If you are wondering how the occasional deviation from your plate of chicken and broccoli benefit you, you're in the right place. Cheat days, or what I call "refeed" days, shouldn't be a green light for an all out sloth, but rather a strategically planned aspect of a well implemented fat loss diet. Both from a physical and a psychological standpoint I have had many clients who reap the benefits of enjoying their favorite foods. When it comes down to it, our basic physiology and psychology backs the notion of refeed days, and my clients do as well.
A sneak peak at the hormone Leptin will shed a little light on how cheating helps us lose fat. Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells, and to an extent the cells lining the stomach. Leptin essentially gives a real-time play-by-play to a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus for all intents and purposes controls metabolism and hunger. There is an inverse relationship between our body fat and our fed state in regards to leptin's signals and subsequently the hypothalamus's actions. Theoretically, the fatter we are and the more fed we are, the higher our metabolism will be and the lower our hunger hormones should be (see figure below). There are of course exceptions as seen in leptin resistance, which is a whole separate article.
↓ Fat = ↓ Leptin = ↑ Hunger Hormones + ↓ Metabolism
↑ Fat = ↑ Leptin = ↓ Hunger Hormones + ↑ Metabolism
So that leaves us with the questions, "What does cheating on your diet and leptin have to do with each other, and how can their relationship help my six-pack?" Really it's pretty simple once you know the mechanisms. When you partake in modern day famine, or what we would call dieting, your body's natural defense mechanisms try to preserve you. This manifests itself when you chronically restrict calories and consequently leptin's signals to the brain decrease, making the hypothalamus turn the dial down on your metabolism. It seems pretty intuitive doesn't it? Much like our ancestors, if you haven't stumbled upon a water buffalo or a bushel of berries (bear with me, think chicken breasts and sweet potatoes) in quite some time, your body will want to keep enough insulation on you for the winter to come. Thus the body will decrease what it can control, your metabolism.
Don't fret however, the fate of your metabolism plummeting can be blunted by an occasional dietary sidetrack. Leptin is sensitive to acute, or short-term, increases in carbohydrate consumption. That is to say if you have been dieting on both a calorically restricted diet and carbohydrate restricted diet, occasional periods of high carbohydrate consumption will increase leptin levels. Thus the higher carbohydrate "refeed," is born. Carbohydrate cycling ring a bell? By increasing leptin during caloric restriction through higher carbohydrate days, and keeping insulin in check on lower carbohydrate days, carbohydrate cycling sheds fat and keeps the metabolism humming. Of course the organization and implementation of a carbohydrate cycling diet is individual, and dynamic.
With this all in mind I would be remised to leave you without a plan to implement all this information into your nutritional regimen. After all, your reading this with the aspirations of an Adonis-like physique, and the luster of a cheat day to help you do so. As promised, below is a basic protocol to implement a higher carbohydrate cheat, or "refeed," day into your diet:
Day 1: 0.5grams of carbohydrates per lb bodyweight
Day 2: 0.5 grams/lb bw
Day 3: 1.5g/lb bw
Day 4: 0.5g/lb bw
Day 5: 0.5g/lb bw
Day 6: 0.5g/lb bw
Day 7 (Cheat Day): 2.5-3g/lb bw
Bear in mind while the above may not be a typical carbohydrate cycling protocol, it certainly enables fat loss results. On the lowest carbohydrate days (0.5g/lb bw), the source of carbohydrates should come from non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and green beans. Proteins and healthier fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, and almonds should make up the lion share of your calories. On the medium day (1.5g/lb bw) starchy carbohydrates such as oatmeal, brown rice, and sweet potatoes can be incorporated in your post-workout meal. And finally, what you have been waiting for, on your cheat day (2.5-3g/lb bw) it's your choice! However, I would recommend an abundance of healthy starchy carbs, like the ones mentioned above, if your intensions are to get lean and mean.
Remember though, you are aiming to increase carbohydrate consumption not fat consumption. Personally, my cheat day involves a trip to my favorite Mexican restaurant for corn chips and salsa, as well as fajitas with corn tortillas, as I am gluten intolerant.
There you have it! The how and why to cheat on your diet. So break out your calculator and figure out just how much you can liberate yourself from the rigors of dieting one day a week. You'll not only be looking forward to that cheat meal, but also looking at a more chiseled physique in the mirror.
Written By Adam Bisek