Anyone who has grown up on a diet of Bodybuilding YouTube videos and documentaries such as Pumping Iron will remember watching their heroes eating massive cheat meals. But do bodybuilders have cheat days? Or are they more disciplined in their approach to nutrition?
Many bodybuilders still have cheat days, particularly after competitions. However, having a single cheat meal is becoming more popular than full cheat days, as are refeeding days. These benefit from being properly planned and are less likely to result in overeating.
In this article, we will be looking at what cheat days are, how they differ from refeed days and common mistakes made when following a cheat day.
Bodybuilders love cheat days, and psychologically they can be necessary during a prolonged calorie deficit. If you are 12 weeks out from your competition and haven’t eaten any junk food in a while, having a day where you eat some “bad” food can help keep you motivated. You can also use cheat days to replenish glycogen, allowing you to train better and helping to prevent overtraining.
But they may not be the best solution, and there is currently a backlash against them in fitness circles. Disordered eating is on the rise in men, and it can come in many guises. Binge eating is one of the most significant issues for young men, and cheat days can feed into that.
However, just because something may not be appropriate for all, does not mean that it is without merit. You can’t live off quinoa forever. Cheat days can be effective in the proper context. If you are a professional bodybuilder, or an amateur bodybuilder who is taking their diet very seriously, then adding in the occasional day where you can eat normally can be very effective.
But there is a difference between having a day off from weighing your food and logging the calories, and eating 5,000 calorie meals because “calories don’t matter”.
Unless you have been a bodybuilder or have immersed yourself in the culture, it can be difficult to appreciate just how regulated and strict a bodybuilding diet can be. Meals are often cooked in bulk (prepped), and snacks are carefully chosen in advance.
Going out for meals with your family or friends can be a nightmare for bodybuilders during contest prep, and may involve a lot of calorie counting and sacrifice. No matter where you stand on the calories on menu debate in the UK, you have to admit that it can be helpful for bodybuilders.
Cheat days offer bodybuilders a chance to take a break from their very strict diets and allows them to enjoy some more enjoyable foods. When done correctly, a cheat day can help to raise morale, and it gives bodybuilders a chance to enjoy social situations with friends and family.
The frequency of cheat days will depend on the individual bodybuilder and whether they are bulking, cutting, or maintaining. It also depends on how crazy the bodybuilder goes on their cheat day. If it is just a couple of high-calorie meals, then you can get away with having one per week. If it is an absolute calorie-fest then you would probably have it once or twice per month.
Bodybuilders who are bulking may be able to get away with more frequent cheat days, while bodybuilders who are a couple weeks out from competition will feel probably avoid them altogether.
Cheat meals are a better option than cheat days, in my opinion. Instead of writing the whole day off, you have one high-calorie meal and eat normally otherwise. This gives you more flexibility in your diet. The 80/20 rule is a common practice for regular people. Eat 80% healthy and 20% non-healthy. Bodybuilders need to be stricter, and many follow a 90% rule instead.
If you are following the 90% rule and eat five meals per day, you would be eating a cheat meal every two days. If you only eat three meals per day, you could have two cheat meals per week. Of course, it doesn’t have to be measured like that. This is just an example.
Refeed days are essentially planned cheat days. Instead of using it as an excuse to eat whatever you want, they involve a lot of calculations. Refeeds require you to eat more carbs while lowering fat and protein slightly. Unlike a cheat day, most refeed days do not create a calorie surplus. Instead, they will be aimed at maintenance.
The main difference between a refeed day and a cheat day is that refeed days involve more planning. A cheat day usually means that you aren’t going to be logging your calories or checking your macros. While a refeed day involves planning your macros and logging your food choices.
Most refeeds will get you to double your carb intake while slightly reducing your fat and protein intake. You will be increasing your calorie intake to maintenance levels or above. For example:
If you are consuming above maintenance, then you may decide to reduce your calories for a couple of days before to compensate. This will help you stay in an overall calorie deficit for the week.
If you are getting fed up with logging calories and feel like you need a break, then a refeed day is not the best option. Instead, a cheat day would be better. On the other hand, if you want a day to replenish but don’t want to compromise your hard work, then a refeed is a better option.
Cheat days can be a lot of fun, but they can cause issues down the line when they aren’t followed correctly. Here are five cheat day mistakes for you to avoid:
As an occasional treat, a cheat day can be a welcome break from the monotony of dieting. But those calories still count, and if you have a cheat day too often, it can affect your overall energy balance. For example, if you have a 400 calorie deficit per day, but you consume 2,000 calories over maintenance every five days, you will gain weight!
Okay, it is certainly possible to have a cheat day without planning. Particularly at the beginning of a cut or during a bulk. But the closer you get to your competition, the stricter you have to become. But unscheduled cheat days where you randomly decide to eat double your daily calories can be a stumbling block.
Just because you have permitted yourself to have a cheat day, this does not mean that you have to go crazy. YouTube is full of videos of bodybuilders eating 20 burgers on their cheat days. But what purpose does this serve? It’s more food than they need and makes the rest of their diet that much more challenging. So relax, don’t feel like you have to track, and eat like an average person.
I don’t think that cheat days are that great an idea for most people. However, I believe the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) approach coupled with the 80/20 diet makes sense. But, if you have cheat days, the rest of your diet needs to be pretty good. If you have a cheat day and then eat quite poorly for 2-3 subsequent days, you are no longer dieting.
Binge eating is an eating disorder, so if you are doing this, then it isn’t so much a mistake that you have made. More, it is a symptom that you should be addressing. If you find that you are binge eating, coupled with negative feelings about your physique and depression, please talk to a doctor. Don’t just assume that “this is what bodybuilding is like”. It’s not.
This article has been chiefly focused on bodybuilders who want to compete. If you are not a bodybuilder, I would not recommend cheat days. Instead, I would recommend having a flexible diet and following the 80/20 principle. If you know that you have an event coming up where you will be eating/drinking with friends, then lowering your daily calories for a few days beforehand is your best option.
Yes, you can have cheat days while bulking, but they are less valuable psychologically than during cutting. A better option would be to have a more flexible approach to your diet, mostly eating highly nutritious meals with the odd unhealthy meal thrown in.
Yes, this is fine, provided you aren’t eating so much that it affects your ability to exercise. Most bodybuilders treat cheat days as a day of rest and recovery, where they can unwind. So, working out is the last thing they think about. However, other bodybuilders combine their cheat days with more extensive workouts (often leg days) to burn off some of those extra calories and use them to fuel their workouts.
Non-bodybuilders would probably be best off avoiding the whole cheat day/cheat meal approach, instead opting for a more balanced approach to nutrition. But if you are a bodybuilder, I prefer the cheat meal approach rather than cheat days.
This way, you enjoy delicious foods more frequently, rather than restricting yourself to just one day every two weeks (or however you space them). I also prefer to have the meals at least partly planned out in advance, and I advise against eating for the sake of it. Instead, eat until full, have fun, and enjoy meals with friends and family. Relax and recover.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.