Dirty Bulking: Can Junk Food Actually Help You Build Muscle?

Dirty Bulking: Can Junk Food Actually Help You Build Muscle?

The first thing most of us learn about nutrition when we become interested in fitness is that we need to throw away all of our junk food and eat “clean” meals all the time. If you’ve been in the iron game for long, though, you know that some of the biggest and most ripped bodybuilders claim to use “cheat” meals or dirty bulking to get that way.

Is it possible that we were wrong to toss our cupcakes and potato chips? Dirty bulking, can junk food actually help you build muscle?

Let’s find out what’s happening here and try to answer those questions.

A Tale of Leptin and Ghrelin

No, we haven’t stumbled into a Hobbit-inspired rabbit hole in our search for junk-food meals that help build muscle, but we do need to visit the land of leptin and ghrelin to understand a bit more about appetite control and body composition.

Leptin is a hormone that is stored in your fat cells and helps regulate appetite and burn fat for energy during periods of caloric deficit. That all sounds good, but leptin levels fall quickly when you begin to diet, which is a major reason that your fat loss slows and your hunger balloons just a few days into most reduction plans.

Ghrelin, on the other hand, stimulates your appetite AND the release of growth hormone, which can cause you to gain weight. Ghrelin levels actually climb during periods of restricted caloric intake, leading you to more hunger and possible weight gain.

Researchers have found that about three days of dieting will lead to leptin and ghrelin levels so out of whack that they make sticking to your program and losing weight pretty difficult.

A Simple Fix?

Leptin and ghrelin, then, are the nemeses of just about every dieter who has ever closed his mouth to another bite of steak. The good news is that we can “solve” their puzzle to some degree by taking advantage of that three-day peak-and-valley situation.

In particular, by bumping up your calories once every three days of a more severe diet, you can temporarily dampen the release of ghrelin while boosting your leptin levels. This slight hormonal reset will give you another run at fat loss once your hit the diet hard again after your binge.

This is the basis of the idea of cheat meals, and it can be quite effective from both a physiological and psychological perspective since it gives you the chance to have a bit of fun with your food again.

If you’re going to try this approach, it’s important to keep the reins on your enthusiasm. You should limit yourself to ONE cheat meal in which you pump up the calories and quantity of food. Eat until you’re quite full, but not sick or hurting, and then get back on your more restricted diet.

So, can you include junk food in your cheat meals?  Yes and no.

It’s fine if you want to include a piece of pizza or maybe a lean hamburger, but your overall health should always be your primary focus. The extra salt and fat in “looser” food choices can help you recover some of your lost energy, but there is no reason you need to eat pies, cakes, candies, chips, or other highly processed items.

Stick to moderate amounts of “real” foods once every few days, and cheat meals can help you stick to your diet and build the physique you want for the long haul.


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