Cheat Meal Anyone? Phil Learney Explains - Part 1

How long do I have to do that for?

Often preceded with the statement “I’ll do whatever it takes”

This, I have heard so many times and it is often accompanied by the term ‘day off’ or ‘cheat day’. It’s one of the few things that strangely enough has sunk in when talking all things training and nutrition, funny that.

After my last article ‘The Little Things’ maybe I’ll hear it less. Therefore I’m going to explain to you a little about the ins and outs of the ‘cheat meal, day off, meal off, whatever it is or choose to call it. For the sake of the article I’m just gonna refer to it as a ‘cheat day’ for now.

First thing would be that if I was to make one statement about it a cheat day is to be EARNED!! Not loosely given which if you’re a trainer reading this you need to stick by your guns, your clients will paraphrase the exact statement I put in the first line of this article or a slight variation of it I assure you. Do NOT let up if you don’t feel they’ve earned it! To re-iterate, someone who is lean and metabolically efficient can afford to go off piste more with their diet than people who would perceive themselves ‘less fortunate’. It may sound harsh but YOU damaged your ability to metabolise food efficiently at whatever stage of your life it may have been. I know this because I did exactly that. Don’t you dare at this point pipe up and think you where hard done by. Those that are gifted with a fast metabolism suck at gaining and keeping muscle tissue and want nothing more than to gain a few pounds. You need to lose a few so who has it worse off (muscle is harder to gain than fat is to lose!).

So now we’re clear on that I’m going to use myself as an example. As a child I grew up in a pub in the lovely surroundings of the lake district. This had many benefits, diet wasn’t one of them. A typical day for me would have been to wake up (badly) refined cereal and or white toast with milk and jam/butter on the toast, my cereal I often remember having a pile of sugar in the milk at the bottom of the bowl. A large glass of cordial. Lunch would be next with maybe a bottle of lucozade and a bag of crisps in-between. A typical school lunch for me would have been sausage and chips, lashings of salt and tomato sauce, some buttered white bread and more squash. In the afternoon maybe a chocolate bar and/or crisps a can of coke and then home. We always ate early because of the opening hours of the pub and it would be typical pub style food, lasagne, stew, fish and chips, that kind of thing with a bunch of bread and limitless coca cola from the bar. Maybe later a sandwich a bag of crisps, some biscuits. Was I metabolically gifted? No, I was an overweight kid, probably borderline diabetic and every meal was a cheat meal for at least 14 years of my life. Before anyone says anything, my parents made choices based on what we wanted and what they knew about food. At primary school from what I can remember I was ‘the’ fat kid, slightly different back then whereas now its an epidemic. So in essence I had 14 years of ‘cheat meals’ and thats a big arse (no pun intended) debt to repay. Someone who physiologically puts themselves into that kind of state needs patience and a hefty amount of desire and dedication! I deal with adults in that same state who want to come ‘off plan’ within a week of starting a plan? This is why we’re in the physical state of health we’re in.

I’ve said it before and I will say it countless times again and again, for the majority of people diet is NOT an issue of calories. It is more about ‘What’ that food we consume does to us hormonally and digestively when we consume it. Strange that the foods that have a favourable response are those that will also give us optimal health.

Even if you don’t agree with my statement above am sure I will go someway to convincing you shortly.

To build an optimally functioning, aesthetically pleasing and performance orientated physique the key to it all is the management of anabolic and catabolic hormones. There are several that we would class as master hormones when it comes to metabolism and they are Insulin, Thyroid Hormones and Leptin. If we can go someway to understanding them we can discuss ‘cheat meals’ much better.


Insulin manages our hormonal state and part of our natural fluctuation between a state of regeneration and degeneration. Our hormonal and genetic makeup define for us how well Insulin is managed at a base level. Beyond however what we are born with we are in complete charge of how Insulin is managed through our dietary and training choices. For now I will focus on diet.

Am sorry to use an old image but I hope all of my info ties together in some way shape or form.

This can be a 3+ layer diagram but if we just discuss carbs as an individual entity. PLEASE refer to my ‘Getting Jacked’ article if you want to understand this further.

The amount of carbohydrate in a meal alongside it glycemic responsiveness will dictate the insulin response (amount used) to restore euglycemia (normal level). So we have above the grey hyperglycemia and below the red hypoglycemia. Over time someone abusing this system with a diet consisting of excessive carbohydrates and foods with a less than optimal glycemic response will have damaged the pancreas to the degree that is cannot keep up with supply and demand (Onset type II Diabetes). I will put money on the fact that over 70% of the people in the UK are moving in that direction. There was an increase of 150,000 people diagnosed with diabetes last year and now one in twenty people are being treated for diabetes. A little bit of a scare tactic perhaps there but those that are getting there are building up what we class as Insulin Resistant (Also termed as metabolic syndrome). This from a dietary perspective means that they now longer have the resistance from insulin to beat down excessive rises in blood glucose and achieve euglycemia (Normal levels).

I’m going to make a quick statement now you can take however you want but:

‘Sugar is as addictive as class A narcotics’….this isnt an argument or contentious point but something to think about as you read on (I will write about this someday but its a whole other topic).

So what relevance is this to cheat meals? Ok an example for you.

Client A.

Male 35, overweight and development of gynocomastia (Man boobs). Food history shows a 70% dependance on carbohydrates (average of a westerner and around the level you would give to an ultra endurance runner). He is starting a nutritional plan and judging by blood tests and glucose checks he is borderline diabetic. He wants to get lean, lose his man boobs and build some muscle. For his entire life (12,784 Days…roughly) he has eaten this way, give or take a few years maybe. That means those 15,000 concentrated units of insulin (I’m just throwing numbers out to make sense of it please understand) are now at a critically low stage that he is borderline Type II diabetic.

Now, he is Insulin resistant so the foods he ate when he was a 15 year old with a  metabolism like a racehorse old and coped with he cant anymore until he statistically gets back to lets say 5000 units minimum. You still with me? Hope so.

He is producing insulin that is less concentrated than back then so every time he eats a chocolate bar that would be beaten down with several units of concentrated insulin his body does that but the watered down refilling of the stores leaves him in further deficit. Basic SUPPLY and DEMAND. (Please note these are just analogies to make sense of it to you). Hormonally that chocolate bar will create chaos as that level of insulin responsiveness is not the same. THIS there in is the issue. Client A will do 6 days of stabilising insulin to some degree and acruing a small amount of the watered down stuff at this point he will consume a chocolate bar, use up a higher concentration to be replaced by less therefore his deficit continues to accrue.  Sending this chaos into his system puts himself in a position that to re-stabilise the hormonal environment it may take several days to be even in a position to build tissue or burn fat. It isn’t just an on/off switch and needs much like anything else a period of adaptation.

Sun-Wed negative adaptation (RED ZONE) to switch into a suitable hormonal environment Thu-Sat positive adaptation (GREY ZONE)  Sunday Cheat Meal therefore the cycle continues. He has 4 days of negative adaptation (Going backwards basically) and 3 days going forward……do the maths.

Someone at this level CANNOT afford this. Cheat meals are to be earned! nb: This hormonal chaos can be created from something VERY small, block of chocolate, can of coke etc.

If you want to undo 35 years of damage give me a month of your time and a commitment to making NO mistakes based on some VERY simple rules you will progress therefore WILL continue. NO CHEATING…..yet!

PART II Leptin and Thyroid Management and when to cheat!

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