What is the difference between a "refeed" and a "cheat day," and which one belongs in my fat-loss approach?
The term "refeed" is thrown around loosely in the fitness community. To some people, it's simply an excuse to gorge on rarely eaten foods, while to others, it serves a more strategic end. If the only strategy in your refeed involves trying to figure out how to eat a second cheeseburger before you feel full from the first one, sorry, that's not a refeed. So let's talk about what is.
Although there's no official definition of refeed, it has a specific meaning in nutrition circles. It can be defined as a short-term, planned period of overfeeding—usually focusing on particular macronutrients—that surpasses current caloric intake, often incorporated during a fat-loss phase.
A "cheat" day, on the other hand, can be loosely defined as a day in which no food is tracked, and foods outside of the normal routine are consumed. A caloric surplus is assumed and expected, regardless of whether or not a person is trying to lose or gain weight. Depending on your cravings, these days could include epic plate-sized burgers, stacks of pastries, fast food, ice cream—really, whatever you want, and however much of it you can stand. The focus tends to be on quantity rather than quality.
Does this approach have value? It can, but it definitely depends on how you approach it. So let's make sure you're doing what's right for you and your goals.
When Calories Attack
The scientific basis for a refeed day lies within the leptin-boosting power from a short-term boost in calories. Leptin, a hormone that regulates satiety and energy intake, decreases when body-fat levels go down and carbohydrate intake gets reduced.1 As a result, hunger levels rise and satiety is reduced. Ideally, the goal of a refeed day should be to promote a rise in leptin levels to better help adherence to a specific diet.
In contrast, a cheat day can provide a mental break from the rigorous tracking and frequent scrutiny of macros. This pause on "paralysis by analysis" promotes several positive changes, such as an increase in dopamine, a chemical in the brain associated with our brain's reward and pleasure center.2 This may help to promote adherence down the road.
However, if you're in the midst of a fat-loss phase, a day in which care is thrown out the window may do more harm than good. I know what you're thinking: What difference can a day make? It can make a surprisingly large one, particularly if your cheat day is a weekly occurrence.
Due to the adaptations that occur in the body during a prolonged fat-loss phase, too frequent, cheat days that are too frequent or too extreme can seriously hinder progress, if not push you back a step.
As you dip further below your so-called "body-fat set point," which is the tightly-regulated range in which your body feels most comfortable, hormonal changes occur to help promote weight gain.3 Layne Norton, PhD, and Sohee Lee gave a solid overview of body-fat set points in their article, "How Your Fat-Loss Diet Could Be Making You Fat." The upshot: When you're deep in a deficit, a day too high in either calories or dietary fat can set you back significantly.
Enter the reefed. When you're in a prolonged deficit, your muscle carbohydrate stores are often running close to empty. A properly constructed refeed day will help to replenish these stores, rather than bolstering fat stores.4 However, a cheat day containing an abundance of high-fat foods will primarily promote fat gain rather than refilling your carbohydrate stores. Additionally, a high-fat meal has been demonstrated to promote a dip in leptin levels for up to 24 hours.5
Excess fat storage and a reduction in leptin are outcomes you are absolutely not seeking during a fat-loss phase!
Reconstructing Your Refeed
A refeed day should primarily focus on increasing carbohydrate intake, with preference given to increasing intake both before and after training. It has been demonstrated that a high-carbohydrate meal can boost leptin, particularly when compared to a high-fat meal.5 As a result, your raging appetite may be temporarily suppressed, possibly for 24-48 hours, relieving you from the rigors of caloric restriction.4
This short-term boost in carbohydrates can also help fill muscle carbohydrate stores, promoting hard training in the days to come. After training, it may be advantageous to focus on high-glycemic carbohydrates, which have been shown to have a greater impact on leptin levels due to the correlation between insulin and leptin.6
To compensate for the increased calories from the rise in carbohydrates, I recommend that you reduce fat intake during a refeed. This will provide less opportunity for fat storage and enable you to reap the leptin-lifting benefits of a high-carbohydrate day. Reducing your fat intake by 25-30 percent for the day is a good place to start.
How much to increase your carbohydrate intake is up to you. Some individuals prefer to increase intake simply to maintenance levels—determined as their pre-diet amount—while others prefer to eat slightly above maintenance. Depending on your goals and preference, find what works for you.
If you're already eating at maintenance, or in a surplus, there is no need to include a refeed day. Sorry! You most likely already have enough calories in your diet to achieve satiety and have normalized leptin levels.
A Better Way to Cheat
I'm not a fan of the term "cheat day," and often cringe when individuals use that term. I believe in a balanced approach focusing on macronutrients and micronutrients that allows you to indulge in a variety of foods without the feelings of guilt or regret.
Rather than diving headfirst into a free-for-all day, focusing on building a healthy relationship with food is key for long-term health and success. Tired of tilapia or burned out on brown rice? Go enjoy a nice out-of-the-norm meal, and get back on track the next day—or, better yet, the next meal.
If you're stuck in a weight-loss rut, a high-carbohydrate refeed day can definitely provide benefits to help break through your plateau, but only if you do it right. When implementing a refeed, be sure to seek additional calories primarily from carbohydrates rather than fat to reap the satiety-promoting and performance- boosting benefits. Likewise, limit your cheat day to a rewarding meal to reap the psychological benefits without the fat-loss drawbacks.
Have a question for the Nutrition Tactician? Post it in the comments section below and it may be featured in an upcoming piece!
- Romon, M., Lebel, P., Velly, C., Marecaux, N., Fruchart, J. C., & Dallongeville, J. (1999). Leptin response to carbohydrate or fat meal and association with subsequent satiety and energy intake. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 277(5), 855-861.
- Dallman, M.F., Pecoraro, N., Akana, S.F., la Fleur, S.E., Gomez, F., Houshyar, H., Bell, M.E., Bhatnagar, S., Laugero, K.D. & Manalo, S. (2003). Chronic stress and obesity: A new view of "comfort food." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(20), 11696-11701.
- Trexler, E.T., Smith-Ryan, A. & Norton, L.E. (2014). Metabolic Adaptations to Weight Loss. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(7), 1-7.
- Horton, T. J., Drougas, H., Brachey, A., Reed, G. W., Peters, J. C., & Hill, J. O. (1995). Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 62(1), 19-29.
- Havel, P. J., Townsend, R., Chaump, L., & Teff, K. (1999). High-fat meals reduce 24-h circulating leptin concentrations in women. Diabetes, 48(2), 334-341.
- Herrmann, T.S., Bean, M.L., Black, T.M., Wang, P. & Coleman, R.A. (2001). High glycemic index carbohydrate diet alters the diurnal rhythm of leptin but not insulin concentrations. Experimental Biology and Medicine, 226(11), 1037-1044.