’s just hard to sit around when you’re hopped up on stimulants. While the thyroid effect may be difficult to acutely mimic, diiodothyronine might make a good choice with its rapid mechanism of action. I’m not sure if it’s being sold any longer, though.

Finally, an herbal diuretic might help keep those high carb and sodium meals from swelling your ankles up so much that you need compression socks for adequate circulation and venous return.

Q: Is there any kind of training that would help prior to a cheat meal?

A: I would say that if you were going to train on a big cheat meal day, you should probably train after the cheat meal. In head to head studies, exercise done after eating leads to a greater metabolic cost than when exercise was done before eating. However, for the ideal exercise and cheating strategy, a few hours before the meal, I would perform a glycogen-depleting workout. This could be a 60-minute cardio bout or a 30-minute bout of high-intensity interval training. Then, a few hours later, I would eat the big meal. Then, as soon as I can button up my pants again, I would hit another workout. This one could be another cardio bout (if it’s an “off” day) or a weight-training bout if it’s my lifting day.

Q: Do you believe that refeeds should be administered to increase leptin levels and why?

A: Lyle McDonald (more of a leptin expert than I’ll ever be) and I just had a discussion about this with David Greenwalt and his coaching group over at and we both pretty much concluded that refeeds probably won’t do much for dieters in terms of leptin. For starters, leptin kicks up and down very rapidly as energy intake fluctuates. Therefore, while leptin may kick up with a 10-hour carbohydrate reefed, it’s likely to drop back down just as rapidly after the reefed is over and another 10 hours of dieting are accomplished. Therefore, a dieter may just end up with a bigger positive energy balance during those 24hours of refeeding and subsequent return to dieting.

Since there is no data, one way or the other, illustrating what happens in dieting weight lifters when refeeding, there’s only speculation. Of course, leptin itself aside, if there were some prolonged increase in leptin, we should be able to measure the effects of this leptin increase by observing increases in metabolic rate the day after the refeed. Unfortunately, metabolic increases as a result of acute overfeeding aren’t observed a day after the overfeed (or refeed). Remember, we’re not so much interested in what’s happening with leptin itself but what’s happening to metabolism. Leptin doesn’t impact fat loss. The effects of leptin do. And it doesn’t appear that refeeds impact metabolism for any longer than the day of the refeed.

However, make no mistake about it. I am not saying that refeeds are useless. In fact, I do see other good reasons (i.e. a psychological break from dieting, increased adherence, better glycogen status, more intense workouts, suppression of the catabolic hormonal cascade associated with dieting) for refeeding besides the leptin issue. A common strategy that I use with dieting bodybuilders is to have them do a 1-day refeed once per week. This refeed usually contains 50% – 100% more energy than their daily intake from the other 6 days. Therefore if the bodybuilder is eating 1000 kcal per day, he/she will refeed on 1500 – 2000 kcal. Likewise, if the bodybuilder is eating 2000 kcal per day, he/she will refeed on 3000 – 4000 kcal. The magnitude of the re-feed is dependent on their leanness, on how low their energy intake is, and on their rate of fat loss.

In addition to this refeeding on the micro- scale, I will usually have the same bodybuilder re-feed on a macro- scale by eating 50% – 100% more energy for a full week after every 4 – 6 weeks of dieting. The frequency and size of this macro- refeed is dependent again on the bodybuilder’s leanness, on how low their energy intake is, and on their rate of fat loss. You can think of this refeeding strategy as calorie periodization. We do it for training, why not for nutrition?

While I have just discussed my strategies for dieting bodybuilders, I use similar strategies for most of my other athletes as well, especially the ones trying to maximize their power to weight ratios. In these athletes, however, their calories are cycled according to their recovery needs. On hard days the calories are higher while on easy days the calories are lower. Refeed weeks are used when performance starts to suffer or when fat loss slows.

About the Author Dr. John M. Berardi PhD, CSCS

Dr. Berardi’s philosophy is simple: people from all walks of life, from soccer stars to soccer coaches to soccer moms, should have access to the most recent developments in health, exercise, and nutrient science. Dr. Berardi and his company, Precision Nutrition, Inc. have one purpose: to take the latest in advanced nutrition research and teach it to others in a way that doesn’t take an advanced degree to figure out. Dr. Berardi has earned a doctoral degree from the University of Western Ontario (2005) with a specialization in the area of exercise biology and nutrient biochemistry. Prior to his doctoral studies, Dr. Berardi studied Exercise Science at Eastern Michigan University (Masters program; 1999) as well as Health Science, Psychology, and Philosophy at Lock Haven University (Undergraduate program; 1997). Currently, Dr. Berardi is an adjunct professor of Exercise Science at the University of Texas at Austin. Through his company, Precision Nutrition, Inc., Dr. Berardi has worked in the exercise and nutrition arena for over a decade, working with individuals from all walks of life, from the sedentary to athletes at the highest level of sport.