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Cheat Your Way Thin: An Interview with Joel Marion

Posted Nov 16 2010 7:54am
Today, I’m featuring an interview Tom Venuto did with Cheat Your Way Thin author Joel Marion, as it’s a great interview that delves into the science of leptin and how it can be strategically manipulated for fat loss – even if it’s during the holiday season.

Tom: Cheating on your diet to lose more weight seems counterintuitive if not utterly illogical, but depending on how you approach it, I’m in complete agreement that there’s a strong argument for it from two different angles – psychological and physiological. What do you think are the psychological benefits to the dieter allowing cheat days as opposed to being 100% strict on your diet?

Joel: First, it absolutely increases adherence across the board, there’s no getting around that. It makes ―dieting‖, a concept which generally (and absurdly) demands that people forgo their favorite foods for months and months at a time, actually livable, and more importantly ENJOYABLE.

I was actually just talking about this with another trainer the other day. For most people, Day 1 of a diet—when they finally buckle down and decide they need to go on one—is the worst day of their life. It’s depressing. ―No pizza, for like, 3 months while I attempt to lose this 30 lbs. Yeah, right. Anyone who thinks that’s actually going to happen is completely deluded and this is exactly why 99% of people fail with restrictive dieting.

Two, let’s say you do cheat (not strategically) and eat something you’re not supposed to while dieting. Guilt, failure, and a slew of other feelings that you should NEVER have to feel while on a diet surface and make you feel as though you ―just don’t have it in you or that you lack willpower or that you don’t have what it takes to stick with a program and achieve your goals. That’s terrible.

Flat out, dieting, in the calorie restrictive, self-sacrificing manner we have learned it, is flat out unrealistic for the vast majority of people. If you told me I had to give up pizza for 3 months to get lean, I’d be one fat dude. The trade off isn’t worth it, and neither are the painfully slow results that most ―diets yield.

Tom: On the physiological side, there are a lot of benefits to “cheating” after a period of restrictive dieting. There’s a lot going on in the body when you do this, but much of it seems to revolve around one hormone, leptin. Would you explain in as simple terms as possible for the layperson, what is leptin?

Joel: Leptin is awesome (or at least when you know how to manipulate it, it is). Get on its ―bad side, however, and you’re pretty much doomed to be overweight.

In the simplest terms, leptin is a hormone that communicates your nutritional status to the rest of your body. From there, your body then makes decisions on what to do with things like fat burning and metabolism, based on the messages it’s receiving from our friend leptin.

High leptin levels = heightened fat burning and metabolism

Low leptin levels = decreased fat burning and metabolism

There’s a little more to it than that, but you asked for simple terms.

Leptin has also been deemed the ―anti-starvation hormone, which is essentially is its major function in the body, to prevent, or at least dramatically slow the negative adaptations (from a survival standpoint) when food is scarce or when energy intake drops substantially (i.e. starvation).  This was great for our hunter and gather ancestors, but terrible for the dieter.

And while dieting certainly isn’t as extreme as starvation, it really is nothing more than a lesser degree of exactly that, carry slightly lessened, but still very troubling consequences for the dieter.

Getting into some of the research on leptin, research has shown that after only seven days of calorie restriction, leptin drops on average 50% — putting you at roughly 50% of your fat burning potential. That’s after only ONE week.  And as long as you continue to fail to provide your body with the energy it’s hoping to receive, adaptations get worse, leptin falls harder, and metabolism takes an even greater hit.

The good news is, it only takes one day of ―overfeeding‖ or ―cheating‖ to bring leptin levels back to baseline and restore things like plummeted thyroid hormones, fat burning enzymes, a manageable (not insatiable) appetite, and metabolism overall.

The problem with overfeeding, however, is that if you fail to properly set up the rest of the diet in an extremely strategic manner around a cheat day or overfeed day, overfeed days can backfire and lead to a one-step-forward one-step-back phenomenon. This is something we cover heavily in Cheat Your Way Thin—the ideal way to set up the other 6 days each week, based on a plethora of research, to ensure that each cheat day accelerates, not detracts, from progress.


Tom: Are you saying that you can significantly manipulate leptin with nutritional intervention, including cheat days, and that if we can scour the research and make a punch list of things that keep leptin levels as normal as possible and prevent leptin from dropping like it would with a linear low calorie or low carb diet, this is going improve our results?

Joel: Absolutely, no question about it. Keeping metabolism consistently high and avoiding the negative hormonal adaptations of dieting equates to better, faster results; there’s no way around that.

That’s in addition to the psychological/adherence benefits, which obviously, if you’re actually still doing the diet 6 or 8 weeks into the plan, you’re going to experience infinitely better results than if you quit after two weeks every time.

Tom: Are you claiming that these techniques will actually increase fat loss, or simply prevent the bad stuff that happens with restrictive dieting, like the adaptive decrease in metabolism and the increase in appetite, which could then lead to plateaus? I think this is an important distinction.

Joel: Preventing the bad stuff = increasing the good stuff (i.e. fat burning). If your metabolism slows, that means you are burning fewer calories, right? So for instance, let’s say your BMR was 2000 cals/day when you first started dieting, and then through restrictive dieting over a period of a month or two (and the subsequent decrease in leptin and metabolism), you’re now only burning 1500 cals/per day.

If you had kept leptin ―happy through strategic cheating and metabolism did NOT drop off, you’d still be burning an extra 500 calories a day. Do you think that burning an extra 500 calories a day is valuable in terms of faster fat loss? Without question.

Essentially, by ―preventing the bad things from occurring, you automatically and absolutely increase fat loss beyond what would be possible without taking measures to manipulate leptin and keep metabolism at its height, week to week. Simply put, use strategic cheating in the proper way, and by the end of each week you’ll have lost more fat than if you simply chose to remain ―strict seven days a week. That equates to increased fat loss any way you look at it.

Tom: I’ve been looking at some research that says some folks have plenty of leptin but they also have leptin resistance. I haven’t seen many people really address this leptin resistance issue aside from saying it exists. Do you think this is a common problem and does your program offer any insights into the causes as well as solutions?

Joel: Okay, the other thing I didn’t mention while trying to give you the ―simple definition earlier was that leptin levels aren’t just mediated by calorie intake alone—they’re also affected by the amount of body fat you are carrying.

High levels of body fat = high levels of leptin

Low levels of body fat = low levels of leptin

Now, from everything I said earlier, that makes it sound like fat people with high levels of body fat should actually be the leanest people around if leptin actually made a difference (and lean people should be gaining weight like nobody’s business, because of extremely low leptin levels).

This is where leptin resistance and leptin sensitivity come in. Similar to insulin resistance, if leptin receptors are constantly being bombarded by high levels of leptin, they start to become less sensitive to the hormone. This is what happens with insulin in Type II diabetics. People eat crap food and loads of highly processed carbohydrates for years, flood their bloodstream with insulin every hour of the day, and gradually over time insulin receptors become so desensitized to the hormone to the point that insulin no longer ―works.

It’s the same with leptin. Overweight people, who have been overweight for years, become resistant to the hormone because of massive amounts of leptin (caused by high body fat levels and high calorie intakes) slamming receptors for extended periods of time.

On the other hand, lean people can get by with lower levels of leptin, relatively speaking, because their receptors are extremely sensitive to the hormone. It’s important to note, however, that this is relative to the person and their individual ―baseline levels of leptin when food intake is normal.

For example, let’s say, and I’m just pulling out a totally arbitrary number for simplicity’s sake, a particular person with a low level of body fat has a baseline level of leptin is ―10 (I’m leaving out the μg/L units of measure left and all that jazz for simplicity as well). ―10 is all this person needs for normal metabolic functioning to occur because they are highly sensitive to leptin. On the other hand, ―10 wouldn’t be nearly enough to maintain normal metabolism for a much larger, and subsequently less leptin sensitive individual. So, you can see what I mean when I say that it’s all relative.

Another important thing to note is that calorie restriction lowers leptin independent of body fat. So, let’s say this same person from above went on a diet. And they’re leptin levels went down to ―5. Sure, they’re very sensitive to leptin, but ―5 ain’t going to get the job done even for them. When leptin levels fall below baseline levels, whatever baseline levels are relative to the person, negative metabolic adaptations occur.

Getting back to leptin resistance, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that it’s totally reversible, but the bad news is that someone who has been overweight for years (and is thus probably leptin resistant) can’t just jump right into a full-out strategic cheating and carb-cycling program and have it be effective—simply put, in this case, the dietary strategies we use to manipulate leptin wouldn’t really be of use to them because they’re resistant to the hormone and it’s not going to matter if we’re doing all these different things to manipulate leptin—they already have plenty of leptin running around.

For this person, the focus would then be on reversing the leptin resistance and restoring leptin sensitivity, and that is done one way: clean eating + exercise, and yes, with a moderate calorie restriction. Pretty much all the same dietary measures one would take to increase insulin sensitivity (clean eating, low-carbs, low-glycemic carbs, etc).

Carbohydrate intake also affects leptin levels, so someone is this position would certainly want to avoid highly processed carbs or anything that is going to give leptin a significant spike.

I generally recommend 2-3 weeks of lower-carb dieting (with strategic cheating interspersed) before beginning with the full blown program, and that’s actually the purpose of the ―priming phase of the Cheat Your Way Thin program. For the Cheat Your Way Thin Holiday Edition, we also included some other leptin resistance reversing strategies as well (still allowing for plenty of holiday cheating).

Tom: I’ve found a lot of evidence to suggest that an overweight person and an already lean person have some significant physiological differences that can influence how they respond to a particular diet. Do you suggest a different approach for the overweight person and the already lean dieter who is trying to get even leaner (for example a bodybuilder or figure competitor)?

Joel: In addition to what I’ve mentioned above, I’ll say this. The leaner you get, the more leptin becomes a limiting factor and the more you have to do to manipulate it. Because of this, we often increase the frequency of cheat days to once every 5 days for very lean individuals, or even every 4 days in some extreme instances like with bodybuilders or figure competitors prepping for a show. Some advanced diet and exercise strategies are also needed to make that type of frequent approach work.

Similarly, for the very overweight person, when we first transition them to using strategic cheat days, we may start with a cheat day once every 9 or 10 days, as opposed to once a week.

For the vast majority falling in between these two extremes, however, the once per week approach works best (and is great for consistency as cheat days always fall on the same day each week allowing people to plan their cheat day around whatever day is generally their most social day of the week).

Tom: I’m a firm believer in cycling calories up and down and doing that by manipulating carb intake which I call carb cycling, for many of the same reasons that you have a cheat day. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of different ways to carb cycle, like 5 days keto and 2 days of high carb, the rotation of high, low and medium days, and various mixtures of high and low carb days. What is your basic methodology for introducing the higher calorie cheat days and why do you prefer your method over some of the other ways that people do carb cycling?

Joel: As for methodology, it’s based on the research I shared earlier that leptin falls off by about 50% after only one week, while only taking one day of ―overfeeding or ―cheating to ramp levels back up to baseline. So this is the basis of the weekly cheat day.

That said, we actually do use carb cycling in addition to Cheat Days to make the program even more effective, but carb cycling alone, unless you are doing very high calorie ―refeed days, while somewhat effective, not as effective as combining both or using all-out cheat days.

I’ll explain the reason and necessity for the weekly carb cycling in a bit.

Tom: Your method seems complicated with high glycemic index/glycemic load days, low carb days and cheat days and all kinds of phases. If your goal is to increase adherence by allowing cheat meals, then wouldn’t creating a complex system of high, low, cheat, and various GI level days just create the opposite effect and lower adherence?

Joel: People have reported, a thousand times over, that it’s actually the easiest diet they’ve ever done, and not only because of the cheat days, but because of the wide variety of foods that you’re allowed to eat even on ―diet days.

We go low-carb after a cheat day and then pretty much every day we add foods to the ―allowed list. This isn’t hard to do, there is no calorie counting, and with every day you just get to eat more than you did yesterday. That’s a pretty easy diet to stick to. And oh yeah, once a week you get to eat whatever you want. I don’t think it gets easier.

In the manual, I list it out in the easiest way to understand possible, and after a week or two on the diet the entire system become second nature in which people don’t have to even think about it whatsoever.

On low carb days you eat steak, fish, eggs, and plenty of veggies, on low GI days you fill up on things fruit and legumes, and for higher GI days you’re allowed to have pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, etc. Of course there are a lot more options than just those foods, but that’s the gist of it…you just climb the GI scale throughout the week.

It’s not complicated at all once people read through the program, and even less complicated when they actually start doing it.

Tom: I’ve been following the research on glycemic index/glycemic load and weight loss with great interest. It seems, at least if you go by what the peer-reviewed research says, that GI is a useful tool for blood sugar management, which is what it was originally intended for, but when calories are matched evenly, there’s little or no impact of GI on weight loss. Are you familiar with these studies, and if so then why do you emphasize GI and GL so much in your program?

Joel: Yes, I’m familiar, but here are a couple things to consider. One, these weight loss studies are performed with people adhering to the same typical calorie restrictive, 7-days a week of dieting approach that I adamantly preach against, because it’s ineffective. There is no calorie cycling, carb cycling, or strategic cheating involved. Needless to say, simply manipulating GI in this instance isn’t going to make a big difference.

Beyond that, let’s say that GI really didn’t matter even when adding a weekly cheat day. That would be valid data if you were consuming the same basic diet the other 6 days of the week, but that’s not what we do with Cheat Your Way Thin.

Allow me to make an analogy. Let’s say my employer pays me one of two ways – my pay for a full week once a week on Friday, or my pay for one day, every day. At the end of the week I make the same amount of money with either approach. But is there a difference in the impact of each payment method? Absolutely.

With the once a week approach, my pay day is a much bigger event, I have enough money to make a larger purchase, or go out for a higher-end dinner. With the every day approach, not so much. I make the same amount of money each week, but it never quite ―feels like a have a lot of money in my hands.

Well, we treat our use of the GI system the same way. If I just prescribed the same diet every day, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference, but that’s not how I use GI and GL. Instead, we line up carb intake strategically to create little “paydays”: spikes and jumps and high points in insulin throughout the week, and that strategic use makes an impact. Now, you’re probably thinking, “why would we want to spike insulin throughout the week?” That’s a good question.

The reason is, I’ve read through quite a few VERY intriguing papers that show the number one influencer of leptin is insulin, and this supercedes the actual calorie content being consumed. There was actually one study – and your eyes are really going to be opened with this one – that monitored leptin levels of fasting individuals. Naturally, leptin crashed pretty hard, but then they did something else. They gave each subject an IV drip of insulin to maintain normal blood insulin levels, and even though they were consuming ZERO calories, leptin levels were maintained.

That’s the power of insulin in this scenario, and exactly why we cycle carbohydrates in the fashion we do. We start off the week low-carb when leptin is high after the cheat day along with strategically time exercise to accelerate progress. Then, mid-week, when leptin starts to fall off from the low cals and carbs, we reintroduce low GI carbs for an insulin boost. Then, later in the week, as leptin begins to fall again, we add starchier, higher GI carbs for an even greater boost.

Every single day is set up in a strategic way to manipulate leptin and maximize the benefits of the Cheat Day.

Tom: Is there any reason that the cheat day has to be “junk” food? Call me crazy, but I don’t like eating a lot of junk. Give me two cheat meals a month and I’m completely satisfied, I swear, I just want the option to eat what I want occasionally. In fact, I usually feel like crap after I have a huge junk meal, let alone an entire junk food day. Would a guy like me get the same effect, from a physiological point of view by carbing up / refeeding on potatoes, yams, rice, oats and maybe some pasta? Is there any reason eating more clean food won’t have the same effect as junk food?

Joel: A clean ―carb reefed does not have the same benefits and is not as effective; we actually tried it many, many times with clients, comparing results with the ―all-out approach, and strictly from fat loss standpoint the all-out approach produces better results every time.

Now, that is not to say that you need to eat ―junk food, but rather that you just need to understand why ―junk food works so well for our purposes, and then replicate those reasons with cleaner items.

French fries, pizza, ice cream, pastries, etc, all combine two things very well—very high glycemic carbohydrates and fats. That is the winning combo.

Carbohydate + fat produce a synergistic insulin response beyond what is possible when just using carbs.

And you need to go HIGH GI—yams and oats are OK as part of the day’s menu, but you really need to go higher GI than this. Throw in some bread, the rice and pasta are good, maybe some crackers, Gatorade, etc. Bottom line, high GI carbs + fat wins out.

Tom: To what degree is your varied carb approach simply a way to manipulate calories? With so much focus on carbs and glycemic index, do you see a danger that people are going to start to fear carbs or consider carbs fattening, when its really just a caloric deficit we’re trying to achieve, isn’t it?

Joel: The calorie stuff is actually just a side-effect, after-effect, or added ―”bonus” of what we do with carbs, not the main or intended effect we are trying to achieve, which again are the insulin spikes throughout the week.

Yes, the calorie cycling does help a bit indirectly, but I even mention in the manual that this is not the main reason for the staggered carb set up.

Tom: I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, but I have to ask. Do you see any potential downside of allowing an entire “eat whatever you want” cheat day, as opposed to doling out individual cheat meals? In particular aren’t you concerned about people overeating, losing track of calories and setting themselves backwards? If you give permission to your clients to go wild and eat whatever they want on cheat day, I know some dudes that would make an all-you-can-eat buffet go out of business.

Joel: Yes, and I’m one of those dudes. The fact is that it works the way it is. I haven’t met anyone who can really overeat the cheat day to the point that it sets back progress if they strategically follow the way I set up the rest of the program. It just doesn’t happen. And this is coming from a guy who orders a 48 oz steak when I go out to a steak house, along with appetizers, salad, soup, family-size sides, and dessert.

The only ―stipulation I put on the cheat day is that you do not eat to the point of discomfort. Eat until you are full, but that’s it. Then wait until you are hungry again until you eat. If you are leaving the table saying ―I ate too much‖ or if you’re feeling sick, or if you have to lay down because you over-did it, that’s where you know you’ve gone overboard, and that’s really the only way people are going to overdo the calories.

As for the recommendation of doling things out to individual cheat meals, that does NOT work to bring about the physiological changes (increasing leptin, etc), which is the number one reason we use cheat days. The psychological stuff is a nice added benefit, but it’s a side-effect of the physiological benefits we are aiming to gain from each cheat day.

Cheat meals are great as a psychological vent, but that’s about it. Research has very clearly shown that prolonged overfeeding over the course of a day (and not a single meal) is necessary to restore leptin levels to baseline.

Tom: Thanks, Joel. This has been on extremely informative interview

Today marks the release of Joel’s Cheat Your Way Thin Holiday Edition.  Check it out at a huge discount through this Friday, November 19, at midnight HERE .

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