August 28th, 2015

Cheat Meals: Are You Doing Them All Wrong?

Cheat meals have always been a hot topic. After all, who wouldn’t want to learn how to eat pizza or cheesecake and burn more fat? Unfortunately, despite years of discussion and debate about the best way to do it (or whether to do it at all), it appears that the ideal way to incorporate cheat meals into your diet plan without sabotaging yourself hasn’t gotten any clearer. With the spread of conflicting opinions from self-proclaimed experts, and the popularity of IIFYM and various types of “flexible dieting,”  how to cheat seems to have only gotten more confusing…

Friends eating huge pizza slicesThat makes now a great time to re-visit the infamous cheat meal to spell out some good strategies for how to do it sensibly, and warn you about potential pitfalls of doing it the wrong way.

 Flexible versus rigid dieting

There’s no single best way to incorporate cheat meals – how you do it depends on your goals, physical condition, preferences, lifestyle, genetics and results. But I’ll start by saying that I’m a believer in the flexible approach to dieting, as long as you don’t get too lax.

Flexible dieting means that you should not try to eliminate your favorite foods completely or restrict yourself to a short list of unprocessed health foods 100% of the time. It may seem a noble intention to aim for eating 100% “clean” but it’s not a realistic long term goal. A handful of people can pull it off for a short while, but the 100% strict approach usually ends in failure (it’s also not much fun, especially when holidays and social events roll around).

People who are too rigid with their diets usually learn the lesson (the hard way) that you tend to crave what you’re not supposed to have. The more rules and restrictions you have about what foods are “bad” and what you can “never eat,” the more likely you are to eventually break those rules. Over time, the pressure of missing your favorite foods builds up, social pressure is added on top, and it’s not long before you give in to cravings or temptations.

A single diet mistake is actually not a big deal. The bigger problem is in the all or nothing mentality of the dieter. After a single slip up, like having a piece of pizza they weren’t supposed to have, the perfectionistic dieter feels as if their entire diet is blown. They figure, “I already screwed up, so it doesn’t matter now,” and they proceed to polish off a whole pie, and wash it down with a liter of cola or a six pack of beer. It’s as if a switch in their head was flipped from 100% “on” to 100% “off.”

Now they’ve really set themselves back, guilt follows the binge, they feel like an even bigger failure and they abandon their entire plan. If that slice of pizza were actually permitted as part of the meal plan to begin with, eating it would not be seen as a failure, and not given a second thought.

According to organizations like the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks successful weight loss maintainers, the inability to stick with a diet for long is the biggest problem facing people who struggle with body fat. Between 80% and 95% of all weight losers will gain the weight back. Allowing a little wiggle room for favorite foods is one of the simplest and easiest solutions for improving long-term maintenance success.

Both real world experience and scientific research have shown, paradoxically, that people who have fewer food restrictions, who include favorite foods and make an allowance for cheat meals, have a better long term adherence, a higher fat loss success rate and are less likely to show symptoms of eating disorders. They don’t feel deprived, and they’re also happier because they can more easily participate in social events that involve food.

Compliance to a calorie deficit is required for fat loss. And for good health, the majority of your calories should come from nutritious, unprocessed foods. But you can allow a small portion of your calories for any of your favorite treat foods and still reach your goals. Ice cream, chocolate, pizza, pancakes, french fries, even cheesecake – anything goes. No foods should be forbidden for cheat meals, or it defeats the whole purpose.

Obviously, random cheating, lack of consistency and binge eating will sabotage any fat loss plan. But if you enjoy cheat meals in a disciplined, measured fashion, as part of a structured plan, it will not hold you back. It will help overweight men and women get the fat off and maintain their new healthy weight long term, and even competitive bodybuilders and fitness models have used carefully planned cheat meals without sacrificing condition, making what is otherwise a very strict diet much more tolerable.

No matter what your goals, being more flexible with your food choices can make your diet more enjoyable and more effective, as long as it’s done sensibly.

A sensible approach to cheat meals: How much, how often?

If being flexible and allowing occasional treats improves adherence and results, the next question is, how often should you have them? Or, asked from the opposite point of view, how many of your calories or meals should come from nutrient-dense, healthy, natural food?

I believe it’s helpful to put a number on your nutritious food intake goal for the sake of planning and personal accountability. I also think it helps keep your focus on health, not just on weight loss (it’s possible to lose weight in an unhealthy way, as with a low calorie junk food diet, and we don’t want to do that). I call this number your compliance rule for food quality.

In the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle program, we suggest a 90% compliance rule, which means at least 90% of your calories come from nutrient-dense, healthy foods. For the other 10% of your calories, you give yourself permission to eat anything you want.

You can break your compliance rule down by calories or by number of meals. Ninety percent of 2000 calories per day is 180 calories per day or 1260 calories a week. Or, if you eat 5 times a day, that’s 35 meals per week. 90% of 35 is 31.5 healthy, nutrient-dense meals, leaving up to 3.5 meals per week for cheat foods (3 meals and a snack). You can plan these meals in advance for specific days of the week (many people save them for weekends), or leave your schedule open to allow for some spontaneity.

If you want to make your plan even more flexible and set your compliance rule at 85% or some other number, that’s up to you. Use your own judgement on how flexible you want to be given your lifestyle and personality. The important thing is that you eat mostly nutritious food and whatever compliance rule you set, you are willing and able to keep your commitment to it.

When you start adopting cheat meals, be careful not to get too relaxed. With flexible dieting becoming more popular, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon – almost a type of ‘peer pressure’ –  that was unheard of in the past; Some health and fitness enthusiasts actually urge you to eat more junk food and cheat more. Weird, right? I know, but it’s true. If you eat “too clean,” they warn, “you’re going to be miserable, deprived and fall off your diet, or worse, you’ll be a candidate for an eating disorder.”

Yes, we get it; that’s why I wrote this article. The trouble is, when a new trend starts being embraced widely in the diet world, there’s often an over-reaction against the old way, and the pendulum can swing too far in the opposite direction. However well-intentioned the advice to “be more flexible” may be, the majority of your calories should always come from healthy food, and if you don’t have the desire for junk food very often, then you shouldn’t feel any pressure to eat it. You can take fewer cheat meals, if you choose – it’s your diet. Choice; isn’t that the whole purpose of being flexible?

My choice for a personal compliance rule has always been closer to 95%, which translates to only one or two cheat meals a week. I don’t even feel like I always need cheat meals every week. Over the years I’ve been in natural bodybuilding, I discovered that I lost a lot of my taste for sweets and other junk food, and I’ve learned how to cook healthy, use spices and enjoy eating fruits, vegetables, natural starches, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. I eat almost entirely unprocessed, nutrient-dense food and I love the way I eat every day.

I enjoy a good burger or slice of pizza as much as anyone, but I don’t get the urge for refined, empty-calorie food very often. I find most types of processed and fast food unappealing, sometimes even repulsive. And beyond the issue of taste,  a lot of junk foods make me feel worse after eating them; upset digestion, less energy not more, and sometimes not even satiating.

Favorite treat foods should be eaten for pure enjoyment on occasion, but most of the time, food is for fuel, food is for health and food is for building  the body.

The cheat foods I do enjoy, I usually save them for once on the weekend, for holidays, or social events, and I think I enjoy the foods and the special occasions even more that way.

Any time throughout the year, I know I have room for these meals, and even if I don’t exercise the option, I believe the mere knowledge that those meals are allowed and there are no forbidden foods is a powerful psychological pressure release valve. I’ve been successful and happy using  this approach for over 25 years.

Once you’ve chosen your compliance rule, Some people track the calories and macros in their cheat meals and others simply estimate – they just eyeball portion sizes, keeping them about the same as any other meal, and they stop eating when they feel full. However, if you’re struggling with slow fat loss or you’re stuck at a fat loss plateau completely, then it’s wise to keep cheat meals to a minimum and it’s important to track the calories.

Now that I’ve explained the rationale for cheat meals and described my own preferred method, let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly in some of the other approaches.

The small treat every day method

A friend of mine is personal trainer who loves dark chocolate and has 2 squares every day. People are often surprised to see her eating chocolate so often, but there’s really no mystery to how she “gets away” with it while staying so lean (she always has abs). Two squares is a very small portion with only 105 calories. She has a daily calorie intake of about 2000 per day, so the chocolate is only about 5% of her total calories. That even leaves her room to fit in a weekend cheat meal as well.

The fact is, weight loss is achieved with a calorie deficit, and weight is maintained by staying in energy balance, not by banning any specific food. But with the rigid traditional dieter’s way of thinking, it would be unheard of to eat chocolate every day because high sugar and high fat foods are not allowed daily. She’s a perfect example of how small amounts of any junk food won’t make you fat if you’re tracking the calories and you fit it into your daily calorie limit.

The small daily treat method works for my trainer friend and makes her happy. However, this may not be the ideal method for everyone. My friend knows herself well, understanding that it’s not in her nature for a few bites to trigger an urge for more. For many people, it’s difficult to stop at the predetermined (small) portion size. Eating sugary foods every day can also sharpen your sweet tooth so the desire for sweets can escalate and their absence is felt more when they’re withheld. Some people avoid certain foods completely (sugar for example) because they know they are binge triggers or they consider them addictive.

For the most success-supporting environment, I recommend keeping junk food out of your house. Make yourself go out to get your cheat meals. If it’s not there, you can’t eat it and you won’t be tempted by impulse eating when you’re feeling down, tired, stressed or angry. It’s best to keep cheat foods out of sight, and out of mind. Keep the healthy foods, like the fruit bowl, visible as positive cues.

Another reason I don’t recommend eating unhealthy food every day as my standard method is that anything you do daily becomes habitual. I believe it’s better to eat nutrient-dense, unprocessed food every day, so that eating healthy becomes your daily habit wired into your nervous system.  Save the treats for occasional eating. This gives you a feeling of being in control, plus doing something occasionally will not turn into a habit. It’s what you do every day over and over again that matters most.

The small treat or percentage of daily calories every day method of cheating can certainly work, and for that reason it’s gotten more popular, but it’s not my top recommendation and you should understand the pros and cons before you consider it.

The big cheat day method

Another popular approach is to eat nutritious, health-promoting food six days a week and then make the seventh a cheat day. There’s no doubt this method has worked for many people, but an entire cheat day (as opposed to a cheat meal) is a risky proposition.

It’s not difficult for a cheat day to turn into an into a day of all-out binging. Many individuals have confessed that they plotted their “pig out day” all week long, sometimes engaging in unusual behavior like stockpiling junk food in advance or eating junk foods they would normally never eat.

They explained that knowing they were granted a free-for-all pass for a day, they felt the urge to cram as much junk in their mouths as they could before going back to six days of dieting – far more than they actually needed to gain the enjoyment of tasting their favorite foods.

It’s one thing to relax your diet a little for one day, but an all-day binge can undo days of hard training and healthy eating. Studies have shown that one weekend of unrestrained eating can undo an entire week of work and leave you with zero results even after perfect Monday through Friday compliance. Weight loss aside, overeating for a whole day can be physically and mentally unhealthy. Binge eating can be an eating disorder and some people are more susceptible than others.

The way I see it, people who engage in unlimited cheat days are also failing to practice and build self-control and discipline. People who include cheat meals in a restrained and measured manner are, and it’s important to remember that all disciplines in lifestyle affect one another. If you let your discipline slip in one area, it’s not long before you start slipping in others.

For all these reasons, I usually don’t recommend the full cheat day method and I never recommend the “free-for-all” cheat day. Those who choose this method need to be smart about it and keep it controlled.

 The “Epic cheat meal”

If you follow the Facebook and Instagram accounts of certain physique athletes or fitness celebrities today, you often see something that seems out of place for a fitness person to share, yet at the same time, very intriguing or even entertaining: you see photos of gigantic cheat meals. Sometimes you hear about a cheat day that allegedly has 6000, 8000 or even 10,000 calories.

A huge buzz got started online when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson posted photos of what he called his “legendary cheat day.” It included four pizzas, a pile of brownies and a stack of giant pancakes that appeared to be a foot tall. It not only went viral, it got the Rock free publicity on the TV talk shows because everyone wanted to know about this giant junk food feast eaten by this giant muscular guy.

The curiosity led to emulation, as other people tried to eat like The Rock. Some people did it as a somewhat comical eating challenge, while others seriously believed the huge cheat meals had something to do with the Rock’s Herculean condition. Much to the copycats dismay, they often found themselves getting fat, and fast. They didn’t understand the big picture behind how and why he did it.(They also probably failed to consider the Rock is 6 foot 3 and 260 pounds of muscle).

In one of the Rock’s social posts, he explained that his pile of pizzas and stack of pancakes was his reward for 150 days in a row of clean eating and intense training. Most people didn’t realize that. In fact, Dwayne Johnson also shared the diet he followed for his Hercules movie, and it was as strict as a professional bodybuilder’s competition diet. He demonstrated extreme discipline for five months, then let loose once, in grand style.

There you have the most common explanation for how “epic cheat meals” can be taken by some people and they still look “shredded” or “jacked.” When a person has been training like an animal and dieting on restricted calories or carbs for months, and their body fat is already very low, their ultra-depleted and ultra-lean body is able to soak up food and carbs like a dry sponge soaks up water, and it’s nearly impossible to eat enough in one sitting to cause noticeable body fat storage. One huge feast can actually make a dieted down person look better.

However, these “epic” cheat meals you see in the fitness media have nothing to do with regular lifestyle eating or fat loss dieting for the normal person. It’s not a regular everyday cheat meal strategy, and it’s probably not something you should try to emulate.

 Cheat meals versus carb cycling and the re-feeding technique

Physique athletes who have been dieting and training hard for weeks or months often use the carb cycling or re-feeding techniques to try to prevent their metabolism from crashing and fat loss from stalling. This usually involves eating more, mostly carbs, once or twice a week. There is some science behind it.

Prolonged calorie restriction and weight loss send signals to your brain (the hypothalamus) about how little you’re eating and how low your body fat is. In turn, that feedback activates a weight-regulating mechanism that can affect hormones including leptin, thyroid, testosterone, ghrelin, peptide yy and many others. Metabolism hormones go down. Appetite hormones go up. Anabolic muscle hormones go down. Catabolic stress hormones go up.

There has always been a mystique around “scientific cheating” as a way to improve your hormonal state, restore your metabolism and actually “get leaner and more muscular by eating junk food.” The sales appeal in that promise is obvious. But for the most part, this has only spawned gimmick diet programs that are based on half-truths, are filled with over-complicated rules, and don’t even apply to the average person.

The re-feeding and carb cycling techniques are not the same as regular weekly cheat meals, though they are often confused with one another. A single cheat meat does not have the effect that a full re-feed has.  Someone who is still carrying a lot of body fat who is not dieted-down or depleted doesn’t need to use carb cycling or re-feeding at all, and if they try the epic cheat meal “strategy,” confusing that with properly timed and controlled re-feeds, they are in for a rude awakening.

A word to the wise: Never follow any diet approach that makes crazy promises about getting leaner by gorging on junk food, that condones binging, or even remotely resembles a starve-binge cycle (I’m shocked and saddened at how many diet programs do).

I’m calling for a return to sanity and simplicity. A weekly cheat meal or two is a  lifestyle strategy that can be used long term and it’s not complicated. Many people do it successfully without even counting calories and macros. A sensible cheat meal strategy doesn’t require crazy binges on junk food, special macronutrient combinations or the pursuit of any sophisticated hormone manipulation. In fact, the basic cheat meal’s benefit is mostly psychological and behavioral.

There’s a physiological rationale for certain athletes and dieters to use big re-feeds at times, but there’s no excuse to ever be a glutton. If the calories are too high, no one will be immune to storing the excess as fat. Letting loose with huge unstructured cheats is also undisciplined, it’s not physically or psychologically healthy and doesn’t set a good example for others.

 Reframing the word, “cheat”

Here’s one last thought to consider when it comes to “cheat meals.” Although using the phrase “cheat meal” makes it crystal clear what we are talking about, and I used the term throughout this article to communicate the concept clearly, you may want to think about the semantics of the word “cheat” and consider a different name.

If you sensibly build your favorite foods right into your calorie-controlled weekly plan, and then you faithfully follow your plan, you really didn’t cheat at all did you? You actually followed your plan. If you think of yourself as having cheated, it may lead to feelings of guilt, and that is an emotion you don’t want to indulge in.

So if you choose, you could consider calling “cheat” meals something else.  Many people choose to call them free meals or treat meals instead. Some people call them reward meals, though be cautious with that one because viewing food as a reward could backfire on some people. If your compliance rule is 90%, you might call them your “10% meals.”

Try it, and you may find that using terms like these changes your feelings about what you’re eating and about how you’re doing. A simple change in language creates positive emotions that allow you to better enjoy your new and more flexible eating habits.

To learn more about a fat-burning and muscle-building plan that is both structured and flexible at the same time, (and astonishingly effective), which hundreds of thousands of men and women have used to transform their physique, visit, www.BurnTheFatFeedTheMuscle.com

 


tomvenuto-blogAbout Tom Venuto

Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, fat loss coach, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle. Tom’s articles are published on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Oprah magazine, The New York Daily News, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He has appeared on dozens of podcasts and radio shows including Sirius XM, ESPN-1250, WCBS and Day Break USA. Tom is also the creator of the new Burn the Fat 7-Day Body Transformation System and the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle.


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16 Responses to “Cheat Meals: Are You Doing Them All Wrong?”

  • I’m a busy guy, with kids, and a long commute, and a desk job.

    People are always bringing in cookies, and cake, and brownies at work.

    I usually eat the same things day in and day out, so I know the calories that I’m supposed to eat for the day. Also, the fact that I have my food with me stops me from binging on junk at work.

    But in my calories, I do allot room for something that I like.

    But the fact that you’re “cheating” alludes to the fact that you have a plan in the first place. Which is probably the most important part. One cheat meal won’t throw off your progress. Not having a plan will.

  • Great article as always Tom. I’ve just recently toned back my cheat day to very reasonable levels, and it’s healthier both mentally and physically. Nothing wrong with eating a burger and fries now and then to satisfy a craving – but 2 burgers, 2 orders of fries and a 2 milkshakes? That just isn’t necessary to achieve a mental break and enjoy food. That is bingeing and that isn’t healthy. Great stuff.

    Jay

    • Tom Venuto

      Jay, thanks, and great to hear from you. Im certain the pendulum will swing back to center, it always does for all things fitness and nutrition… eventually. I hope more people find their balanced center, away from either extreme, sooner rather than later though. Have a great one! Tom.

  • I like to follow the one small cheat meal a day method.

    I know you aren’t big into the whole flexible dieting phenomenon, but it’s one of the only diets I’ve been able to stick to and actually see results.

    What’s helped me majorly was to utilize intermittent fasting along with flexible dieting.

    This has helped me control my cravings since i’m actually fasted for 16 hours followed by an 8 hour eating window.

    • Tom Venuto

      Lo Mac, thank you for your comments.

      Actually, I AM a supporter of flexible dieting, as I mentioned in the post. A major point of the article was the importance of flexibility and how diets that are too rigid tend to fail more often. Therefore we have this interesting paradox that ‘cheating on your diet can help you get leaner.’

      part of being flexible is finding a method or plan that works for you and you can stick with – sustainable while producing the body composition AND health results you want. And, I think it’s great you found the method that works for you.

      I have no doubt you can reach body comp goals and stay healthy with a small “cheat” meal every day, Especially if someone is tracking calories and macros diligently, though it’s not the way I do it personally.

      I do however, think a lot of people have swung the pendulum too far to the flexible side to the point where we can question whether the amount of processed food they are eating is healthy. Body composition is one goal, but so is health.

      more irksome to me, the pendulum has swung to the point where people who prefer to eat healthy unprocessed foods most of the time are actually being criticized or attacked. Such “clean eaters” are accused of being “bros” or “orthorexics.” The way so many people polarize everything in fitness and nutrition is shocking to me, and Im simply calling for some common sense and balance.

      If you consider my couple “cheat” meals a week being flexible (I do), and the fact that I’ve chosen healthy foods I enjoy eating the rest of the week, plus i dont eliminate any food groups, I’ve been a flexible dieter for over 25 years. Its not new and its not complex.

      Best regards,

      • Tom,

        One of the things I like about your blog is that you aren’t tied to dogma. There’s no need to call names, hurl insults, or take self-righteous stances.

        Elliott Hulse made a profound statement in one of his videos”

        “It’s ALL bro-science”

        One camp cites a study that you’ll go catabolic and lose muscle and go into starvation mode hit a fat loss plateua if you don’t eat every few hours. Another camp says intermittent fasting and IIFYM keeps your insulin levels low so you can burn fat all day long without losing muscle.

        They’re both right. Do what works for you and leave it at that.

        Raza

        • This post (and others on this blog) really got me thinking… You have so many contradictory opinions in fitness and nutrition:

          “Don’t eat animal by products”

          “Eat like a caveman”

          “Eat 6 times a day”

          “Fast for 20 hours a day”

          “Don’t eat gluten”

          “Eat as many dirty carbs as you want post-workout”

          “Don’t eat processed foods”

          “Processed food is ok (whey protein is “processed” anyway)”

          “Fat gives you heart disease”

          “No, no… carbs give you heart disease”

          Like Alwyn Cosgrove and Lou Schuler said in The New Rules of Lifting… “it all works. And nothing works forever”

          People need to calm down.

          • Tom Venuto

            I know what you mean. having been doing this since the 1980’s Ive seen more contradictory opinions than I can count, Ive also seen the pendulum swing one way and then over time, when a new generation enters the market, it swings back and recycles all over again. Moreover, contrarianism is actually a powerful news media and marketing hook: whatever is the current trend, say the exactly opposite and you get attention and start controversy and discussion. People do have different opinions based on different things working for them or suiting their particular lifestyle best, but polarizing and being contrarian is also being done on purpose for clicks and dollars. Thanks for your feedback! T.

  • Smitlit

    I am a big fan of the cheat day…or I should say 1/2 day. It has really helped me lose weight and not feel “deprived”. I eat clean Sunday thru Saturday afternoon and make sure I have a balanced and satisfying breakfast on Saturday morning so I don’t go totally insane with what I eat for the rest of Saturday while “cheating.”
    One thing I’ve found helpful is I drink A LOT of water…more than I usually drink the rest of the week. It helps to “move” the cheat food through my system faster (if you know what I mean…wink, wink).
    I may gain a pound or 2 but I lose it in a day and am right back on track without feeling guilty.
    Wondering if anyone else has had this help.

    • Tom Venuto

      That sounds like a controlled and intelligent way to do it in one day. Drinking a lot of water also probably adds to fullness at least temporarily and might limit the amount of food you take in. On the other h and, I think people often completely sabotage themselves by drinking calorie-containing liquids especially alcohol, on top of a cheat day. Disaster waiting to happen there…

  • Dan

    Tom,

    Thank you so much for this timely post! I’ve been following you for a decade and have all your books. This post was perfect timing for me personally. I fell off the wagon and got sucked into the new dogma of Paleo or low carb type eating once I read Tim Ferris’ book 4 Hour Body(Slow Carb Diet). A friend of mine lost a ton of weight using that diet and I wasn’t having success tracking calories so I gave it a go. I’ve been guilty of having the prescribed once a week all out cheat day. I’ve been following the diet pretty closesly for over a month and have only lost 1-2% bf and 7 lbs. I recently have stopped seeing results though and I imagine a lot was water weight(hopefully not muscle!). I really think you are right, I’ve been sabotaging my results with my massive cheat day. I love the freedom of not tracking macros during the 6 days but I feel shackled. My crossfit Paleo friends are getting super lean and I’m not. This article has really helped me see how damaging these massive cheat days are for me.

    I am so confused as to how these Paleo people are getting so lean and not counting calories… other than that, all of your books make 110% perfect sense to me!

    Thank you again for all that you do for the community, you are true asset!!

    • Tom Venuto

      Hi Dan Paleo removes / forbids most starchy carbs and grains which are calorie dense foods, even though the unprocessed variety are healthy and usually included in balanced athletic diets. If you ban a whole food group that is calorie dense, its harder to overeat, even when youre not counting anything – you just automatically eat less because the calorie dense foods are not allowed. So thats one possible explanation for how paleo and some low carb diets work for many people.

      A downside is the restriction of entire food groups. If youre not allowed to eat an entire food group is that not simply being “shackled” in another way? The problem is, diets with restrictions on entire food groups are harder for many people to stick with. I eat a very protein and veggie based diet, but I also wont live without my yams, white potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, beans/legumes and some occasional whole grain bread too, plus plenty of fruits and I can get shredded eating all of those foods by being certain to be in calorie deficit and balancing them with protein and fat, especially right amount of protein

      One way you could still fail on paleo or a low carb diet that allows ad libitum fat intake is from the fat. Fat is more calorie dense than carbs 9 calories per gram vs 4 in carbs, and often highly palatable too. I experimented with keto low carb many years ago and failed the first time i tried b ecause the “guru” i followed said “NO LIMIT” on proteins and fats. You just cant say “no limit” to some people. I was easily eating over my maintenance calories. The other way you can fail is unlimited cheating, indeed. I dont like to have any forbidden foods, but im mindful of the need for a calorie deficit to lose fat even when Im having cheat meals.

      By the way, its entirely possible to lose fat without tracking calories or macros if you have a handful of sensible nutrition guidelines set up. Also, the longer youve been doing this successfully, the easier it gets to guesstimate and get it right, especially if youve tracked before at some time of your life so you have some sense of how many calories are in your food off the top of your head.

      Even when you allow more carbs, counting calories and macros is not mandatory; You simply have to be conscious of the required calorie deficit and keep track of portions, scaling the portions down if you re not losing fat.

      However if youre not losing fat / if youre stuck at a plateau I almost always recommend as the first thing to do, either tracking calories and macros daily, or creating a meal plan with the calories and macros worked out and follow that meal plan daily.

    • Smitlit

      Hi Dan,
      I too read Tim Ferris’ “The 4-Hour” Body and had great results. I lost 18 pounds in a month and felt great. Although, I wasn’t insane on “cheat day”, I ate things like fruit and quinoa, which were not allowed during the rest of the week, as opposed to say a cheesecake or something. Since I love those foods it was something to look forward to. I did eat chocolate , as well, on cheat day. I don’t think I could have done what Tim did with his insane cheat day that he discussed in the book without vomiting (which I guess would have helped to lose some weight..yikes!) but I guess everyone is different.
      I am a vegetarian so eating a lot of beans and vegetables worked well for me. Paleo, obviously, because of the meat and no legumes, isn’t an option for me.
      I also followed some of his work out tips which gave me some good results in dropping body fat, as well. I didn’t feel “deprived” at all which helped me to stick with it.
      I think no matter what program you follow (within reason, of course) you have to fine tune it to you. Even with BFFM.
      I hope you have positive results with whatever you choose to follow. Good luck!!

  • Dan

    Tom,

    I’m very flattered that you took the time to reply to my comments! You really broke it down simply and I appreciate that. I used to be into bodybuilding back in the 90’s and read everything I could get my hands on. I thought I knew what I was doing when I got to 9% bf(best I ever did). As I got older, more and more books were contradictory to what I used to do and as I gained weight I got more confused and desperate. I let the basics go out the window and tried many of these popular diets, i.e. the Atkins, South Beach, etc. It was information overload and I gave up not seeing results. It wasn’t until I discovered your book that I could see through the junk and back to basics. Thank you so much for being a rock we can all lean on when we lose our focus. I love how you cover all the new topics and how they can and can’t work, not just bashing them. I’ve read Why we get fat and what to do about it, The Paleo Solution, BFFTM, Body for Life, Arnold’s encyclopedia, 4-Hour Body, Atkins, South Beach, etc, etc. You’re the only one that has always been saying the same things and guiding us away from distraction.

    You are the man Tom!

  • WP

    Could you explain the difference between cheat meals and the carb refeeding that is recommended when dieting for fat loss?

    Your article about adaptive thermogenesis and the myth of starvation mode is informative and convincing, but it left me wondering if the basis of carb refeeding is also a myth. It seems that a high calorie day would cause just a temporary spike in metabolic rate.

    • Tom Venuto

      cheat meals are just a meal – one meal. refeeding (as I would define it) is eating more carbs for at least one full day and at least up to maintenance calls. The basis of carb referring is not a myth – there is plenty of research on the effect of carbs on leptin, thyroid and so on, acutely which gives us the theoretical basis. You are correct to wonder however, whether this acute / temporary spike in hormones and metabolic rate is enough to actually increase fat loss. That has been debated. It might take a “diet break” of one week or two weeks at higher carbs to get an increase/restoration in metabolism for certain (and of course during that period you are not in a deficit, you are simply hoping to restore responsiveness to the deficit when you go back to it). However, the psychological benefits alone make one day refeeds worthwhile and we could reframe the objective of refers if we choose, to reduce the negative effects of linear calorie deficit rather than claim that it definitely increases fat loss per se.

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