As a neuroscientist, I am fascinated by the complex relationship between nutrition, productivity and mental health.
The "Cheat Day" Phenomenon
Known for her Ph.D. title, effusive demeanor, and love for all things fitness-related, Stephanie Buttermore runs a popular YouTube channel. Her analytical mindset and passion for biology render her charismatic, as she strives to educate her followers and dispell myths surrounding metabolism, training, and eating.
However, the bulk of her 826,000 subscribers likely stumbled upon her channel through one of her attractive 'cheat day' videos, which involve her temporarily deviating from her strict fitness regimen and eating thousands of calories worth of palatable foods. With click-bait names such as "Fit Girl Dream Cheat Day" and "I Ate Everything I Wanted," such videos provide viewers with a virtual gastronomical rollercoaster experience.
By principally following low-calorie diets and engaging in extreme amounts of exercise, many fitness Youtubers succeed in maintaining low body fat compositions despite filming these videos regularly.
Metabolism Cannot Be Hacked
If intense exercise is regularly done and muscle density high, engaging in 10,000- to 20,000-calorie challenges does not render it impossible to have a desirable physique. Many fitness YouTubers profit immensely from the number of views that their decadent, carbohydrate-laden cheat days bring in, happily undereating for most of the month in order to continue filming then without weight gain.
However, even if the dark side of the 'cheat day' lifestyle is imperceptible from the outside, such habits are hazardous and a slippery slope. Beyond the obvious increased disease risk that stems from consuming high loads of refined sugar and inflammatory oils, overeating in this way holds many risks. Developing a sugar addiction, binge-eating mentality, or an obsession with 'running off' all calories eaten are all very possible psychological consequences.
Most importantly, however, and as many fitness fanatics come to realize, the body will eventually be pushed into a state of physiological stress when subjected to disordered eating habits and compensatory overtraining. With strong negative feedback mechanisms in place to keep your body close to its set-point weight range, over-exercising and restricting calories will result in a plethora of unpleasant psychological and physiological symptoms resulting from your metabolism slowing down.
Stephanie Buttermore: Reaching Breaking Point
Following years of filming such videos regularly and training intensely to stay extremely skinny, Stephanie Buttermore started to experience signs of metabolic and endocrinal damage. She reported experiencing ravishing, uncontrollable hunger, mood lows, poor thermoregulation, and endocrine disturbances.
With her estradiol, luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) levels at 5.8, 1.8 and 2.2 pg/mL respectively, she was greatly putting herself at risk for longterm reproductive dysfunction.
Going "All in":
In the hope of shifting her body out of survival mode and stabilizing her boundless hunger cues, Stephanie decided to embark on a "refeeding" journey several months ago. Committing to gaining the amount of weight required to allow her body to relax and be satiated by regular quantities of food, she ate 5,000 calories a day during the first month and gained a total of 13 pounds.
Moving away from an incredibly toned, muscular physique and allowing yourself to eat freely can be psychologically taxing; however, Stephanie benefited from increased energy and a sense of wellbeing.
Four Months in and 35 Pounds Gained
Initially devouring over 5,000 calories of food a day to satiate her appetite, Stephanie started to notice herself only requiring around 3,000 by the end of the fourth month of her 'all in' endeavor. This is always a positive sign that hypothalamic disturbances are normalizing, with ghrelin and leptin levels moving away from "red alert" mode.
In her update video, Stephanie reports finding herself to be far more cheerful, empathetic, and present in her relationships compared to when underweight. As is typical of 'refeeding' and the metabolism starting to run properly again, she has also been experiencing a significant increase in energy, which has been reflected in her strength-training gym workouts.
However, her estradiol, LH, and FSH have failed to recover to healthy values at 11.1, 6.6, and 6.3 pg/mL, respectively.
The Problem With Stephanie's Approach
Starting with an underweight BMI and ravenous appetite, Stephanie believed that adhering to a few months of refeeding would eventually allow her to reach her natural set-point weight. This conjecture was not a blind shot in the dark, as much research suggests that the body is maintained at a stable weight range despite energy intake and expenditure fluctuating; the metabolism can be increased or decreased, depending on food ingested and the body's requirements (Farias, Cuevas and Rodriguez, 2011).
However, the issue is that such homeostatic mechanisms only fully come into play when the body is being fed a diet rich in lean proteins and healthy fats. We have not evolved to regularly eat large amounts of carbohydrates; our ancestors would have stumbled upon a few sugar-laden apples on a lucky day and guzzled them, but would then have faced days of food scarcity and returned to a fat-burning metabolism. Consuming abundances of refined sugar results in chronically- increased insulin levels, insulin resistance, a higher set-point weight, and, eventually, obesity (Gower and Goss, 2018).
In the face of incredible hunger cues, a jaded attitude toward and fitness, and the desire to recover quickly, Stephanie approached her 'all in' journey without putting an emphasis on choosing the nutritionally-dense foods that would support her metabolism and modulate ghrelin/leptin regulation.
Embracing food-based hedonism instead and eating copious amounts of refined carbohydrates, Stephanie is failing to tackle the main facet of her original problem, which is her severe sugar addiction.
"All in": A Glorified Binge-Eating Lifestyle
Despite showing off an extremely lean and sculpted physique in her past 'cheat day' videos, Stephanie's hedonic drive towards foods high up the palatability scale is obvious. She has always garnered intense joy from binge-eating thousands of calories worth of donuts, desserts, chocolate, and sugary cereals; her wide eyes, childlike smile and "reckless abandon" attitude in such videos attracted thousands of viewers who could only experience such a degree of "food freedom" in their dreams. However, this carefree energy emitted by Stephanie and similar YouTubers is nothing more than an illusion, as they all restrict and engage in taxing amounts of cardio on the days that they do not film.
When starting her "all in" journey, Stephanie's intention was to steer herself away from food obsession, "cheat days," and consequent compensatory calorie-burning. However, she has plunged right into overeating the same nutrient-barren foods that she has been addicted to for years.
Fascinating Book About Set-Points and the Truth About Calories
Will Stephanie Lose Her Surplus Weight?
Seeing her overweight BMI as a temporary side-effect of the hormonal restoration gained from re-feeding, Stephanie believes that she will eventually move away from eating in surplus and return to a healthy, slim weight. However, this will not be the case if she continues to eat "whatever she wants, whenever she wants," because she is opting for artificial, sugar-based options that we are not physiologically capable of effectively processing.
While it may seem counterintuitive to promote diet preoccupation to someone who has suffered from restrictive eating, honoring our bodily hunger cues is only possible when we are eating the optimal human diet. Stephanie, unfortunately, cannot eat truly intuitively given that palatable food is permanently available to us, and she possesses a strong genetic disposition to binge-eat.
The shortcomings of her "all-in" program can be reduced to three main points:
a). Stephanie's primitive, limbic desire to eat these foods that she was, like many Americans, introduced to as a child (entirely understandable, given that we are inherently prone to craving calorie-dense foods).
b). her fear of losing her original subscribers, who enjoy unwinding and watching others eat druglike foods that they do not permit themselves to buy.
c). a misunderstanding on her behalf regarding the science underpinning "set-point theory." Did Stephanie need to allow herself to eat high volumes of food and gain weight to heal her hormones after years of restriction?
Absolutely. If this is done by eating 5,000 calories a day of chicken, eggs, extra virgin coconut oil, and sweet potatoes, will appetite eventually normalize and allow the individual to eat less and return to the leaner end of their genetic set-point range? Yes, for sure. However, Stephanie is currently eating the standard American diet in excess, which, as is evident by the obesity crisis, fuels overeating, impairs satiation cues, and promotes fat gain.
While it is wonderful that Stephanie has committed to never restricting again nor trying to rapidly lose the weight that she has gained through "all in," she is unfortunately not giving her brain a chance to neurally rewire itself away from binge-eating and sugar dependency. Many people who have always experienced a binge-then-restriction mentality believe that "food freedom" is out of their reach, but following a paleo diet can result in reduced overeating, a healthy nutritional status, and less of a food-related mental focus.
Farias, M., Cuevas, A. and Rodriguez, F. (2011). Set-Point Theory and Obesity. Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, 9(2), pp.85-89.
Gower, B. and Goss, A. (2018). The sliding set-point. Current Opinion in Endocrinology & Diabetes and Obesity, 25(5), pp.303-309.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Lucy
Ary on August 25, 2020:
I don’t think you understand what Stephanie tried to do. Have you watched all of her videos??
And as I’m recovering from an ED her “All in” makes me feel better in realizing that I can over come my eating disorder. If you watch all of her videos, she does eat very healthy with the occasion splurge, which she and anyone else is welcome to do so. It’s about living life and not restricting yourself from anything. She knows how to balance that. She mainly gained because she’s been restricting her self for so long that her body naturally gained weight, she not obese and she’s not unhealthy either. People need to stop with this whole stigma of looking at someone like Stephanie who just lives life gained some weight and automatically think what she’s doing is god awful. She doesn’t binge like she use to, instead she just follows her hunger questions and if she feels like a slice of pizza or two , who are we to care. I look forward to the day where I can just love my life without having to think how many calories are in a cracker.
Lucy (author) from Leeds, UK on August 21, 2020:
You are correct, she looks wonderfully healthy and radiant now! And, going 'all in' isn't binge eating, which I have explained in this article using examples of what proper weight restoration entails: eating as much whole, nourishing foods that we are genetically designed to thrive on.
However, eating enormous amounts of refined sugar is binge-eating, even if it is done in the context of 'going all in' to reverse malnourishment.
The two eating repertoires have to be distinguished from one another, because binge eating is dangerous for people who possess the genes that make them prone to becoming addicted to these highly-palatable, inflammatory foods.
Luckily, Stephanie has been eating much more healthily recently (posting lots of photos of chicken, sweet potatoes etc.), and as a result of this switch has dropped all of the overshoot weight that she gained. She has now reached her sustainable set-point weight.
justme on August 21, 2020:
Look how she is doing; she is doing better than ever!
I dont agree with 'all in = binge eating'
Lucy (author) from Leeds, UK on April 29, 2020:
It is a shocking photo, and it's both worrying and fascinating to realise that women are going against their extremely strong hunger cues to maintain that type of figure. Many people wish they could be skinnier than their body's natural set point weight, but the emaciated look cannot be achieved without also wrecking your hormonal, metabolic and mental health. A breaking point is always reached eventually, and individuals realise that the solution was always right in front of them - working out and eating well to stay lean, but also honoring hunger cues and accepting your body's limits.
Thanks for commenting, Marcy!
Marcy Bialeschki from Cerro Gordo, IL on April 28, 2020:
I've seen that unhealthy body-weight picture other places and I seriously thought it had been photoshopped. Great article btw!
Lucy (author) from Leeds, UK on February 01, 2020:
Thanks for commenting! This all comes down to your viewpoint and priorities - while I agree that occasionally treating yourself is not terrible, the truth is that sugar is extremely neurotoxic and inflammatory. It is the driver of every single disease process known to man, from diabetes to cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
Since I have a background in neuroscience, I like to teach people that a healthy and 'spontaneous' lifestyle can be lived without relying on sugar as a 'pick-me-up'. The advantages to living without it are phenomenal and it is neurochemically more addictive than cocaine. Without sugar, there is no obesity. True food freedom is found when clear lines are drawn, i.e. when we decide to leave behind artificial, drug-like substances that do not exist in nature (and which we are not genetically equipped to consume).
The YouTube trend surrounding fitness vloggers eating thousands of calories of sugar concerns me, as it is doing nothing but stimulating the hedonic drives of all of their viewers and subconsciously pushing them towards a lifelong carbohydrate addiction (and fatigue and disease).
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on February 01, 2020:
Thanks for an informative article. However, I don't think ice cream and cupcakes are necessarily unhealthy.