I’ve never liked the words “thin” or “weight loss” or “lose weight.” Being a trainer who staunchly advocates the building of muscle tissue along with the shedding of body fat, I regularly remind people to make the distinction between simply “losing weight” and “getting lean.”
I was in that context of admonishment with someone recently after this particular individual asked me what I thought of the concept of “cheating your way thin.” After explaining the reasons that she’d be better off “getting lean” than “getting thin”, the conversation went something like this:
“Cheat your way thin?” I asked. “What specifically are you referring to?”
Does 'cheat day' binging really speed up metabolism or does it simply make long-term enhanced eating habits more difficult to adopt?
“I’m talking about sticking to a calorie-restrictive diet for a few days – then spending one day eating a lot of junk food before going back on the diet again so that you kick-start your metabolism.”
“Oh… you’re referring to the ‘cheat day’ concept”, I answered. “Some bodybuilders have used that for years and swear by it. Others think it only makes the whole process of losing body fat more difficult.”
“Have you ever tried it yourself?” my inquirer asked.
“Yes”, I said, “… and my experience told me that the metabolism-enhancing effect is a bit exaggerated while the binge eating was fun – but can even lose its appeal over time.”
“You’ll have to explain that one to me”, she countered.
“My taste-buds eventually changed”, I explained. “Now foods that keep me lean taste really great and have more flavorful appeal than do the one’s that used to make me fat. Believe me, it’s a great place to be; no more struggle. But it can actually make a ‘cheat day’ something I’d have to work at”
She did agree that that’s a better place to be than in the constant battle that would have one waiting on their ‘cheat day’ with salivating anticipation. And we both eventually agreed that incorporating a cheat day into an eating plan too soon and/or too enthusiastically might cause long-term fat loss to backfire by creating a scenario whereby the taste buds never get a chance to make this vital shift.
‘Leptin down-regulation’: The cause of “diet plateaus?”
Many who wholeheartedly subscribe to the ‘cheat day’ or “cheat your way thin” concept are running with the hypothesis that claims it’s the body’s down-regulation of the hormone leptin which causes plateaus in fat loss progress. Leptin is actually released in the body by adipose tissue (fat). Its main function is the regulation of energy by influencing appetite and metabolism. An individual’s leptin levels are affected by levels of insulin, current body fat, and caloric intake. It’s this last mentioned affecter of leptin combined with the hormone’s alleged effects on the thyroid gland that has some dieters convinced that interrupting its purported down-regulation is the key to uninterrupted fat loss while dieting.
To put it succinctly: It’s said that low leptin levels slow metabolism – prolonged calorie reduction lowers leptin levels – and scheduled weekly “cheat days” (whereby calorie reduction is ceased) will raise leptin levels enough to “kick-start” the fat burning process again after it shows signs of cessation.
Do “cheat days” normalize leptin levels?
The first question should probably be whether lowered leptin levels in dieters are the main culprit for occasional plateaus in fat loss when adhering to calorie restriction. While a confirmation of this could certainly lead one to hypothesize that interrupting calorie restriction with bouts of caloric surplus will be beneficial, that nearly foregone conclusion only begs the question:
If many people correctly attribute cheating on their diets as the major culprit for their failure to realize long-term fat loss, why would planned/scheduled cheating have the opposite effect?
The psychological reasons have always made sense to me. Many individuals might find it easier to be faithful to a calorie-reduced eating plan when they know they’ll still be able to enjoy the calorie-dense foods that they perceive to crave from time to time (notice I said “perceive” to crave).
But I haven’t personally been convinced of a significant physiological benefit. For one thing, these supposed leptin-manipulating, “cheat your way thin” eating plans claim that leptin levels drop significantly upon immediate adoption of calorie restriction. They simultaneously assume those levels will be brought back to normal with one day of “cheat eating.” The first claim seems a bit far-fetched given that nobody I’ve ever worked with (among thousands), including myself, has ever experienced a plateau in fat loss after just a week or two’s worth of adherence to reasonably reduced calories. Moreover, the subsequent natural question is:
“Why would a hormone be up-regulated to homeostatic levels after a single day of carb loading when one claims or acknowledges that it’s the drawn-out and cumulative effect of daily dieting that suppresses the hormone in the first place?”
After explaining this view to my inquisitor, she immediately countered by citing the experience of her friend who is “losing weight” by following a weekly regimen of “cheating her way thin” through incremental carb reduction that culminates in a “cheat day” of high calorie carbs. “It’s working for her”, she said with a combined enthusiasm and defensiveness.
“Well, keep me updated”, I said. “You should find out what happens in the long run – keeping in mind that measuring foods day in and day out is typically unsustainable. And since there are 2.7 grams of water attached to every gram of carbohydrate, a decrease in carbohydrate intake will invariably cause a drop in water weight over the short term. This is how fad diets employ an ‘automatic convincer’ for adherents to cling onto.”
For the record, I’ve always liked the ‘cheat day’ concept for its psychological benefits and I discuss it in my book. However, in a recorded interview I recently did with one of my favorite fat loss experts, I was convinced that the term “treat day” is much more conducive to positive results than is ‘cheat day.’ You can read more about that interview by clicking here.