|Read time: 6 minutes||Written by: Corey Nelson|
A refeed day refers to the practice of consuming additional calories, and usually extra carbs, one or more days per week.
Most often, people use refeed days as part of their fat loss strategy.
And the primary purpose of a refeed day is to accelerate the fat loss process. But research suggests there may be other benefits, too.
In this article, you’ll learn what research says about refeed days, 6 potential benefits, and how to incorporate them with practical examples.
Refeed days are different from “cheat days” because “cheating” on your diet implies you’re breaking a rule.
In contrast, refeed days are pre-planned and follow set guidelines as part of your overall dietary approach.
Also, people typically eat junk food on cheat days, which isn’t necessarily the case during refeed days. Overall, cheat days are probably a bad idea, and can lead to an unhealthy mindset around eating.
How do refeed days work? The popular explanation is that they raise leptin, a fat-burning hormone, which can increase weight loss.
However, according to research, the correct answer may be more complicated. Keep reading to learn what science really says about refeed days.
- Better exercise performance and recovery[*][*][*]
- Could help preserve muscle mass during weight loss[*]
- May raise testosterone and other hormones[*]
- Refeed days might make dieting easier psychologically[*]
- Leptin may play a small but beneficial role in increasing fat-burning[*]
- Refeeding could boost fat-burning or preserve metabolism through other means besides leptin[*][*]
Currently, there’s no direct research into “refeed days” conclusively proving they work.
However, there’s plenty of indirect scientific evidence that supports refeed days.
At the same time, though, they may work differently from how people generally assume.
Leptin and Weight Loss
The popular idea of how refeed days work is that they increase your leptin levels, enhancing your fat loss results.
Leptin is a hormone in your body that affects your metabolic rate, satiety (feelings of fullness), and fat-burning[*].
In healthy people, more leptin means a higher metabolism, more satiety, and increased fat-burning[*].
The idea sounds convincing, right? Unfortunately, there are two problems with it.
First of all, research shows that eating extra calories only boosts leptin for about 6 hours[*].
Therefore, 1-2 refeed days per week most likely wouldn’t have a significant effect on your results — especially since you have to eat extra calories to achieve a minor, temporary increase in leptin.
Think about it — if boosting your leptin levels through diet is effective for weight loss, then why do obese people have high levels of leptin?
But instead of going deeper down the leptin rabbit hole, let’s take a look at some better explanations for why refeed days may be valid.
Starvation Mode and Calorie and Carb Cycling
The technical name for this process is adaptive thermogenesis, not “starvation mode,” but regardless of what you call it, it’s a problem if your calories are too low.
Essentially, including refeed days might help prevent adaptive thermogenesis by signaling to your body that food is available.
And temporarily raising your insulin levels with extra carbs may be helpful for preserving muscle mass as you shed fat, too[*].
Feast and Famine
According to evolutionary biology, our ancestors most likely experienced conditions of food abundance alternating with periods of scarcity[*].
As a result, our bodies aren’t optimized around eating the same exact number of calories every day.
After all, can you imagine a human ancestor or a wild animal eating precisely 1800 calories (for example) every day for months at a time? It seems pretty unlikely.
And not only that, but switching between a caloric surplus and calorie deficit regularly may be beneficial for your health[*].
In a nutshell, eating a caloric surplus all the time leads to issues like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and inflammation, while a constant deficit resembling starvation causes your body to conserve energy and decrease hormonal function[*].
But consuming a deficit some days using practices like fasting or calorie restriction, and a surplus on refeeding days, could be “just right” for how your body is primed to work, due to evolution[*].
Calorie Intake and Other Hormones
As we’ve already discussed, leptin probably isn’t the primary factor at work when you incorporate refeed days.
That said, other hormones also change in response to how much you eat.
Here’s a partial list of important hormones that respond to your food and nutrient intake:
- Ghrelin and growth hormone[*]
- Thyroid hormone[*]
- Testosterone, luteinizing hormone, and other sex hormones[*]
To sum up, temporarily increasing your calories with a refeed day may balance your hormones, which could, in theory, help you get better results.
Keep in mind that your fat loss results will slow during refeed days, but the idea is to make up for it using effective fat loss tactics on days you aren’t refeeding.
That means that if you want to use refeed days, you’ll need to restrict calories and possibly include fasting, cardio, and carb restriction on non-refeed days.
And assuming your goal is fat loss, the best approach to refeeding is to schedule 1-2 refeed days per week during one of two times:
- Rest days prior to weight training days
- On weight training days
You can incorporate up to 3 refeed days during fat loss, but if you do, you should eat slightly fewer calories during each refeed day (see the guidelines in the next section).
Also, many people increase their carbohydrate intake during refeeding compared to calorie deficit days. As we covered previously, the reason is that higher carbs increase insulin release as well as replenish your glycogen stores, which helps rebuild muscle and fuel physical performance.
And if you’re following the keto diet to lose fat, you can use a targeted (TKD) or cyclical (CKD) keto diet approach in conjunction with refeed days, but you can also opt for a low-carb refeed day to stay in ketosis.
Refeed Day Macros and Calories
Want to try refeeding? Follow these guidelines.
- Require a caloric surplus (start with a daily calorie intake 12-15 multiplied by your bodyweight, and consider increasing up to 20 times your bodyweight if you’re an athlete or bodybuilder)
- Have moderate or high carbs (35-50%+ of calories from carbs) unless you’re on the standard keto diet
- Are high in protein
- Take place on rest days or weight training days
- Should include minimal cardio and no fasting
Fat loss days:
- Require a calorie deficit (begin with a daily calorie intake of 10 multiplied your bodyweight and adjust as needed based on your results)
- Generally include fewer carbs (40% or less, often much less)
- Are also high in protein, but not as high as refeed days, because overall calories are lower
- Typically include cardio and fasting
Also, keep in mind these are general principles. Start with the basics, but over time, you may find that a slightly different approach to refeeding works best for you.
The primary considerations for your refeed days are calories, macros (especially carbs and protein), rest and recovery, and exercise (or lack of exercise).
Your food selection isn’t as important as the other variables above, but it can still make a difference in your results as well as your overall health.
Ideally, you should mainly eat fresh, whole foods on refeed days — just like every other day.
But some people may have an easier time obtaining sufficient calories, especially if they are consuming high (bodyweight x 20) calories, by including some calorie-dense processed foods.
Additionally, it’s fine to indulge in the occasional restaurant visit, dessert, or other treats from time to time.
But on the other hand, remember that a refeed day is different from a cheat day, so don’t get too wild.
For more insight into the trade-offs between whole foods and processed foods, see Clean Bulk vs. Dirty Bulk: Pros and Cons (Plus How to Choose).
And for a list of the best whole foods to promote recovery and muscle-building, don’t miss Clean Bulking: 13 Diet and Training Tips to Gain Muscle, Not Fat.
The science is far from settled. However, plenty of athletes, bodybuilders, and other successful individuals in the fitness world swear by refeed days.
Conversely, not everyone is ready to incorporate refeeding.
For one thing, you can still get good fat loss results without refeeding.
And if you don’t have a handle on the basics, refeed days won’t help you lose weight, anyway — they’ll only complicate your approach.
But if you know how to shed fat and want to explore the benefits of refeed days for enhancing performance, preserving muscle, balancing hormones, and potentially increasing fat-burning, this strategy is worth a try.
Have you tried refeeding? What benefits did you notice? Let us know in the comments below!