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Cheat Days by Ari Whitten

I often get this question from people: "Do you think cheat days are a good idea?"

First off, I have personally used extreme and restrictive diets (far beyond what most overweight people typically engage in) for years in the past. And I caused myself a lot of health problems from them. In the past, I even went through periods where I put dozens of my clients on very restrictive diets (low carb, intermittent fasting, all liquid protein diets, raw vegan etc) that I now cringe at and deeply regret. I bring this up only so that you know that I've been through this stuff and done it all -- cheat days, cheat meals, cheat weeks, carb cycling, cyclic ketogenic diets, carb days on low-carb diets etc.

So back to the question of CHEAT DAYS... yay or nay?

My answer (which has been shaped by many years of doing restrictive diets) is simple: 

*** If you're doing something which is so restrictive that you can't wait for your "cheat day" to come around, the issue isn't the presence or absence of the cheat day--it's that what you're doing is TOO RESTRICTIVE.***

And whether that restriction is in the form of a low-calorie diet or intermittent fasting or low-carb, it's not likely to be sustainable or healthy. Therefore, not only is it likely to end in failure, it's even likely to be COUNTERPRODUCTIVE in the long-term. (I.e. it's likely to cause metabolic and hormonal dysfunction and make you FATTER). 

For example, one study found that “weight-loss attempts may be associated with subsequent major weight gain, even when several potential confounders are controlled for.” (1)


The notion of heavy restriction followed by a cheat day certainly makes sense on a logical level. And that's why many diet authors promote this idea, and why we have books like "The Cheat to Lose Diet" and the "3-1-2-1 Diet: Eat and Cheat Your way to Weight Loss" and the latest cheat diet book "The Cheat System Diet."

Like I said, a cheat day can perhaps seem logical--"constant restriction might end in failure because people can't follow it, so if we add in a cheat day we can get a psychological release and allow for better adherence to the diet." It is logical and does make sense.

Logic isn't the issue though. Science is. 

I could just as easily use logic to PROVE WRONG the notion of the cheat day. For example, do we say to crack and heroin addicts "ok, well, you can have your crack cocaine just one day a week, but be good the other 6 days of the week." 

Obviously not. Perhaps some could make it work. But for most, if they keep getting crack introduced to their body, they will continue to stimulate their cravings and will likely get re-addicted.

In fact, I know many people that weren't able to change their diet habits UNLESS they went 100% abstinent from their junk foods. If they cheated, it would actually stimulate them to cheat MORE, not less.

And by the way, there actually *IS* research to support that: 

For example, according to a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation "What we've shown in this study is that someone's entire brain chemistry can change in a very short period of time. Our findings suggest that when you eat something high in fat, your brain gets 'hit' with the fatty acids, and you become resistant to insulin and leptin. ...Since you're not being told by the brain to stop eating, you overeat. ... Dr. Clegg said that in the animals, the effect lasts about THREE DAYS, potentially explaining why many people who splurge on Friday or Saturday say they're hungrier than normal on Monday." (2)

Perhaps for some people, doing the cheat day thing can help. 

But for others, it absolutely does NOT help you get results in the long term--it just slowly SABOTAGES your efforts. It rewires your brain's responsiveness to certain hunger-relating hormones in ways that actually promote MORE CHEATING and BINGEING behaviors. ...until you're no longer really adhering to your diet.

If you're a Type A personality who wants to implement a SHORT-TERM heavily restrictive diet with a cheat day every so often in preparation for a physique competition, cheat days may work fine for you.

*** But if you're NOT trying to get just temporary fat loss and you want to get lean and STAY LEAN, it's very likely that the "restrictive diet plus cheat day" model is NOT a good approach for you. ***


Here's my ALTERNATIVE solution to the "restrictive diet plus cheat day" model: 


Eat a diet that does NOT revolve around any sort of heavy restriction of either calories or any major nutrient.

If you restrict either overall calories or some nutrient (low-carb dieting for example), you're going to enter into a fight against your own biology--which is why you would need a "cheat day," to have the things you're body is craving. The issue isn't whether or not you have a cheat day built in to your diet that allows you to adhere to this restrictive diet--the real problem is that you're on a diet that has put you into a fight against your own biology! 

To accomplish sustainable fat loss, you must:
1) Choose strategies that are not psychologically arduous and do not rely on you constantly doing things that you find difficult and not enjoyable.
2) Adopt strategies that create fat loss while eliminating the negative metabolic adaptations that predispose you to future weight gain—that is, you want to work with your biology as much as possible, instead of engaging in a fight against it. 

The essential strategy here is making sure that you have, first of all, put habits into place that do actually cause fat loss (such as lowering food reward and food variety, increasing protein intake, increasing plant and micronutrient intake, eating a mostly whole-food diet, increasing NEAT, and optimizing your circadian rhythm), and then make sure you are doing those things at a level that doesn’t feel like suffering to you, and which you can sustain for the rest of your life without struggle.


If you find yourself needing a "cheat day" it's probably because you are foolishly engaged in some sort of overly restrictive diet that's causing you to fight against your biology the other 6 days of the week!

Having great health and a lean beautiful body doesn't need to be about ANY KIND of forced restriction and deprivation. You don't need to go all out with some crazy restrictive diet that requires you to binge once a week to deal with the suffering.

Instead of relying on willpower, suffering through hunger pangs and cravings, and waiting patiently for your cheat day each week, try this...

Cultivate the daily habits that reliably lead to fat loss, and do them in a way so that they lead to steady fat loss WITHOUT relying on suffering, intense restriction, and cheat days.



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Failure isn't final

There are times when things just click.  Diet is easy and on point.  Workouts are going great.  Everything in life seems to be carrying us towards our goals.

There are also times when the world is falling around us and we are able to push through that.  We fight on through the struggles to keep our diet on track.  We overcome things to get our workouts in.  

There are times where we fail.  We fail when it should be easy.  We fail when it gets hard.  Failure happens to almost everyone.  Momentary failures and even month long set backs don't mean we won't be successful.  We learn just as much through failure as we do through success.  

During my bulk I put on a lot more fat than I should have.  I struggled with binge eating still and I didn't want to cut if I couldn't control it.  I put aside my desire for a lean body in favor of fixing real problems. 

I don't want people to think that I am 100% disciplined because it isn't true.  I struggle just like everyone else.  My life doesn't revolve around fitness and sometimes I sleep in instead of going to the gym.  There are times where I ditch my meal plan in favor of just enjoying some pizza and ice cream with my kids.  I don't believe in trying to be perfect, just trying to do a bit better and maintain balance.  

Don't be so hard on yourselves!  Take the opportunity to learn and keep an open mind when you ask for help.

Are you just screwing around?

This is not intended for people who are starting out or struggling with the basics.  This is a note to myself and a repost from a year ago.

Are you just screwing around?

You know how to count calories.  You have the hang of weighing everything and being accurate.  You probably know the calorie and macro content of your most frequent foods.  You have a really good idea of what your maintenance calories are and what an appropriate deficit is.  Yet you are getting no closer to your goals.

Why?  Are you just screwing around?  Your food diary isn't accurate, you went over your calories a few times this week, you half assed your workouts and you didn't stick to your macro goals.  It's like you don't even care.

Are you bulking?  Are you cutting?  To me it looks like you are maintaining on accident.  Do you really want to reach your goals?  Are your goals appropriate for your current intake, level of fitness, workout schedule or even your body fat percent?  Do you know how to determine if your goals are appropriate for you and what your real current goal should be?

Listen.  I know it's not comfortable to stick to the plan 24/7.  You're used to eating what you want, when you want.  The longer you mess around the longer you'll have to wait to have a bit more freedom. 

There is so much more satisfaction from reaching your goal and feeling good about how you look than there is from eating an entire pizza (chased with a pint of ice cream).  I'm not saying you have to give up pizza or ice cream along the way, but moderation and success feel better than the binge that you went on this weekend.  That horrible feeling you get when the scale is up 5 pounds and the sight in the mirror makes you want to cry.  You don't have to go through that anymore. 

The time has come to get back on track and stop screwing around.  More restriction isn't the answer.  Find balance and you will be successful.

Start where you are

I know that my main advice for exercise is to go lift heavy.  Although it is non-specific advice for the general population, it is far from the only thing that I suggest on the forums. 

For me and many others, a five minute walk is a lot on day one.  My first exercise outside of walking was joining a senior citizen water aerobics class (I was only 26 at the time).  The first time I attempted to bench press I used five pound dumbbells.

The best exercise for someone starting out is simply something they can do and are willing to do consistently.  If it’s walking around the living room during commercials, it’s still something.  The goal is to start moving more.  Some people might be able to jump into running or lifting.  Some may not have what it takes to do day one of couch to 5k or wall pushups.  We all start where we are and make progress when we can.

If all you can manage is one minute at a time, you have your starting point.  Don’t compare your starting point to where someone else is.  My day one looks nothing like where I am today. 

Out of curiosity, what was your day one like?  Where did you start with fitness?

Flipping the mental switch

I want to start this blog out by saying that this is not an attack on people who do not lift.  I am simply going to share my experience with lifting and how it changed my mind set.  I realize not everyone sees things the way I did.

When I joined MFP I followed the typical new member cycle.  I set my calorie goal to lose two pounds per week, was given 1200 calories and realized if I wanted to not feel hungry I was going to have to do some work.  I really didn’t know much about weight loss when I started.  Thanks to magazines I was under the impression that I had to eat the right foods and do lots of cardio with a few special exercises to fight the fat in my trouble zones.  The idea of “right foods” was daunting, so I opted for restriction in the form of only eating fruits, vegetables and meat (mostly chicken and egg white).

Like many people I simply cannot function with restriction.  I would do well for four or five days, then I would binge eat for a few days.  These wild eating sessions ended with guilt.  How could I eat junk food again when I was finally detoxing my body from all the crap I had been eating?!?  I also felt like I had undone all the cardio from the week PLUS I had dug myself into a hole that required even more cardio.

The week after a binge would be filled with even more cardio.  The binge that weekend would result in more cardio the next week.  This was a bad cycle. 

Thankfully I lurked in the boards for long enough to learn the first key to fixing the negative cycle.  Despite having 70 pounds to lose I was going to be more successful setting my goal to lose one pound per week and include foods I love.  One pound per week was a pound more than what I was losing through extreme restriction and binge eating.

The second key to fixing the negative cycle was lifting.  One day I arrived at the gym and I was completely sick of the treadmill.  There was no way I was going to get on that thing and waste another 30 minutes hating life.  I walked over to the closest machine that looked self explanatory and started using my muscles.  Several months later I walked in armed with a print out from and started following a program (thankfully they provided videos for all the exercises as well).

I can’t always stick to my calorie goal.  I’m not as concerned with how much work I need to do to make up for it.  Those extra calories?  Fuel for my next workout.  On a lifting day?  Just feeding my muscles.  It’s not an excuse for exceeding my calorie goal daily.  It’s recognizing that going over is not taking a step back, I’m taking a step in a different direction.


If you can find a way to change exercise from punishment to reward it will take you far.  Also, don’t forget that Calories aren’t just evil things that keep us fat, they are fuel and you shouldn’t feel guilt for eating.

Why your progress isn't dramatic

Most people have seen transformation pictures where the before and after don't look like the same person.  The jaw dropping difference of 50, 100, 200+ pounds lost.  We look forward to the day that our bodies look completely different, just like those pictures.

Unfortunately that is not going to happen for you.

Before you come after me with torches and pitch forks let me explain.  You look in the mirror after you get dress, as you brush your teeth or do your hair, when you wash your hands, when you pass a mirror.  I know at my heaviest I avoided mirrors and only looked into my eyes or at my nose, but you still see the rest of you.

As you lose weight you look at yourself multiple times a day.  Those tiny changes in your body don't really register.  They are there, but the changes are slow enough that your view of your body adjusts with your weight.  Only when muscles, ribs, cheek bones, etc. start showing can we see the true impact of the fat loss.  

When we reach our goal we look the same as we did yesterday and the day before that and the day before that.  Our view of ourselves has slowly changed from the beginning, so we really don't see the difference.  Our before and after pictures show stunning results, but our brains have adjusted to every tiny change.  This is why we tell people to take pictures and measurements.

The same thing happens when we bulk.

We add small amounts of muscle and fat.  Over time we just look like slightly bigger and fatter versions of how we looked before the bulk.  Even worse, adding fat hides the striations and the definition.  Now we just look fluffy.  Part of me expected dramatic results from my bulk (blog to come when I am done cutting), but now I realize I am just going to end up a slightly bigger version of what I looked like before.  I'm definitely not the beefy version of me I was hoping for since that is going to take many more years of barely noticeable changes.

Don't throw in the towel just because you don't "see" the changes.  They are happening. 

Five Years and Counting

I generally try to share some wisdom here, but I don't really have any today.  Today I just want to tell more of my story.

Five years ago this month I finished my active duty time in the Marine Corps.  I was fat when I got out, but I had been trying to gain control of it for a few years.  I was finally free of the obligation to exercise as someone else demanded and free of the pressure to lose weight as fast as possible.  This was a huge weight off my shoulders.  I could do things my way and I didn't have to starve myself to meet a deadline.

I think the quote that has made the most impact on my life since then is,

“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” -Earl Nightingale

It has been five years, but I am not where I want to be.  I have accomplished a lot and am thankful for all the goals I have met along the way.  I'm still working on the inside as well as the outside.

There are days where I don't want to go to the gym and I wonder why I work so hard for a goal to make very little progress.  I remind myself that the time is going to pass anyway, so why not work towards the goal.  There is no deadline.  I might get there in a year or in five years.  Every workout, every diary completion, every piece of positive feedback I give myself is progress.  

Sometimes I take a few steps back.  There are times where I don't feel like I make progress.  I keep counting.  I keep lifting.  I keep working at the goal even when I feel like I will never get there.

I have been counting calories in some form or another for five years.  I will continue counting or tracking food for a very long time.  The time will pass anyway, so I might as well keep working towards some goals.


I share a lot on here.  Everything from binge eating to my flaws to struggles that are more common than you think.  That is pretty easy.  I don't mind saying those things because I know I'm not alone in it.

Today I want to talk about relationships.

We have some sort of relationship with everyone we interact with on a regular basis. Our significant other, siblings, children, friends and even co-workers.  Most of these people care about us.  They also tune into our habits and do things for us to improve our happiness or quality of life.

Sometimes that means that they bake us a tray of cookies.

The first few months of developing a new lifestyle are very tough.  There are the physiological changes, such as learning hunger cues and adjusting to a lower calorie intake.  There are psychological changes, such as building impulse control and developing positive habits.  

There are also changes that happen in our relationships. The loving acts of those around us no longer fit the habits we are trying to develop.  That tray of cookies feels like a deliberate attempt to derail our progress.  It's easy to jump to the conclusion that it is sabotage because in the midst of all our personal changes those around us are carrying on as though we are staying the same.  We are still learning the tools we need to be willing and able to balance a healthy lifestyle with enjoying those treats.

What can we do from the beginning to help those around us transition with us?

Communication.  Let the people around you know your plans to develop new healthy habits.  Let your significant other know what changes you are planning on making and how they can help you.  Get the people around you involved in the process.  Don't take it personally when someone continues on as though you are not making changes.  Thank them when they do something helpful, because everyone likes for their effort to be appreciated.

These conversations may have to take place over and over again.  Eventually they will adjust to your new habits.  My only caution is: just because you are making changes doesn't mean others have to.  Don't go throw away all the chips and cookies in the house and demand the others follow your lead.  They have to make the choice for themselves or it will cause resentment. 

Valentine's Day 2011

This is not a sappy love story.

February 2011 I had been actively trying to lose weight for about a year.  At this point I still didn't know much about fat loss and was just following all the things that I had seen in magazines.  I had been tracking calories on paper, but I hadn't lost much weight.  Due to my limited knowledge (as well as lying to myself about how much I was actually eating) I just knew I had to join a gym to lose weight.

Now, don't get me wrong.  Joining a gym changed my life.  I know now it wasn't necessary to lose weight, but there are so many other benefits.

In January I started looking into gyms in the area.  Trying to find one that had low dues, childcare and wasn't far from my home.  If it hadn't been for Facebook I would probably still be looking at the information on local gyms.  Thankfully one of the guys I went to high school with posted that he was working at a gym and would hook his friends up with a great rate.  I sent him a text and we set an appointment for me to check out the gym on February 14th.

I was terrified.  Here I was, over 200 pounds, going to a gym where people were going to judge me for being fat.  It took me hours to pick out what to wear just to sign the paperwork.  I spent a few days looking through gym selfies of heavier people trying to figure out what to wear when I actually went to exercise.  When I actually got there to sign the paperwork nobody really stared, much less looked in my direction.  

I was given a week's worth of daycare for free, so there was incentive to actually go.  I figured that if I went when the daycare first opened most of the really fit morning people would be gone and all the in shape stay at home wives would be in the Zumba class.  The first month I darted into the gym, dropped the boys off, picked the treadmill in the corner and left as fast as possible.  It took months to warm up to the gym and realize people didn't even pay attention to me.

Four years later and I am in amazing shape.  It's strange for me to remember how terrifying the gym was and how little I knew when I started.  The gym has done more for me than just assist in physical changes.  I'm glad I took that first step, no matter how terrifying it was.

Honor, Courage, Commitment

In Marine Corps recruit training we are taught core values and upon finishing our final test we are given a card with them printed on it.  These are characteristics that are expected of us from the day we join until the day we die.  During the 13 weeks of training we go through before earning the title of United States Marine our character is tested to determine is we hold these core values.


This is our code of personal integrity.  It's doing what is right when no one is looking.  Those who possess honor are held in honor.  It is a belief that is exibited in our actions.  Honor is holding yourself to the highest standards.


Courage is the guardian of our values.  It is standing up against fear and in the face of adversity.  It helps us make the difficult decisions.  It is physical, mental and ethical strength.  Courage is our backbone.


Commitment is the spirit of determination.  It is what keeps us going when  others quit.  You cannot fake or break commitment.  It is the measure and proof of our desire, dedication and faithfulness.


The Marine Corps select those as their core values.  The standards to which they hold us and the measure of our character.  These traits are not exclusive to the Marine Corps.  Every one of us has the ability to develop these.  These traits can help you reach any goal.


Honor is being honest with yourself during the process.  It is logging accurately and admitting when you fail or struggle.

Courage is making the difficult decisions.  It's braving the cold to get a workout in.  It's saying no to food that isn't going to fit your goals for the day.  It is admitting when you need help.

Commitment is doing it on days you don't want to.   It is doing it after weeks of seeing no progress.  It is continuing to learn and apply things that are going to get you to your goal.

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