Would you rather follow a diet that forced you to restrict everything or one that included one, two, even seven “cheat” days to get the same results?
I don’t know about you, but I’m going for the one that gives me as many cheat days as possible while also still losing weight…
When most people diet, they make the biggest change possible to have the most drastic effect.
My approach to “dieting” is slightly different. Instead, it is simply finding the most minimal effective dose to still lose weight. In other words, we’re simply just finding the smallest deficit for you to go into and still maintain a rate of 0.5-2lbs/week of weight loss.
For my clients, and myself included, this includes planned cheat days. Except they’re not even considered cheat days because I don’t believe in those kinds of days. Instead, they’re called refeed days.
Refeed days are used in diet periods for many reasons. They are days spent at or above maintenance calories, giving you a temporary break from your current deficit. This deficit is made up through extra carbs. This usually equates to a 50-100g carb increase 1-2x/week. Say your maintenance is 2500 cals/week and you’re dieting at 2000 calories. You would take one or two days each week to eat 2500 calories by adding 500 calories worth of carbohydrates. Sounds pretty yummy right???
Why do a refeed?
Refeed days have a TON of benefits.
1. First and foremost, they keep you adherent in a diet. Being a deficit, whether that deficit is at 1500 or 2500 calories, is hard. You have a hunger response (and you should) and food looks really good. It’s hard not to cheat. In fact, the longer you go in a deficit without a relief is when we see adherence slip. Refeed days are the days you look forward to during your deficit days. Every week there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a lot easier to eat in a 500 calorie deficit for 5 or 6 days when every week, you’re guaranteed a day at or even above maintenance.
2. Refeed days protect you from metabolic damage. When you diet too long too hard, your metabolism starts fighting back. Your body starts downregulating itself to burn fewer calories to adjust to this new intake you’ve put yourself into without an end in sight. This is when weight loss plateaus, energy drops, sleep sucks, hunger goes away, and losing more weight seems impossible. Refeed days prevent this from happening because it’s like jumpstarting your car. Each week, you get a little boost to your metabolism to keep running at its baseline allowing you to still drop those pounds.
3. They maintain your hunger response. Hunger is a sign that you’re still in a deficit. When you start to lose your hunger during a diet, it’s a sign your metabolism is starting to adapt to its new intake. The added carbs boost hunger hormone, leptin, allowing you to stay hungry during your diet and keep losing weight.
4. They improve your sleep. Sleep starts to lag during a diet because it’s a stressor. You’re eating fewer carbs, so cortisol is a bit higher preventing melatonin from doing its job of getting you asleep and keeping you there throughout the night. Refeed days load you up with carbs to curb that cortisol response and get you sleeping.
5. They improve recovery. Carbs provide us the glycogen we need to get through workouts. During diets, you’re experiencing more muscle fatigue and will experience more soreness because you’re eating fewer carbs and therefore not replenish your glycogen stores 100%. Refeed days are like topping the tank off in your car. You just fill the tank up and you’re ready to go for the week, improving energy and recovery during your diet phase.
But wait…how is this not a cheat day?
Refeed days aren’t cheat days. They aren’t cheating on your diet. They’re encouraged and therefore, don’t bring along the negative stigma that comes with “cheat” days. You’re not cheating if it’s allowed and implemented in your weekly diet.
Cheat days usually lead to uncontrollable binges. Refeeds don’t lead to those binges because refeed days still have structure. It’s the lack of structure that throws you under the bus. Without structure, one cheat donut becomes two…but why stop at two, let’s go to three…then a dozen donuts you’ve reversed the progress you just achieved over the past week.
Refeed days aren’t excuses to fill yourself with garbage. It is just the day where you have more room to include a treat or a yummy bowl of spaghetti. Quality of food is still crucial here and shouldn’t be ignored.
Sounds great, count me in! How?
There are several ways to use refeed days. You can follow a 6-1 or 5-2 split where you either go 6 days in a 15-20% deficit followed by 1 day back at maintenance or 5 days in a 15-20% deficit followed by 2 consecutive days back at maintenance. You can also follow a Matador approach, where you go two weeks in a larger deficit (25-30%) followed by a whole week back at maintenance. This approach is ideal for individuals with a prior history of eating disorders because in these situations, metabolisms are quick to adjust and weight loss is difficult. Although I will say if you have a past eating disorder, you should consider hiring an experienced and willing coach to guide you along the way to make sure you’re remaining in a healthy mindset.
Your job in setting up your diet is to find the minimal effective dose. In any diet, you will plateau, guaranteed. Our bodies just like to do it. SO when you’re setting up your diet, you need to keep this into consideration. You can’t just start yourself at a 500 cal deficit, no refeeds, and doing all the cardio because in 4 weeks when you plateau, you have nowhere to go. This is the biggest mistake when it comes to setting up your diet. Instead start in that 300-500 calorie deficit with 2 refeeds. In 4 weeks when that plateau hits, you can take away a refeed day. In another, you can implement cardio. If you plateau again, you can take away your final refeed day for another couple weeks before ending your diet phase. This leaves you with room to adapt and adjust your diet. Start small and build from there.
I’m not in a diet…can I still do refeed days??
The simple answer is no. Refeed days are designed and implemented for those in active deficits. If you’re truly eating at maintenance OR in a bulk, you’re eating at or above what you need and therefore don’t need the “top-off” effect refeed days provide.
However, fortunately for you, it’s not that simple. I will occasionally implement a refeed day for my clients when I see they’re in need of one. I often find that during a reverse diet—the process where you slowly increase your intake up to maintenance—the process can be slow and occasional refeed days are needed. Reverse diets need to be slow to adjust your metabolism while avoiding weight gain. They need to be slow enough to allow your stomach/digestive system to adjust to the new intake. They also need to be slow to let you mentally adjust to increasing food. I often see in my reverse clients around one or two months a sudden increase in hunger and appetite, a sign their bodies are properly adjusting. They may not be ready for bigger increase but may be experiencing more fatigue and soreness at the gym or in day-to-day life, so I will implement a quick refeed and keep moving on my track. They’re happy and I’m happy!
As a human being, you are constantly changing. You don’t burn 2500 calories each day. One day you may burn 2200. Another 2700. You may go through a heavier cycle in your gym programming or through a stressful event in your life that tanks your glycogen/caloric stores quicker meaning your intake is slightly too low even though it is “maintenance”.
If you are maintaining (and know for a FACT that you’re eating at maintenance) or in a reverse diet and out of the blue feel tired, lethargic, perpetually sore and your sleep and recovery is in check, a refeed day is likely to benefit you!
If you’re constantly sore and tired, then it’s a sign you ARE under-eating in which case refeed days WON’T help you. You shouldn’t use refeeds as an excuse to under-eat. Instead you should use them as tools to help you along the way.
Refeeds are a wonderful way to diet and get through life. This is why having an experienced coach is crucial because they take care of it for you. As a coach, I recognize when refeed days are right or wrong and keep you feeling 100% all the time.
Interested in applying for a individualized nutrition plan that keeps you adherent, healthy, and happy with the joy of refeed days? Then sign up here!!