Can you avoid fat gain during cheat days and holiday feasts like Thanksgiving and Christmas? Sure, you can. But if you’re a big eater that loves food, like me, it’s more a question of minimizing fat storage than attempting to avoid it. And trust me, there’s a few nifty strategies that can be used for damage control while still enjoying holiday hedonism, cheesecake mastery and spontaneous feasts of all sorts.
The key to damage control during ad libitum (“at one’s pleasure”) eating sprees lies not only in how much you eat but also with the choice of macronutrients. Food combination voodoo? No, just pure facts based on nutrient metabolism and science.
The question is also how to quickly get back on track for there is no doubt that big eaters can eat thousands of surplus calories that do lead to fat gain and post-holiday bloat. One of the “secrets” to maintaining low body fat while still being able to enjoy wild excess from time to time is therefore to make a quick turnaround in the days after.
Cheat days and Refeeds
In this article I’ll be using “cheat day” and “feasts” interchangeably but they are both synonyms for short-term overfeeding of various durations and magnitudes. The same general principles will apply, more or less. A “refeed” is often used in the context of a structured diet approach. It tends to be more strict and planned in terms of macronutrient composition (high-carb, low-fat.)
While I will discuss refeeds in brief, this article will mainly discuss overfeeding of a mixed diet – that is, what you should take into consideration on Thanksgiving, at the Christmas dinner table, or any other occasion where you will be presented with lots of tasty foods.
My plan is not to tell you exactly what to eat or how much of it – that would be absurd. I don’t encourage someone to count calories on Thanksgiving Day or similar such occasions. Instead, I’ll talk about some factors that will determine how much fat you end up putting on and how you can potentially reduce the time spent making up for your splurging.
First, let’s look at the general effects of overfeeding and do some myth debunking in the process.
Effects of Overfeeding
I tend to look at cheat days and feasts mostly as psychological relief and fun, but you’ll often see some overly optimistic claims about cheat days being made in the fitness community; how it boosts your metabolic rate and tricks your body into “fat burning mode” for the rest of the week. There’s some truth to this, but the real impact of cheat days are exaggerated if you look at the numbers you’re dealing with.
Studies on overfeeding shows that metabolic rate typically increases about 6-8% for up to 24 hours after feeding. There’s also large differences in between individuals, illustrated by the fact that the magnitude of the increase ranges from 3-10%. Those prone to obesity (“thrifty” phenotypes) tend to be in the lower range (3%), while the naturally lean (“spendthrifty” phenotype) tend to be in the upper range (10%). Either way, from a fat loss perspective it’s not really justified to eat thousands of surplus calories to burn a few hundred calories extra.The other argument, about tricking your body into fat-loss mode, usually alludes to the effect of overfeeding carbs on leptin. For a lean person, or for someone one a prolonged dieting stint, low leptin is an issue. This hormone, the king of hunger regulation, controls metabolic rate, appetite, motivation and libido, among other things. Leptin drops whenever your body senses a calorie deficit and when fat mass is lost.
The reverse happens when your body senses a calorie surplus. A surplus temporarily boosts leptin, which leads to downstream effects on fat oxidation, thyroid, dopamine and testosterone. In the context of dieting, refeeds are therefore beneficial.
However, similar to the effects of overfeeding on metabolic rate, a leptin-boost is also rather transient and drops again once you resume your diet and your body senses the deficit. It’s for this reason I prefer to use frequent but moderate overfeeding, or refeeds, as part of the Leangains approach. Usually in conjunction with weight training to take advantage of the anabolic effects.
What macronutrient causes the greatest boost in leptin calorie per calorie? The hierarchy looks like this:
- 1. Carbohydrate. (Glucose – not sucrose or fructose.)
- 2. Protein. Glucose is superior to protein, but I suspect it might be a better choice to sucrose or fructose. (I’m quite sure that protein hasn’t been compared to sucrose and fructose, but I’ll look into it just in case.)
- 3. Fat.
- 4. Alcohol. Ethanol has not been directly compared to the other macronutrients. However, the effect is a negative one. While one study actually found a positive effect on leptin, most studies point towards an inhibitory effect. Strangely, a reverse effect has been seen in women from red wine. I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that alcohol consumption is associated with lower body weights in women but not men. I’ll have to look into that.
Due to the superior effects of carbs on leptin, and leptin’s downstream effects on metabolism and anabolic hormones, a high-carb, moderate-protein and low-fat refeed is traditionally recommended for dieting purposes.
Lyle Mcdonald has written a great deal on this topic, most extensively in “The Ultimate Diet 2.0.” Though I am no fan of the diet itself, the book is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in the physiology of dieting and its impact on various hormonal parameters.
Lyle has also written a lengthy and detailed article series on leptin. I highly recommend it if this topic piques your interest: “Body Weight Regulation: Leptin Part 1.”
However, a low-fat, high-carb refeed is obviously not so doable during Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, or any other such occasions. A few different factors should be taken into account on cheat days and feasts.
Rest assured that I have documented my recent cheesecake mastery in great detail. This time I used an ancient and dark technique that is not to be taken lightly. I’ll tell you more about it in the near future.
Nutrient Metabolism: A Quick Primer
This is a quick primer on nutrient metabolism, as it will help you understand some of the concepts discussed later on.The easiest way to think about nutrient metabolism is in terms of the Respiratory Quotient (RQ) and insulin. They are associated – when insulin is high, RQ is high, and vice versa. Here’s a quote from “Intermittent Fasting and Stubborn Body Fat”:”After you eat, insulin and fatty acids are elevated. You are in the fed state and there’s zero fat burning going on. Your body is relying completely on glucose oxidation during the hours following the meal.”
This doesn’t mean that you’ll be burning more body fat if you follow a low-carb high fat diet, or that you’ll never burn fat on high-carb diets. In energy balance, 24-hour RQ is reflective of the macrocomposition of the diet rather than fat gain or fat loss per se. Dietary fat has insulin-independent storage mechanisms (ASP) and “fat balance” (net storage of dietary fat) is primarily dictated by total calorie intake at the end of the day. The time course and trend in substrate metabolism will be different dependent of the carb:fat-ratio, but not the net effect.
Overfeeding elevates RQ for several hours – up to a day even – and indicates that glucose metabolism is dominant. Since glucose metabolism is high, fat burning is low or insignificant. This metabolic state allows net storage of dietary fat. Carbs, protein and alcohol all elevate RQ and affects fat burning negatively. Dietary fat does not affect RQ but has insulin-independent ways of getting into fat cells.
Knowing this is, are there some ways to limit fat gain in mixed-diet overfeeding or is it all about calories? To answer this, let’s look at the energy costs for fat storage of various macronutrients.
Energy Cost of Fat Storage: The Macronutrient Hierarchy
During overfeeding, surplus calories are stored as fat with a great deal of varying efficacy.
(From most likely to be stored as fat in adipose tissue during overfeeding to least likely.)
1. Dietary fat.
The energy cost for storage of dietary fat is minimal (0-2% depending on saturation.)
The conversion of carbs to fat, de novo lipogenesis (DNL), is hardly significant in humans and usually only occurs when glycogen stores are saturated (i.e. prolonged high-carb overfeeding). This does not matter much in practical terms, as there will be plenty of dietary fat in mixed-diet overfeeding. Carbs promote fat gain by reducing fat oxidation, as explained before. There’s some variance between individuals here, based on genetics, metabolic state and habitual diet-patterns. Enzymes that modulate DNL are up-regulated in habitual high-carb diets and in the obese. Another factor that play a role is insulin sensitivity. There are similar individual aspects to the storage of dietary fat as well (mediated by LPL and ASP.)
In metabolically healthy humans, the energy cost for DNL is approximately 25%. In practical terms, this means that 3 out of 4 calories can be used for fat synthesis once a “carbohydrate surplus” is achieved (after saturated glycogen stores). Given that glycogen stores are never full in conditions of energy balance, people have a large “carb-sink” to use up before carbs contribute to fat gain directly. (Until then, the effect of carbs is indirect via suppression of fat metabolism. Am I being redundant yet?)
The above is in particular reference to glucose; sucrose and fructose are more lipogenic due to some differences in metabolic pathways. Fructose do not go to muscle glycogen stores, but to liver glycogen – and this glycogen depot is significantly smaller than muscle glycogen. One study comparing DNL from glucose and sucrose overfeeding in lean and obese people, showed DNL to be 10% and 20% higher respectively after the sucrose-experiment.*
* From results: “The type of carbohydrate overfeeding (sucrose or glucose) had no significant effect on de novo lipogenesis in either subject group.” Which means that the difference (10-20%) was not enough to be deemed significant from a scientific standpoint. Fructose-overfeeding has not be compared to glucose in a controlled study, but judging from this study, DNL would likely be substantial (sucrose is half fructose, half glucose).
Protein and alcohol.
The energy cost for storage of amino acids and ethanol as fat are very hard to quantify for methodological, biochemical and (in the case of ethanol), ethical reasons. No controlled studies has been performed. However, it’s safe to conclude that these two substrates serve as very poor precursors for fatty acid synthesis for a few different reasons.
First of all, the thermic effect of the separate macronutrients is 20-30% for protein, ~5% for carbohydrate, and 0–3% for fat. Total TEF is generally said to be 10% of total calorie intake, but this number is for the standard American diet, which is low in protein, relatively speaking.TEF for alcohol is harder to estimate, as values range between 10-30% in various studies. I talked about alcohol and TEF in “The Truth About Alcohol, Fat Loss and Muscle Growth”:
“Alcohol is labeled as 7.1 calories per gram, but the real value is more along the lines of 5.7 calories due to the thermic effect of food (TEF) which is 20% of the ingested calories. This makes the TEF of alcohol a close second to protein (20-30% depending on amino acid composition).”
In a similar vein, the real caloric value of protein would be closer to 3 kcal/g and not 4 kcal/g as it’s currently labelled. Indeed, arguments that we revamp nutritional labeling to more closely match the true metabolic impact by various macronutrients has been made. Livesey proposed that protein should be counted as 3.2 kcal/g, for example.
Further complicating the issue in regards to quantifying fat synthesis from protein is the amino acid composition of the protein consumed, as it varies depending on the protein source. Amino acids are either glucogenic, ketogenic, or both, and use different metabolic pathways for fat synthesis. For example, a glucogenic amino acid must first be converted to glucose (de novo gluconegenesis) once it can contribute to fat synthesis via de novo lipogenesis, while a ketogenic amino acid can contribute via a more direct pathway (via acetyl-CoA).
I might revisit this topic again some day, as I’ve discussed it with some smart biochemists, but the key point here is that protein cannot contribute to fat gain directly to any meaningful degree. Even in highly artificial scenarios, such as overfeeding thousands of calories of pure protein, would yield fat gain that is a lot less than what’s estimated from traditional formulas (i.e. 700 calorie surplus of fat or carbs = +0.1 kg weight gain is not true for a protein surplus).
Similar to carbohydrate, protein and alcohol act similarly as carbs in regards to metabolism. That is, they blunt fat oxidation. However, while carbs can contribute to fat gain directly once glycogen stores are full, protein and ethanol are unlikely to do so. (Ethanol metabolism was explained in detail in “The Truth About Alcohol, Fat Loss and Muscle Growth”.)
In mixed-diet overfeeding, macrocomposition matters. In comparing two diets at the same calorie intake – say 5000 calories – the one with the highest percentage of calories from protein yields the least fat gain. This is mainly explained by TEF and the poor efficacy with which protein can contribute directly to fat synthesis.
What other factors need to be considered for someone who wants to minimize fat gain during overfeeding?
Satiety: Effects of Macronutrients
This is a complicated topic to address in real life terms, as most people do not eat “protein” and “carbs” – they eat food, and food composition matters greatly. While protein is clearly superior to both fat and carbs, a whey shake likely provides less satiety on a calorie-per-calorie basis than – for example – an equicaloric amount of fibrous veggies, even though the former is lower in protein and higher in carbs. Similarly, an equicaloric amount of steak and whole eggs is more satiating in both the long- and short-term than chicken and rice.Adding to that, there’s a good measure of difference in between individuals, as evidenced with the varying amounts of success people have with high or low-carb diets respectively.Further complicating the issue, there’s the “hedonic” aspect to consider. Simply put, a tasty and/or sweet protein, carb, or fat-based meal might affect how much you end up eating.
With that in mind, here’s what research shows.
Protein is superior to carbs and fat intake in both short-term and long-term hunger suppression. This seems to be related to not only a stronger effect on appetite-regulating hormones (i.e. ghrelin, PYY and GLP-1), but also to its high TEF.
2. Carbs and fat.
Up until a few years ago, carbs were generally regarded as superior to fat in terms of satiety on a calorie-per-calorie basis. The problem with the studies this belief was based on was the short duration used for measuring appetite-regulating hormones and subjective measures of satiety and fullness. In recent years, better methodological approaches show a more nuanced picture. In summary, it can be said that carbs suppress appetite better in the short-term, while fat wins out in the long-term.
The carbohydrate hierarchy in terms of best appetite-suppression from source: Glucose –> sucrose –> fructose.
With regards to satiety from different fatty acids, there’s no significant difference between saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat. (Another study showed similar results.)
From “The Truth About Alcohol, Fat Loss and Muscle Growth”:
“Is higher TEF a reasonable explanation for lower body fat percentage in regular drinkers? We need to consider that alcohol does not affect satiety like other nutrients. The disinhibition of impulse control that follows intoxication may also encourage overeating. Ever come home from a party in the middle of the night and downed a box of cereals? That’s what I mean.”
Adding to that, note what I wrote about leptin earlier:
“Ethanol has not been directly compared to the other macronutrients. However, the effect is a negative one. While one study actually found a positive effect on leptin, most studies point towards an inhibitory effect.
Alcohol clearly provides nothing in regards to satiety and may even encourage overeating by affecting impulse control and/or leptin. For occasions where large quantities of alcohol is consumed, you may find the strategy outlined in my article about alcohol useful (“How to lose fat or prevent fat gain when drinking.”)
Food composition, individual differences and hedonic aspects aside, protein is superior to carbs and fat in terms of satiety and appetite-suppression.
I’ve now covered what you need to know about macronutrients in order to make an informed decision about food choices on cheat days or holiday eating sprees. Let’s look at how this information can be put to use in practice.
Cheat Day Strategies
Here are some strategies you might find useful. They are how I approach cheat days and holiday feasts, and what I encourage my clients to do. First, however let me address what you should not be doing.
1. Don’t stress it.
Some people “pre-compensate” holidays by training themselves into the ground and/or reduce calories significantly in the days leading up to the feast. I highly recommend you do not do this, since I can almost guarantee that you will end up eating a lot more than you would normally if you approach holidays or feasts in a “deprived” mindset.
I touched on this issue in “Intermittent Fasting, Set-Point and Leptin.” On the folly of “planning” a big meal or refeed at the end of the diet instead of taking it nice and easy, I said:
“…I would sit and plan my big refeed meal at the end of the diet. I would count every day like an inmate counting the days to his release from prison. And once I reached my goal, I would go bonkers, eat a bunch of crap, take several steps back and then go back to dieting in a feeble attempt to make up for my screwed up ‘refeed’ (aka binge in my case).”
Take it nice and slow – don’t do anything stupid in the days before. No need to train your butt off and deplete glycogen, no need to up your cardio to two hours a day. You’ll just end up eating more junk if you do. This is due to a combination of psychology and physiology (i.e. plummeting leptin.)
The topic of calorie-compensation is a well-known phenomenon; it’s part of why exercise doesn’t produce the predicted weight loss in some people. This is based on studies on Average Joes and Janes, and do not apply in most circumstances to the people reading this article. However, with specific reference to holiday eating and cheat days, I definitely notice a tendency in myself to eat more than I normally would if I train or reduce calories in the day leading up to the occasion.
Surely some people get away with it and don’t compensate but in my experience those who think they are exempt from the rule are the ones to which the rule applies.
2. Create a calorie buffer.
>On the day of the feast, you’ll want to make sure you have a buffer saved up for the occasion. You’ll either want to reduce your meal frequency as much as you can or reduce your calorie intake in the meals leading up to the feast.
If possible, fast up until the big meal. This is easy and a bit of a no-brainer for those used to intermittent fasting. If you are used to 16-hour fasts per my usual recommendations, it should not be an issue to prolong it further, i.e. doing a 20-24 hour fast (“Eat Stop Eat”-style).
Make sure you eat a high-protein meal on the day before, as usual – preferably with fiber to slow down absorption. That’s also a good practice for regular Leangains-fasts but it’s even more so important for >16-hour fasts to avoid hunger pangs in my experience. Should hunger become unbearable, which I’ve never experienced even during prolonged fasting, drink some coffee and/or eat a plate of fibrous vegetables.
The second best strategy if you’re not used to intermittent fasting is to use a “high-protein low-everything-else”-diet leading up to the feast. This will maximize satiety for the lowest amount of calories. Here’s an example assuming you have your big feast planned for dinner or around evening, 5-8 PM or so:
- 10-12 PM: 40-50 g protein, trace carbs and fat (~200-250 kcal)
- 2-3 PM: Same as above.
- 5-8 PM: The grand feast. Be it Thanksgiving Dinner, cheesecake mastery or whatever else you have planned that involves eating yourself silly.
For a regular guy, the above plan allows about 2000 calories of goodness during the big meal until any significant fat gain occurs. Still, if you’re like me you can eat a whole lot more than that in one sitting. Next we’ll have a look at what you can do for damage control during the meal itself.
By the way, here’s a pro tip: If you don’t know how to make a “high-protein, low-everything-else”-diet bearable, you need to try protein fluff. I’ve yet to encounter a more satiating and tasty high-protein treat.
3. Protein priority.
In the short-term, splurging on high-carb, high-protein and low-fat foods would lead to insignificant fat gain, as glycogen stores would soak up most of the carbs (which would severely limit DNL.) However, such an approach is not very appealing, or realistic, if you want to experience the splendor of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I don’t know about you, but I never think of the gifts on Christmas – I think of all the food I get to eat 😀
Here’s how I suggest you approach the eating spree that is about to ensue:
- Vary fat and carb intake to personal preference but make protein a high priority. “Protein first – carbs and fat for taste”. If you think of your meals like this, it’ll automatically raise the percentage of protein during the meal, increasing TEF and satiety.
- In regards to the order which you eat your foods, I suggest mainly focusing on protein, fat and volume (i.e. veggies) first and then add carbs in later. In my personal experience, this tends to maximize both short-term and long-term satiety and reduce calorie intake later on. Fat has a latent effect on appetite-suppression, so eating more fat earlier on makes sense.
- Do not neglect food volume – if possible, try to fill up on veggies in your early meals and save the more calorie-dense stuff for later on.
- Sucrose, fructose and liquid calories, i.e. treats, cakes and alcohol, should preferably be added in last, when you’re full from the main meal(s).
4. Limit choices, not amounts.
Studies show that when people are presented with multiple food-choices, they eat more. In fact, calorie intake during a buffet scales almost linearly with the amount of different foods to choose from. If I offered you unlimited amounts of turkey and cheesecake, you’d likely only eat so much of it before you felt “full” and satisfied.
However, if I threw a third food into the mix, like potatoes or chocolate pudding, you’d end up eating a lot more – even if you weren’t a fan of potatoes or chocolate pudding in normal circumstances. Humans are wired a bit funny and some behaviors are maladaptive in our environment of excesses. Having a taste of everything was a good strategy during our evolution, since it protected again micronutrient-deficiencies.
By “mentally limiting” the food choices you allow yourself, i.e. only eating that which you absolutely love and crave, can be a very effective strategy in regulating calorie intake without feeling deprived. Remember, you don’t need to taste of every damn food or treat that is offered. Stick to that which you truly enjoy eating and skip the rest.