A General Guide to Cheat Meals, Do You Have A Limit?

November 5th 2019

It seems like every athlete’s favorite part of the week nowadays is having their weekly cheat meal or cheat day. Some athletes like to indulge in a single cheat meal one day per week as a reward for stringent dieting and diligent training whereas others like to take an entire day to completely pig out on whatever type of foods they desire for an extended break from their typical eating habits. Using cheat meals can serve a variety of functions and help athletes not only in goal setting but also with their overall mentality towards training and dieting. Even though cheats can be extremely helpful under the right conditions they can be equally destructive to training, overall weight management, and performance during competition. A lot of athletes question how often they should cheat as well as how large their cheat meals should be. Realistically, cheat meals or cheat days are very specific to an individual’s needs and depend on a variety of factors such as athletic goals, mentality, and the timeline for performance. In order to have a better understanding of using cheat meals let’s cover some of the basics of timing and composition as well as quantity and its relation to body composition goals.

Cheat Meal Calorie Limit

Most athletes will eat somewhere between 400-1,000 extra calories on their cheat meal day and usually, this doesn’t affect long term weight loss or weight maintenance and will actually increase metabolism and prevent weight loss plateaus in many cases.

Timing and Composition of Cheat Meals

In most cases, it is recommended for athletes to consume one cheat meal every 7 days with all other 6 days adhering to an individualized macronutrient plan based upon certain needs. General macronutrient plans for strength athletes will usually involve several meals a day, usually, 4-6 on average, spaced out every 3-4 hours. These meals will typically consist of moderate to high amounts of carbohydrates and protein as well as low to moderate amounts of fat. Carbohydrates found in these the majority of these meals tend to have a low to moderate glycemic index and will allow the athlete to have a steady flow of energy throughout the day to support training and recovery. Protein will be kept moderate to high in quantity to aid recovery from intense lifting and support muscle development. Fats, in most cases, are kept lower due to their ability to slow down digestion and impact lifting from gastrointestinal issues or a weakened ability to process carbohydrates.  

Once an athlete has completed a full 6 days adhering to their macronutrient and caloric plan as closely as possible they can partake in one meal which doesn’t follow the plan. Instead, this meal tends to be drastically different from all other meals consumed throughout the week and is considered to be a fun meal in which the athlete consumes whatever they want. However, it should be kept in mind that the timing of this meal is extremely important and there are several factors which should be taken into consideration prior to consuming the meal.

First, the athlete needs to ensure their cheat meal doesn’t affect their upcoming training session, weigh-in, or competition. Those who binge during their cheat meal and pay no attention to its macronutrient or sodium composition might “blow up” with sudden bloating and have an unbearable feeling of fullness. Not only can they experience symptoms of nausea but they might also experience a short term, yet substantial weight gain from water retention and increased glycogen levels. If the athlete does not have an upcoming meet or has already completed training for that day it’s usually not a big deal for them to experience the temporary weight gain involved with cheating and the scale will go down within the next several days back to their normal weight range. However, if the athlete has a meet or training session within the next few hours or days they should be extremely cautious with their meals leading up to the event or practice and should wait to consume their cheat meal until after it has occurred in order to not risk jeopardizing performance. 

Another aspect of timing for cheat meals has to do with the type of meal their cheat will be and whether it will be consumed before or after training. If the cheat meal is a high fatty food, such as a massive burger with fries and a shake, it would be best for the athlete to not consume the meal prior to training. The athlete could consume the meal post-training but it would be best for the athlete to consume a high-fat cheat meal a few hours following the consumption of a smaller recovery meal that is low in fat and high in protein and carbohydrates. Eating this smaller recovery meal immediately following a training session or meet will allow the body to quickly and efficiently utilize carbohydrates to restore glycogen levels within depleted muscles. A few hours after this initial meal the athlete may partake in a cheat meal without concern as to how it may affect the muscle building or muscle repair process. Not only would they enhance and maximize recovery but they would also replenish glycogen levels for the next day or few days following.

Instead of a cheat meal the athlete may instead choose to have a carefully selected refeed meal or refeed day consisting of meals that are high in carbohydrates and low in fats which are centered around their time spent training and competing. The food choices for a refeed don’t have to be boring even if they’re not true cheat meals they can enhance performance and recovery more efficiently than typical cheat meals would. An example of refeeding foods to consume around training and competition includes bagels, fruit, low-fat candy, kids’ cereal or sushi.

Quantity and its Effect on Body Composition

One of the most crucial aspects of cheat meals deals not only with the quality of the food and its timing but also the quantity and its effect on body composition. Unless an athlete is a genetic freak of nature, think someone like The Rock or Michael Phelps, most of the time the cheat meal needs to be within a certain caloric range so that the athlete doesn’t gain body fat from overconsumption. It’s estimated that it takes the overconsumption of 3,500 calories to gain 1 pound of pure body fat. Athletes who are consuming this much or more over their caloric needs within their cheat meal or cheat day are certainly more prone to gaining excess fat at a rapid pace and risk harming their future performance and fitness levels. Strength athletes may also miss their desired weight class for powerlifting meets if they overconsume during cheat meals too often.

Thus, athletes should take precaution when selecting a cheat meal that it doesn’t cause them to consume too many calories over their daily needs and they should try their best to follow a cheat meal plan which takes into account other calories consumed previously that day and doesn’t lead to an excessive amount of calories over their general plan. Most athletes will eat somewhere between 400-1,000 extra calories on their cheat meal day and usually, this doesn’t affect long term weight loss or weight maintenance and will actually increase metabolism and prevent weight loss plateaus in many cases.

Some athletes may want to incorporate several cheat meals into their cheat day rather than have a single, monstrous cheat meal and this is usually fine to do as long as it doesn’t interfere with training, performance, or the digestion of preceding meals. Athletes who want to consume multiple cheats within a single cheat day should ensure that each meal is within a few hundred calories of their normal range and shouldn’t drastically exceed their typical caloric allotment per meal. Having the ability to eat multiple, smaller cheats throughout the day allows the athlete to have a complete break from their typical eating schedule for one day and then return back to their normal regimen with better focus and determination.

Wrapping Up the Cheat Meal: Finals Things to Consider

Cheat meals can be an absolutely powerful tool used by athletes in obtaining their goals and aiding overall training, mindset, and performance during competition. When done in moderation and in careful consideration of an athlete’s needs, cheat meals or refeeds can help athletes re-gain strength, aid with weight loss plateaus, and help athletes to refocus and reset mentally. Although they can help athletes in various aspects of training and performance they should be approached cautiously and should be used in a manner that doesn’t impede training, recovery, or performance. As a rule of thumb, cheat meals or cheat days taken by athletes should only exceed normal caloric needs by a few hundred calories and macronutrients within all other meals should be matched to their normal meal plan as closely as possible in order to maintain a healthy weight range and reduce water retention, nausea, or bloating. Cheat meals don’t have to ruin an athlete’s progress and in most cases help athletes to become better and work harder in chasing their dreams.


  1. The best ways to cut calories from your diet. (2018, March 28). Retrieved from

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