Trying to lose weight by eating healthy and working out can be hard.
There are a ton of diets out there including intermittent fasting, keto, counting your calories, and IFYM, all of which achieve the same results, consuming fewer calories than you use per day.
Regardless of the method you use to control calories, a majority of people struggle with sticking to ANY diet.
For that reason, you have already or most likely will stop seeing progress and will hit a weight loss plateau.
This, in turn, ends up leaving you feeling frustrated and according to research, is the number one factor for why people will give up on their weight loss journey.
There is some research that by adding in a refeed day (or a couple of days) people are finding it easier to stick to their diet and prevent a stall out from weight loss.
This article will explain to you what a refeed day is, the science behind it, how to do it, and will give you the knowledge to whether you should add in refeed days.
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Table of Contents
What is a refeed day?
A refeed day is one day or a sequence of days (Usually 1-4 days in length) in which you intentionally eat more calories, typically in the form of carbohydrates.
Refeed day(s) comes after you have been strategically cutting macros and or dieting for several consecutive days
Before we go any further, let’s discuss the effects of being in a caloric deficit. While yes being in a caloric deficit will help you lose weight.
Research shows that a 5% decrease in your weight has been correlated with lower blood pressure, prevention of type 2 diabetes, and lowering of blood cholesterol. (1)
However, being in a caloric deficit does have some negative consequences including:
- Fatigue (2)
- Increase in hunger (3)
- Not getting enough vitamins and minerals (4)
- Hitting a weight loss plateau (5)
- Lower hormone production (6)
This is the way your body is trying to protect you.
Think about it, if you do not have enough energy (calories) coming in, you are going to be tired, therefore you probably would rather binge-watch Netflix than go to the gym.
The purpose of a refeed is to attempt to combat the acute effects of calorie restriction, by having a few planned days where you will eat more calories.
This short time frame of a few days (~1-4 days) may not be a long enough window for you. At this point, I would consider a diet break.
How does a calorie deficit affect you?
Being in a caloric deficit can eventually lead to a weight loss plateau in addition to other physiological effects. (7)
The effects of a caloric deficit are apparent at any level of weight management whether you are a competitive athlete or just trying to lose a few pounds.
Let’s look at competitive athletes in this example.
The International Olympic Committee (ICO) has coined the term, “Relative energy deficiencies in sport (RED-S)”
In a published consensus statement by the ICO,
“The syndrome of RED-S refers to ‘impaired physiological functioning caused by a relative energy deficiency and includes, but is not limited to, impairments of metabolic rate, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis, and cardiovascular health’.” (8)
Let’s explore some of the INDIVIDUAL impacts a calorie deficit has on hormones and your metabolism.
There are a number of hormones that are affected by calorie intake and body fat percentage.
One group was placed on a very low-calorie diet (VLCD) of 400 calories and the other group was placed on a balanced deficit diet.
Changes in weight thyroid hormone and mood were examined throughout the study. Researchers noted that the VLCD group eating 400 calories per day for 8 weeks had as much as a 66% decrease in serum T3. (9)
Leptin has many functions, one of which is to regulate the size and amount of body fat tissue.
Leptin is primarily produced by fat cells, and when fat cells decrease or increase in size, leptin is produced or suppressed. This sends signals to our brain, whether we have enough energy or not. (10)
During periods of caloric restriction and a decrease in body fat, your body adapts to having fewer calories by relying on protein or amino acids as an energy source.
This may cause you to rely on your lean body tissue and or muscle mass to support your energy/calorie needs.
When you rely on your muscle mass to support your energy stores, your overall lean body mass decrease, causing your resting energy expenditure to decrease.
This affects your ability to burn calories, therefore, may prevent you from losing weight at the current level of calories. (11)
Ghrelin also known as your “Hunger Hormone” will rise when your stomach is empty. During a weight loss or calorie deficit phase, ghrelin increase, which increase your appetite.
This hormone encourages you to eat to prevent starvation. This can make it difficult to continue to say in a caloric deficit and continue to lose weight. (12)
The terms metabolic adaptation and “metabolic damage” refer to the phenomenon that when someone decreases their calorie intake eventually their metabolism will slow down. Eventually leading to a stall in weight loss. (13)
Now let’s be clear, the term “metabolic damaged” has minimal research. Rather, the term metabolic adaptations are where a bulk of the research comes from.
In the scientific literature, researchers use the term adaptive thermogenesis.
Your metabolic rate is referred to as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). There are several components that make up your TDEE. (14)
Resting energy expenditure (REE)
Resting energy expenditure (REE), makes up the majority of your TDEE. This is also commonly referred to as basal metabolic rate. (15)
Weight loss may decrease your body fat and lean body mass tissue. Your lean body mass is considered metabolically active tissue. A loss of this metabolically active tissue may result in a decrease in your TDEE. (15)
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).
NEAT accounts for all the movement throughout your day that is not intentional exercise like going to the gym or going for a run.
Think about NEAT as you do your normal daily tasks like taking a shower, going for a walk, or fidgeting.
Thermic effect of food (TEF)
The third-largest contributor to your TDEE is the thermic effect of food TEF at 10% of your TDEE.
The TEF refers to the number of calories expended to digest, absorb, and store the nutrients in your food.
TEF is highly variable depending on the composition of your diet.
With that being said, calorie restriction means you are eating fewer calories overall because of that, you may experience a decrease in TDEE. (20)
Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT)
Lastly, the smallest contributor to your TDEE is exercise activity thermogenesis at about 5% of your TDEE.
EAT refers to the number of calories you use during workouts.
Restricting your calories has been shown to decrease your lean body mass, therefore, also decreasing your body’s potential to burn equal amounts of energy compared to before the loss of weight which encompasses body fat and lean body mass. (21)
To summarize, your body is smart! If you restrict calories it will protect itself.
It does this by shifting around hormones like lower levels of leptin and increased levels of ghrelin encouraging you to eat more. While simultaneously lowering your TDEE to conserve energy.
So I guess the next question is can we outsmart our body’s protective measurements? Well, that is where refeed day comes into play.
How do refeed days work?
The main reason to implement a refeed day is to combat the adaptive thermogenesis and therefore to possibly prevent a weight loss plateau.
When you are trying to lose weight almost everyone will see results at the beginning of their journey. But after a while, those results may begin to fade and for most will stop altogether. This is what we refer to as a weight loss plateau.
When researchers looked at why people end up giving up on their weight loss journey, a majority of participants stated that they were no longer seeing results. (22)
Knowing what we know about adaptive thermogenesis, the idea behind a refeed day is to give your body an adequate amount of calories, specifically carbohydrates, to help curb some of the adaptions to restricting calories.
Cheat day vs Refeed day
In the fitness industry, a popularized idea has been the cheat day.
This is when someone deviates from their calories restricted diet by having an uncontrolled amount of food typically from food not allowed on their “diet”.
This can in some cases can be categorized as a binge and can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.
In contrast, a refeed day is a day in which you strategically increase calories to your maintenance level of calories.
When people diet or restrict calories, typically they will consume a lower amount of carbohydrates.
By adding in a refeed day and increasing calories for maintenance, consuming more carbohydrates than during the deficit phase.
This may work in a similar fashion to a cheat day by lowering the craving for carbohydrate-rich foods without the binge and restricting mentality of a cheat day.
One thing to note is that even if you do a refeed, that does not mean you have a healthy relationship with food.
If you are struggling with any unhealthy eating patterns please seek out medical advice.
The only similarity between a cheat day and refeed day is that the purpose is to increase calories for a short period of time. By doing either, they seem to also offer a psychological break from being in a caloric deficit.
Refeed day performance benefits
In order to achieve a caloric deficit, you have to eat fewer calories than you burn throughout the day. Not only that, the composition of these calories typically recommended are higher protein and lower fats and carbohydrates.
This macronutrient distribution is oftentimes recommended to help stave off some of the potential loss in lean body mass loss that may occur during a weight loss phase. By ensuring we have enough amino acids to repair and develop new lean body tissue. (23)
So, not only are you in a caloric deficit, but a majority of the calories that you are restricting are coming from carbohydrates.
A caloric deficit which implies lower carbohydrate intake can lead to a decrease in glycogen stores.
Glycogen is a storage form of long chains of chains on carbohydrates. Glycogen is stored primarily in the liver and your muscles and used as fast energy during workouts. (24)
Implementing a refeed day that emphasizes an increase in carbohydrate intake can help increase glycogen storage and improve your performance for a short period of time.
Signs you need a refeed (carbs)
There are some indications that you may be due for a refeed day. Here are the top 6 reasons you may want to consider a refeed day.
- You have been restricting calories for a prolonged period of time.
- You have hit a weight loss plateau
- You are craving carbs
- Your workouts are suffering
- Your hunger is out of control and all you think about is food
- You have to perform. If you have a hard workout or game day coming up.
While there is no sure-fire way to know for sure if a refeed week is necessary, however, this may give you a better idea of when would be a good time to introduce a refeed day.
How Many Calories on a Refeed Day
Just as a majority of the claims regarding refeed days, the research is limited to an exact number of calories that you should during a refeed day.
With that being said, we have research that supports, that there are metabolic adaptations that occur during a weight loss phase. This adaptation is in response to body fat loss and caloric restriction. (25)
The general recommendation, for a caloric deficit, would be the decrease calorie consumption to anywhere between 10-35% below your maintenance level of calories.
The only way to correct this imbalance, at a minimum, would be to eat an appropriate amount of calories for your weight, height, and activity level.
Eating at maintenance may help with your weight loss and body composition.
When we look at one study that had 51 obese men and assigned them to either a continuous energy restriction or intermittent energy restriction. (26)
The group of men that were placed in the IER received 2 weeks of calorie restriction followed by 2 weeks of eating at maintenance. In total, 16 weeks of calorie restriction and 14 weeks of eating at calorie maintenance. (26)
Researchers noted that the (INT) energy reaction group of men had greater weight loss, fat mass loss with lower similar levels of fat-free mass when compared to the continuous energy restriction group. (26)
In summary, a refeed day should include eating a maintenance level of calories.
HOW TO PLAN to refeed days
Some things you should take into consideration when thinking about planning refeeds.
How long do you plan to follow a calorie deficit?
If you are planning to be in a calorie deficit for more than 12 weeks consider adding in refeed days.
How much weight do you have to lose?
As mentioned above, if you have a significant amount of weight to lose, know that is going to take some time.
The recommended amount of weight loss per week is about 0.5 – 2.0 pounds per week.
So if you want to lose 30 pounds based on the numbers mentioned, that could take you anywhere from 15 to 60 weeks to achieve. (27)
How much body fat do you currently have?
As we know, your level of body fat plays a role in adaptive thermogenesis so depending on your current level of body fat, the frequency of refeed days may increase.
In general, most people following a calorie-restricted diet can include refeeding once every 2 weeks.
How to structure macros for a refeed.
During a period of restricting calories, a common recommendation is to focus on protein while consuming moderate amounts of carbohydrates and fats. With a macronutrient distribution of 30-35% protein 30-45% carbohydrate and 20-30% fats.
- 35% protein = 175 grams
- 40% carbohydrate = 200 grams
- 25% fat = 56 grams
Durning a refeed day you will want to put a focus on consuming more carbohydrates. So when you are eating at maintenance the increase in calories should come from carbohydrates and fats to benefit.
Maintenance calories are 2600
- 25% protein = 163 grams
- 50% carbohydrates = 325 grams
- 25% fats = 72 grams
Note, people, come in all shapes and sizes and therefore will have different calorie and macronutrient needs.
Read ALL about macros in The Ultimate Macro food list Guide.
What should I eat on a refeed day?
On a refeed day, focus on eating lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Although you are eating more calories you still want to focus on consuming a well-balanced diet that is nutrient-dense.
Best carbs for a refeed
Focusing on complex carbohydrates will ensure that you are not only getting adequate carbs but will also make sure that you are getting in fiber and micronutrients.
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole grain bread
- Wild rice
Knowing that the adaptive thermogenesis response is correlated with lower levels of body fat and decreased calorie intake. (28)
A refeed should focus on consuming more carbohydrates as this may help with hunger, cravings, and performance. (29)
The bottom line
Refeeds are designed to give you a mental and physical break from a calorie-restricted diet.
Adaptive thermogenesis is your body’s way of ensuring that you do not starve to death by increasing hunger and lowering your body’s energy-burning potential.
The only way to overcome adaptive thermogenesis is to eat enough and by strategically (not a free for all cheat day) adding refeed days, you may be able to prevent or curb this adaptation.
Knowing how to identify signs of adaptive thermogenesis is going to give you a better idea of when you should implement a refeed.
While the research is still in its infancy regarding refeeds application, it is important to remember that finding what works best for you and your long-term success will always be the best path.
Want a macro food list?
Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.
Noah Quezada is a registered dietitian nutritionist. Noah specializes in helping people develop lifelong habits and skills that lead to a long and productive healthy life. Noah’s goal is to provide evidence-based nutrition information through blogging, video, podcasting, and coaching.