Cheat Day vs Refeed Day
Why Utilize a Cheat/Refeed Day?
Both cheat days and refeed days are designed to reignite fat loss potential and allow your body to continue burning fat during a fat loss regime; both are done by planning a day of increased caloric intake during a fat loss program. They are very beneficial if your fat loss programs lasts over 2 weeks and both, in theory, allow you to continue losing fat without reaching the dreaded fat loss plateau.
However, there are a few fundamental differences between a cheat day and a refeed day that are important to make note of.
Your fat loss potential is primarily controlled by how much leptin you have in your body. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells in the body. It is responsible for controlling metabolism, hunger, and caloric expenditure. Those who have more fat will have higher leptin levels; conversely, those who are slim will have lower leptin levels. This means those who have a higher body fat percentage have a higher capacity for fat loss compared to those who are slim and have a low body fat percentage.
Leptin levels remain high when your body believes it is full and satisfied and decrease when your body believes it is hungry. At the end of the day your body is very effective at maintaining homeostasis and if your body consistently thinks it is not getting enough calories, physiological changes will result. In terms of fat loss, a long duration fat loss regime will typically result in fat loss plateaus due plummeted leptin levels. Forcing fat loss past this point almost always comes at the expense of catabolism (breaking down) of muscle, which for the average gym-goer is an undesirable byproduct of fat loss.
Cheat Day vs. Refeed Day
To combat the negative side effects of an extended fat loss regime cheat days and refeed days are typically used. They have the added benefits of resetting fat loss and combating diminished leptin levels. Additionally, it allows you to look forward to a meal and really enjoy food due to fewer restrictions on your caloric intake. This provides much needed mental and physical reprieve of a fat loss program and allows your body to lose fat at an accelerated rate 3-5 days post refeed/cheat day.
There is a distinct difference between a cheat day and a refeed day, this is found in both the quantity and quality of food that you consume on these days.
Think of a cheat day as being a kid in a toy store with your very own American Express Centurion Card. To clarify, this card is an invite only credit card given only to those who meet certain criteria of annual income and have a net worth exceeding $16 million. In other words, your Centurion Card will be put to very good use.
A cheat day is typically paired with binging on pizza, burgers, glazed donuts, cake and any other food of choice you normally avoid when dieting. The image below does a good job of summarizing cheat days.
As I said, cheat days provide you with mental reprieve and a reset your fat loss potential. However, what often happens is you nullify all the benefits of a cheat day by having an enormous caloric intake.
If your cheat day intake is large enough (i.e. it surpass your maintenance intake) you can actually gain a decent amount of fat. Additionally, when you are following a fat loss regime for a long duration of time your body becomes very sensitive to increases in caloric intake. This paired with a large cheat day intake creates a recipe for fat gain rather than fat loss. If you repeat this enough times you’ll end up creating a vicious cycle of deprivation and binging, which is both frustrating and void of progress. So in turn, all that hard work your did prior to your cheat day gets evened out by your poor approach to resetting your fat loss.
This is where refeed days come in. A refeed day is the more modest and logical approach to a cheat day. It provides all the benefits of dietary reprieve, mental and physical, without the drawbacks of gaining additional fat or nullifying your fat loss. This is done by consuming higher quality foods and utilizing a small/decent sized portion of your intake to indulge a little. So to those of you looking to have nothing but donuts, pizza, and burgers to reset your fat loss I’m sorry to disappoint. However, the payoff is that you will be able to consistently lose fat and not feel like a couch potato at the end of your refeed day. And just because you are refeeding doesn’t mean that you can’t indulge and enjoy a few treats. You just need to be careful and not let the bulk of your intake be filled entirely by ‘unclean’ and nutrient-deficient foods. As a general rule of thumb try to keep about 20% of your intake as being indulgent on a refeed day; this is also known as the 80/20 method. It’s important to note that this method can also be applied to everyday dieting as a means to quell cravings and increase satisfaction with your diet.
NOTE: It’s important to not exceed your maintenance caloric intake during a refeed day because this will promote excess fat storage. By remaining below your maintenance intake your will provide your body with a necessary buffer to avoid fat gain. Most weight gain that results from a refeed day is typically that of water weight due to increased carbohydrate and sodium intake. If you are deathly afraid of what you see on the scale post refeed day do not fear. This is a natural response to increasing carbohydrates and sodium intake. Moreover, the goal is to reset your fat loss potential, therefore, post refeed day your leptin levels will be replenished and your body will thank you with extra fat loss J.
To employ a refeed day you need to be clinical and precise about your approach. A refeed day will typically incorporate a 20-50% increase in your fat loss caloric intake. Regardless of the percentage, you choose it’s important to stay at least 5% below your maintenance intake. If your maintenance intake is 2000 calories that means your maximum refeed intake should be no greater than 1900 calories. This helps ensure that you don’t accidentally gain any unwanted fat.
For example, if your fat loss intake is 1500 calories and you do a 25% refeed day then your intake would be as follows:
1500 + (1500*0.25) = 1875 Calories = Refeed Intake
However, if your fat loss intake were 1200 calories and your do a 25% refeed day then your intake would be as follows:
1200 + (1200*0.25) = 1500 Calories = Refeed Intake
Your refeed intakes should be about 30-40% when you are following an aggressive fat loss protocol and should be about 10-20% when following a moderate fat loss protocol.
Finally, depending on how much fat you have to lose you will want to utilize a refeed day once every 7-14 days. If you have more fat to lose then utilize them once every 14 days. If you are already decently slim utilizing a refeed day once every 7 days will suffice.
So putting a refeed day altogether what should your intake be mostly composed of? Ideally, you will consume an adequate amount of protein to supplement your activity levels, a moderate fat intake and the remainder of your calories should come from carbohydrates. This is the same when refeeding; however, the largest benefit you will find is from increasing carbohydrate intake. This is because your muscles will have more glycogen (fuel for activity) due to an increase in carbohydrate consumption. Leading to more productive sessions in the gym. Your protein and fat intake can remain the same, as they will not drastically affect your ability to perform in the gym.
Best of luck losing fat and may you never succumb to fat loss plateaus again!