Refeed days, the thing every competitor wants to hear from their coach during contest prep. You can go out to eat with your friends, have some extra carbs during the day, and you get a sick pump. How do you maximize the benefits of your refeed days? This is a complex idea that can be simplified through a few different topics. While reading this article, you will learn and understand the ways to optimize your refeed days through what foods to consume, how to structure your diet during the day, and what you should avoid.
Refeed day vs cheat meal.
What is the difference between a refeed day and a cheat meal, or in some cases a cheat day (even worse cases a cheat week). Normally, when your coach tells you to have a cheat meal, they are doing it for the soul purpose of manipulating your hormones. When you are dieting, your hunger & satiety hormones fluctuate away from homeostasis (normal). Why is this relevant? These hormones have a significant impact on your metabolism and how much you consume.
The two most important hormones to understand are leptin and ghrelin. Both leptin and ghrelin can be considered “hunger hormones,” which mean they regulate your hunger. Leptin decreases hunger whereas ghrelin increases hunger (1,2). When your coach gives you a cheat meal, one of the goals is to increase the hormone leptin. Leptin is a hormone made from fat, which is one of the reasons why high fat diets and consuming a high fat meal makes you less hungry (1,3,4). Therefore, consuming that cheeseburger and french fries as a cheat meal will increase the hormone leptin and decrease your hunger. Using logic, when you are prepping for a show and your body fat is decreasing, you begin to become more hungry. This hunger arises from the decrease in body fat, where, as already discussed, fat makes the hormone leptin.
On the flip-side, the hormone ghrelin is a true hunger hormone meaning that it rises causing the hunger feeling (5). Therefore, when you go a few hours without eating ghrelin starts to increase, which causes you to get hungry (6). As the calories increase in the meal, the amount of ghrelin circulating in your blood decreases meaning the more you eat, the less hungry you will be (6). To further show you why cheat meals can be a savior during prep, research shows that a high carbohydrate meal (avg 92g carbohydrates) has the most profound effect on reducing ghrelin when compared to a high protein (77g) or high fat (34g) meal. However, after three hours, ghrelin returned to normal in the high carbohydrate meal, but stayed significantly lower in the high protein group (7). The takeaway from this is that carbohydrates will provide short-term decreases in ghrelin, which cause you to be less hungry. Protein will provide long-term decreases in hunger, which is one of the reasons why higher protein diets are great for weight loss.
Put a graph somewhere here showing the relationship between leptin and ghrelin in response to a meal.
When comparing refeed days and cheat meals, the same concepts apply. Both with achieve increasing leptin and decreasing ghrelin. The big difference is that a refeed day is a controlled diet, whereas a cheat day is generally uncontrolled. What makes refeed days most beneficial is that your coach normally structures them into your diet throughout the week. Therefore, your coach may have you on 3 days low carb, moderate fat, high protein; 2 days moderate carb, low, fat, high protein, and 1 or 2 days high carb, low fat, moderate-high protein. This is a concept known as calorie cycling.
Calorie cycling is a concept I use with all of my athletes because it will maintain your metabolism during long periods of dieting (8). Calorie cycling or calorie shifting is a concept where your diet is not linear meaning that it does not decrease calories week-to-week; your calories will change almost daily. This is a more complex form of refeed days. Most coaches will have you on a linear diet meaning that your calories will be the same until you plateau, where your coach will then decrease them. This is problematic for contest prep because depending on how long you prepare for a show (anything over 8-10 weeks is ridiculous), your metabolism will adapt to your diet (9). Therefore, as you consume less and less calories, your metabolism will go lower and lower.
How to structure your diet during a refeed day
Structuring your diet during a refeed day will change from person to person. However, in general you should consume 50-60% of your calories in carbohydrates, 20-30% of your calories in protein, and 10-20% of your calories in fats. In addition, you should increase your total calories to maintenance or 10% above maintenance. Therefore, if you maintain weight on 2500 calories, start your refeed day with 2700 calories and 337g carbohydrates, 202g protein, and 60g fat. This will be a good start to your first refeed day and get you on the right track to managing your hunger hormones with continual fat loss.
What Foods to Eat on a Refeed Day
Normally when a coach says to have a cheat meal, someone will go out and find the biggest burger and french fry meal they can; refeed days are a little different. Cheat meals are effective for manipulating hormones, however, when refeed days are strategically placed in your diet, they can have long-term benefits. Therefore, you should consume foods that are conducive of your goals. If your normal meal plan includes egg whites, chicken breast, tilapia, and oatmeal, you should still eat those same foods. One a refeed day, you should increase the portion size of each by 20-30%. If you’re used to eating one-cup of oatmeal at meal one, then you should eat one and a third cups. Similarly, if you’re used to eating 300 grams of sweet potato with five ounces of chicken at meal three, then you should eat 390 grams of sweet potato and six and half ounces of chicken. The meals should follow the same structure, simply higher portions.
What Foods to Avoid on a Refeed Day
As I just mentioned, your refeed day should follow your normal diet with high portion sizes. This means if you are not used to eating two cups of fruity pebbles during your regular meal plan, then you should eat three cups on your refeed day because it “fits the outline.” Consuming foods not on your regular meal plan and are considered “unhealthy” (this is a different topic that I will discuss in a future article), may counteract the entire purpose of the refeed day.
Generally, when we implement refeeds into our clients meal plans, the purpose is to normalize their hormones and excite the fat-burning process. When this is taken out of context and the refeed day turns into a cheat day, it can be detrimental to the goal. Consuming otherwise “unhealthy” foods can have other impacts on physique because they could cause a spike in insulin (a fat storage hormone) causing you to look soft and watery the next day when the goal was for you to look hard and full. Remember, when doing a refeed, you are supposed to be at or above your maintenance calories. This means the “calories in-calories out” rule does not apply and the excess calories could cause you to store fat.
Refeed day conclusions
The things you should take away from this article are that refeed days and cheat days are used to manipulate your hormones back into a fat burning state. Refeed days should be strategically placed in your diet to avoid the need for a cheat meal and be conducive of your goal (get shredded). Refeed days should follow your normal fat loss diet and not include foods you wouldn’t normally consume. Lastly, and most important, do not treat a refeed day like a cheat day. A great coach such as Trae Kidd uses refeed days to monitor your physique. They are looking at how your physique changes in response to the refeed because it equips them with the knowledge of how to prep and peak you as you get closer to a show.
- Farooqi, I. S., Bullmore, E., Keogh, J., Gillard, J., O’rahilly, S., & Fletcher, P. C. (2007). Leptin regulates striatal regions and human eating behavior. Science, 317(5843), 1355-1355.
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