I'm a big fan of cheating. Even when you do cheat, it needs to be planned and restrained.
By the way, I’m talking about dietary cheating.
Some have asserted that there is a metabolic boosting effect from cheat days, but that’s a crock. In reality, controlled overfeeding will prevent you from going into food-seeking behavior mode after several days of caloric deficits, which leads to complete dietary derailment.
Ever hear of yo-yo dieting? It’s when people go on low-calorie diets for a long time and eventually their body says “screw this” and overrides even the strongest of wills to make you shovel food into your pie-hole like the apocalypse is imminent.
I’m going to assume you’re smart enough not to go on a very low-calorie crash diet that sends your body into a metabolic slowdown.
The thing is, even if you follow a logical, moderate caloric deficit over time to lose flab in a sane manner, you still need to overfeed on a regular basis or your efforts will backfire. Some of these are physiological reasons, and others are psychological.
Let’s say you’re on the “lose a pound a week” fat-loss plan. This is a good, rational amount. Obese people can lose more like two-three pounds a week, but if you have less than 30 pounds of flab to lose then attempting to get rid of more than one pound a week is a recipe for failure.
Don’t be impatient. Slow weight loss increases the likelihood it will be sustained weight loss.
So, one pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. Divide that up across a week and it’s a daily deficit of 500 calories. But don’t do it that way. A better way is six days of a 700-calorie deficit and one day of going 700 over. Or, five days of an 800-calorie deficit and two days of 250 over. Get the idea?
Now I realize there’s a bunch of math going on up there. Do I advise hyper-measuring of calories? No, actually. Bodybuilders do that; but I sure don’t, and I can see my abs. Instead, I advise “calorie awareness” and getting a feel for being positive or negative so counting doesn’t rule your life.
That’s the how. Here’s the why.
First, let’s look at the psychology. Do you really want to be in a calorie deficit every single day? It gets old, fast.
Well, you want to enjoy being slimmer, but you need to get some time off, because trust me, caloric deficits are like a crappy job.
But the physiology is perhaps even more important, and this is where the hormone leptin comes into play. Leptin plays a key role in energy intake and expenditure. Basically, when your body loses fat, leptin goes down. When you gain fat, leptin goes up. Many see it as an anti-obesity hormone because when you’ve got lots of fat leptin goes up and you’re less likely to cram food into your face because high leptin is a signal to your body that you’re not going to die of starvation any time soon.
So, when leptin is high, you don’t overeat. This doesn’t make it an anti-obesity hormone, because when it’s low, it prompts caloric scarfing. See, it’s all about evolution trying to save us from famine. As this study shows, leptin is more about defending your body-fat stores by eliciting food intake when fat stores get low. Natural selection favored those who had enough fat to survive lean times.
What this means is, when you try to lose fat, your body fights you. You need to outsmart it.
Again, this isn’t about boosting metabolism. It’s mostly about controlling appetite so that over time you have a consistent caloric deficit that leads to fat loss. When you go over your caloric maintenance (but not too far over) one or two days a week you allow those leptin levels to go back up so your body doesn’t start screaming for food.
Basically, planned and restrained cheating allows you to do it in an intelligent way that still allows you to lose weight over the long haul. Always having caloric deficits every day leads to a hormonal response where you will lose control and the cheating turns into a high-calorie inhalation that wipes out the weight you’ve lost. Say hello to the yo-yo.
So live a little, with emphasis on the word “little.”
James S. Fell, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.