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Bodybuilder eating a protein bar on a refeed day

How and Why: Refeed Day

Women Squeezing fresh lemon onto salad in bowl

We say this repeatedly—to lose weight, you must be in a calorie deficit more often than not. You must eat fewer calories than you consume by either restricting calories or increasing your caloric burn with exercise. Most people find success by combining a slight reduction in calories and a daily exercise program. It’s difficult to lose weight with exercise alone, so the bottom line is you’re going to have to eat less.

Easier said than done, we know—we’ve been there. It’s more complicated than it sounds to cut out that afternoon snack and that evening dessert. The problem with cutting calories is that hardcore restrictive dieting doesn’t really work either. Sure, if you get disciplined, the weight will come off. Still, the extreme restriction doesn’t last, and eventually, you’ll find yourself binging on all those foods you’ve missed out on and gaining all that weight back. So, where is the balance? How can we remain in a calorie deficit without feeling restricted? For some people, the answer is a refeed day, but what is a refeed day? Let’s explore what it is and how to refeed your body. 

What is a Refeed Day?

Side view woman eating bread with salmon and greens on top

You’re probably jumping for joy already at the possibility of a refeed day being the end of your yo-yo dieting woes. So, what is a refeed day? It’s a relatively new term, and it refers to a planned day in which you take a break from the calorie restriction and “refeed” your body without worrying about sticking to your set calorie intake. In fact, most people purposefully go over their typical calorie consumption and focus on their carbohydrate intake.

Typically, refeeds are done either:

  • twice-a-week
  • weekly
  • biweekly basis

Refeed days are not the same thing as “cheat days,” which are typically unplanned, excessive, and out of control. 

Why do a Refeed Day?

Infographic about refeed day

Now that you know what a refeed day is, are you wondering why you should do one regularly? If we’re constantly preaching that to lose weight, you must eat fewer calories, why would we recommend a planned day where you overeat? Well, for one, constant restriction doesn’t work. Being flexible and allowing for days in which you don’t feel restricted actually increases the longevity of diet adherence.

There are some other scientific reasons to refeed as well. As a survival mechanism, the body typically begins to look for ways to limit weight loss after existing in a caloric deficit. Hormones don’t realize you’re purposely trying to lose weight. In an effort to prevent you from starving, they trigger your body’s hunger cues and begin to burn fewer calories in a process called adaptive thermogenesis.

What is Adaptive Thermogenesis?

This survival process triggers the metabolism to slow energy output for everything from basic metabolic processes to physical exercise. The goal is to prevent weight loss. It triggers a release of a cocktail of hormones designed to increase your cravings and encourage you to eat more. Hormones are also responsible for making you feel more sluggish and unmotivated than usual, too. All this leads to a weight loss plateau, or worse.

How can Refeed Days Help with Adaptive Thermogenesis?

"Protein, carbs, fats" spelt out of wooden cubes in pan

The theory behind refeed days is this: every day a person consumes calories in a deficit, the leptin hormone levels drop. Leptin is the primary hormone responsible for triggering adaptive thermogenesis when levels are low. By strategically introducing periods of overconsuming calories on a regular basis, leptin levels temporarily increase and prevent the body from entering starvation mode.

Out of the three macronutrients—carbs, fats, and proteins—carbohydrates are superior in increasing leptin hormone levels. It’s for this reason that a planned refeed day typically centers around carbohydrate intake. 

Who Should do Refeed Days?

We think refeed days can benefit most people, but people in these groups may particularly benefit from regular refeeding

Measuring tape wrapped around watermelon
  • people who are on the ketogenic diet
  • people who are on the Atkins diet or any other low-carb diet
  • people who are severely restricting their calories
  • people who have plateaued in their weight loss endeavors
  • people who have a history of yo-yo dieting

Refeed days are not encouraged if you have a history of disordered eating or a diagnosed eating disorder. As with all methods of losing weight, a neutral relationship with food is required for lasting, healthy success. So, let’s talk about how to refeed.

How to Refeed

If you think you could benefit from a refeed, the best way to ensure success is to plan. Learn how to refeed first. It’s critical to your results that you don’t go too far overboard, as overeating by thousands of calories in one day might still lead to weight gain, even if you’re in a deficit the other days. This kind of binging is more akin to a cheat day than a strategic refeed day.

Vegetables at vegetable market

While there are no scientific guidelines yet, most people can benefit by incorporating one refeed day on a biweekly basis. The lower your body fat percentage, the more often you may benefit from a refeed, up to two times a week.

Generally, a modest increase of 400-600 calories on a refeed day should be all it takes. Instead of reaching for a pint of ice cream, aim for whole carbohydrate food such as whole grains, rice, potatoes, bananas, and pasta. You can, of course, aim to consume your standard protein and fat requirements, too. The idea is to prioritize carbs to best increase leptin hormone levels.

What are the Benefits of a Refeed Day?

Woman laughing while holding burger with both hands

We’ve touched a bit on the potential to prevent weight loss plateaus and assist in diet adherence, but there’s another fitness benefit to consider. Refeed days have the potential to improve your physical performance. The body’s primary source of fuel for exercise is glycogen, which comes from carbohydrates. When carbs are restricted, glycogen levels drop, and your performance suffers. When refeed days are executed correctly, the body can restore glycogen levels, and exercise performance can improve. Planning your refeed days around your most challenging workout days (hello, leg day) might be a great place to start.

Meeting weight loss goals is a challenge. Restricting calories isn’t fun, and it can make you feel pretty terrible when done to the extreme. Introducing biweekly refeed days might be the answer to helping you feel better while still meeting your health and fitness goals.

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