Refeeds and diet breaks - Eat more food & lose more fat.

When, why, how?

We’ve all been there. You’ve been dieting for a while, seeing some good progress (hopefully), but you’ve reached a plateau.

The scale doesn’t seem to be moving, you’re getting hungrier by the day, frustration is building up. Why put in all this effort when it isn’t even paying off?

You may benefit from a refeed or diet break.

Let’s get one thing straight first.

An important thing to check before talking about refeeds & diet breaks is that you already understand fat loss.

Fat loss occurs due to a calorie deficit: taking in fewer calories than you expend each day. We also call this a negative energy balance.

I have a full guide for fat loss which you can read here.

In short, if you’re struggling to even lose fat in the first place, and aren’t sure how to diet effectively – you don’t need a refeed, you need a calorie deficit.

You also probably don’t need a refeed if your body fat percentage is still quite high – but that’s not to say they can’t be beneficial still, it’s just that their importance increases as your body fat decreases (and as the length of time dieting increases).

What is a refeed?

The most generally accepted methodology when implementing a refeed is an increase in calories coming almost entirely from carbohydrates, over a given period (usually 24 hours but sometimes 48 hours).

So essentially you’re halting your calorie deficit for 1-2 days and entering a very small calorie surplus.
There is wiggle room though – some people may eat at maintenance for 2 days, some people may eat a fairly large calorie surplus (still from carbohydrates) over 24 hours. There is not yet enough evidence to dictate the best approach.

Example

An individual with a TDEE of 2600 calories who is currently dieting on 2200 calories (~15% deficit) may increase their calories to around 2600 – 2900 for 1-2 days depending on their circumstances.

These additional 400 – 700 calories would come entirely from carbohydrates – in fact, protein and fats (particularly fats) may be slightly lowered, so that the carbohydrate increase is even higher to compensate. More on this later.

Why?

Have you ever seen it happen where somebody is struggling to lose weight, the weekend comes round and they fall off the wagon – then, suddenly their weight loss seems to be re-ignited either the day after or over the coming week?

I see it, and experience it all of the time.

But what’s going on here? Why can this over-feeding be useful?

Replenishing glycogen stores (which get depleted with caloric/carbohydrate restriction).

Reduction in water retention (whoosh effect).

Reversing some metabolic adaptation (only to a small extent).

Increased levels of leptin.

Increased NEAT (non-exercise associated thermogenesis).

Psychological alleviation from the stress of dieting.

Decreased cortisol levels (partially related to the above point).

Better subsequent workouts (due to the additional glycogen and general increased energy intake).

Sounds amazing when you write it in list form doesn’t it? But we can’t just cheat on our diets all of the time and get absolutely shredded, otherwise the whole world would be lean – and they clearly aren’t.

Refeeds vs “cheating”.

Cheating on your diet doesn’t need much explanation I doubt – it’s simply just taking a period of time (whether it be a day, or a meal) where you pay zero attention to the impact of food on your weight loss goals and eat whatever you desire.

Psychologically, they can be amazing, but physiologically? Meh, debatable.
(Probably not ideal)

One thing’s for sure though – we know weight loss comes down to a calorie deficit, so if you’ve having an all-out cheat day every Sunday where you consume a surplus of 2,000 calories – you very well could be almost undoing 6 days of work.

It depends (on a lot).

A refeed day has structure. It is no less thought out than any normal day of dieting, the difference is that you’re “allowed” to consume a greater amount of calories – which can be very liberating periodically throughout a diet.

A refeed is kind of like taking the positive aspects from a cheat day, whilst mitigating the negative fat gain that inevitably comes alongside it.

The downside of a refeed? Well sometimes on a diet you want that cheat day/meal because you just want to not give a f*** about your diet, and the idea of having a controlled refeed day just sometimes doesn’t cut it.

In these instances, I’d either try and fit my “cheat” in to my calories on a particular day and sacrifice elsewhere, or maybe just do it and stop worrying about it so much. I’ll try and not digress too much but don’t let your “diet” control your life – that’s a one way ticket to developing a bad relationship with food.

The key benefits of a refeed – a quick elaboration.

Firstly, I want to mention that there is not currently a lot of literature surrounding the concepts of refeeds for the athlete trying to reduce body fat – we have to simply extrapolate what we can from the current research and hypothesise from there. Luckily I (and many others) can throw in anecdotal evidence to help the validity these claims.

Glycogen replenishment:
Our muscles are capable of storing around 400grams of glycogen within them at a given time (although this figure can be anwhere from 350g to 700g depending on the individual). When we exercise, we begin to deplete this resource as the glycogen is utilised as energy so that the muscles can carry out the necessary tasks without fatigue.
Glycogen is not the only fuel source mind you, however there is pretty much always some degree of contribution coming from this stored glycogen – “Glycogen is crucial to resynthesize the phosphate pool, which provides energy during high intensity muscle contractions” [1].

A diet adequate in calories (and more specifically, carbohydrates) would simply replenish this lost glycogen via food/drink intake – therein lies the problem.

When dieting, over a prolonged period of time you are eating below your energy needs, with that deficit often coming largely from carbohydrates. This allows for the level of muscle glycogen depletion to propogate over time, which can lead to a flatter-looking musculature, as well as a decrease in strength and/or endurance.

This is a big benefit of refeeds – as they should allow for replenishment of this glycogen pool within the muscle tissue via the carbohydrate overfeeding. It is another reason why some people may refeed on higher calories than others, depending on how “depleted” they are (feel).

You will often notice that after a refeed, you are able to get a much better “pump” in the gym during your subsequent training session – and this is largely the reason why.

Increasing levels of leptin: 
Leptin, a hormone found in adipose (fat) tissue, acts largely as a regulator of body fat stores by inhibiting excessive appetite. Therefore, as we gain body fat, it is assumed that leptin will increase and reduce our appetite to prevent us gaining too much fat. The problem is that many obese persons become leptin resistant, meaning that they do not feel the effects of the circulating levels of leptin – despite having high levels of the hormone [2].

As we diet and lose body fat, our levels of leptin begin to fall (which makes sense, right?) and therefore, we can often begin to accumulate more and more feelings of hunger. On top of this, our energy expenditure tends to decrease to further exaggerate the desired effects of decreased leptin.

“Low leptin levels induce overfeeding and suppress energy expenditure, thyroid and reproductive hormones, and immunity” [3].

You feeling hungrier on a diet? It’s often not just in your head, you genuinely are becoming hungrier (well, your appetite is increasing – maybe not true hunger) because your body is trying to prevent you from perceived starvation – even if you’re far from starving.

So therefore, it makes sense to try and increase leptin levels periodically when dieting, to reduce appetite and promote further fat loss. Cue the refeed.

It seems that there is a positive relationship between the ingestion of carbohydrates (particularly overfeeding) and levels of leptin [4] [5] [6].

Another benefit of the refeed! This acute carbohydrate overfeeding should allow fat loss to hopefully occur slightly more easily in the coming days after the refeed (in some cases, directly after!).

And some more benefits…

Reduction in subcutaneous water, or, a “whoosh” effect [7]. Increased levels of NEAT (non-exercise associated thermogensis) – aka your energy expenditure will increase due to you moving more, subconsciously [8]. Perceived dietary stress is reduced – in other words, eating higher calories (particularly carbohydrates) for just 1 to 2 days can allow the subsequent days of dieting to be considerably easier.

Don’t underestimate how important it is to make a diet easy to follow, especially when trying to lose body fat for an extended period of time. Adherence is #1.

A lot of this can be attributed to reductions in potentially chronically elevated cortisol levels. More on this another time.

When to refeed?

There is no set rule for when to refeed. For me to sit here and say “it should be every 10th day” or something like that would be irresponsible somewhat.

They’re person and situation dependent. You have a refeed when you think you’d benefit from one.

But how do you know when that is?

Some things to watch out for over the course of your diet are:

  • Feeling weaker in the gym.
  • Increased feelings of lethargy/tiredness.
  • General feelings of “can’t be bothered anymore” regarding dieting.
  • Weight loss plateau despite adhering to calories you believe should be a deficit.
  • Struggling with appetite and cravings.
  • Losing weight too fast.

As a general rule of thumb, the frequency of a refeed should be increased as body fat levels decrease and/or period of time dieting increases:

Higher bodyfat levels (significantly overweight/obese)
Refeeding is so much less important at this stage, as fat loss is at it’s easiest. Focus on sticking to a calorie deficit each day, and have a small refeed once every 2-3 weeks, when you feel it may help your long-term adherence.
Average bodyfat levels

Those who have only just started a diet and are at this stage may not need refeeds very often, once every 2-3 weeks may suffice.

Those who have been dieting a long time to get to this stage may benefit from more often refeeds, such as once every 12-14 days.

Lower bodyfat levels

Individuals beginning their diet at this stage could probably go without refeeds for ~2 weeks comfortably.

For those who have been dieting longer, refeeds may be necessary every 7 to 10 days.

As very low bodyfat levels are obtained, refeeding may be necessary up to twice a week – although fat loss is very slow at this stage.

In short, you need to figure out for yourself when to refeed.

Sometimes you’re dropping weight too quickly and it might be sensible to refeed (followed by a subsequent increase in your daily caloric targets). Other times, you may be dropping no weight at all and it could still be sensible to refeed.

The main focus should be on your daily calorie deficit – refeeds aren’t essential, just potentially very useful terms (although as one gets very lean, they tend towards becoming “essential”).

How to refeed?

As already mentioned – you will pick either a 24-48 hour period (typically) where you’re going to increase your calories to maintenance (your TDEE) or slightly above (1-300 calories above).
There are also times where it makes sense to increase calories even further, for example, around a period of particularly intense/high volume training where you may benefit from more calories/carbs.

The increase in calories should come entirely from carbohydrates, and fat and protein can be lowered to allow for an even further increase in carbohydrates.

Fat overfeeding is not particularly useful compared to carbohydrate overfeeding so it makes sense to dampen fats more than proteins, and to just focus on carbohydrates.
De novo lipogensis (storing excess carbohydrates as body fat) is a complex process and therefore, carbohydrate overfeeding over a very short period is very unlikely to lead to fat gain, compared to fat overfeeding.

  • Current TDEE: 2600.
  • Current cutting calories: 2200.
    15% calorie deficit as subject is already reasonably lean.
  • Current macros: 165 grams of protein, 65 grams of fat, 240 grams of carbohydrates.
    Client weights around 160lbs and has been cutting for a little while, could consume fewer fats but enjoys the foods associated with a high-er fat diet.
  • Refeed day (24hrs) calories: 2800.
  • Refeed macros: 150 grams of protein, 50 grams of fat (or less), 440grams of carbohydrates (or more if fat is lower).

It can be logical to implement this refeed day on a day where you train a body part(s) you consider to be “lagging”, as your body will be in a prolonged anabolic state from the excess calories (i.e. you are halting your calorie deficit and allowing your body to be above its’ energy needs temporarily, nitrogen balance shifts more favourably and glycogen stores are replenished).

You will also hopefully notice the effects of the refeed particularly the day after as well, so training legs the following day (a very demanding session) can also have merit.

What about a “diet break”?

Right let’s keep this one extremely simple – no jargon.

A diet break is just that, a short period of time where you stop eating below your needs and allow yourself time to “rejuvenate” – no more calorie deficit.

A lot of the benefits (if not all) discussed above apply to a diet break, however, with a diet break because it is not only for a day – you are halting the fat loss until you decide to step back on the gas.

On top of this, a diet break isn’t meant to be as structured or involve only increasing carbs/decreasing carbs. It is complete time off from your diet.

No this doesn’t mean stuff your face and undo all of your work – it just means take your mind off of it, have some better training sessions (due to the increased calories and reduced bodily stress), and relax.

Dieting can very tricky work in every aspect, sometimes diet breaks make it much more manageable.

I.e. somebody who needs to lose a lot of weight, may do so in 10 week “cycles” (mesocycles), followed by a 7-10 day diet break after each cycle.

Over this period, you would just eat around maintenance usually – however, to know that would likely require tracking, which doesn’t provide psychological relief from dieting, so I’d advise just eating how you feel whilst still being sensible and retaining good habits.

This should keep adherence high and help reduce any metabolic adaptation that can accrue over a prolonged cutting phase.

 

  References/acknowledgements:

[1] Knuiman P, Hopman MTE, Mensink M. Glycogen availability and skeletal muscle adaptations with endurance and resistance exercise. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2015;12:59. doi:10.1186/s12986-015-0055-9.

[2] Klok MD, Jakobsdottir S, Drent ML. The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review. Obes Rev. 2007 Jan;8(1):21-34. Review. PubMed PMID: 17212793.

[3] Ahima RS. Revisiting leptin’s role in obesity and weight loss. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2008;118(7):2380-2383. doi:10.1172/JCI36284.

[4] Dirlewanger M, et al. Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Nov;24(11):1413-8. PubMed PMID: 11126336.

[5] Jenkins AB, Markovic TP, Fleury A, Campbell LV. Carbohydrate intake and short-term regulation of leptin in humans. Diabetologia. 1997 Mar;40(3):348-51. PubMed PMID: 9084976.

[6] Chin-Chance C, Polonsky KS, Schoeller DA. Twenty-four-hour leptin levels respond to cumulative short-term energy imbalance and predict subsequent intake. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2000 Aug;85(8):2685-91. PubMed PMID: 10946866.

[7] Lyle McDonald. “Of Whooshes and Squishy Fat”. www.bodyrecomposition.com

[8] James A Levine. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Endocrine Research Unit, Mayo Clinic, Rochester

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