Damage Control - How to indulge in a "Cheat Meal" without looking like you did.
By Dr. John M Berardi, Ph.D. - Author of:
"Oh come on, live a little!"
"Don't you ever eat anything that's bad for you?"
"I could never do what you guys do, I like food waaaayyyy to much for
Those quotes sound familiar, don't they? I know I've heard them hundreds of times.
But don't take my word for it. Studies have shown that every 60 seconds,
someone, somewhere in the world, is uttering some permutation of one of these
phrases. (1) The most annoying part is that the perpetrators don't seem to
Now, my normal response is to smile and chuckle it off while deliberately
and noticeably glancing down at the extra pounds of "life" around
their midsection. But what I really feel like doing is snapping back with
something like, "Oh, so what you're telling me is that stale, chocolate
brownies are the secret to what you call 'living.' That's interesting. You
know, in all honesty, my brethren and I do eat stuff that's 'bad' for us from
time to time; we just eat it less frequently than you do, chubby. And this, my
opponent of self discipline, is what makes our enjoyment of food waaaayyyy
superior to yours!"
After all, bodybuilders love a good cheat meal! So much so that if our
livin' and food-lovin friends had occasion to watch us take down an
all-you-can-eat buffet or a Christmas goose, their mouths would fall open,
spilling cranberry sauce all over the "good linen." But herein lies
the problem. While needing to eat big from time to time (for both physiological
and psychological reasons), we are a rather vain species, always wondering,
"Who's the fairest of them all?" Last time I looked into my mirror
after a cheat meal and asked that question, my mirror replied, "Uh, JB, in
case you didn't know this, a 10,000-calorie meal doesn't exactly sculpt the
So with the holidays coming up it's about time someone talked about
"damage control." After all, in the Berardi house, "cheat
days" and holidays carry with them important pre and post meal rituals.
Therefore, in this article I'll share a few tricks with you - taken straight
from the research journals - for minimizing the damage caused by eating your
weight in turkey and candied yams.
As Tiny Tim would say, "God bless us, every one!"
To cheat or not to cheat
I don't know how many times I've heard the following question but it never
ceases to make me chuckle.
"So John, I believe in a weekly cheat meal. Do you?"
My sarcastic response is usually something like, "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."
Then I usually answer the question properly. I think that a modest weekly
cheat meal is just fine for some people while it's a mistake for others. Here
are some circumstances in which they're appropriate and some in which they're
- Cheat meals should only be planned during periods
of the year when you're trying to gain mass. During this time, cheat meals
eaten once per week or once every two weeks are fine, depending on your
goals or your body-fat percentage. The leaner you are, the more often you
can cheat. But don't force it. Calling the binge session a "cheat
meal" and using it as an excuse to eat a bunch of junk food is not
the way to get big and muscular.
- From what I've seen, the following always holds
true. If you're honestly overeating large amounts of good foods on a
regular basis, you'll certainly be getting all the good calories you need
to grow. And you won't be hungry for crappy food. In fact, one way I
assess whether my clients are eating enough good bodybuilding food each
week is whether they are craving cheat foods. If so, they need more
calories through the week. Scientifically, this makes sense since chronic
overfeeding causes the brain to realease satiety hormones and these
hormones signals tell the brain's hunger centers to "shut up and sit
- Cheat meal frequency and/or size should be
minimized when over 15-20% body fat. I've discussed this before in a
previous Appetite For Construction column. Basically, the fatter you are,
the more likely that any excess food will be shuttled toward body-fat
storage rather than muscle mass. So, if you're fat, minimize your over
- Don't have cheat days or meals while you're
trying to lose weight. I know, I know, you've always heard talk about
"stoking the metabolic fire" or some nonsense like that, but
simply put, that's bunk. First, psychologically, it's very difficult to
stay disciplined after a cheat meal. After weeks of dieting, the taste
buds, which have all but given up hope, are stirred back to life. Each
time you cheat on the diet, it's more difficult to stay strict when next
you're being tested by the devil on your shoulder. "Come on, John,
you know you want a slice of pizza. Remember, you didn't get fat after
your cheat meal on Sunday. This one time will be fine, too."
And physiologically, there's no sound reason to have a cheat meal. One meal
will not upregulate your sluggish dieter's metabolism, despite what you've
heard. Sure, the metabolic rate gets upregulated for a few short hours after
the big meal, but no way will this thermogenesis account for the large caloric
load you'll be dumping into the gut at once.
So my final answer is that it's okay for some people to "believe
in" the cheat meal. Others however, should categorize the cheat meal right
up there with the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot.
The Physiological Effects Of Eating Big
Before we actually start to talk about what we can do to minimize the damage
caused by eating big, I want to tell you about some of the physiological events
that occur when you sit down to an all-you-can-eat feasting extravaganza. When
overfeeding for a single meal, the following happens:
- Increased blood insulin levels. This decreases
fat mobilization and oxidation.
- Increased storage of fat and carbohydrate. It's
been estimated that in the average person, outside of the post exercise
window, a meal consisting of over 750 calories (regardless of the
macronutrient content) leads to measurable fat storage.
- Increased sympathetic autonomic nervous system
activity (norepinephrine release, epinephrine release, and related
autonomic nervous activity). (2)
- Increased release of thyroid hormone (T3 and T4).
- Increased thermic effect of feeding. This is the
cost of metabolizing the food. (3)
- Increased percentage of energy comes from
carbohydrate oxidation while a decreased percentage of energy comes from
fat oxidation. (4)
- Increased spontaneous activity or NEAT
(non-exercise activity thermogenesis). This represents the activities of
daily living, changes of posture, and fidgeting. (5,6,7)
While these changes are usually seen in most subjects, individual responses
are quite variable. In fact, as you might expect, your genetic make-up and
exercise activity have a lot to do with your response. Here's a list of some of
the ways that different people respond differently to overfeeding:
- Lean people have a significant increase in
sympathetic autonomic nervous system activity while obese people often
have no response. (2)
- Lean and obese people show increases in T3 and T4
release but there's large variability. This variability may be explained
by the fact that the obese may release less thyroid hormone when
- When exercise-trained people overeat, they may
store more carbohydrate while burning more fat. Non-exercisers, on the
other hand, may store more fat and burn more carbohydrate. (4)
- Weight-gain resistant people tend to experience
huge increases in NEAT as a result of overfeeding (most of the extra
calories are burned, not stored), while people who gain weight easily tend
to store most of the extra calories as fat. (5,6,7) Most interestingly, in
one overfeeding study, subjects were given 1000 calories above maintenance
per day. The weight-gain resistant subjects in this study oxidized a
whopping 70% of those 1000 calories. Those who gain weight easily actually
stored most of those calories as fat. After 8 weeks of overfeeding, fat
gain varied almost 10-fold among subjects, ranging from a gain of only
0.79 lb to a gain of 9.31 lb!
- In lean people, the normal insulin response to a
meal only minimally affects fat mobilization and fat storage. However, in
fatter people, the normal insulin response to a meal nearly shuts down fat
mobilization and leads to large increases in fat storage.
I hope it's clear that although there are some common ways that the body
responds to overeating, these responses are highly variable and this
variability determines how damaging the binge will be. So, knowing the way you
respond to the binge is critical to how you should manage the binge. As I said
earlier, if your physiology demands it, some of you may have to forgo
Damage Control Strategies
Regardless of how we respond to overfeeding, we all know that the occasional
binge is inevitable. So now let's talk about what we can do to minimize the
damage. The first area I would like to cover is exercise. Then, I'll talk about
nutrition on the day of the binge, and lastly, I'll talk about supplement
Exercising for Damage Control
One key component of your damage control strategy is exercise. There are two
schools of thought regarding exercising on "cheat day," one group
arguing that exercising before the meal is better while one argues that
exercising after the meal is better. Let's look at the data.
In one study, lean and obese people performed low intensity and
high-intensity exercise with and without a meal afterward. (9) Let's talk about
the effects of the exercise alone for a minute. While both groups of exercisers
burned the same amount of calories during the exercise, the post-exercise
energy expenditure was 14% in the high-intensity group and 6% in the
I'm sorry to go off on a tangent here, but for all those who think they have
to switch their cardio over from low intensity to high intensity, I want to
point out a few things. If the average person's basal metabolic rate is 2000
kcal per day (83 kcal per hour), this means that the high-intensity group
burned an extra 6 calories per hour vs. the lower intensity exercise group. Since
this type of metabolic increase usually lasts for only 5 hours or so, we're
only talking an extra 30 calories per day here! So don't make any silly
conclusions about what type of exercise is more effective.
Anyway, back to the study. When a 720-kcal meal was ingested, the combined
effects of the exercise (either type) plus the feeding led to larger increases
in metabolism than either one could produce alone. But even more importantly,
the RQ (respiratory quotient; it's a measure of the mix of fuels burned)
remains lower if exercise preceded the meal versus eating a meal alone. This
means that exercising before eating prevents some of the large shift toward
carbohydrate burning after eating. And this means more fat will be burned for
energy if exercise precedes your meal than if you were to eat the meal alone.
In another study looking at pre-meal exercise, subjects performed swimming
exercise before eating. (11) In this study, swimming before eating a meal led
to an additional 4.6 calories being burned per hour versus the meal alone. As
with the study above, the absolute amount of calories burned isn't all that
impressive, but in my opinion, the more important issue here is the shift in
metabolism to less carbohydrate burning and more fat burning in the hours after
the exercise and the meal. So it looks like exercising before eating is the way
to go, right?
Not so fast! On the other side of the fence we have a study looking at
post-meal exercise. In this one, subjects performed either high or
low-intensity exercise after a 750-kcal meal.(10) In this study, the
researchers noted a synergistic effect between the meal and the exercise. With
the combination of the meal and exercise, more calories were burned over the
next three hours than if the meal was eaten without exercise or exercise was
done without a meal. Again, there were no differences between groups.
Since the studies seem to show that both eating before and after exercise
leads to metabolic rate increases and more fat oxidation, what about studies comparing
pre-exercise feedings to post-exercise feedings? Well, I've got them for you,
In two publications comparing the effects of pre-exercise meal feedings to
post-exercise meal feedings, the authors showed that the 3-hour thermic effect
of food was significantly greater when the meal was eaten before exercise than
when the meal was eaten after exercise (13,14). The exercise bout in this study
happened to be 30 minutes of cycling.
From these data it seems that when we put the two head to head, the binging
before exercise may be superior to binging after exercise. As a side note,
getting back to the individual differences aspect, the authors showed that lean
subjects burned more calories in every condition (meal alone, pre-exercise
meal, and post exercise meal) when compared to obese subjects.
So is that it? Is eating before exercising the way to control the damage? It
appears so. In another study comparing the effects of pre-exercise meal
feedings to post-exercise meal feedings, the authors verified the results from
above (12). In this study, a 910-kcal meal followed by a 25-minute treadmill
run resulted in greater energy expenditure than when the run came before the
Bottom line, when it's time to pig out, if you have to make a choice between
exercising before or exercising after the meal, after the meal is the way to
go. But what if you have the day free, plan on eating enough for a small army,
and want to really control the damage? Since there are no studies on weight
training or pre and post-meal exercise, I'm going to have to theorize here.
What I would do is the following:
A few hours before the meal, I would perform a glycogen-depleting workout.
This could be a 30-60 minute cardio bout or a 15-30 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.
Eating for Damage Control
I know this section seems out of place since it's the eating we're talking
about that actually causes the damage, but what I'm referring to in this
section is the fact that the composition of the meals in and around your cheat
meal can actually improve your physiological response to the binge.
Studies since the early '80s have demonstrated what's known as a "second
meal effect." Basically, if you eat a 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 next meal are improved.
Specifically, you'll remain satiated longer between meals and during your next
meal, you'll have decreased glucose and insulin responses as well as reduced
serum triglyceride (TG) levels. (15,16, 17)
In fact, this is the case whether your next meal has a high GI or a low GI.
Although the studies cited here refer to the effects of a low GI/high DF
carbohydrate breakfast followed by a high or low GI lunch, your glucose
tolerance will also be improved during a high GI breakfast if you eat a low
GI/high DF carbohydrate meal the night before.
So, my recommendation would be to consume a low GI/high fiber carbohydrate
meal a few hours before your big feast. This will help control the glucose and
insulin responses to your gluttonous meal as well as keeping high triglyceride
levels at bay. It might also prevent you from eating yourself into a bloated
Reconciling these recommendations with the ones I made regarding exercise, a
few hours before you break bread you should do a glycogen depleting exercise
bout and follow it up with a moderate meal of low-GI carbs and high fiber.
In addition to encouraging you to utilize the "second meal
effect," I'd like to give you some tips on how to organize the rest of
your daily food intake.
- Eat as you normally would (every few hours)
before your cheat meal. Don't fast in preparation for your elaborate meal.
- Once you've done the damage, don't eat again that
same day until you start to feel hungry or at least wait until you don't
feel painfully full any longer. If you're not used to huge calorie loads,
you'll undoubtedly remain full for hours and hours afterward. This is due
to the super-slow digestion that's taking place as a result of all that
food volume and all that saturated fat. Don't force yourself to eat on a
schedule on these days because you're afraid of catabolism or something.
By feasting you've created a huge nutrition storage depot in your stomach
and the nutrition will be slowly released for hours to come.
- On the following day after a ridiculous binge,
get right back on your regular diet. Don't try to eat less or try to
"diet" the binge off. It doesn't work and just screws you up
even more for days to come. You may not feel much like eating the next
day. Eat anyway. You may feel bloated. Eat anyway.
Supplements for Damage Control
So far we've discussed how the body responds to a huge meal and some
exercise and nutritional strategies to manage your binge. Now I'd like to
present some supplement strategies for helping the body cope with your
As discussed earlier, the body responds to large meals with increased
sympathetic activation and an increased thyroid hormone response. (2,3) Since
this seems to be the body's strategy for dealing with the caloric load, why not
mimic this ourselves with supplements? Although most of you know I'm not a fan
of chronic use of stimulants or fat-loss supplements/drugs, I'm not opposed to
the acute use of them. Therefore, on the day of the feast, taking a few
stimulants like MD6 and a few doses of a thyroid drug like T2, T3, or T2-PRO
might help give the metabolism a much needed kick start.
Studies have shown that beta agonists can stimulate metabolic rate in a
similar manner to the way diet increases sympathetic nervous system activity.
(21) Specifically, ephedrine can increase the thermic effect of feeding by over
As far as thyroid hormones, T3 injections in rats can potentiate the effects
of diet-induced thermogenesis on metabolic rate and brown adipose tissue
activity. (19) Studies also show that T2 acts directly on the mitochondrial
respiration while T3 and T4 must first increase oxidative enzyme levels. This
means that T2 has a much more rapid stimulation of metabolic rate (1 hour for
T2 vs. 24 hours for T3). Some authors have concluded that T2 may be beneficial
in situations requiring rapid energy like cold exposure or overfeeding (20). So
a thyroid and ephedrine-type cocktail may increase meal induced thermogenesis
and offer a nice degree of damage control.
While prescription "fat blockers" like orlistat may help keep some of
that saturated fat and cholesterol out of your blood stream, the consequences
of such drugs (i.e. poor vitamin absorption and the famous "anal
leakage") may be more detrimental than the fat intake itself. (23) While
the prescription drugs do prevent fat absorption, human studies on over the
counter "fat blockers" like chitosan have shown that these
supplements have no impact on weight loss or fat excretion. (23,24)
Since most cheat meals are often loaded with carbohydrates and sodium, water
retention is usually a consequence of the binge. Mild, over the counter
diuretics like dandelion and uva ursi may help keep the fingers moving through
a full range of motion.
Putting It All Together
So now that I've discussed the data supporting my exercise, nutritional, and
supplemental strategies, here's a quick review:
- Exercise: If you have to choose, work out after
eating, but ideally you'd work out a few hours prior to eating as well.
- Nutrition: Eat normally before your binge and
take advantage of the second meal effect. After your binge, eat again when
you're hungry or when you don't feel so full. Get back on your regular
diet the next day.
- Supplements: Taking stimulants like MD6 and
thyroid enhancers like T2 or T2-PRO during the day of the big feast may
fire up the metabolism. In addition, taking mild diuretics may keep the
excess water off.
Hopefully, these damage control strategies will allow paranoid types to eat
with the family on major holidays without having to break out their golden
engraved tub of cottage cheese. And if you're the type who thinks Sunday just
isn't Sunday without a trip to Wong's Buffet Palace, you can continue to do so
without carrying out a few extra pounds of pork-fried rice on your love
And remember, if you're looking to prevent the holiday damage or you've ve
let the damage go to far, we've got a few things that can help:
About the Author:
Dr. John M Berardi, Ph.D. earned his Ph.D. in Kinesiology (with a specialization in Exercise and Nutritional Biochemistry) from the University of Western Ontario.
Throughout his education, he has received training in divergent disciplines including his Health Science, Philosophy, Psychology undergraduate studies at Penn State and Lock Haven Universities, Exercise Physiology masters training at Eastern Michigan University, and strength and conditioning certification through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
As a result of this broad educational base, Dr. Berardiís knowledge extends beyond the bounds of physical preparation and nutrition alone.
Dr. Berardi is no stranger to the demands of elite athletics, having been successful in a number of sports including:
- Power lifting (squat 650, deadlift 600, bench 430)
- Track and field (AAU nationals in 100m and 200m)
- Rugby (medaled @ national under 21 championships)
- Bodybuilding (1st place at the 1995 Mr. Jr. USA)
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1. Wow, you actually do
check the references!
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