If you’re on any kind of calorie restrictive diet, the word “cheat” may sound pretty alarming. You start thinking of chocolate cake, or a half eaten pizza in the back of the fridge.
What you may not realize is that cheat, or refeed, days are a common strategy used by fitness professionals to promote fat loss. Yup, they gorge on pasta and lots of carbs on purpose.
It may sound too good to be true, but it’s not just gym theory or wishful thinking. You can trigger a significant hormonal response, to help lose fat, if you know how to use a cheat day.
Why Cheat Days Are Useful
Losing body fat and having a lean physique is more than just counting calories and tracking carbs. As your body fat decreases, the influence of hormones and metabolism become greater and greater.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “the last 10 pounds are the hardest” it’s because your body has made metabolic changes and it’s adapting to your behavior.
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Having a super low body fat percentage is considered attractive and appealing but it isn’t an ideal state of fitness as far as your body, brain and hormones are concerened. The longer you stay on a calorie restrictive diet, the more likely you are to experience a slowed metabolism.
In an effort to conserve energy, and body fat, your metabolism will slow and burn calories less efficiently. You can continue to diet, and exercise like a madman, but your loss of body fat will be slowed and significantly diminished.
The Cheat Day: A large influx of calories, 50-75% above your normal range, tells your metabolism everything’s normal, and it’s okay to continue burning calories at a normal rate. The cheat day doesn’t increase, or burn extra calories, it just tells your metabolism not to slow down.
When we think about losing weight we think of calories and exercise, without placing enough emphasis on the role our hormones play on body weight and composition. Hormones like leptin and ghrelin are used to regulate hunger cravings, appetite, fat storage, and the rate we burn calories.
If your diet is too restrictive, prolonged, or you experience significant weight loss in a short amount of time, your hormone secretion will adjust to bring you back to a state of equilibrium. While you’re dieting certain hormones are kicking in to tell your brain you’re very, very hungry in an effort to get you to eat more.
The Cheat Day: The hormone you need to worry most about while dieting is leptin. During a restrictive diet, your natural leptin levels will decrease. This can signal an increase in fat storage, increase your appetite, and decrease the rate you burn calories.
A large influx of calories, the cheat day, can give you a temporary boost in leptin levels. Because this leptin boost is only temporary, scheduling a cheat day once per week is the most practical.
Discipline & Mental Fatigue
Dieting is mentally draining. Day after day, avoiding food you love and watching others gorge on foods you can only dream about breaks down your discipline and will to continue. While the cheat day has definite beneifits for your hormones and metabolism it also gives you a mental break allowing you to eat food you truly enjoy.
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How To Use A Cheat Day
Once per week plan a day where you’ll eat 50-75% above your normal calorie range. If you’re on a diet and only eating 1,500 calories, you would have one day per week where you eat 2,200-2600 calories.
You don’t have to limit your food choices to healthy “diet food”, either. Don’t hold back on eating sugar, carbs, pizza or any other high calorie foods.
Who Should Use A Cheat Day
Cheat days are most useful under certain conditions, where your metabolism or hormone levels may be working against your weight loss goals. Here’s who would benefit from a cheat day once per week:
– Prolonged dieting (several weeks or months)
– Extreme carb restriction
– Extreme calorie restiction
– Highly active while dieting
After Your Cheat Day
Surprisngly, you may not have a very large appetite in the days following your cheat day. You’d think gorging on cupcakes and pasta would make you want more of the good stuff, but your appetite is likely to be reduced in the subsequent days.
This can be the result of increased leptin levels, a belly full of pasta, or the satisfaction from finally eating some real food.
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