Someone asked me the other days if there is a need to have a refeed day once or twice a week while cutting to prevent metabolic slow-down and avoid the “starvation mode”.
It’s a very good question.
I personally don’t think short refeeds (a cheat meal or a cheat day) do much to prevent metabolic slowdown and I also don’t believe they can help you lose fat faster. I’ll explain why later in this article.
However, I do believe refeeds are useful and you should use them when cutting – but they shouldn’t be planned, you should have them only when you need them. That is when your training performance suffers and when you want to take a break from your diet.
So in this article we’ll talk about a few things:
1. Why short refeeds probably don’t speed up your metabolism and why they also probably don’t prevent metabolic slowdown
2. Why eating more carbs and food in general can improve training performance
3. Why I think you shouldn’t have a fixed refeed day in a week but have it when you need it
I encourage you to read this article, get the information, and then draw your own conclusions. Remember, don’t be a follower, be a student.
Do Refeeds help you lose fat faster?
Let’s first explain the logic behind refeeding.
As we lose weight, our bodies begin to adapt to the shortage of food. The metabolic rate drops a little, hunger increases, energy levels drop, and so do testosterone and other hormones. These adaptations are normal and are there to increase our chances of survival because our bodies don’t know we’re intentionally losing weight.
Now, refeeding is a planned increase of calorie and carbohydrate intake during a diet. It’s main purpose is to reset some of the negative metabolic adaptations by acutely raising leptin levels.
Leptin is a hormone which regulates hunger, metabolic rate, libido, and a lot of other functions in the body. The reason leptin is so important while dieting is because studies have shown that high leptin levels speed up the metabolic rate (they tested this with leptin injections).
So the logic behind refeeding is to acutely spike leptin levels by eating more carbs. In theory that will lead to an increase in metabolic rate for a few days and prevent metabolic slowdown.
But there’s a problem.
Spiking leptin through injections is not the same as spiking it by eating more food.
Leptin injections raise leptin levels to supraphysiological levels. Also they allow you to reset a lot of the metabolic adaptation without consuming more calories, meaning you stay in a calorie deficit.
But in the case of a refeed day, to spike leptin levels and speed up your metabolic rate you have to overeat – basically eliminating the calorie deficit. The amount of food you have to eat to get this effect is a problem.
Studies show that an all out binge increases the metabolic rate by 3-10% for about a day. Burning 50-200 calories more in a day sounds awesome but think of the food you have to eat to achieve that effect. You will no longer be in a calorie deficit.
So personally I don’t see how that will help you lose fat faster. You have to eat let’s say 600 calories to speed up your metabolism by anywhere from 50 to 200 calories. Also, as far as I understand, we don’t actually know if spiking leptin by eating more carbs achieves the same effect as leptin injections. We assume it does but there is no clear evidence to support that.
Maybe I’m wrong but I believe the acceleration in fat loss most people report after a refeed day is actually something else. Eating more food can help flush out water from under the skin creating the illusion of fat loss. Your weight will also go down a little if you get rid of water retention.
Moreover, eating more carbs can make your muscles fuller, stretching the skin which again can create the illusion of fat loss.
So to conclude what we covered so far, my opinion is that short refeeds don’t do much (if anything at all) to speed up fat loss.
Do Refeeds prevent Metabolic Slowdown?
But what about preventing metabolic slowdown?
I think short refeeds are not very useful for that either.
Lyle McDonald talks a lot about this. When our body fat stores decrease our metabolic rate will slow down a little no matter what you do. The overall circulating levels of leptin will be lower regardless of how you eat and train and they will likely never go back to the pre-diet level unless you regain the weight.
He recently did a podcast on Sigma Nutrition talking about leptin and metabolic adaptations and one thing he said was: “I’m now way more convinced that short refeeds and by short I mean 5 hours to one day, probably aren’t doing much.”
That makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Our metabolic rate slows down to prevent starving to death so would it be a wise decision to reverse all the metabolic adaptation just because you had access to food for one day or a few hours? Our body doesn’t think so.
The story is different with longer refeeds lasting 3 days or more. When you eat at maintenance or slightly above for a few days, that will most likely reverse some of the fat loss adaptation but again, not to pre-diet levels. Remember that the amount of calories we need for maintenance is very closely linked to our body weight. A smaller body burns less energy both at rest and during any kind of activity.
So there are two ways to minimize metabolic slowdown using refeeds: have refeeds that last a few days or shorter refeeds more often. There is a price though. If you do that, your weekly caloric deficit will be small and your cut will take a long time – probably 4-5 months to drop 15 pounds.
Or you could go very, very low in calories on the days that you are dieting so you average a better calorie deficit. But I wouldn’t recommend that. If you eat 1000 kcal one day and 3000 kcal another day you’ll probably become obsessed with food and your fitness will take over your life completely.
What I recommend is to accept the fact that your metabolic rate will go down a little while cutting no matter what you do. And it’s not that much – studies show that the metabolic rate doesn’t slow down more than 15% than what would be predicted even in the case where you lose half of your body weight like in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
If you lose only 10-20 lbs of fat your metabolism will slow down but probably only about 100-200 calories a day depending on the person. That’s not so bad.
Should we give up refeeds completely then?
So if short refeeds don’t actually prevent metabolic slowdown should we not have them at all?
No, they are still useful but for other reasons.
– Physiologically they help boost gym performance by refilling muscle glycogen. And they also probably have a positive effect on maintaining healthy hormonal balance.
– Psychologically they reduce the stress of dieting because they allow us to eat more for a short period of time.
What you’ll notice is that to get these two benefits you don’t need to have a planned refeed, you eat more just when you need it.
Here’s what I do and recommend. I have a refeed day in two situations:
1. When I have no energy at the gym
When I feel weak and I’m sure it’s not psychological, I eat at maintenance or slightly above that evening. Eating more carbs will refill muscle glycogen stores and will likely restore your lost strength.
I did this only one time during the last 6 weeks I’ve been cutting. I had a very poor bench pressing day a few weeks ago and that day I ate about 100g of carbs more than usual. The next workout my strength was back up.
There is one important point here though. You have to make sure that your poor training performance is truly caused by physiological reasons not psychological ones. If you go to the gym expecting to be weak you may lose the last rep because of your thoughts and not because your muscles were actually depleted.
If the bar speed was very good for the first reps and suddenly you fail on your last rep that may be an indication of mental blocks and not a consequence of eating less.
If you go to the gym with high expectations, you give it everything you’ve got and you are still weak, then you know that your poor performance is probably caused by the calorie deficit and not your mind. A refeed day may help you regain your training performance in that situation.
2. When my social life demands it
The main reason I use unplanned refeeds is so that I can pair them with social events that happen in my life. Over a time period of 5-8 weeks of cutting there will inevitably be some social events that will make you eat more than you planned.
So why not take the opportunity and make that your refeed day? This way you get to enjoy the event, you get the physiological benefits of the refeed day, and you completely eliminate the guilt of cheating your diet. Win-Win-Win.
For example during the last 6 weeks I’ve been cutting there have been 4 or 5 days when I was forced to eat at maintenance or slightly above. My brother graduated from collage so we went out with the family to a nice restaurant, I celebrated my birthday one week ago so of course I ate a little more that day, I went to a friend’s house-warming party a few weeks ago and had a few drinks, and a few other events like that. I was able to match these special occasions with my refeed days and it worked out great.
In conclusion I believe it’s not worth having refeed days for the effect they have on the metabolic rate. But I do believe they are useful for supporting training performance and allowing more flexibility with your diet.
The best ways to have refeed days in my opinion is when you need them. If you feel your training suffers because of your diet, have a refeed day and see if that fixes it. Also by having flexible refeed days you can pair them with social events and get to enjoy more food without guilt and while getting the benefits of eating more food.
That’s my opinion on this matter 🙂 You know how they say, do whatever the science tells you to do.
Thanks for reading until the end and if you have any feedback at all about these ideas, leave a comment below.
Additional Information I found useful:
The Refeed Day: When Dieting Should Include Overeating and Why
SNR #65: Lyle McDonald – Fat Loss Adaptations, Water Retention & Leptin
Carbohydrate Refeeds, Leptin and Weight Loss. Do They Really Work?
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