ReFeed: Overeating to Enhance Fat Loss

In fitness, there are numerous terms that get thrown around without much of a definition — flexible dieting, reverse dieting, daily undulating periodization, etc.

Another one of those terms is “refeed”. You see it mentioned quite a bit, but it’s hardly ever defined or explained.

A refeed is simply a deliberate period of higher calorie (carbohydrate) overfeeding during a caloric deficit, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

That doesn’t mean much without putting it into context, so let’s take a step back.

When dieting a number of different things happen, both physiologically and psychologically. Once you begin the dieting process, (caloric deficit) your body senses this and starts to make some adaptations:

1- Metabolic rate goes down

2- Appetite goes up

As a result of these adaptations, fat loss becomes more difficult. This is largely due to a hormone called leptin, more on that later.

The problem is, dieting is a necessary evil when it comes to fat loss. On one hand, being in a caloric deficit is necessary to lose fat — calories in vs. calories out. On the other hand, being in a caloric deficit unleashes adaptations that prevent further fat loss from occurring.

So the question quickly becomes — Is there something we can do to “hack” this process and make fat loss easier?

If you haven’t guessed it by now, the answer to that question is a refeed.

Physiological Benefits

The first benefit I want to talk about is refilling muscle glycogen. When dieting, muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrate in the muscle) is reduced. Without getting too far down the rabbit hole of energy systems, muscle glycogen is important for high-intensity exercise, such as resistance training. This is a lot more important for those who are following a low carb style diet. However, the longer a diet goes on and the lower the calories get, it doesn’t matter what kind of diet you are on, glycogen stores will get low.

Another benefit of incorporating refeeds is temporarily getting out of a diet-induced catabolic state. Now, believe me, nutritional means for preventing catabolism have been overblown. But with that being said, refeeds can make a substantial difference.

Anabolism (building up) and catabolism (tearing down) are in constant battle within the body. At all times they are both taking place. However, one is generally more involved than the other. During a caloric deficit, catabolism takes priority. By incorporating refeeds we can switch back over to an “anabolic state” even if only for a few hours.

This is why it’s important to have a refeed at least up to your calculated maintenance calories. The leaner the individual gets and the lower calories get, the more important this becomes.

Last but certainly not least, refeeds have the ability to normalize hormones such as leptin, ghrelin, insulin, peptide YY, etc. For our purposes, we are going to focus on leptin. Leptin is a hormone that controls appetite and hunger. When everything is running efficiently, leptin is pretty good at doing its job — telling us when we are hungry/full and making sure our metabolism is not impaired. The dieting process puts a kink in this system. Caloric restriction lowers metabolic rate and creates more hunger. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. The body doesn’t want to get lean. Being lean means you would have a hard time surviving food shortages. In an ideal scenario, the body wants to store calories (body fat) and expend as little energy as possible.

The goal of refeeds is not to completely prevent this from happening, it’s merely to slow the process down. Leptin seems to be more responsive to carbohydrates than fat. It’s for this reason why the added calories in a refeed are better suited coming from carbohydrates than anything else. Over consuming protein or fat during a refeed does not have the same effect. If anything, protein needs go down on a refeed day due to the “protein sparing” properties carbs have.

One last point I want to make before we move on. Refeeds are often wrongly proclaimed to increase metabolic rate. In reality, a 24hr refeed won’t actually make a substantial difference in your metabolism, at least in the big picture. It’s just too short of an energy flux to make an impact. In order to really reverse all the issues associated with dieting you would need to refeed for multiple days, possibly even weeks. In that case, we are no longer talking about refeeds, but an actual diet break or diet deload as I like to call it. Find more information about diet breaks here ==> Diet Deloading.

Psychological Benefits

It’s easy to get caught up in all the sciency physiological benefits of refeeds and skip over the psychological ones. In my opinion, that is a big mistake. In fact, in my experience, the psychological benefits tend to become more impactful in the real world.

Obviously, when calories increase on a refeed day you will have more flexibility with your diet. More flexibility allows you to fit more foods into your macros for the day. This is something to look forward to. It makes sticking to your diet easier on the other days because you know you have a refeed coming.

In the long term, I have found this to make the dieting process more sustainable.

You may be wondering what the benefits of a refeed are over a cheat or free meal? Well for one, a refeed is calculated. You will still have a protein, carbohydrate and fat goal for the day. This is more predictable than an all out cheat or free meal.

Also, cheat/free meals have a tendency to lead to further eating outside of the plan. You don’t see that as much with refeeds because the dieter must remain in control due to still tracking food intake.

If you want more information on why I’m not a huge fan of cheat meals read this: Cheat Meals: The “Clean” Eating Disorder

How to Set Up a Refeed

There are multiple ways to set up a refeed. They can be as short as a few hours or as long as a couple days. I generally like to prescribe refeeds over a single day (24 hours).

For the most part, refeeds are going to be higher carb and relatively low fat. Fat doesn’t necessarily need to be lower than the typical day, however, it can be. The argument in favor of lowering fat intake on a refeed is so you can be more aggressive with the carb intake from a calorie standpoint.

The argument against lowering fat is it makes fitting a lot of the foods you may be craving pretty difficult. Like I mentioned, there is a big psychological benefit to refeeds so this point should not be taken lightly.

If you are on a lower carb/higher fat diet it would be a good idea to lower fat intake when doing a refeed. However, if you are taking a more moderate approach to carbohydrate and fat intake, you don’t have to lower fats.

Protein needs also go down during a refeed but not a substantial amount. Again, for the most part, you can leave protein intake alone on a refeed.

Here is how I break it down:

Calories: The main goal is to increase calories to at least calculated maintenance. You can go about this a couple of different ways.

1- Use a calorie formula like I provide here.

2- Just bump calories up near where you started the diet.

3- Keep protein and fat the same and just bump up carbs based on the numbers I provide below.

Protein: Keep the same or drop 10–20g and put towards extra carb intake.

Fat: If fat is under 25% of your total calorie intake you can keep it the same. If it is higher than 25% then reduce it to that range.

Carbohydrates: Carbs are the money maker when it comes to refeeds. There are going to be a huge range when it comes to how many carbs to intake when refeeding. This will depend on lean body mass, current carbohydrate intake, how long you have been dieting, training schedule, etc.

A good starting point is 1.5–2.5 times current carb intake or 2–4g per pound of lean body mass. This is just a starting point, some people will be able to handle a lot more while some will probably need/benefit from less.

A quick note on fiber intake — When carb intake gets really high fiber tends to follow. Fiber is great, it has a ton of health benefits but like most things there comes a point to diminishing returns. Try to keep fiber intake in check (under 80g or so) to prevent the possibility of GI distress and micronutrient malabsorption.

When to Have a Refeed

I typically have clients refeed the day of or the day before the hardest training day of the week. There are a couple reasons why I do this.

1- More substrate (energy) for training.

2- Refeeds can be quite anabolic. Think back to where we talked about anabolic vs. catabolic states above.

The leaner someone gets and the longer they have been dieting the more frequently they should refeed. Start out refeeding once a week and then move on to twice a week. Very rarely will anyone need or benefit from refeeding more than three times a week.

You don’t need to implement refeeds as soon as you start a diet (caloric restriction). It takes awhile for the negative aspects of dieting to set in. I like to keep refeeds in our back pocket and wait until we need them. It’s like the use of nitrous in the early Fast and Furious movies…you don’t want to use it too early.

Refeeds have a tendency to spike body weight for the days following. This doesn’t always happen but it’s pretty common. It’s nothing to be concerned with. When you think about it, its pretty clear why. Carbohydrates store in muscle and liver and every gram of carbohydrate holds around 3g of water.

So as you can see most if not all weight gain associated with a refeeds tend to be water weight. The same can not be said for the binge, 10,000 calorie cheat day. Water balances out in a day or two, the damage done by a 10,000 calorie blow out tends to stick around for longer.

Other Articles You Might Like:

1. Reverse Dieting: How to Build Muscle and Stay Lean

2. Diet Deloading (Diet Breaks)

3. Cheat Meals: The “Clean” Eating Disorder

4. Top 4 Fat Loss Mistakes