What Are “Refeed Days” & How Do They Work?

Dieting can be difficult, really difficult. Sometimes it can feel like the most frustrating, futile, way to spend your days. Agonizing over the calories found in 15 Ritz crackers, losing sleep because you have a big family meal coming up and the macro ratios don’t look good. Because dieting is so tough, there are thousands of diets out there, all promising to make dieting as easy as possible.

Physique athletes, by and large, are very good at dieting. They have to be, their careers depend on it. They don’t need tricks or crazy diets, they have discipline, and they are able to stay in a calorie deficit for long periods of time without suffering too much.

While they don’t have “tricks”, there is one universally loved technique, it is called the refeed day. In this article we are going to attempt to answer the questions “what are refeed days and how do they work?”. We will also look at how you can perform a refeed day, and where to fit them into your diet. But first, let’s take a look at what they are exactly.

What Is a Refeed Day?

A refeed day is a day during your diet where you double (or even triple) the amount of carbohydrates you consume. Protein is kept the same, and you slightly lower your fat intake. It’s different to a cheat day which is where you relax your rules about eating. Instead it is a conscious decision to eat more carbohydrates and nothing more.

The idea is that eating more carbohydrates can lead to an increase in leptin production (the satiety hormone) and that your body can raise its metabolism. We will address whether these benefits are accurate or not later on in this article.

Another benefit, perhaps the main benefit, is psychological. A chance to increase your calories for a day, feel fuller, have a great workout, all without breaking the “dieting rules”. Sort of like controlled aggression in a boxing ring compared to wind-milling punches outside of a nightclub.

How To Incorporate Refeed Days Into Your Diet

The frequency of refeed days kind of depends on your specific goals. If you are training hard for a bodybuilding competition then you’ll want refeed days to be very rare.

However, if you are following a long-term dieting plan that could last 12 months or more then you can increase the frequency. Standard advise would be to schedule in a refeed day once every four to six weeks.

Can Refeed Days Improve Your Diet?

Here’s the thing, the evidence that a refeed diet will increase leptin production is shaky at best. While increasing your carbohydrate intake does lead to an increase in leptin, this will only last a few hours. It is not going to lead to sustained rises in leptin for four weeks. It is doubtful that you will even notice any difference.

But what about the rise in your metabolism? Again, this is a half-truth that has been exaggerated and blown out of proportion by members of the fitness community. Eating food does increase your metabolism, it is known as the thermic effect of food, and certain foods can increase your metabolism more than others (high protein foods most of all).
Massively increasing your calories for the day will lead to a rise in your metabolism, but this will be 1) as short lived as the rise in leptin, and 2) overwhelmingly countered by the increase in calories consumed.

If your metabolism usually burns 2,000 calories, let’s say that a refeed day increases those calories to 2,200. Great huh? But if your refeed has increased your calories from 1,800 per day to 2,500 then you’re going to gain weight rather than lose it.

Does this mean that refeed days are useless? Well, not so fast. Remember, fat loss is all about calories in versus calories out. If you have a daily calorie deficit of 500 then you are going to be creating a 3,500 calorie deficit each week. If your refeed involves consuming an extra 1,000 calories then you will still be in an overall deficit for the week.

So you haven’t screwed your diet up, and there may be an important psychological benefit to splitting up a relentless diet like this. Think about it, no diet lasts forever, and nobody should follow a diet flawlessly day-in day-out. That path leads to madness and then failure. You need breaks.

The mistake people make is not planning their “cheat days” and just eating way too much. A refeed allows you to eat more enjoyable, higher-calorie foods. But there is still order, there are still rules. You can eat more, but the increase can only be in carbohydrates, and you still need to track those calories. You can plan your refeed day in advance and purchase the food beforehand.

This way refeeds can allow you to cut loose, without endangering your overall diet. A fantastic compromise. Just don’t expect them to magically boost your leptin levels and rev your metabolism!

The Main Benefits of Refeed Days

  • Allow you to take a break from dieting
  • Prevent that break from undoing your hard work
  • Will allow you to train harder that day
  • Give you control while also allowing you some freedom
  • Nice psychological boost which can help keep you motivated

The Downsides of Refeed Days

  • Not as fun as cheat days
  • No real scientific need for them
  • Can lead to feeling bloated
  • May devolve into cheat days if you struggle with discipline
  • May slow progress of diet

Conclusion: Are Refeed Days Worth Doing?

This question will be different for everyone, while there are no real physiological benefits to refeed days there may be some psychological benefits. What you have to decide is whether the benefits outweigh the downsides.

On the one hand, they may give you a good excuse to be sociable, they will allow you to eat some “bad” food and will break up a diet nicely. On the other, they may slow progress, lead to further temptation, and they aren’t anywhere near as useful as they are cracked up to be.

The choice is yours, there are no right answers here.