The fitness industry is built from arguably, one of the most persuasive advertising tools in existence — the transformation picture. These “before and after’s” are used to sell everything from workout equipment, coaching, books, and supplements. But, at the personal level, these transformations sell hope.
Few things in fitness are as exciting as the prospect of losing body fat. In the beginning, simply the anticipation of seeing your abs for the first time is enough to get the wheels turning. The good news is, as long as you resistance train a few times per week, maintain a calorie deficit, and adhere to the plan, fat loss initially comes pretty easy. At this point, the process is enjoyable. However, the sunshine and rainbows won’t last forever.
The only way the body calls on stored body fat is to create an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure. The trouble is the body adapts to caloric restriction and weight loss with a range of metabolic, behavioral, and hormonal responses. As a result of these adaptations, progress slows down. On top of that, energy in the gym takes a hit, workouts get laborious, and the desire to eat goes up as hunger and cravings increase. Anyone who has dieted before knows what I am talking about. This is where most people give in. It starts with one bite and ends with you surrounded by empty pints of Ben and Jerry’s. I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea.
As we know, a caloric deficit is needed to lose fat — calories in vs. calories out. On the other hand, being in a negative calorie balance unleashes adaptations that make further fat loss more difficult. Caloric restriction is a necessary evil when it comes to fat loss. So, what do we do?
Fortunately for us, the story doesn’t have to end there. Instead, we can hack the system by implementing a strategy of occasional overfeeding. This strategy is called refeeding. It’s not magic, and I don’t want to oversell you like an unrealistic transformation picture, but refeeds have been used successfully in the bodybuilding world for years.
What Is a Refeed?
In my opinion, refeeds are one of the most misunderstood fat loss tools. At least some of the confusion comes down to terminology. But, there are a lot of misconceptions about what refeeds actually do.
For starters, what is a refeed?
A refeed is simply a deliberate period of higher calorie (usually from carbohydrate) overfeeding during a caloric deficit, lasting anywhere from one to three days. With refeeds, there is a specific target of calories and macronutrients set at the individual’s estimated maintenance calories, or slightly above.
In addition to refeeds, there are a few other methods of overfeeding that we have to define for clarity. Sometimes these words and phrases are used interchangeably with refeeds, but there are distinctions.
Cheat Meal/Free Meal/Untracked Meal: A single meal without regard to the number of calories or macronutrient composition. With cheat meals, there are typically no specific or predetermined macronutrient goals. It’s one meal, untracked, to eat whatever you want. Because they are untracked, I usually don’t recommend them during a fat loss phase. Cheat meals don’t offer the same advantages as a refeed, and one big cheat meal can push you out of a weekly deficit and ruin a week of progress. However, cheat meals can be a helpful tool during maintenance and gaining phases.
Cheat Day: A full day of eating without regard to the number of calories or macronutrient composition. A cheat day is essentially a bunch of cheat meals stacked together throughout one day. As you would expect, this can result in very high caloric intake. Cheat days are not typically part of any dieting strategy and should be limited to vacations and holidays.
Carb Cycling: A dieting strategy of alternating low carb days with high carb days. There are many different ways to set it up. Some carb cycling protocols cycle carbohydrate intake while calories are constant, while others cycle calories. Depending on how it’s done, carb cycling can be set up in a way that follows general refeed guidelines.
What Are the Potential Benefits of a Refeed?
Although refeeds have been popular in the bodybuilding community for a long time, there wasn’t a lot of research on them in trained lifters until recently. In 2020 an article titled “Intermittent Energy Restriction Attenuates the Loss of Fat-Free Mass in Resistance Trained Individuals. A Randomized Controlled Trial” was published by Bill Campbell and colleagues.
In the study, they split 27 trained individuals into two groups. Both groups ate a calorie-restricted diet for 7 weeks. One group ate in a continuous deficit of 25% below maintenance every day for the entire 7 weeks. This was the traditional fat loss diet group. The other group reduced calories by 35% for 5 days and ate at calculated maintenance for two consecutive days. This was the refeed group. Both groups averaged the same weekly caloric restriction. The only difference was one group did the two refeeds, and the other didn’t. In the refeed, the extra calories came from carbohydrates only. Before and after the seven weeks, their body composition and metabolic rate were measured.
The study found the group doing the 2-day carbohydrate refeed maintained muscle mass and metabolic rate better than the continuous diet group. Both groups lost the same amount of weight.
As I said before, refeeds are not magic. This is only one study, and the findings are not even game-changing, but actually having some research to support what coaches have thought for years is encouraging.
Going beyond the data, let’s dig into some of the mechanisms and reasons why refeeds can be beneficial.
Limit Catabolic Environment
One benefit of incorporating refeeds is temporarily getting out of a diet-induced catabolic state. Simply not being in a deficit for two days per week could have been one mechanism to explain why the refeed group in the study maintained more muscle. Now, believe me, nutritional means for preventing catabolism during a fat loss diet have been overblown over the years. With that being said, it’s not unlikely that refeeds can make a notable difference, especially ones lasting 48 hours.
Anabolism (building up) and catabolism (tearing down) are in constant battle within the body. Both processes are taking place simultaneously at all times. However, one is generally more involved than the other. During a caloric deficit, catabolism takes priority. By incorporating higher calories, we can temporarily get out of a catabolic state as long as the refeed is at least up to your calculated maintenance, or slightly more.
Elevated Glycogen Stores
Another benefit of refeeds worth mentioning is refilling muscle glycogen stores. When dieting, stored carbohydrate in the muscle is reduced. Without going too far down the rabbit hole of energy systems, muscle glycogen provides fuel for resistance training. There is evidence that even modest glycogen depletion could negatively impact performance more than once thought. For those following a low-carb diet, this is more important. However, the longer a fat loss diet goes on, glycogen stores will be low, even with a diet containing moderate carbohydrate amounts. By throwing in a refeed, we can temporarily elevate glycogen levels.
In theory, increases in glycogen could result in less fatigue, therefore allowing you to train harder in the short term while glycogen is elevated. From a timing perspective, it makes sense to put your refeed a day or two before the hardest or highest volume training session of the week. I have seen a lot of benefits in doing with myself and my clients. Refeeds seem to translate to a couple of better training sessions.
In addition to better performance, increases in glycogen can make you look better, too. Glycogen helps “fill out” the muscles to improve the flat look when dieting. This is why bodybuilders carb-up leading into a show. Looking better is more of a psychological benefit, which we will talk more about in a minute, but increased confidence can go a long way. Dieting is a mental battle. Your mind can play tricks on you. Sometimes, just the boost in confidence you get from seeing your physique filled out is enough to stick out the diet for another week. The increased confidence in the gym can also lead to better training performance.
Return to Normalcy
I don’t want to gross you out, but a decrease in the frequency of bowel movements is something people often notice during a fat loss phase. Most people will find they go to the bathroom less when in a calorie deficit because calorie and food restrictions often lead to decreased peristalsis. A lot of it has to do with just having less food volume in the GI tract. Although I don’t know of any research on this, many of my clients find refeeds help.
Resting Metabolic Rate
As mentioned, in the refeed study, they found that resting metabolic rate was better maintained in the refeed group. However, the authors suggested the maintenance of fat-free mass in the refeed group is the likely explanation.
For years, cheat meals were wrongly proclaimed to have a significant impact on metabolic rate. In reality, a single meal or even 48hr refeed won’t actually make a substantial difference in your metabolism, at least in the big picture. It’s just too short of energy flux to make an impact. To make a notable impact on the issues associated with dieting, you would need to refeed for multiple days, possibly even weeks. In that case, we are no longer talking about refeeds but an actual diet break. A diet break is a one or two-week period of eating at maintenance calories. It’s essentially a week or two of refeeds every day during a fat loss diet.
With that being said, even a small degree of improvement in resting metabolic rate can be notable during a long fat loss phase.
What about Leptin?
Before we move on, I want to talk about leptin. Leptin is a hormone that controls appetite and hunger. When everything is running efficiently, leptin is pretty good at doing its job — telling us when we are hungry/full and making sure our metabolism is not impaired. The dieting process puts a kink in this system. Caloric restriction lowers metabolic rate and creates more hunger. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. The body doesn’t want to get lean. A lean person would have a hard time surviving food shortages. In an ideal scenario, the body wants to store calories (body fat) and expend as little energy as possible.
There is some evidence carbohydrate refeeds can positively influence fasting leptin levels. However, leptin levels adapt quickly, so any positive effect is unlikely to make a big difference in the long run. As soon as you go back into a calorie deficit, leptin levels will drop.
However, since leptin is sensitive to short-term fluctuation in food intake, theoretically, we should see a small bump in leptin from a refeed. Again, it may not be a substantial difference, but any advantage we can get is worth a shot.
Leptin seems to be more responsive to carbohydrates than fat. So, for the chance refeeds can make a difference in leptin, it’s another reason why added calories in a refeed are better suited coming from carbohydrates than anything else.
It’s easy to get caught up in the physiological benefits of refeeds and skip over the psychological ones. In my opinion, that is a big mistake. Although there is not a lot of research in this area, I would argue the psychological benefits tend to become more impactful than the physiological ones in the real world. This is why, even without a ton of evidence, I still think there is a benefit to implementing refeeds for most people.
For starters, a lot of people just prefer to diet with refeeds. Having two higher calorie days per week is a nice break from the monotony of dieting. Plus, when calories increase during a refeed, you will have more flexibility with your diet. More flexibility allows you to fit more foods into your macros for the day. It makes sticking to your diet easier on the other days because you know you have a refeed to look forward to.
I have found refeeds make the dieting process more sustainable. Adherence is the name of the game. Anything we can do to get better at it is a win. I think increased adherence is one reason why it’s not uncommon to see people break through a fat loss plateau once refeeds are implemented. Just the ability to enjoy going out to eat while dieting can be great for your social life. Remember, fitness should enhance your life, not take away from it.
How to Set Up a Refeed
There are multiple ways to set up a refeed. It can be as short as a few hours or as long as a couple of days. The duration of the refeed will depend on the individual client and their situation.
For the most part, the additional calories come from carbohydrates. Fat doesn’t necessarily need to be lower than a typical day, but it can be. The argument in favor of lowering fat intake on a refeed is it allows you to be more aggressive with the carb intake from a calorie standpoint. However, limiting fat intake can reduce what foods you can fit in. As I mentioned, there is a huge psychological benefit to refeeds, so this point should not be taken lightly. Plus, I want to make refeeding as simple as possible. There is no reason to overcomplicate it.
Here is how I break it down:
The math still needs to make sense. The more aggressive the refeed days are, the lower calories need to be on the other days. You still need to be in a calorie deficit for the week.
The main goal is to increase calories to at least maintenance. It’s perfect if you already know what that is. If not, you can calculate your estimated maintenance intake using the system below.
My preferred method for determining basal metabolic rate is as simple as it gets.
MEN: BMR = (Body Weight in lbs x 10)
WOMEN: BMR = (Body Weight in lbs x 9)
Example: 180lbs male x 10 = 1800 calories
Keep in mind this figure doesn’t account for activity. So, once we do this calculation, we need to multiply by an activity multiplier to find out maintenance calories.
Activity Factor Multiplier
The activity factor accounts for everything you do in a day, not just training. After finding your BMR, use one of these multipliers to calculate the number of calories you need to stay at the same weight (maintenance calories).
Be honest with yourself here…this is where most people mess this process up.
Sedentary [BMR x 1.2]: Low activity. 0–3 days of exercise, desk job, and under 5,000 steps per day.
Lightly Active [BMR x 1.3–1.4]: Active a few days a week, work an active job or exercise 3–5 days a week. Typically under 7,000 steps per day.
Moderately Active [BMR x 1.5–1.6] Train 3–6 days a week and lives a relatively active lifestyle. Averages 7,000–10,000 steps per day. I would guess most of you would fall into this category.
Very Active [BMR x 1.7–1.8]: Training hard for a specific sport or purpose 5–7 days a week. Typically one with a hard labor job as well. Averages over 10,000 steps per day.
Extremely Active [BMR x 1.9–2.2]: Hard-charging athlete who spends 10 or more hours training per week and/or lives a highly active lifestyle outside of training. Averages over 12,000 steps per day. Depending on how high activity gets, it’s possible someone could require more calories than this.
Let’s run through an example for a 180lb male.
Step #1: Baseline Multiplier
180lbs x 10 = 1800 calories
Step #2: Activity Multiplier
1800 x 1.5 (moderately active) = 2700 calories
In this example, 2700 would be the number of calories to maintain body weight for a 180lb individual with an average activity level. If this person consistently ate 2700 calories, theoretically, it would involve no change in body weight.
Continuing this example, let’s say this person was looking to lose 1lb per week. We know a pound of fat tissue stores roughly 3500 calories worth of energy, which means you need an average daily deficit of 500 calories per day to lose a pound per week.
On a typical fat loss diet, this person would need to consume 2200 calories per day to average a weekly weight loss of 1 pound. Another way to look at it would be 2200 calories x 7 days = 15,400 calories per week.
A daily macro breakdown could look like the following:
180g protein (1g per pound of bodyweight)
60g fat (25% of daily calories)
In my opinion, this would be a great place to start the fat loss diet. Build some consistency with this, and after a couple of weeks, add in a two-day refeed.
The Two Day Refeed
Based on research, and personal experience, a two-day refeed tends to be more effective than a single-day refeed. To set it up, distribute 15,400 calories between five low days and two refeed days. Let’s start with the refeed days at maintenance calories. In our example, maintenance calories were 2700.
Two day refeed calories 2700 x 2 = 5,400 calories
To calculate the calorie intake for the other days, we have to subtract 5,400 calories from our weekly 15,400.
15,400–5,400 = 10,000
With 10,000 leftover on the five non-refeed days, it means we need to consume 2,000 calories on those days. 10,000 / 5 = 2,000
If we keep protein and fat intake the same, below is a sample breakdown of the macros.
5 Days at Calorie Deficit
2 Refeed Days at Maintenance
As you can see, all of the extra calories on the refeed day are from carbs. Carbs are the money maker when it comes to refeeds. It works out to be a pretty substantial difference. 185g of carbs on the five deficit days compared to 360g of carbs on the refeed days, 175g of extra carbs.
I typically have clients refeed a day or two before the highest volume training day of the week to take advantage of the benefits we talked about above.
Socially, most people prefer to have their refeeds on the weekend. With a 5/2 setup, you could follow the lower calories Monday through Friday and the refeed calories on Saturday and Sunday.
I personally like to have my refeed days on Friday and Saturday because my highest volume training session of the week is on Saturday, and Sunday is my rest day. With this setup, I get a large influx of carbs the day before and the day of my Saturday lower body session.
A Few Things to Keep In Mind
You don’t necessarily “need” to implement refeeds as soon as you start a diet. It takes a while for the negative aspects of dieting to set in. However, there is an argument to be made from starting with weekly refeeds right off the bat. I usually hold off on starting refeeds until I feel like we need them. It’s a judgment call, more the art of coaching, not the science.
Although I prefer a two-day refeed, you can start with a one-day refeed and go from there. Many psychological benefits still apply to a one-day refeed, even if the physiological benefits are not as prominent. The other advantage to a one-day refeed is your calories can be a little higher on the low days.
From my experience, the leaner someone is and the longer the diet, the more benefit they see from an extended refeed. You can start by refeeding one day a week and transition to two or three days. Very rarely will anyone need or benefit from refeeding more than three days a week.
Refeeds have a tendency to spike body weight for a couple of days. If you implement a refeed and your weight jumps up, don’t be alarmed; it is nothing to be concerned with. When you think about it, it’s pretty clear why. Carbohydrates are stored in muscle and liver while every gram of carbohydrate holds around 3g of water.
Most if not all weight gain associated with a refeeds tend to be water weight. The same can’t be said for the 10,000 calorie cheat day binge. Water weight balances out in a day or two, the damage done by a 10,000 calorie blowout tends to stick around longer.
You may be wondering what the benefits of a refeed are over a cheat or free meal? For one, a refeed is calculated. You will still have a protein, carbohydrate, and fat goal for the day, which makes it more predictable than an all-out cheat or free meal. I tell clients to look at refeeds the same as any other day. Still track everything, and stay mentally engaged.
Cheat/free meals have a tendency to lead to further eating outside of the plan. You don’t see that (as much) with refeeds because the dieter must remain in control due to still tracking food intake. We want to avoid the screw it syndrome where you have a slice of pizza and decide to eat 4 or 5 since you already had one.
Lastly, I want to reiterate refeeds are not magic. I don’t want you to have unrealistic expectations. With that being said, I have seen a lot of success using them with clients. Because of this, I think they are worth giving a shot. If you need help setting up your refeed days, feel free to reach out. I am always here to help!
Campbell et al. 2020. Intermittent Energy Restriction Attenuates the Loss of Fat Free Mass in Resistance Trained Individuals. A Randomized Controlled Trial. J. Funct. Morphol. Kinesiol. 2020, 5(1), 19; https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk5010019