Refeeds are a part of fat loss that can be a bit mysterious, and it comes in many forms. In common general population diets, it’s often referred to as a cheat day, but I want to discuss the differences, and I also want to discuss why we do that and why we use them.
What I want to discuss about is an email I got from a client yesterday. This client is on a weight loss plan and she did her refeed, her weight was up and she was a little upset. Her question was, ’’Why do we do refeeds?’’. I completely get it, because a lot of times when we think of a fat loss diet, we think of restricting calories, adding cardio, grinding ourselves into the ground and just working so hard that it doesn’t matter, because we don’t care. We just want to see the scale go down. We want to see less body fat.
A refeed for many people feels like counter intuition. It’s something we shouldn’t be doing. We should not get this reward. We should not be able to eat more food than we normally eat if our goal is to continue to lose body fat. I completely understand that mindset, I respect the crap out of it because at the end of the day, we are going to do whatever it takes, those of us that want to reach our goals. Even eat dirt if u had to. Luckily, we don’t have to do that.
So let me tell you the three most valid reasons that we use refeeds. Then I want to explain the refeed strategy so we can avoid things that make them negative, because there is a right and a wrong way.
1. Hormonal Support
Initially when I first heard about refeeds and why they made so much sense to me was that things happen in our body when we get into a caloric deficit. Things change, and our body begins to adjust so that fat loss becomes more difficult. Some of those changes are actually hormonal, and one of the key things that changes during a fat loss period is leptin levels.
For those that aren’t familiar, leptin is the hormone associated with satiety, the feeling when you eat some food and you feel full throughout the day. That is a very important thing. As we all know though, when you get into a caloric deficit and you’ve been dieting for weeks and months, you can get to a point where you actually never feel full. You will feel hungry even after a meal. That can become psychologically hard to deal with, very difficult to deal with.
So hormonal support during a fat loss phase is the first reason why we use refeeds. There is research that shows that a single refeed day after a long period of caloric deficit does not impact hormones. But there is research that shows things like consecutive day refeeds are actually quite beneficial. What I incorporate at times depending on the situation, the client, and where we’re at with the program, I’ll actually incorporate two consecutive refeed days per week when we’re getting to a very low body fat percentage.
There’s also another option called a diet break. A diet break is basically after a long period of dieting, we bring calories back up to maintenance, reduce a little bit of cardio, and allow the body to recover that week. That will help with a little bit of hormonal support.
The basic idea behind the hormone support in a refeed is just that your hormones get very adapted to being in a caloric deficit for a long period of time, and we’re trying to prevent that from happened, we’re trying to hack the system in a way.
So the first reason for a refeed is hormonal support. I have some clients that don’t like refeeds, I have some clients that live off them, I have some that do variations, carb cycling is basically variety of refeeding. The difference with carb cycling is that you basically taper carbs the whole time instead of having an elevated day and then going back to normal.
2. Optimize Your Performance
Now what I want explain is the second reason that I feel refeeds are important, especially for a performance athlete. As someone who’s experienced myself, I know the extreme value of a refeed on your performance. Reason one is for hormone support, reason two is for performance. When you’re in a deficit, when you’re doing cardio, when you’re in the gym day after day after day, restricting calories, what happens is your performance begins to suffer. Part of the reason for that is because we’re constantly depleting glycogen. Glycogen in our muscles is what allows us to perform.
What does a refeed do in regards to glycogen? The way I handle the refeed is, I bring carbs up and I bring fats and I bring protein down to accommodate a higher carbohydrate day to allow that glycogen to be restored. Does that necessarily mean we’re going to get 100% restoration of glycogen in the muscle cells? Probably not in a single day. Depending on the person, it can have a drastic impact. I can tell you from personal experience, when I get down to a low body fat percentage after months of dieting, I will feel like crap, my body feels empty, flat and basically no energy to perform in any way, shape or form. I’ll have that refeed day, and I’ll feel like I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger reborn. Pumps are huge, I feel great in the gym, vascularity is crazy, I’m lifting heavier.
I believe there is a lot of value in performance because of the glycogen and restoration in the refeeds.
3. Psychological Reasons
When we talk about the third reason for a refeed, it might be the most valuable. Performance can suffer and hormones can suffer, but we can grind through that at times. The third reason that I feel refeeds are valuable are for psychological reasons. If you are going to be in a caloric deficit for four or five, six months to get to your goal, with no reprieve in sight, knowing that you’re going to eat the same thing day after day after day, even in a flexible approach when calories get low, food choices basically are the same.
What I like to do is use the refeed as a psychological tool. I know if I’m having a tough day and I think gosh, my calories are so low today, I have these tough workouts to do, I got to get all my work done, I got to go to the gym and do cardio, I have a lot of stuff to do in my day to day life, that stress can cause me to go off plan, thinking that there’s no end in sight. A refeed is a psychological tool because I can tell myself, you know what dude, it’s Tuesday, if you just make it to Friday, that’s two more days, you are going to feel much better, you’ve got this day coming where you get to feel replenished, you know you’re going to have some great days in the gym, you’re going to feel bigger and fuller and stronger, you’re going to look in the mirror, the pictures are going to look better. Everything feels better and for that reason, that psychological tool that just allows you to keep grinding through day after day after day to get to that next refeed allows the process to continue with more consistency.
Those are the three reasons. Hormonal support, performance, and psychological reasons. You can debate all of them and there are different approaches that I use with different people, but those are the three reasons.
Common Refeed Mistakes
I want to talk about some common mistakes people use with refeeds. The two most common mistakes are, they’ll either eat bunch of food they normally don’t eat or they’ll just eat a ton more of vegetables and things that are very tough to digest. If you eat a bunch of foods that you don’t normally eat, you may have issues digesting those foods. You may notice some bloating and fluid retention that isn’t as positive as it could be, because your body adapts to the foods that you eat over time. If you throw in something new that you haven’t eaten in weeks or months, you may actually have trouble digesting it.
Also, the deeper that we get into a fat loss phase, our metabolic rate slows down. When that happens, our food actually stays in our digestive tract a little bit longer. If you have any type of food intolerance, it’s going to be even worse during this period because the food is with you longer.
Now, what happens if we are a super strict clean eater and we’re told to eat double the amount of carbs that we normally eat? A lot of people will actually just double their clean foods like vegetables. While I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, what we might see is with the slowed down digestion rate, and the vegetables, you might notice a little bit of bloating, a little bit of fermentation of those things, in the intestines because they are with you for a longer period of time, and the body actually has trouble digesting those things.
A refeed can typically include foods that are higher in sugar, and while sugar can typically be the enemy, we still want to keep fiber in a good range on that day, but I do like to use foods that are easy to digest. I am personally a huge fan of using things like rice cakes and honey. Things that are very high in carbohydrates very low in fat, things like rice, because I know they’re going to get into my digestive system, get into my bloodstream, get into my muscles quick.
What’s The Difference Between A Refeed And A Cheat Day?
The last thing I want to discuss is the difference between a refeed and a cheat day. A cheat day can provide all the things I just mentioned to you. It can provide hormonal support, it can provide performance support, it can definitely provide psychological support, and I think that’s where the benefit of the cheat day came in at homes. The difference between a cheat day and a refeed is that a refeed is structured, so that we actually get some valuable data out of that process.
Refeeds can change. Cheat days, if you’re not tracking it, can also very easily become a situation where we are over eating, we’re storing body fat and we can even set ourselves back an entire week, which is not the goal. Like if u go to a restaurant and eat all you can eat within a one hour timeframe, which is something I’ve heard. The goal is to continue to make progress. We want to use a structured refeed because it’s going to allow us to have that boost, get those three benefits, but then continue to drop body fat following it.
Especially the longer we get into a fat loss phase, the leaner we get. The slower our metabolism has adapted, the easier and the quicker our body is going to store body fat. Those cheat days that you’re using early on in a fat loss phase that help you continue to move forward, they can actually become a setback. You can actually begin to store body fat at a greater rate than you’re burning it through the rest of the week. So, I would suggest using a refeed approach.
If you are going to use a cheat day approach, track it. Find out of what you’re doing that’s working. I have some clients with crazy metabolisms that their refeeds would actually look like cheat days because I have them eat burgers and french fries and things like this, because I know it helps with their process and they can handle very large refeed days. Again, going off the rails, not knowing what you’re taking in, it doesn’t really help provide data. You might get a great pump the next day, but a great pump if you’re putting on body fat in some stubborn areas, that’s not really benefiting.
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