Refeeds or cheat meals/days typically involve either a day or meal that is significantly higher calorie than what is regularly being consumed.
Generally, they are undertaken during a dieting phase where you are consistently in a calorie deficit. And from what I see, they are most often performed once per week, often on a weekend.
A cheat meal is typically just a high-calorie meal which is generally high in carbs and/or fat. A cheat day or refeed day is a day that is usually either a day at maintenance calories (instead of a calorie deficit) or a calorie surplus.
Refeeds and cheat meals/days are pretty much interchangeable phrases, although I prefer the term refeed since that implies that it is being utilised for purposes beyond just a break from the diet via “cheating.”
Often these are implemented for a variety of reasons including a mental break from dieting, to spike metabolism/TDEE (total daily energy expenditure), reduce hunger associated with dieting, increase glycogen stores, and also potentially help improve body composition outcomes.
In this post, I will break down the pros and cons of refeeds, whether they actually achieve the desired outcomes, and how you might also be able to reap these proposed benefits in a more effective fashion.
Metabolism and TDEE
One of the reasons a lot of people promote refeeds is due to the theoretical benefits it has for increasing TDEE, which therefore increases the point at which maintenance calories would be. Higher maintenance calories make it easier to remain in a deficit over the course of the week.
Theoretically, it has been proposed that this could be a tool that could reverse metabolic adaptation as pictured below.
The image above illustrates how when you are in a linear calorie deficit for an extended period, TDEE drops over time. So, a lot of people think of refeed days as a tool that could help offset this to a certain degree.
A lot of this appears to have been based on the acute response in studies that involve refeeds.
But when you take a step back and look at things over the course of multiple weeks, the increase in TDEE related to a refeed is minimal.
And since the benefit from that perspective is minimal, it does not really make sense from a metabolism standpoint to slow down your progress by either taking a day at maintenance calories or having a day in a calorie surplus.
The other aspect is unless this is specifically calculated, a lot of people end up in a large calorie surplus on their cheat day, which further slows down progress by taking them a step backwards.
That does not mean refeeds do not have any benefits, it just means they likely are not that worthwhile in terms of keeping speeding up your metabolism or keeping TDEE higher.
Although this is a super complex topic, one factor that can help make weight-loss easier or help prevent weight-regain is appetite management.
If you are less hungry, it is easier to not overeat.
When you restrict calories, leptin which is a satiety hormone tends to decrease as well. This is part of an explanation as to why people start getting hungrier as a diet progresses.
Once again, looking at short-term studies, things look promising for refeeds. In response to a cheat meal, leptin levels increase significantly.
But unfortunately, this is only an acute spike, before falling back to normal levels pretty quickly.
The benefit of this likely does not outweigh the impact of having more calories.
And while you could argue that having more calories is obviously going to help your hunger on that day, if you wanted to stick to a certain rate of weight loss, this can cause an issue.
If you have a set amount of weight you would like to lose each week on average, consuming more calories for a refeed day means you need to consume LESS calories for the other days to make the average calories come out appropriately.
When looked at it from that perspective, it would likely mean you would end up slightly hungrier on your non-refeed days.
An argument that some people make is that it helps replenish glycogen stores, which will then significantly help training performance.
When it comes to resistance training, it really doesn’t seem like glycogen depletion is likely a limiting factor for most people.
And while you could argue that it is more likely to be an issue in a calorie deficit, it’s not as if you are typically completely glycogen depleted.
If that WAS an issue, then moving some of your carbohydrates pre-workout could help solve that anyway.
Even under low-carb conditions, the difference in performance does not appear to be overly significant.
Could doing a refeed the day before or the day of your hardest session of the week help your performance in that session? Potentially. But if no individual session is particularly important in comparison to the others, the cost could outweigh the benefits.
The Mental Perspective
Since refeeds probably are not worthwhile from a metabolism or appetite standpoint, and the glycogen argument is debatable, from my perspective it seems like the psychological benefits are the main reason to consider refeeds.
This aspect is pretty clear to see and does not require much explanation.
Basically, dieting can be hard. It can feel restrictive. Having one day of the week where you can eat more calories, even if it is less “healthy” food can help ease this burden.
This can potentially help make it easier to stick to the plan during the week.
That makes sense to me. It can go both ways though. I’m personally a fan of flexible dieting concepts, which really mean you can include that kind of stuff throughout the week.
If you include your favourite foods in moderation throughout the week, maybe you do not need to have that one day of the week where you have a larger calorie budget?
If you are aiming for a specific rate of weight-loss, having a higher calorie day also means the rest of your week needs to be lower calorie to keep the average where you want it to be.
It has pros and cons. When looked at it from that perspective, it is really personal preference. Would you prefer one larger calorie day and then have to sacrifice a little bit more during the week? Or would you prefer consistency and slightly higher calories throughout the week? There is no right or wrong answer.
Alternatives to Refeeds
Up until recently, I had pretty much ruled out refeeds being worthwhile beyond the mental benefits.
But a recent study from Bill Campbell’s lab opened my mind a bit to possibilities if it was adjusted slightly.
This study utilised a 2-day refeed, instead of the classic 1-day refeed.
The study was designed as follows: 2 groups of trained men and women would cut for 7 weeks with the same weekly average energy deficit and macros, either with a continuous daily 25% energy deficit or 5 days of a 35% energy deficit followed by 2 days of maintenance energy intake. During the 2 refeed days, all extra energy intake was instructed to come from carbs.
In this study, the 2-day refeeds helped to preserve resting metabolic rate at a slightly higher point, therefore making it easier to maintain a calorie deficit.
As stated previously, a 1-day refeed is likely too acute. A 2-day refeed might be better from that perspective, although it is hard to say that since there is still minimal research on the topic beyond this study.
It’s also worth mentioning that this study concluded that it helped people retain more fat-free mass. This looks like a massive win for 2-day refeeds, but it has been documented elsewhere that this finding might actually have been overinterpreted and might not actually have been significant.
Another alternative to 1-day refeeds that I like is the incorporation of diet breaks.
Basically, a diet break involves spending a period of time (often one or two weeks) at maintenance calories.
From my perspective, this provides all the benefits associated with 1-day refeeds, except because it is a longer period of time, it appears to have longer lasting effects.
A lot of the research on diet breaks has used protocols such as alternating two weeks dieting and two weeks at maintenance, or three weeks dieting and one week at maintenance.
Personally, I think that might prolong the overall process longer than necessary. With my clients I often do diet breaks after every eight weeks or so of dieting. But it is something that needs to be individualised.
Once again, there is no right or wrong with this. And while the research looks promising so far, it certainly is not at the point where optimal protocols can be identified.
Thoughts on Refeeds vs Alternatives
From a mental perspective, refeeds can have their place. They can help ease feelings of restriction as well as make social occasions easier every now and then.
But from another perspective, a 1-day refeed is likely too acute to have a lasting impact that is beneficial from a TDEE and hunger standpoint. The performance benefits likely are not significant either.
A 2-day refeed at maintenance calories looks like a promising alternative, but it is still early days in the research for that as well.
One downside I see of 2-day refeeds is it also requires a significant drop in calories during the week to make up for the time spent at maintenance calories. To match the weight-loss associated with a daily 25% calorie deficit, you would need to decrease down to a 35% calorie deficit to account for the days spent at maintenance calories.
An alternative that I personally like to use with my clients is diet breaks. Due to the extended nature of a diet break, it provides the same benefits that a 1-day refeed is typically planned to, but in a more effective fashion.
Diet breaks still have the downside of slowing down the overall process by spending time at maintenance calories, but in a lot of cases, I think it can be a worthwhile trade-off.
Aidan is a Brisbane based dietitian who prides himself on staying up-to-date with evidence-based approaches to dietetic intervention. Dating back to well before starting uni he has been fascinated by all things nutrition, particularly the effects of different dietary approaches on body composition and sports performance. Due to this passion, he has built up an extensive knowledge base and experience in multiple areas of nutrition and is able to help clients with a variety of conditions. One of Aidan’s main strengths is his ability to adapt plans based on the client’s desires. By having such a thorough understanding of optimal nutrition for different situations he is able to develop detailed meal plans and guidance for clients that can contribute to improving the clients overall quality of life and performance. He offers services both in-person and online.