Cheat Meals & Alcohol - How much do
they affect my progress? How often
can I indulge?

It’s often said you can’t out-train a bad diet. While this is a widely held belief, it’s not exactly true. There are plenty of people who eat junk food, drink soda, and still manage to look and perform amazingly well.

Several famous Olympians are known for their love of junk food, including sprinter Usain Bolt and swimmer Ian Thorpe. The amount of junk food these two athletes ate in their prime was astonishing.

However, the amount of exercise required to out-train a bad diet is HUGE! If you fill up on high-calorie junk foods, invariably, you’ll have to commit to many hours of training. You may also miss out on essential nutrients that could affect your short and long-term health.

So, while you CAN out-train a bad diet, it’s generally best not to try.

A healthy diet means you won’t have to train as hard or as often to lose weight or prevent weight gain and may even get better results from your muscle-building workouts.

However, eating healthily often means giving up or cutting back on favorite foods and beverages. While some people can quit sugar, salty foods, and alcohol without looking back, others miss them like long-lost lovers!

It’s human nature to want what you cannot have, and eliminating certain foods from your diet can result in cravings.

One way around this problem is to indulge in cheat meals. Cheat meals are when you relax your diet and eat the foods that are usually off the menu.

In this article, we explore how cheat meals and overindulging in alcohol affect your progress.

All About Cheat Meals

While some diets program cheat meals at regular intervals, many ruggers simply prefer to have a cheat meal when the mood takes them. Cheat meals vary in size and content but invariably involve eating large portions of foods that are deemed unhealthy.

You might prefer takeout pizza over ice cream or candy over potato chips. However, the contents of the meal don’t really matter that much, as overeating will always affect your body in a similar way.

How Does A Cheat Meal Affect Me If I’m Trying to Lose Weight?

Losing weight requires a calorie deficit. This means you need to consume fewer calories than your body needs to maintain your current weight.

For example, if you require 3,000 calories to maintain your weight, eating 2,500 calories per day will force your body to make up the shortfall by using fat for fuel. Do this every day for a week, and you should lose one pound. One pound of fat is equal to approximately 3,500 calories.  

If you consume a large cheat meal, you could eliminate your calorie deficit for a day, a few days, or even a week. Needless to say, this would sabotage your weight loss and could even lead to weight gain.

For example, assuming you need 3,000 calories for maintenance and consume 2,500 for weight loss:

  • Monday – 2,500 calories
  • Tuesday – 2,500 calories
  • Wednesday – 2,500 calories
  • Thursday – 2,500 calories
  • Friday – 2,500 calories
  • Saturday – 6,000 calories (cheat meal)
  • Sunday – 2,500 calories

Instead of creating a 3,500 calories per week deficit, one cheat meal could wipe out that deficit and even put you into a calorie surplus, leading to weight gain rather than fat loss.

So, while cheat meals can be psychologically rewarding, consuming too many calories too often could completely undermine your weight loss efforts, even if you “mostly” stick to a reduced-calorie diet.

And the food you cheat with doesn’t matter. Your body will turn excess calories from protein, carbs, or fat into stored body fat. Energy is energy as far as your body is concerned, and even if you overeat healthy foods, those unused calories will end up in your adipose stores.

Another downside of cheat meals is that they remind you of the foods you are missing, making going back to your healthy diet harder.

Eating those foods infrequently may also mean you are more prone to bingeing. After all, if you can only eat French fries and takeout burgers once a week, you will probably order up a double portion to satisfy your cravings.

While cheat meals can work for some ruggers, for others, they can actually cause more problems than they solve.

How Does A Cheat Meal Affect Me If I’m Trying to Gain or Maintain Muscle?

Building muscle invariably requires a calorie and nutrient surplus. After all, you can’t build something out of nothing. As such, your diet should already contain plenty of extra calories, say 300-500 per day above maintenance. 

Because of this, cheat meals are less of an issue for ruggers trying to maintain or gain muscle. In fact, a cheat meal could be a convenient way to ensure you are getting the extra calories you need.

That said, the aim should always be to build muscle and not gain too much fat. While the occasional cheat meal won’t harm your progress, regular overindulgence could lead to unwanted fat gain even as you increase muscle mass. 

In most cases, you shouldn’t need to restrict your food intake much while building muscle, so cheat meals shouldn’t need to feature too heavily in your diet. The only reason to cheat is if you have cut out certain foods for health reasons and want to enjoy them from time to time.

How to Cheat and Win

The good news is that you can “have your cake and eat it too” by applying a few guidelines to your cheat meals. This will make them less disruptive so you can stay on track toward your weight loss goals:

  • The further you are from your target weight/body fat percentage, the less often you should cheat. Once every two weeks is about right if you are still a long way from your goal, whereas weekly cheats are okay if you are much closer.
  • Plan your cheats in advance. Knowing when you’re going to have your cheat meal and what you are going to eat makes overindulgence less likely.
  • Hold off on unplanned cheats if you can. If you do have a spontaneous cheat meal, don’t make matters worse by having your scheduled cheat meal, too. No double-dipping, please!
  • Only buy what you plan to eat. Don’t bulk-buy treats with the intention of saving the leftovers for next time. That never works. You’ll just end up eating whatever you purchased and consuming more than you intended. Instead, only buy moderate amounts of your cheat foods and not family-sized portions! Throw away rather than save any leftovers to avoid temptation.
  • Don’t let a cheat meal become a cheat day. Even if you ate well the rest of the week, eating junk food all day will undo your otherwise healthy diet.
  • Train before you cheat. Exercise increases insulin sensitivity, so more of the food you eat will end up in your muscles and not in your fat stores.
  • Make sure your daily diet isn’t so strict that you feel you have to cheat. It may be better to eat a little of what you fancy most days, e.g., a small serving of ice cream or candy than feel like you need to go overboard when your favorite food is back in play for a day.
  • Cheat at the end of the day, so you can’t turn that one meal into a day-long unhealthy food binge.

All About Alcohol

Rugby is a sociable sport, and many rugby clubs have a strong drinking culture. It’s common to head off for a few beers after team training or a game. For many players, alcohol is part and parcel of the sport, even at the elite level.

However, like food, consuming too much alcohol can have a detrimental effect on weight loss and could also interfere with muscle gain.

How Does Alcohol Affect Me If I’m Trying to Lose Weight?

Despite being a fluid, alcohol contains nine calories per gram, which is the same as dietary fat. As such, drinking more than a couple alcoholic drinks could potentially wipe out any caloric deficit that you achieved by eating less.

Also, your body treats alcohol as a priority fuel. When there is food and alcohol in your digestive system, your body will use the alcohol for energy and store the calories from food as fat.

Alcohol can also inhibit your willpower and make you hungrier. As such, you won’t just consume more calories in the form of alcohol; you’ll probably want to eat more, too. There is a reason that takeouts are so alluring after a few drinks!

It should be clear that consuming large quantities of alcohol can completely derail weight loss. Just like cheat meals, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can undo your calorie deficit.

That said, one or two drinks per day won’t have as significant an impact as going on an all-day and all-night bender. You can still enjoy a beer or glass of wine per day and continue losing weight. In fact, it may be better to have one drink per night than have many more in a single session, given how alcohol can affect your body and behavior.

How to Drink Alcohol and Still Lose Weight

There is no reason to quit drinking alcohol entirely. However, you may want to follow these guidelines if you want to stop alcohol from derailing your weight loss efforts.

  • Limit yourself to just 1-2 drinks per night.
  • Stick to light beer and clear spirits, as they’re lower in calories.
  • Avoid high-calorie mixers and fruit juices.
  • Alternate water with alcoholic drinks when on a night out.
  • Offer to be the designated driver if you want an excuse not to drink.
  • Skip the post-pub takeout.
  • Remember to count the calories in your alcoholic drinks and adjust your food intake accordingly.
  • Avoid day drinking as, invariably, it will turn into an all-day and all-night drinking session.

How Does Alcohol Affect Me If I’m Trying to Gain or Maintain Muscle?

As with cheat meals, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol shouldn’t have too much of an effect on muscle maintenance or gain, providing you don’t consume so much that you start to increase your body fat stores.

In fact, golden-era bodybuilders often drank beer after training. Arnold Schwarzenegger is reported to have said, “milk is for babies; men drink beer,” and it’s clear that mindset didn’t hurt his ability to pack on mass!

That said, consuming too much alcohol can leave you dehydrated and hungover, which is not a good way to feel if you’ve got an intense workout planned. Chronic alcohol consumption may also lead to a decrease in testosterone production, which could impair muscle growth.

Alcohol can affect your judgment and reduce motivation, making training less appealing. Missed or ineffectual workouts will undermine your muscle-building progress.

Alcohol and Recovery

Of course, it’s common to celebrate a rugby win (or commiserate a loss) with a few alcoholic drinks, and this is where alcohol can be particularly damaging.

After a game, you are dehydrated, energy-depleted, and need to rest and recover. Alcohol helps with none of these things, so overconsuming could delay your recovery.

That’s not a problem if you aren’t planning on playing or training for a few days, but far from ideal if you need to get back in the gym tomorrow.

So, while a daily beer or two or the occasional big night out shouldn’t have too much of an impact on your ability to build muscle, drinking too much and too often could undermine your workouts and affect your progress.

Whether you want to build muscle or burn fat, moderation is the key to enjoying alcohol.

Final Thoughts

It’s important not to demonize any food or beverage. Labeling something like candy, potato chips, or takeouts as bad means you are more likely to cut them from your diet, and that creates the want or need for cheat meals.

The same is true for alcohol. Cutting out beer for a week or a month can leave you craving the release of having a few drinks with friends. But, of course, after a period of abstinence, you are more likely to overindulge.

With both junk food and alcohol, moderation is the key. When you are free to enjoy these “forbidden” foods and beverages in small amounts relatively regularly, you are much less likely to feel the need to consume them in otherwise unhealthy quantities.

If your diet makes you miserable and you feel like you need cheat meals to stay sane, there is a very good chance it isn’t the right diet for you!

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