"If you cheat on your diet, it will actually help you lose more fat." That claim sounds like typical fad diet hype doesn't it? Nevertheless, it does seem that the majority of fat loss experts recommend allowing some flexibility in the form of occasional meals off the regular plan, for psychological reasons if no other. A few diet gurus even suggest that if you take full-out "cheat days," you'll get better fat loss for physiological reasons. Controversial? Yes. Some truth to it? Quite possibly, yes... it all depends on how you approach it...
Earlier this year, Joel Marion released such a program which made a claim that sounded too good to be true. He said that if you cheat on your diet - I mean really cheat, for a full day - it will actually help you lose more fat -- as compared to trying to be 100% strict on a diet and not cheat at all.
Whenever there are claims like this for a new diet program, there's always a ton of buzz on the Internet and I get emails from my subscribers, customers and readers asking me if this latest diet is a scam.
Typically, I would reply that they could count me among the believers in allowing cheat meals (or free meals as I prefer to call them), and that I am also a supporter of zig-zagging calories up and down, specifically in the form of carb cycling and "re-feeding days."
I couldn't comment any further about specific claims until I had seen this new program or asked Joel directly. Well, I finally carved out the time to track down Joel for an interview and I was very pleased that he agreed to answer all my questions, even the tough ones. Hopefully, this will help people sort out whether this whole "cheat on your diet to get leaner" concept has merit.
Without further ado, here is part one...
Tom: Joel, first, what's your quick definition of cheating -- I think we have to define it to be on the same page as we discuss it.
Joel: When used in reference to dieting, the term "cheating" by most everyone refers to when someone eats foods that are not in accordance with the plan. You can cheat on a low carb diet by eating carbs, for instance. Doesn't mean carbs are bad, just that carbs are not part of the plan you are currently adhering to. In most instances, the term has a negative connotation, because you are doing something you are not supposed to do.
What I teach is strategic cheating, which refers to periodically "going off" the diet and allowing yourself to eat foods that typically are not thought as "diet" or "diet friendly" foods (pizza, ice cream, fries, etc). It's actually not "cheating" per se because it's part of the plan, but we stick with that word because people identify it and they "get it" immediately when they hear something like "cheat day" or "cheat meal" or "Cheat Your Way Thin"
Tom: I have to be honest, I'm not sure if I like the word cheating or cheat. I understand it's just semantics, but that's the point - I think words matter. You suggest that people should eat the foods they crave without feeling guilty, as long as it's a part of a strategic plan, but doesn't the very word cheating imply that you're doing something wrong and that could make someone feel guilty? I used to call them cheat meals, but now prefer now to call them free meals because I think it's a more positive or at least neutral term. What are your thoughts?
Joel: I actually with agree with you as I hinted to above, however, "free" does not have the impact that cheat does. It does not have nearly the same familiarity in the diet world, and in a world where we use words to convey strong messages, cheat is a much more appropriate term for "getting the point across."Author Tom Venuto Ask 100 people on the street what it means to "cheat" on their diet, and all 100 will have the same answer. Tell 100 people that you have a "free meal" as part of your diet plan, and you'll probably get a lot of stares. It's not as familiar of a concept and not as effective at conveying the message in an immediate way to the general public.
On a similar note, I hate the term "dieting" or "diet," but I use it all the time (even if reference to my program) because people know what it means. It's familiar, and they "get it."
One other thing -- the term "cheating" actually fits perfectly with my program in another sense as well, in that you are "cheating" the DIET. Dieting sucks, as I'm sure we'll soon discuss, and by having days in which you more or less say "screw you" to your diet and eat whatever you want, you actually cheat "dieting" out of the opportunity to destroy your metabolism, plateau your fat loss, and all the other negative adaptations and consequences that 99.9% of all calorie restrictive nutrition programs pose.
Dieting is a no-win battle, and I'm happy, quite happy to cheat the bogus institution of "dieting" out of robbing more people from the results they deserve any day.
Tom: Cheating on your diet to lose more weight seems counter-intuitive if not utterly illogical, but depending on how you approach it, I'm in complete agreement that there's a strong argument for it from two different angles -- psychological and physiological. What do you think are the psychological benefits to the dieter allowing cheat days as opposed to being 100% strict on your diet?
Joel: First, it absolutely increases adherence across the board, there's no getting around that. It makes "dieting," a concept which generally (and absurdly) demands that people forgo their favorite foods for months and months at a time, actually livable, and more importantly ENJOYABLE.
I was actually just talking about this with another trainer the other day. For most people, Day 1 of a diet--when they finally buckle down and decide they need to go on one--is the worst day of their life. It's depressing. "No pizza, for like, 3 months while I attempt to lose this 30 lbs." Yeah right. Anyone who thinks that's actually going to happen is completely deluded and this is exactly why 99% of people fail with restrictive dieting.
Two, let's say you do "cheat" (not strategically) and eat something you're "not supposed to" while dieting. Guilt, failure, and a slew of other feelings that you should NEVER have to feel while on a diet surface and make you feel as though you "just don't have it in you" or that you lack willpower or that you don't have what it takes to stick with a program and achieve your goals. That's terrible.
Flat out, dieting, in the calorie restrictive, self-sacrificing manner we have learned it, is flat out unrealistic for the vast majority of people. If you told me I had to give up pizza for 3 months to get lean, I'd be one fat dude. The trade off isn't worth it, and neither are the painfully slow results that most "diets" yield.
Tom: On the physiological side, there are a lot of benefits to "cheating" after a period of restrictive dieting. There's a lot going on in the body when you do this, but much of it seems to revolve around one hormone, leptin. Would you explain in as simple terms as possible for the layperson, what is leptin?
Joel: Leptin is awesome (or at least when you know how to manipulate it, it is). Get on it's "bad side," however, and you're pretty much doomed to be fat.
In the simplest terms, leptin is a hormone that communicates your nutritional status to the rest of your body. From there, your body then makes decisions on what to do with things like fat burning and metabolism, based on the messages it's receiving from our friend leptin.
High leptin levels = heightened fat burning and metabolism
Low leptin levels = decreased fat burning and metabolism
There's a little more to it than that, but you asked for simple terms.
Leptin has also been deemed the "anti-starvation" hormone, which is essentially is its major function in the body, to prevent, or at least dramatically slow the negative adaptations (from a survival standpoint) when food is scarce or when energy intake drops substantially (i.e. starvation).
Great for our hunter and gather ancestors, terrible for the dieter.
And while dieting certainly isn't as extreme as starvation, it really is nothing more than a lesser degree of exactly that, carry slightly lessened, but still very troubling consequences for the dieter.
Getting into some of the research on leptin, research has shown that after only 7 days of calorie restriction, leptin drops on average 50% -- putting you at roughly 50% of your fat burning potential. That's after only ONE week. And as long as you continue to fail to provide your body with the energy it's hoping to receive, adaptations get worse, leptin falls harder, and metabolism takes an even greater hit.
The good news is, it only takes one day of "overfeeding" or "cheating" to bring leptin levels back to baseline and restore things like plummeted thyroid hormones, fat burning enzymes, a manageable (not insatiable) appetite, and metabolism overall.
The problem with overfeeding, however, is that if you fail to properly set up the rest of the diet in an extremely strategic manner around a cheat day or overfeed day, overfeed days can backfire and lead to a one-step-forward one-step-back phenomenon. This is something we cover heavily inCheat Your Way Thin --the ideal way to set up the other 6 days each week, based on a plethora of research, to ensure that each cheat day accelerates, not detracts, from progress.
Tom: Are you saying that you can significantly manipulate leptin with nutritional intervention, including cheat days, and that if we can scour the research and make a punch list of things that keep leptin levels as normal as possible and prevent leptin from dropping like it would with a linear low calorie or low carb diet, this is going improve our results?
Joel: Absolutely, no question about it. Keeping metabolism consistently high and avoiding the negative hormonal adaptations of dieting equates to better, faster results; there's no way around that. That's in addition to the psychological/adherence benefits, which obviously, if you're actually still doing the diet 6 or 8 weeks into the plan, you're going to experience infinitely better results than if you quit after 2 weeks every time.
Tom: Are you claiming that these techniques will actually increase fat loss, or simply prevent the bad stuff that happens with restrictive dieting, like the adaptive decrease in metabolism and the increase in appetite which could then lead to plateaus? I think this is an important distinction.
Joel: Preventing the bad stuff = increasing the good stuff (i.e. fat burning). If your metabolism slows, that means you are burning fewer calories, right? So for instance, let's say your BMR was 2000 cals/day when you first started dieting, and then through restrictive dieting over a period of a month or two (and the subsequent decrease in leptin and metabolism), you're now only burning 1500 cals/per day.
If you had kept leptin "happy" through strategic cheating and metabolism did NOT drop off, you'd still be burning an extra 500 calories a day. Do you think that burning an extra 500 calories a day is valuable in terms of faster fat loss? Without question.
Essentially, by "preventing" the bad things from occurring, you automatically and absolutely increase fat loss beyond what would be possible without taking measures to manipulate leptin and keep metabolism at its height, week to week.
Simply put, use strategic cheating in the proper way, and by the end of each week you'll have lost more fat than if you simply chose to remain "strict" 7 days a week. That equates to increased fat loss any way you look at it.
Tom: I've been looking at some research that says some folks have plenty of leptin but they also have leptin resistance. I haven't seen many people really address this leptin resistance issue aside from saying it exists. Do you think this is a common problem and does your program offer any insights into the causes as well as solutions?
Joel: Okay, the other thing I didn't mention while trying to give you the "simple" definition earlier was that leptin levels aren't just mediated by calorie intake alone--they're also affected by the amount of body fat you are carrying.
High levels of body fat = high levels of leptin
Low levels of body fat = low levels of leptin
Now, from everything I said earlier, that makes it sound like fat people with high levels of body fat should actually be the leanest people around if leptin actually made a difference (and lean people should be gaining weight like nobody's business, because of extremely low leptin levels).
This is where leptin resistance and leptin sensitivity come in.
Similar to insulin resistance, if leptin receptors are constantly being bombarded by high levels of leptin, they start to become less sensitive to the hormone.
This is what happens Author Joel Marion with insulin in Type II diabetics. People eat crap food and loads of highly processed carbohydrates for years, flood their bloodstream with insulin every hour of the day, and gradually over time insulin receptors become so desensitized to the hormone to the point that insulin no longer "works."
Same with leptin. Overweight people, who have been overweight for years, become resistant to the hormone because of massive amounts of leptin (caused by high body fat levels and high calorie intakes) slamming receptors for extended periods of time.
On the other hand, lean people can get by with lower levels of leptin, relatively speaking, because their receptors are extremely sensitive to the hormone. It's important to note, however, that this is relative to the person and their individual "baseline" levels of leptin when food intake is normal.
For example, let's say, and I'm just pulling out a totally arbitrary number for simplicity's sake, a particular person with a low level of body fat has a baseline level of leptin is "10" (I'm leaving out the µg/L units of measure left and all that jazz for simplicity as well). "10" is all this person needs for normal metabolic functioning to occur because they are highly sensitive to leptin. On the other hand, "10" wouldn't be nearly enough to maintain normal metabolism for a much larger, and subsequently less leptin sensitive individual.
So, you can see what I mean that it's all relative.
Another important thing to note is that calorie restriction lowers leptin independent of body fat. So, let's say this same person from above went on a diet. And their leptin levels went down to "5." Sure, they're very sensitive to leptin, but "5" ain't going to get the job done even for them. When leptin levels fall below baseline levels, whatever baseline levels are relative to the person, negative metabolic adaptations occur.
Getting back to leptin resistance, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that it's totally reversible, but the bad news is that someone who has been overweight for years (and is thus probably leptin resistant) can't just jump right into a strategic cheating program and have it be effective--simply put, in this case, the dietary strategies we use to manipulate leptin wouldn't really be of use to them because they're resistant to the hormone and it's not going to matter if we spike leptin with a cheat day--they already have plenty of leptin running around.
For this person, the focus would then be on reversing the leptin resistance and restoring leptin sensitivity, and that is done one way: clean eating + exercise, and yes, with a moderate calorie restriction. Pretty much all the same dietary measures one would take to increase insulin sensitivity (clean eating, low-glycemic carbs, etc). Carbohydrate intake also affects leptin levels, so someone is this position would certainly want to avoid highly processed carbs or anything that is going to give leptin a significant spike.
I generally recommend 3-6 weeks of this type of dieting (with occasional allowance for a controlled carbohydrate "refeed", still with lower glycemic foods to maintain dietary sanity) before beginning with periodic cheating, and that's actually the purpose of the "priming phase" of the Cheat Your Way Thin program.
The question might then arise, is this person doomed to experience poor results and limited weight loss during the first 3-6 weeks because of the fact that they are leptin resistant? And the answer is no. For people who are significantly overweight, there are other factors that come into play that allow for weight loss to occur with a sound diet and exercise program, in spite of the leptin issue. If you've got a lot to lose, those first 5 -- 10 lbs are going to come off quickly simply with corrected habits and exercise, regardless. READ PART 2
Joel Marion: As a nationally published author and fitness personality, Joel has appeared on NBC, ABC, and CBS, is a frequent guest on SIRIUS satellite radio, and has been featured in the pages of more than 20 popular national newsstand magazines including Men's Fitness, Woman's Day, Maximum Fitness, Oxygen, Clean Eating, MuscleMag International , and Muscle & Fitness Hers . His other accomplishments include winning the world's largest Body Transformation contest for "regular" people, the Body-for-Life Transformation Challenge, in 2001 as well as graduating Magna Cum Laude from a top-20 Exercise Science program and being certified as both a sports nutritionist and personal trainer through the nation's premier certification agencies. Through more than 6 years of research and working with clients in the real world, Joel developed his Cheat Your Way Thin system which you can learn more about at: www.CheatYourWayThin.com
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, independent nutrition researcher, freelance writer and author of Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle anyway, (e-book) and the #1 Amazon best-seller, The Body Fat Solution (Avery/Penguin, hardcover). Tom's articles are featured on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in IRONMAN, Australian IRONMAN, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Men's Fitness, Men's Exercise as well as on dozens of radio shows including Martha Stewart healthy living (Sirius), ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle.
Disclosure: Tom Venuto and the burn the fat blog have no affiliations with Joel Marion, cheat your way thin.com or the cheat to lose diet
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"Dieting Sucks: 99% Of Dieters Fail With Restrictive Dieting." Basilandspice.com 6 Jan. 2010. General OneFile. Web. 11 Jan. 2010.
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