Cheat Your Heart Out: Eat What You Want and Lose Fat

Cheat Your Heart Out: Eat What You Want and Lose Fat

I remember the days of hardcore bodybuilding diets, the 80s and 90s of pure protein, little carbs, and zero fat – I’m talking plain chicken and broccoli five meals per day that were popularized by ripped dudes like Sly Stallone. (In fact, I remember reading an article about how Stallone got shredded for Rocky 4. His diet? “Nothing but tuna and water.”)

But just because we remember something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. I mean, I remember getting the chicken pox, and that sucked.

So I guess the question I really want to ask is, did those diets work?

I’m a bit torn. On one hand, they did help some guys shed fat. On the other hand, if Stallone and the guys knew back then what we know now about strategic cheating, they may have had even more success…or at least they would have been a whole hell of a lot happier.

You see, when you start a hardcore diet with absolutely no deviation, it can wreak havoc on your mental state. Some guys can push through and stay on track. Most are found in the closet eating Twinkies while rocking back and forth and crying.

Psychologically speaking, cheating is a mental and emotional “break” from the rigors of a hardcore diet, but only if you do it right. An all-out binge will harm your ego (and your waistline), but strategic cheating – eating certain cheat meals at certain times with certain goals – is a great way to lose fat quickly while “being good” 95 percent of the time. Plus, you won’t have an urge to kill the guy who asks if you want a donut.

Let’s take a step back. We know there’s more to the ripped action hero physique than meets the eye, and that severe calorie restriction can go from good to bad very quickly.

So why don’t more guys cheat on their diet? Fear. Fear that consuming anything that isn’t a clean basic food will stop their fat loss progress.

Well, I’m here to set the record straight.

How would you like to lose fat while still eating some of your favorite foods? Pizza? Check. Cookies? Sure.

It’s not all fun and games, but planned cheat days could be the best thing to do to lose fat.

Why We Should Cheat

I’m not going to sit here and act like I’ve invented the science of cheating…I haven’t. In recent years, a plethora of literature on the hormone leptin has caused quite a stir in the fitness industry. For a long time, trainers and nutritionists just told their clients to keep pushing through the phase where progress stops and they “hit a wall.” As it turns out, we may have been pounding our heads against the wall for no good reason.

Here’s what usually happens: After we diet for a few weeks, we start seeing a decreased rate of fat loss or even stop losing fat all together. We start to crave higher quantities of food and start losing muscle (I’ll talk more about retaining muscle later in the article, by the way). We even increase our risk of getting sick because we’re fatigued all the time. Guys, that is no way to get lean.
Enter leptin, the king of hormones (at least for our purposes).

What’s So Cool About Leptin?

First, I want to hit you with a couple of quick science bombs, and then we’ll jump into how leptin can help you.

Leptin is known to have an effect on food intake and energy expenditure in the hypothalamus (1,2). Additionally, factors like genetics, insulin, adrenaline, body fat, lean body mass, and caloric intake can influence how much leptin is made and how much is used (3,4,5).

Now here’s something very interesting. The size and amount of our fat cells parallel our leptin levels (6,7), so if we drop our calories through diet or training, the level of leptin falls with it. If we eat a high-carb meal, our leptin levels will rise. Therefore, leptin levels are in a constant state of flux depending on your diet and body weight.

What does this mean to you?

Early research on leptin has found that leptin injections can drastically speed up the rate of fat loss (the research was done on rats, but still). Think about that for a second. You’re dieting and hit a wall. You get a leptin injection and suddenly you’re back on the path to faster fat loss. Sounds nice, huh?

Because humans actually have elevated levels of leptin (8), any type of injection would be ineffective and extremely expensive to produce. However (and here’s the kicker), you can use strategic cheating to manipulate your leptin levels. Because leptin is an anti-starvation hormone (9), we can control it to lose more fat!

Let me show you how.

How We Can Control Leptin

Everyone loves the beginning of a diet (well, maybe not everyone). You feel better and almost instantly look better as you tend to lose some water weight. Then you start wanting foods you know you can’t have.

This is why most dieting coaches will tell you to have one cheat meal per week. The problem? Bodybuilders have iron will. They will resist cheating and will continue to do cardio as long as they keep moving toward their goal. But for the rest of us mere mortals, strategic cheating is a much better method (provided you don’t have eight or nine cheat meals per week).

There’s a direct relationship between increased food intake and decreased leptin levels. The decreasing in leptin levels is the body’s starvation response. If we don’t cheat on our diet, then our leptin levels will continue to rise, and when our leptin is elevated, we’re more prone to picking on whatever is around the house in an all-out junk food gorge-fest. The solution is that we must put this leptin level in a state of flux.

Decreased leptin levels are directly related to lowered levels of energy expenditure (10,11,12). Leptin injection in animals has shown a reverse in the declining leptin levels (13). For us, having a cheat day will do just that.

But when should you take this cheat day? First, it doesn’t have to fall on a scheduled day. For instance, you can’t make every Saturday a cheat day or you’ll get diminishing returns. Here are some “warning signs” that you need to have a cheat day: 

  • You become moody more frequently.
  • You lose the desire to go to the gym.
  • You can’t fall asleep.
  • Your strength levels in the gym take a dip.
  • You’re not losing fat and think you should do more cardio.

Cheat Day(s) over a Cheat Meal

Let’s get things straight: I’m advocating a cheat day(s), not a cheat meal.

If we’re serious about increasing our leptin levels, the best strategy is to raise your overall calories for a given period rather than simply pigging out for a few meals in a given week.

From a consistency standpoint, having a crappy meal every other day is hardly putting in work, whereas stringing together a decent period of consistency and then taking a set period to cheat before getting back on the wagon will feel much better psychologically.

Wait? Eat more calories to lose fat? That’s a bit confusing, isn’t it?

Here’s the kicker: If your leptin levels are low previous to the cheat, you might very well notice more fat loss after the cheat, because your resting metabolic rate will increase.

Living proof that cheating on your diet from time to time ain’t a bad thing!

How Much Should You Cheat?

It all depends on how low your leptin levels are, which depends on how long and how intensely you’ve dieted. The higher the calories still present in your diet, the shorter the cheat day will be.

If you’ve been maintaining an extremely low intake in calories—less than 2000 calories for males and 1500 for females—you should skip the cheat day and instead raise your calories by about 15 to 30 percent for five days in a row.

The lower your body fat and the longer your diet, then the longer the cheat period. If you have not been dieting severely, then you should look to have a cheat day over 24 to 48 hours, raising your calories about 20 to 30 percent whenever you see one of the “warning signs” I outlined above.

If you haven’t followed a strict diet, like those low in calories described above, you don’t need to raise your calories for that long of a period of time.

A Quick Word About Muscle

Besides losing fat, the second most important goal while dieting is holding onto the muscle that it took us so long to build. Regardless of what we do or don’t do in our training or how much protein we take, if we lose muscle, it’s due to our hormones.

In a perfect world, we’d all have the hormones of natural bodybuilders who can gain noticeable muscle mass without gaining fat. However, we live in the real world where we have to consume excessive calories to grow. Leptin plays a hand in all the hormones that we need (testosterone, cortisol, growth hormone, etc.) for this process.

Increased leptin fills glycogen stores, which is the key signal that tells our body that we’re fed (15). It raises the level of luteinizing hormone, which increases testosterone (16) in addition to increasing growth hormone (17) and decreasing cortisol (18). All of our hormones that are responsible for muscle growth are elevated with leptin, which is all the more reason to elevate it.

So there you go. On to the sample diets!

Sample Diets


Here is a sample 2000 calorie cutting diet. Watch how we adjust it below for your cheat day.

Meal 1

  • 6 egg whites
  • 4 tsp of peanut butter
  • 6 oz of grapefruit
  • ½ cup of oatmeal
  • 6 oz plain, non-fat yogurt

Meal 2

  • 4 oz chicken breast
  • 12 almonds
  • 3 oz orange
  • 4 oz baked sweet potato

Meal 3

  • 1 cup of nonfat cottage cheese
  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • 1 cup broccoli
  • 2/3 cup of brown rice

Meal 4

  • 30 grams of whey protein (a high quality blend such as Nitrean)
  • 4 tsp almond butter
  • 1 cup of green beans
  • 1/3 cup of brown rice

Meal 5

  • 4 oz tilapia
  • 3 tsp olive oil
  • 12 oz asparagus

Meal 6

  • 30 grams of whey protein (a high quality blend such as Nitrean)
  • 12 almonds
  • 8 oz asparagus

Total calories 1981 grams
Total protein: 154 grams
Total carbohydrates: 195 grams
Total fat: 65 grams


Here’s an example of how your diet would look on a cheat day where you raise your calories by 25 to 30 percent.

Meal 1

  • 8 egg whites
  • 4 tsp of peanut butter
  • 2.25 oz banana
  • 2 slices whole grain toast
  • 6 oz plain, non-fat yogurt

Meal 2

  • 4 oz chicken breast
  • 18 almonds
  • 3.5 oz orange
  • 4 oz baked sweet potato

Meal 3

  • 5 oz grilled tilapia
  • 6 tsp olive oil
  • 1 cup broccoli
  • 2/3 cup of brown rice

Meal 4

  • 40 grams of whey protein (a high quality blend such as Nitrean)
  • 6 tsp almond butter
  • 1 cup of green beans
  • 2/3 cup of brown rice

Meal 5

  • 5 oz tilapia
  • 3 tsp olive oil
  • 12 oz asparagus
  • 2 oz baked yam

Meal 6

  • 40 grams of whey protein (a high quality blend such as Nitrean)
  • 18 almonds
  • 8 oz asparagus

Total calories 2421 grams
Total protein: 189 grams
Total carbohydrates: 225 grams
Total fat: 85 grams

(Notice that I didn’t include pizza or cookies here. There’s a reason for that. Dieting is dieting; you have to eat certain foods. By all means, you can eat pizza and cookies on your cheat day, but you have to make sure your overall intake stays within the caloric limits that I mentioned above for your cheat days.)

Could a tasty treat like this really kickstart a fat loss spurt?

The Need To Cheat

All the evidence is there. Physiologically, we need to cheat on our diet regardless of what our goals are. Leptin isn’t some funky niche hormone; it’s as important as testosterone and insulin. Just because it can’t be injected doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t get the same spotlight.

Psychologically, cheating is used for a mental break.

The choice is yours. You can eat less and do more cardio, or you can try manipulating your leptin with strategic cheat days and really strip off the fat.

What’ll it be?

Written by Jimmy Smith

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Cheat Your Heart Out discussion thread.

 About Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith, MS, CSCS is a trainer and nutrition coach in Stamford,CT who specializes in physique development. He consults with a variety of clients including athletes, figure competitors and bodybuilders.

He is also the creator and host of one of the internet’s most listened fitness radio shows, The Jimmy Smith Training Podcast.

For more information and for a free bodybuilding video course, visit his website


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