Embarking on a fat loss or healthy eating plan can be a big challenge, especially when you have set yourself big goals.

Many fat loss diets focus on calorie reduction through reducing portion sizes and controlling intake of sweet treats and high-calorie foods.

Due to this being such a big challenge for many of us, it’s normal to find strategies that may provide us with some respite from this restriction. This could then result in better overall adherence to the diet, thus better results.

This short guide discusses refeed days, what they are, how to do them, and whether it’s the right strategy for you!

Introduction to Refeeding

A refeed day is a day where you over-consume calories after a long period of calorie restriction.

The idea behind this strategy is to temporarily counteract the consequences of a calorie deficit, such as lowered hormone levels, weight loss plateaus, poor appetite, and fatigue.

Think of it as a temporary break from your diet where you increase your food intake to get your body back to baseline.

This is not only beneficial from a physiological and hormonal perspective, but also for mindset.

When you’ve been restricting calories for so long, it’s natural to cut out foods that you typically enjoy, so having a refeed day may also give you an opportunity to consume the foods you enjoy without worrying too much about calorie intake.

However, this strategy looks different for everyone and while the concept is shared, the approach is often unique to the individual.

Refeed Vs Cheat Days: What is the Difference?

From what you now know about refeed days, you may be wondering what the difference is between a refeed and a cheat day.

Cheat days are essentially a free-for-all on foods that you may have missed out on when dieting. This involved uncontrolled and unplanned eating for one day in often unlimited quantities.

Have you ever seen The Rock's cheat days? These involved copious amounts of sushi and pancakes! A perfect example of over-indulging on sweet treats in unlimited quantities. 

While they sound similar, refeed days are a far more controlled strategy that requires planning and thought.

Refeeding also focuses on food quality and increasing calories from carbohydrates for additional energy, as opposed to consuming more fat and protein.

How Do Refeed Days Work?

Refeed days exist to address fat loss plateaus, or a stunt in progress.

As your body weight decreases as a result of a calorie deficit, hormonal changes occur, and our bodies adapt to the drop in body weight. This is our body's natural adaptive mechanisms, also known as adaptive thermogenesis.

Adaptive thermogenesis is a protective mechanism that alters the body’s metabolism which causes us to crave more energy and decreases our movement to retain energy.

It does this by signalling the release of hormones that increase hunger and cravings, pushing us to consume more food.

Additionally, our calorie burn can also alter. Our body naturally wants to reserve our energy stores, so we may feel less enthused about daily movement and activity the longer we diet.

You may have also lost weight through a fat loss phase, which would also alter our metabolism as a lighter body requires fewer calories.

The hormonal changes that occur as a result of a calorie deficit include a decline in leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells that tells our body that it has adequate fat stores, which help regulate appetite.

Low levels of leptin tell our brain that we are in danger of calorie deprivation, which then results in our body essentially going into survival mode and working hard to signal you to consume food.

Refeed days work mostly by temporarily increasing our leptin levels through increasing our food intake. This basically means that we are signalling to our body that everything is good and that this process is intentional!

Incorporating a refeed day approximately once a week would result in your body burning fat more efficiently via reducing the effects of adaptive thermogenesis.

This is done mostly through increasing carbohydrate intake, as this nutrient is renowned for its ability to increase leptin levels.

The Pros of Refeeding

Refeed days may have many benefits as a result of reducing the effects of adaptive thermogenesis.

Some of these benefits include:

  • Preventing a weight loss plateau

Due to adaptive mechanisms in the body, our weight loss is typically never going to be a linear process. Eventually, it will stall and a diet break or strategic refeeds will be required to get back on track.

Feeding your body excess calories in the form of carbohydrates will help your body get back to baseline levels, thus improving the body’s fat-burning efficiency.

  • Improve physical performance

This is a particularly important benefit for any athletes who may be performance-focused while going through a fat loss phase.

The temporary increase in carbohydrates would help load up on glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates which is used for energy during exercise and movement).

Loading up on glycogen stores can be particularly beneficial for improving performance in the gym or sport, especially if the activity is high intensity, as glycogen would be our body’s preferred fuel source.

The Cons of Refeeding

While there are many benefits to refeed days, there are also downsides that we must be aware of, including:

  • Temptation to go overboard

Even when refeed days are planned out, there still remains the temptation to take it too far, particularly if you found dieting very difficult.

To avoid this, it may be a good idea to set calorie limits to avoid going overboard.

  • Diet culture

Refeeds can often perpetuate diet culture and mentality. The process of living through a very restrictive diet followed by a day of indulgent can often send the wrong message on how to lose fat.

Losing fat shouldn’t be a rushed process, and should be sustainable, slow, and healthy in order to see the best long-term results. Leaning too heavily on refeed days means increased risk of falling into a binge-restrict cycle which can be hard to break.

Remember, weight loss can be achieved sustainably and healthily without refeed days!

  • Relationship with food

Following on from the point above, refeed days are risky regarding distorting an individual’s relationship with food.

Refeed days do not mean eating a food group you have cut out for so long, it is simply a case of increasing a food group that you should already be eating through your fat loss phase.

If you already have a poor relationship with food, it’s best to potentially avoid refeed days and instead consult a nutrition professional!

Refeed Days: Summary

Refeed days can be a very effective strategy for tackling weight loss plateaus and potentially improving athletic performance.

They should not be confused with cheat days, which are less thought-out and controlled.

While refeed days can be effective by increasing calorie intake and helping our body’s return to baseline, there are also downsides that need to be addressed before implementing this strategy.

Sustainable weight loss can be achieved without refeed days, so it’s important to assess whether this strategy is right for you before trialling it!