We’ve spent the past few days covering cheats in a few different forms. From the Feast–>Fast model to some of my favorite cheat foods, you guys know that I think taking a day off from your diet can help you lose fat faster. In fact, I believe it so much that I have the cheatiest cheat days around.
Due in large part to the Xtreme Fat Loss Diet—and perhaps in larger part to my propensity for prodigious eating—I’ve become known for my love of “treat” days. And so today, instead of talking to you about my favorite foods, I thought I’d just give you a break down that can serve a few purposes.
- a) If you’re still on the fence about whether or not to cheat, this post will help you decide if it’s for you.
- b) When someone asks you about cheat days, you’ll have a place to send them to get the information in brief.
With that in mind, we should first cover the very basic question:
In short, the benefits of cheat days that have been touted are:
- Increase in thyroid hormone output – When in a caloric deficit, underfed individuals produce less T3 and T4—both important thyroid hormones that play roles in the regulation of metabolic rate. A cheat day or strategic overfeed is used in part to increase thee hormones.
- Increase in 24 Hour Energy Expenditure – A caloric surplus from a cheat day causes the body to upregulate your basal metabolic rate (BMR); some studies have shown an increase of 9% above baseline, and it’s hypothesized that more is possible.
- Increase in serum Leptin levels – This is really the big one that most people harp on. Leptin levels drop while in a caloric deficit (lasting as little as 72 hours), and a periodic bump in leptin coming from a cheat day has several benefits including: increased thyroid output; increased energy expenditure and BMR; and overall increased thermogenesis.
Those are the physiological and hormonal benefits of cheating. Of course, there is the psychological benefit of being able to take a day off from your diet, eat whatever you like, and be comfortable in the knowledge that you’ll still get lean.
Reading all of this, cheat meals and cheat days are, of course, very appealing. While there are a lot diets that rely on cheat days to be successful, nearly any nutritional plan can, under the right set of circumstances, benefit from cheat days. So, without bogging you down too much, here’s a primer—the Cheaters Cheat Sheet, if you will.
Your Cheat Day Cheat Sheet
- If you’re on a diet that doesn’t specifically call for a cheat day or cheat meal, and you wish to add one in, assess progress first. If your progress has slowed for two weeks or more, a cheat day may help.
- The first thing to consider is your overall level of caloric deficit. If you’re not in a huge deficit, you don’t need to cheat that often. The more you restrict calories, the faster leptin levels will drop and the more you’ll benefit from a cheat day. Frequent cheat days generally only have merit for pretty restrictive diets. If you’re on a diet that doesn’t force you to eat at a deficit of 500 calories per day or more, you don’t need to cheat more than once or twice a month. And, in some cases, a cheat meal will suffice. A deficit of 750 calories per day or more generally allows you to cheat once per week, depending on your level of leanness.
- Along those lines, the leaner you are, the more often you can cheat. Speaking generally, if you’re guy who is 10% or below, you can cheat once every 5-7 days; women 16% or below can do the same. If you’re 11-14% (or for women, 16-21%), every 7-9 days. If you’re over 14% (21% for women), you can cheat once every two weeks.
- Similarly, people who are above a certain fat threshold—let’s say 16% for men or 25% for women, or, to make it easy, anyone with more than 40 pounds they’re trying to lose) probably doesn’t need to cheat, from a physiological standpoint. These people are better off with cheat meals, not cheat days, which should be used once every two weeks until progress slows; after that a progression to one cheat meal per week is used.
- If you’re naturally prone to fat gain, don’t cheat unless you’re pretty lean (12% for men and 16% for women); even then, start small. Use cheat meals and assess progress, and graduate to cheat days.
- Along similar lines, ectomorphic guys can schedule one cheat meals during mass gaining phases a day to help them put on some more weight. For these guys, I don’t recommend cheat days; rather, a single cheat meal every 3-5 days or as needed to get in some extra calories.
- The basic “limit” guideline for ANY cheat (either meal OR day) is to not push past the point of satiety. Eat whatever you want, but don’t intentionally stuff yourself. Stop eating when you’re nice and full, but not uncomfortable.
- To make any cheat day more effective, I always recommend having a fast day to follow the cheat. This will allow you to create a huge caloric deficit following the caloric overload. In essence, you get the hormonal benefit of cheating (enhanced metabolic hormonal output) as well as the hormonal benefits of fasting (namely, increased Growth Hormone production). But pairing a “feast” with a fast, you get the best of both worlds.
Are Cheat Days Right for You?
I think the above list covers it pretty comprehensively, but I just want to go a bit deeper. I’ve been working with clients looking to lose fat for about a decade now, and I’ve been on all sides of dieting—either trying to lose fat myself, trying to gain muscle, or trying to help someone else do one of those. And having helped countless individuals, I’ve come to realize that while everyone is different, there are really two types of dieters.
- FREEDOM Dieters– These people do well with guidelines rather than rules; all you need to do is tell them “eat low carbs” and they’ll have no problem automatically eating more protein, avoiding bread, and getting their fats in. As soon as you try to restrict them and put them on some sort of schedule, or have them count calories or perform carb cycling, they tend to fail.Freedom dieters don’t do well with cheat days. On the one hand, they are not generally strict enough during the week to make a cheat day necessary or even beneficial. On the other hand, given that they don’t get caught up minutia and have a pretty fluid approach, they generally succeed. These people should follow the 90% rule – just make sure to get things 90% right 90% of the time, and you’l come out ahead.
- RULES Dieters– These people (like me) need restrictions. Rules dieters find limitations oddly freeing, because the restrictions create a framework that’s easy to follow. Essentially, rules dieters don’t do well when they’re let off plan, mainly because they are usually emotionally attached to food in some way.Rules dieters thrive when they are told to measure food (or simply to eat a certain number of meals) but fail if you have them just wing it. For these people, a cheat day is a great idea, because they’ll be structured most of the time and can build the cheat day into that structure; and because the diet will probably be strict, they’ll get results.
The important thing to understand is that you can’t take a guy with a “freedom” personality and make him be a rule dieter. It won’t work. Similarly, you can’t take someone who needs rules and just tell them to make it up as they go along.