Cheat day: a designated day where one purposefully strays from their typical eating habits to devour endless amounts of delicious, naughty foods to satisfy physiological and psychological needs.
When it comes to fitness and nutrition, the idea of a cheat day has been a disputed topic among experts, practitioners, and internet trolls for many years. One of the first known mentioning of the approach can be traced back to 1999 where Bill Phillips encourages a “free day” in his book Body-For-LIFE. Over a decade later, Tim Ferriss suggests a similar idea in his best-selling bible The 4-Hour Body. Clearly this idea is sticking around.
Maybe you have heard distant ramblings of cheating on your diet from the dark corners of your gym’s locker room, or perhaps you read it in a respected book. You know it is good to cheat but you don’t know why. In order to better understand the art of cheat days it is better to step back and look at the core of reasoning behind it all: a hormone called leptin.
What the heck is leptin?
Leptin is “a protein hormone produced by fatty body tissue and believed to regulate fat storage.” Thank you, Google – but it is a little more than that.
Leptin is the reason why you see so many people drop a lot of weight at first and then struggle to get rid of those dreaded “last few pounds.” Its main function is to regulate hunger, food intake and energy expenditure and is produced in your fat cells. Therefore, the more fat you have on your body, the higher your baseline level of leptin is.
It also directly influences the production and secretion of hormones that regulate metabolism, such as thyroid hormones T3 and T4. A higher leptin level equals a higher T3 and T4 count, which allows for faster fat burn. On the flip-side, lower leptin equates to lower T3 and T4. That is why the more fat you have the faster you can lose it.
Another thing to keep in mind is that leptin levels are relative to your caloric intake. When you want to lose fat you need to create a caloric deficit. A caloric deficit means that your leptin levels will drop but that also means a drop in fat loss because of your lacking T3 and T4 hormones, so in return your fat loss goes from a sprint to a crawl. This creates a nutritional catch-22. Let’s recap:
You need to eat less to burn fat, but eating less produces less leptin. The less leptin you produce, the hungrier you become and the more likely you are to eat more than you should.
This can get extremely frustrating. Therefore it is necessary to make your goal revolve around keeping leptin levels elevated while restricting calories. Based on what you just read that might sound impossible, but it isn’t.
Enter, cheat day.
We’ve already established that leptin levels decrease while in a caloric deficit. It is the periodic “bump” in leptin that will help you avoid fat loss plateaus and lose fat faster by creating a caloric surplus (read: eating a crap ton) on your cheat day. This will create enough of a boost to prevent all the negative effects of low leptin levels from wrecking havoc on your body.
How often you cheat depends on your current diet and fitness level. The more restricted your calories are, the more often you will need to increase leptin levels. The same goes for those with a lower body fat percentage.
It has also been researched to take it all one step further and combine your feasts with intermittent fasting to experience the best of both worlds: enhanced metabolic hormonal output with increased growth hormone production. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
Incorporating cheat days into your approach has the physiological benefits outlined above, but it is also wise to consider the (not-so-solid) psychological benefits of removing dietary mental shackles with freedom and choice. Strategically eating what you want one day of the week and still reaping all the benefits of fat loss can be a great mental motivator.
What are your thoughts on cheat days? Do you cheat on your diet?
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