The Science Behind the Cheat Day

Why do I recommend a cheat day? Because one day of massive indulgence does a lot less damage than 7 days of small indulgences.

It’s better to eat a lot of crap a little, than a little crap a lot.

Doing this backwards is why people fail on diets! They have a nibble here and a nibble there, which simply adds to their daily carbohydrate load, and introduces addictive inflammatory foods consistently.  With even a minor insulin spike inhibiting glucagon (the fat burning hormone), and throwing your blood glucose out of whack. And the addictive properties in sugar and wheat throwing your natural hunger and energy signals off.

Before you know it, you’re craving sugar like a crackhead!

The biggest reason for feasting (or cheating) is sustainability. Which doesn’t really require much explanation other than it’s unrealistic to think that someone can maintain a perfect diet in the circumstances we live in.

You’d be miserable!

As human beings are not meant to be disciplined and think long-term, we’re meant to eat when we’re hungry, have sex when we’re horny, and sleep when we’re tired.

The 6:1 strategy in Live it NOT Diet! is pretty close to the 80/20 principle, except the 20% isn’t everyday, it’s every week. We’re fat-burners 85% (144hrs) of the time, and we indulge the other 15% (24hrs).

This makes sure we can “have a life” and enjoy eating junk food, fast food, breads, pastas, and alcohol with our friends and family members, while still being a predominant fat burner.

You cheat wisely, enjoy yourself, and then it’s back to what’s important – getting lean, strong, and healthy.

Interestingly, the other reasons we want to feast is because science has suggested that it replenishes our muscle glycogen, raises our metabolic rate, supplies a nice hormonal boost, and has minimal (if any) impact on our ability to burn fat (1, 2, 3, 4). Largely because when carbohydrates are loaded for a brief time period, the glucose (sugar) is stored primarily as glycogen, but also because our body quickly utilizes this foreign fuel, and will actually elevate our energy expenditure to do so .

For instance, research from 2012 in Oslo, Norway supplied evidence that refueling with carbohydrates after following a high-protein and low-carb plan causes a supercompensation effect that leads to greater energy and work output. And similarly, a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology in the year 2000 had participants become fat-adapted (on a low carb diet), reintroduce them to a ‘carbohydrate restoration’ phase, and found that:

Fat burning persisted despite the abundant available glucose, and most of the carbohydrates were stored as glycogen (not fat!).

Not surprisingly, my personal experience has produced similar findings. As not only have my clients seen an increase in lean muscle mass the day after a feast, but they’ve always recorded less body fat.

Which other evidence suggests, could have to do with the stimulation of thyroid hormones and leptin.

“During leptin administration, energy expenditure, skeletal muscle work efficiency, sympathetic nervous system tone, and circulating concentrations of thyroxine and triiodothyronine returned to pre–weight-loss levels. These responses suggest that the weight-reduced state may be regarded as a condition of relative leptin insufficiency.” Rosenbaum M, et al. 2005, The Journal of Clinical Investigation

But what’s even more refreshing is that this muscle storage ability, and next-day leanness, will only continue to improve with each week and each feast. Since each 6-day stretch of insulin-sensitizing and inflammation-avoiding will elevate our ability to store glucose in muscle and/or experience the energy bump to burn through it. (Especially if you’ve taken on 1% Fitness to start building muscle!)

A Closer Look at Leptin

To put it bluntly, leptin is just as important to fat loss as insulin. The difference being, that we want to keep circulating leptin levels high, to signal to our brain that we’re well-fed (1, 2).  Since well-fed means more burning, less hunger, and an elevated metabolic (energy burning) rate.

Unfortunately, what happens with traditional dieting, is that people get so calorically restricted that they enter starvation (or under-fed) mode – where leptin plummets (1, 2), ghrelin (the hunger hormone) skyrockets, and the body looks for ways to conserve energy wherever possible.  Ultimately preventing the release of fat from fat cells (lipolysis), catabolizing energy-expensive tissues (like muscle), making us feel tired and lazy, and slowing the amount of calories we burn at rest (1, 2, 3).

Fortunately, these are all things we’ve attempted to avoid with Live It NOT Diet!; like making animal protein mandatory, eating until you’re full, and not counting or fearing calories. But, as I said earlier, it’s common to under-eat when carbohydrates are restricted and insulin is low, and people seem to never eat enough animal protein. Meaning, you probably need the caloric excess from a Feast Day to bump up your leptin levels and tell your body that “it’s still okay to burn fat.”

For example, research from the year 2000 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that 3 days of underfeeding (30% deficit) resulted in a 12% decrease in leptin, compared with 3 days of overfeeding (30% excess) that produced levels exceeding 135%.

Interestingly, the thyroid hormone boost from a Feast Day also appears to be related to leptin. As research has suggested that T3 and T4 are reduced when leptin signaling is weak (1, 2, 3), but increase in a caloric surplus. And realistically, could be responsible for the giant increase in resting metabolic rate (of nearly 10%) and noticeable improvements in mental health (happiness, motivation, etc). Since we need adequate thyroid production (of T3) and conversion (T4 to T3) to activate dopamine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline (the catecholamines).

For instance, in a study from 1990 in the International Journal of Obesity assigned 18 obese men to a low-calorie diet for 8 weeks, and saw a 66% decline in T3 levels.

Or put another way, Feast Days are for more than sustainability and sanity. They provide a much-needed hormonal boost that gives your body permission to burn fat, permission to use up a ton of energy, and permission to be happy. All things that get disrupted over time on a calorie-restricted diet, and can get disrupted on a poorly executed carbohydrate-restricted diet.

The key in all cases (Feast Day included) is keeping animal protein high. As even during “overfeeding” research suggests that:

Carbohydrates help with the leptin boost, but protein is the main driver behind the elevated energy expenditure.

With scientists from the Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana testing the effect of a low or high protein all-you can eat day (24hrs), and finding that only the high-protein group was able to raise their resting metabolic rate. And evidence from the year 2000 in the International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders showing that carbohydrates only account for 26% of the increase in energy expenditure (when looking at a metabolic boost of 7%).

Junk isn’t Required. Carbs Are!

Not everyone is a fan of Cheat Days, and a lot of the disagreement centers on the assumption that you have to eat fast food and candy bars. In reality, this isn’t the recommendation at all. The only stipulation, other than still eating protein at main meals, is that you up your carbohydrates. Which could mean toast with your eggs, fries with your steak, and rice with your stirfry, or an egg mcmuffin, triple cheeseburger, and all-you-can-eat sushi.

The reason carbs are prioritized is because that’s what we’re restricting the other 6 days of the week. Meaning, just like a calorically depleted individual who wants to shock the system with calories, we want to shock the system with carbohydrates.  Bumping up the insulin and leptin that’s been chronically low (1, 2), refilling the liver and muscle glycogen that’s getting low, and experiencing all of the stress-reducing and neurotransmitter releasing enjoyment that comes with a glucose injection.

  • Increase Leptin & Insulin = Increase T3 and T4, and T4 to T3 conversion
  • Increase Insulin = Glycogen Replenishment, Cortisol Reduction, and Potential Anabolic Boost
  • Increase Leptin = Elevated Basal Metabolic Rate

Interestingly, the same study from the year 2000 discussed earlier also found that high-carb overfeeding resulted in a leptin elevation of 28%, while high-fat overfeeding saw no changes above baseline. And this was after transitioning from a normal, non-restricted diet!

For the Feast Day newbie, or teenager, this will probably involve going to McDonalds for breakfast, Wendy’s for Lunch, and Pizza Pizza for dinner, drinking pop all day, and eating a bucket of ice cream before bed. Which is fine, but eventually you’ll stop wanting these foods. Largely because you feel like absolute garbage after eating them, and know deep down inside what they’re doing for your long-term health, but also because you’ll recognize how much more enjoyable Real Food is. Whether that’s making your own pizza or nachos at home, or taking the time to bake a dessert when you control the ingredients.

And trust me when I say that I’ve done the junk food and fast food, and I’ve watched my clients go through the same transition. As Feast Day 1 usually involves a bag of candy and desserts they’ve been stockpiling for 3 weeks, and big plans of hitting every drive-thru in the area (numerous times), but the child-like behavior fades with each passing week and they eventually become a Feast Day snob – seeking out the tastiest indulgences, and planning epic homemade meals.

Alternatively, you may never transition, or you may never go there in the first place, and both options are perfectly acceptable, IF the protein is adequate and carbs are on-point.

Personally, I haven’t had McDonalds in over 6 years, and gluten in 3, but back in my hayday, I used to down epic Fast Food Feast Days like it was my job. So I definitely support both mindsets. Provided of course, that you enjoy the freedom and satisfy your cravings!

Other Feast Day Tips

  1. Earn your feast (The 6 & 1) – No work, no reward.  Simple as that.
  2. Stay away from scales – You will weigh more the next day, but it’s mostly water and topped-up glycogen.
  3. Time it up with special occasions – Less need to explain your ‘diet,’ and indulging is more fun with friends and family.
  4. Don’t be afraid to save it – Nothing like showing up to an event to feast and there’s healthy food there, so put it in your back pocket and use it when the time is right.
  5. Exercise before it starts – Essentially the more glycogen you burn (with resistance-training or high-intensity interval training) the more space you’ll have for carbohydrates
  6. Avoid stressing about it – Not all Feast Days go exactly as planned, and not all Feast Days are as satisfying as you think they’ll be; but try to remember you’ll have many chances to make it Epic (like 6 days from now).
  7. Take some Fish Oil – Appears to improve leptin transport, and will somewhat help reduce the inflammatory insanity that is Feast Day
  8. Consider keeping it Gluten-Free – The Wheat-Free Feast

Stay Lean!
Coach Mike


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