Do you feel like you’re not progressing in your weight loss journey? Is your weight staying the same despite putting in a lot of effort? If so, you may be interested in exploring refeed days.
Refeed days are strategically planned days of higher calorie intake that can help mitigate some of the pitfalls of calorie restriction, like hunger, low energy levels, decreased performance, and weight loss plateaus.
This article will explain a refeed day, its science, and how to do it. Let’s jump in.
What is a Refeed Day?
Refeed days are planned periods of increased caloric intake during a weight loss journey. A refeed day comes after several days/weeks of restricting calorie intake. The goal of a refeed: set 2-4 days aside, and instead of eating in a calorie deficit to lose weight, eat enough to maintain your weight.
During a refeed day, the goal is to be at a calorie balance, meaning calorie intake is equal to your daily output, with the purpose of combating some of the physical, mental, hormonal, and emotional effects of energy restriction and weight loss.
Taking a break from your diet for a few days and consuming more calories to lose weight may seem illogical, but some encouraging evidence supports it. Before we jump to get into the benefits, let’s get a better understanding of calorie deficits and weight loss.
To lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume daily. This creates what’s called a calorie deficit. This prompts your body to use some of its stored calories (fat tissue) as fuel.
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. (Study)
Generally speaking, weight loss for the average healthy adult is good, and being in a caloric deficit will help you to achieve that. However, your body does not like getting fewer calories than needed, and can cause fatigue, hunger, muscle loss, and altered hormones—all to prevent you from starving. When you think about it, a calorie deficit is controlled starvation.
Why does a weight loss plateau happen?
Weight loss plateaus eventually happen because your body will try to decrease its energy output (metabolism) and increase energy intake. This means that you will physically move less and have feelings of hunger more often, and is your body’s attempt at getting you to conserve calories and eat more.
There are several ways that your body tries to “protect” you during times of starvation to prevent you from losing weight, including changes to your hormones and metabolic rate, loss of muscle, and food cravings/thoughts. All of which either lower your calorie output or increase your desire for food.
Leptin: As we restrict calories, our body may respond by secreting fewer hormones like leptin that tell us when we are full and have had enough food. This can lead to an increase in hunger and cravings for food. (Study)
Ghrelin: known as your “hunger hormone,” will rise when your stomach is empty. During a weight loss or calorie deficit phase, ghrelin increases your appetite. This hormone encourages you to eat to prevent starvation. This can make it challenging to continue to say in a caloric deficit and continue to lose weight. (Study)
Muscle Loss: Another issue with prolonged calorie restriction is that our body may start breaking down muscle tissue to use as energy, which can decrease strength and your metabolism.
How do refeed days work?
Refeed days provide your body with enough calories to support its needs. This helps lower your leptin and ghrelin, increase glycogen (carbohydrate) uptake in the muscle, and counteract the hunger-inducing effects of calorie restriction.
Refeeds are meant to be used during sustained weight loss or dieting to break your body from the stress of eating in a caloric deficit.
Cheat day vs. refeed day
The fitness industry promotes having a cheat day while following a diet. 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.”
When dieting, it is common to feel like the food is bland and lacks flavor. When someone gets a free pass in the form of a cheat day, they tend to binge and overeat. And the food choices tend to be not that great for us and are high in saturated fat, sugar, and sodium.
On the other hand, refeed days are a tool where you eat at a calorie balance for 1-4 days. During this period, the individual will focus on consuming complex carbohydrates with plenty of fiber, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
The difference between a cheat day vs. a refeed day is calories and food choice. They both improve the side effects of calorie restriction. However, cheat days often involve unhealthy eating behaviors and food choices. While refeeds days control for calories and food choice.
Benefits of a refeed day.
Refeed days can offer several benefits when incorporated strategically into a well-designed weight loss plan. Here are some of the key advantages of incorporating refeed days:
Psychological relief: Refeed days provide a mental break from strict diets and promote long-term adherence to weight loss plans.
Metabolic boost: Refeed days can prevent your metabolism from slowing down when restricting your calorie intake. By temporarily increasing your calorie and carbohydrate intake, your body is signaled that it’s not in a prolonged energy deficit state.
Hormonal regulation: Calorie restriction can lead to decreased levels of hormones like leptin, which helps regulate hunger and metabolism. Refeeding with higher carbohydrate and calorie intake can cause a temporary increase in leptin levels, helping to mitigate hunger and cravings.
Muscle preservation: Refeed days with higher caloire and carbohydrate intake can help prevent muscle breakdown and promote muscle protein synthesis. Consuming adequate calories and carbs prevents your body (liver) from converting protein (amino acids) into fuel.
Enhanced performance: Refeed days can boost energy levels by replenishing glycogen stores in muscles depleted during exercise and calorie restriction, improving exercise performance, endurance, and recovery.
It’s important to note that refeed days should be approached with caution and incorporated strategically based on an individual’s specific goals, overall health, and dietary preferences.
Signs you need a refeed
While the need for increasing one’s calories can vary from person to person, several signs may indicate it’s time to incorporate a refeed day into your diet. Here are some signs to look out for:
Persistent fatigue: If you feel chronically tired, lethargic, or lacking energy despite getting enough sleep and rest, it could be a sign that your body needs more calories
Decreased workout performance: It is normal to experience a decrease in strength while following a weight loss plan. Occasionally, it’s beneficial to restore your glycogen stores by consuming adequate calories and carbohydrates.
Intense cravings and increased hunger: Persistent cravings for high-carbohydrate foods and increased feelings of hunger can indicate that your body lacks energy. Refeeding with adequate calories and carbohydrates satisfies these cravings and reduces hunger.
Stalled weight loss progress: While weight loss plateaus are expected during a dieting phase, a refeed day may be beneficial if you consistently experience a prolonged stall in weight loss. This can help avoid carvings and hunger and accelerate weight loss.
Mood disturbances and irritability: Reducing calories for too long can affect mood and cause irritability and mood swings. A refeed day with increased carbohydrate intake can help improve mood and overall well-being.
Remember, the signs mentioned above should be considered in the context of an overall well-designed weight loss plan.
How many calories on a refeed day
The number of calories you should shoot for on a refeeding day will depend on your needs and goals. The number of calories during a refeeds day should be what you need to maintain weight. (Study)
In a research study, 51 obese men were divided into continuous and intermittent energy restriction (IER) groups.
The men in the IER group received two weeks of calorie restriction followed by two weeks of eating at maintenance. In total, 16 weeks of calorie restriction and 14 weeks of eating at calorie maintenance.
Researchers noted that men’s intermittent energy restriction group had more weight loss and fat mass loss with lower similar fat-free mass levels than the continuous energy restriction group. (Study)
The research on refeed days is limited regarding the calories you should consume during a refeed day, as with most claims about refeed days.
How to plan refeed days
Planning refeeds days requires an individualized approach based on various factors, including your goals, current weight, body fat percentage, and how long you plan to follow a calorie deficit.
Here’s a general framework to consider when planning refeed days:
Set a specific weight loss goal: Determine how much weight you aim to lose overall. This will help guide the duration of your calorie deficit phase and the frequency of refeed days.
Calculate your calorie deficit duration: Consider your weight loss goal when deciding how long to maintain a calorie deficit. Safe and healthy weight loss typically occurs at a rate of 0.5-1 kg (1-2 lbs) per week, but your circumstances may vary.
Determine the frequency of refeed days: Include every 1-2 weeks during a calorie deficit. Frequency varies based on metabolism, well-being, body fat, and adherence. Higher body fat or short dieting may need less frequent refeed days, while leaner or longer dieting may need them more frequently. (Study)
Plan the calorie and macronutrient intake: On refeed days, the goal is to increase your calorie intake, primarily from carbohydrates. Aim to consume your maintenance calories compared to your usual calorie deficit intake.
Choose nutrient-dense, whole food options: While refeed days allow for flexibility in food choices, it’s still important to prioritize nutrient-dense whole foods. Opt for complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables.
Monitor and adjust: Pay attention to how your body responds to refeed days. Assess factors like energy levels, mood, cravings, workout performance, and progress toward weight loss goals.
Remember, individual differences exist, and working with a registered dietitian who can provide personalized guidance based on your specific needs, preferences, and goals is crucial. (Study)
How to structure macros for a refeed
When structuring macros for a refeed day, the primary focus should be increasing carbohydrate intake while keeping protein consistent and adjusting fat intake accordingly.
Here’s a step-by-step example of how you can structure macros for a refeed day:
Calories: Find the number of calories that are sufficient for weight maintenance. Include your physical activity. (Study)
Carbohydrates: Increase your carbohydrate intake. Aim to consume approximately 4-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, depending on your activity level and type of exercise. You should aim for ~50-65% of your calories from carbohydrates. (Study)
Protein: Typically, if you are strength training, you are eating more protein for that specifically. Your protein intake should be between 1.4-2.2 g/kg or 15-25% of your total calories. Again prioritize carbs, and adjust protein accordingly. (Study)
Fat: When you eat more carbohydrates, you can reduce your fat intake slightly to balance your calories. But remember to consume enough healthy fats still. Aim for 0.5-1 grams of fat per kilogram of body weight. (Study)
Here’s a summarized example for a person weighing 70 kilograms (150 pounds) who strength trains four times a day and is >25% body fat.
These are general guidelines, and individual needs and preferences can vary.
What should I eat on a refeed day?
During a refeed day, prioritize carbohydrate intake while ensuring you meet your calorie and protein targets. The primary goal is to replenish glycogen stores, consume enough calories, and provide your body with the necessary nutrients for refueling.
Ideally, you’ll want to fulfill these calories and macronutrients by eating nutrient-dense foods. An easy way to do this is by following the MyPlate Guidelines.
Here are the MyPlate guidelines and some examples of foods for each.
- Lean protein: Chicken breast, turkey, tofu, fish (salmon, tuna, cod), greek yogurt, cottage cheese, lentils.
- Fruits: apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, kiwi, pineapple, mango, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries.
- Vegetables: leafy greens (spinach, kale, arugula), broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, zucchini, cucumber, tomatoes.
- Whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread, oats, barley, whole grain pasta, bulgur wheat, farro.
- Low-fat dairy: skim milk, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, reduced-fat cheese, light cream cheese.
The goal should be to incorporate all five food groups with each meal. By consuming a well-balanced diet, you are ensuring you meet your vitamins and mineral targets.
It is also important to note that limiting saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium intake should also be considered when incorporating refeed days.
Remember that this style of dieting is referred to as flexible dieting and should be just that, flexible.
Best carbs for a refeed
The best carbs for a refeed are those higher in fiber and vitamins and low in added sugar. Several food groups fall under this nutrient-dense carbohydrate category.
Grains: Whole wheat pasta, bread, quinoa, farro, oats, brown rice.
Legumes: Lentils, black beans, chickpeas.
Fruits: Apples, oranges, blueberries, bananas.
Vegetables: Sweet potatoes and other root vegetables.
During a refeed, the number of calories increases, and instead of restricting carbohydrates, they become the primary macronutrient of focus.
Frequently asked questions
How long should your refeed be?
Based on the limited research in this field, the current theory is a range of 2-7 days.
Should I do a refeed, diet break, or stay a calorie deficit diet?
Your answer will vary depending on your goals, current situation, long-term weight loss plan, and health status. Speak to a registered dietitian before making any drastic changes to ensure you choose the best option.
What foods should I avoid during my refeed?
Limiting saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium intake is the general recommendation and applies to refeed days. (Unless otherwise instructed.)
The bottom line
After reading this guide for refeed days, I hope you better understand how weight loss works and the tool of including refeed days in a diet plan.
Refeeds can help replenish glycogen stores and improve metabolic health, hormonal balance, and overall well-being.
Choose nutrient-rich carbs and eat from all food groups to meet nutritional needs. Be mindful of added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats while keeping calorie and macronutrient goals in mind.
Don’t give up on your weight loss plan. With the right guidance and tools, you can still achieve your goals. Contact me for help, and I’ll show you how to get there.
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 located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.