One question I get often from people trying to lose body fat is whether or not they should take refeed days. This is something that I wondered myself when I first started dieting. And now after being through multiple fat loss phases, here’s what I’ve learned when it comes to refeed days:
Should you take refeed days? Taking refeed days can help you stay in a calorie deficit more easily by giving you a psychological break from eating low calories. Consecutive days of refeeding can also help reverse some of the metabolic adaptations that takes place during a prolonged calorie deficit.
Basically what I’ve learned over the years is that taking refeeds while cutting is highly beneficial both when it comes to well-being and for providing better long-term results. In this post I’m going to explain what refeed days are, why I recommend that you use refeed days, and finally how to set up your refeed days.
Table of Contents
What Are Refeed Days?
Refeed days are planned days where you take a break from dieting/being in a calorie deficit by increase your calorie intake, often from carbohydrates. The goal with the refeed is to replenish your energy stores, get a psychological break from dieting and in doing so improve well-being, performance and end results.
When it comes to refeed days there are a ton of “bro science” around the subject. But there are also some research supporting it’s positive effects. So let’s cut through the clutter and look at the true benefits of refeed days:
The Benefits of Refeed Days
Have you ever heard the term diet fatigue?
Well, diet fatigue refers to both the mental and physical fatigue caused by being in a calorie deficit. When we consistently take in fewer calories than what we burn during a day (which is required for fat loss), we also dig into our ability to recover and most of our bodily systems will adapt to eating lower calories. These adaptations lead to decreased physical and mental energy, which can then significantly impact our well being and results.
Diet fatigue is hands down the greatest enemy to fat loss. Once you get too fatigued, your body and mind will start working against you, which forces you to use willpower in order to continue seeing results. And, no matter how much we like to see ourselves as masters of willpower, unfortunately we will give in to out natural impulses sooner or later, and fall of the dieting waggon.
Now, don’t get me wrong:
When you’re dieting to lose body fat, eventually you will experience some sort of fatigue, there’s no way around that. This happens simply because you’re taking away one of the biggest aspect of recovery in order to lose fat, which is calories. But there are ways to effectively mitigate how much fatigue that you build up, and this is exactly what refeed days can help you do.
How Refeed Days Can Help Reduce Fatigue
There are two types of fatigue that we can experience:
- Psychological fatigue
- Physiological fatigue
The first one, psychological fatigue is the mental wear and tear we feel when eating fewer calories. This can be things such as low mental energy, mood swings, grumpyness and low adherence to the diet etc. And the second one, physiological fatigue is the physical wear and tear we experience when eating fewer calories. This can be things such as low physical energy, reduced energy expenditure, aches and pains etc.
Refeed days and psychological fatigue
When it comes to psychological fatigue, research has seen that even one day at maintenance can significantly aid mental well being and restore a lot of the negative mental adaptations caused by a fat loss diet.
This was found when one group of researchers sent out a computer based survey to a group of subjects with the following question:
-What would you enjoy most; 7 days of straight dieting on 1500 calories per day, or 6 day on 1300 calories with 1 day at 2700 calories on the last day of the week?
These two options will result in the same weekly calorie intake (the same fat loss per week) by the way, which is more important than daily calorie intake, here’s a visualization of this:
Nearly all subjects choose the second option, simply because they believed 1500 and 1300 calories to be equally sucky. But that one day at maintenance, where they could indulge in more food seemed like a very enjoyable break and trade-off.
Another psychological benefit seen in research of eating more food, especially carbs, is increased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a feel good substance and increasing it only for a day can significantly boost your mental well-being for multiple days to come.
Refeed days and physiological fatigue
So one day of refeed per week is supported to be beneficial for psychological enjoyment when cutting, and will help reduce mental fatigue. However, just one day doesn’t seem to be that beneficial for physiological adaptations like metabolic slowdown, glycogen replenishment and hormonal status etc. I.e. physical fatigue.
But, here’s where it gets interesting:
It’s been shown that longer consecutive day refeeds between 2-3 days seems to be able to reverse some of the physiological adaptations created by a fat loss diet as well.
Where one study by Dirlewanger et al found that 3 days of refeeding at maintenance reversed metabolic slowdown by increasing TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). This effect seemed to start already at day 2 of the 3 day refeed as well.
Furthermore, in another study by Olson et al they found that by having at least 2 refeed days in a row they could reverse much of the hormonal imbalances caused by being in a prolonged calorie deficit. For males this is usually a worse testosterone to cortisol ratio, and by having at least 2 consecutive days of refeed each week this ratio will be better, which will lead to improved performance and allow for better well-being, while preserving more muscle mass.
In summary, stacking refeeds on top of each other will provide you with positive psychological and physiological benefits that’ll make your fat loss phase easier.
How Often Should You Have a Refeed Day?
How often you should take refeed days mainly depends on two things, one your psychological adherence and, two your current level of body fat.
Refeed days and psychological adherence
What I mean with psychological adherence is basically how well you can stick to eating lower calories without having a break. If you feel that it’s no problem eating in a calorie deficit for multiple weeks before you crave more food, then that’s great, just take a refeed when you feel it’s appropriate. But on the other end, if you can barely take 5 days in a calorie deficit before you start to go nuts, then perhaps having one or two planned refeed days per week is smart.
Refeed days and body fat percentage
The second thing that can help determine the amount of refeeds you should take is your current body fat percentage. We know from anecdotal evidence that the optimal rate of weight loss should not be based on body weight, but on body fat percentage ranges.
Here are the ranges:
|Body Fat %
|~1.1 kg (2.4 lbs)
~0.9 kg (2 lbs)
0.45-0.7 kg (1-1.5 lbs)
0.45-0.6 kg (1-1.3 lbs)
0.35-0.45 kg (0.75-1 lbs)
0.2-0.35 kg (0.45-0.75 lbs)
~0.2 kg (0.45 lbs)
As you can see, the leaner you get the slower you should lose body fat. This is obvious since the less body fat we carry, the more our bodies tries to hold on to the body fat we got left. If we were to try and lose body fat faster than the rates within the respective body fat percentage ranges, we would start to lose muscle mass, feel bad and negatively affect our health.
Now, I’m sure you might wonder, what does this have to do with refeed days?
Well, since stacking refeeds on top of each other (2-3 consecutive days per week), is supported to help reverse some of the negative metabolic adaptations caused by dieting, and also greatly improve psychological adherence to the fat loss diet. Taking planned refeed days instead of just reducing the calorie deficit accross all days, is a greatly strategy for optimal results and well being during your fat loss phase.
I’ve written more about this strategy in this post. But in short, here’s how it works:
Step 1 – Set up the amount of refeeds per week accordingly to your body fat percentage.
Here’s the amount of refeeds that I’ve found work best both for myself and for clients:
|Body Fat %
|Number of Refeeds/Week
To find out your body fat percentage, go to this page:
Step 2 – Recount your calorie deficit to fit your low days and maintenance days.
Let’s take an example and say that you start at 80 kg, 18 % body fat and a daily calorie intake calculated to 2200 per day, which in this example should have you lose 0.6 kg per week.
As you can see in the list; since you’re between 15-20 % body fat, I recommend starting out with one refeed day per week.
To calculate how many calories you should eat on your 6 low days and on your 1 refeed day, you must first count your daily calorie intake into your weekly calorie intake.
2200 x 7 = 15400 calories per week
Next would be to subtract this weekly total with 1 maintenance day (the reefed).
15400 – 2800 = 12600 calories
Finally, divide these remaining calories with the remaining 6 days:
12600 / 6 = 2100 calories
There we go, to still lose 0.6 kg per week, this time with one refeed day per week implemented, you should in this example eat 2100 calories on your six low days and 2800 calories on your one refeed day.
Step 3 – As you get leaner reduce your calorie deficit simply by taking one more refeed day accordingly to your “new” body fat percentage bracket.
Okay, so after let’s say 3-5 weeks, you reach 15 % body fat. It’s time to slow down your rate of fat loss to avoid losing muscle mass and/or experience other unpleasantries caused by losing body fat to fast at a lower body fat percentage.
Now, instead of reducing your calorie deficit by eating less on all of your days, you’re smart and want the positive benefits on metabolism, glycogen replenishment, hormonal balance and psychological adherence. You get this by adding another refeed day at maintenance next to your already existing refeed day.
You see, by doing this you just reduced your calorie deficit and rate of fat loss, while simultaneously reversing some of the negative physiological adaptations caused by the deficit. All while you get two whole days in a row to enjoy more food!
Isn’t that awesome?
All you have to do now is repeat this process each time you get into a new “body fat percent bracket”.
This is the power of refeeds. In fact, I believe it to be the most powerful strategy when it comes to getting lean effectively and enjoyably. Because by doing it, you will reduce your calorie deficit slowly over time, by taking consistent breaks at maintenance, and this is definitely key for making fat loss more easy and enjoyable.
What’s most powerful though, is that you’ll continue adding refeeds until you’re at a point where you’re close to maintenance calories on all your days, while also getting leaner at the same time.
When you’re approaching the 10% body fat mark, you’re going to be at maintenance calories 3-4 days per week. The other 3-4 days in a deficit will go by so fast, and will feel very easy because you know there will be a 3-4 day break coming up very soon.
How to Set up Your Refeed Days
There are a few good guidelines on how you should structure your meals and what you should eat during your refeed days. Here they are:
1. How you should structure your meals during your refeed days
The best way to structure your meals during your refeed days is in most cases exactly the same as you do during your calorie deficit days. So, if you’re eating four meals, during certain times on your deficit days, you should try your best to do exactly like this during your refeed days as well. The only thing that should differ is the amount of food you eat.
The reason for this is that we want your food habits to remain pretty much the same. It’s been shown that keeping a regular feeding schedule is optimal for digestion and health.
2. What you should eat during your refeed days
What you eat during your refeed days is the thing that we want to change, specifically the amount you eat. Obviously what’s most important during your refeed days is that your calories increase to atleast maintenance calories. This can be accomplished by raising either your protein, carbs or fat, or a combination of all three.
What I recommend though, and what’s been supported in research is to raise your carbs during your refeed day. A higher carb intake has been shown to effectively reduce the hunger hormone Leptin, which is getting upregulated during consecutive days in a calorie deficit. By increasing your leptin levels you will feel less hunger during your upcoming days making fat loss easier to return too.
Not only that, bunking up on carbs on your refeed days also help restore your glycogen stores which will help make your performance better in the gym (which will effectively spare your muscle mass), and also allow you to feel better during your upcoming days in a deficit.
So, to get the best results possible out of your refeed days, here’s how I recommend that you eat during those days:
- Maintain your normal protein intake
- Double or perhaps even triple your normal carbohydrate intake
- Reduce your normal fat intake, unless you are already using a low-fat approach, if that’s the case, maintain your level of fat intake low
Why you should eat less fat during your refeed days
First of all, fat is very energy dense, which means you won’t get that much bigger meals if you go with lots of fat, this somewhat defeats parts of the purpose of a refeed, which is being able to eat more food.
Second, fat gets instantly converted to either energy or body fat. So, if you’re eating at maintenance, a lot of the fat you consume during your refeed day (if you go with very high-fat) will be directly stored as body fat. You don’t want this to happen when you are on a diet. Research has shown that the body does a way better job burning calories and sending energy to metabolic processes when you increase carbs instead of fat.
So, that’s pretty much it regarding refeed days.
Now, refeed days are just a small part of the puzzle when it comes to getting a ripped physique. The fact that you need to be in a well set up calorie deficit, eat the correct amount of macros, specifically protein, and also ensure that you’re on a well set up training program is vastly more important than whether or not you use refeeds.
If you feel lost in the sea of information I recommend that you get your hands on a step by step course that will guide you through exactly what you need to do to achive your goal of getting a lean and muscular physique. This is what I did once I’d been training for about 1 year, and in hindsight I definitely wish that I had gotten myself a course earlier, as I saw my best results once I jumped on the step by step program.