What is a Refeed Day and do I Need One?
I woke up and went to the bathroom. Grabbed the scales and stepped on (after the first wee of the day and before eating anything, obviously). 85.6kg, the lowest I’d seen in years.
Checked myself in the mirror. Wow, abs, striations, definition, separation. “I’m ripped” (smugface).
But something annoyed me. “My muscles look a lot smaller than I thought they were”. And: “If I weigh 85.6, then I only gained like half a kilogram of muscle the last time I bulked.”
Later that day I found myself struggling to climb a set of stairs. I felt exhausted walking 10 minutes to the train station. It was difficult to concentrate on the TV.
I needed a refeed day!
Refeed done: Two days later my muscles looked much bigger and my scale weight had gone up 1.5kg. This is not fat gain by the way – that would be ridiculous in 2 days). I no longer felt grumpy and exhausted, and I had energy again!
Carb depleted before refeed:
Carbs replenished after refeed:
What is a refeed?
A refeed day is something you do when you have been dieting or cutting for a long time. This is especially for when you have gotten down to low levels of bodyfat. It involves increasing your calorie intake to roughly your maintenance and ensuring the increase comes from carbohydrates whilst keeping fats low.
Not everyone needs to worry about having a refeed day, in fact, most don’t. Refeeds are one of those terms that get banded about in the gym by people who really shouldn’t be giving out advice.
Refeed days are very useful in the advanced stages of fat loss. However, they only really apply to those who have been in a fat loss phase for extended periods of time. If you can see your abs and it has taken you 16 weeks of keeping calories below your maintenance to get there, then you might need a refeed.
If you’ve still got some way to go before you see your abs and you’ve been dieting for 4 weeks, you don’t need a refeed. You just need to focus on keeping those calories below your maintenance. If you’re regularly going more than 20-30% below you’re maintenance that is probably why you don’t feel great, and you could do with bringing them up to 20% below maintenance.
What is the purpose of a refeed?
Getting down to ripped levels of bodyfat (below 10% for men, below 18% for women) usually requires long periods of eating below maintenance. As your maintenance calories start to reduce due to your lower weight and likely (unintentionally) reduced activity, you have to reduce your calories even more.
Fat calories are usually pretty low already in a diet phase, as these are the ones you can lose the most calories from by cutting them out (9 calories per gram of fat, vs 4 calories per gram for protein or carbs). You can’t reduce protein because you need it to retain your muscle. This means the only option is reducing carbs further.
Refeeds Replace Much Needed Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are our bodies preferred energy source. They bond to water and form a substance called glycogen, which we use for energy to work out and generally move around. Glycogen is stored in our liver, brain, and muscles. This is why, if you’ve got a decent amount of muscle mass, you might notice that your muscles look smaller while you’re dieting. If you’ve reduced carbs, you’ll drop some water weight and your glycogen stores will become depleted as you strength train. With your reduced carb intake your muscle glycogen stores don’t become fully replenished after a workout. This means you’re holding less water in your muscles, making them look smaller.
Other side effects of reducing your carb intake for long periods of time are: reduced energy overall, reduced ability to concentrate, and higher levels of grumpiness!
A refeed means you bring back some glorious carbs into your life and enjoy a day or two of eating more. Your mood and energy will improve. Your scale weight will bump up a bit due to the increased water you’ll store, and your muscles glycogen stores will be replenished. This makes them look “full” and bigger, instead of flat and small. This also has the added benefit of giving your muscles a store of glycogen to call upon in your next couple of workouts! You should notice the increased performance.
A refeed is not a cheat day
You might be sitting there thinking of all the food you’re about to eat, salivating and rubbing your hands together with glee. Let me stop you right there.
A refeed is not a cheat day.
A cheat day is basically an untracked day of eating where you go overboard. You cave in and eat everything you’ve been depriving yourself of, with no thought given to the total calories consumed or the macronutrients. You’re just desperate so you cave in. You can easily undo a week of fat loss progress with a cheat day. Some people have one every week and wonder why they never make any progress. I’ve covered the stupidity of cheat days here.
A refeed day is not used unless it is truly needed. It is much more strategic than a cheat day.
It is for when you’re walking around with abs but trying to get even more lean. Or it’s for when you’ve been dieting for months and months consistently. If either of those are true and your workouts, mood, and general energy is noticeably worse (you feel like poo), then you are probably carb depleted and could do with a refeed.
How to do a refeed properly
When carrying out a refeed, you do not load up on the burgers, pizzas, and Ben and Jerry’s. Whilst pasta is an option, you don’t go for something like a cheesy lasagne from an Italian takeaway.
One of the key things about the refeed is that you keep fats low. This is so you can increase your calories to maintenance with as many of those calories coming from carbs as possible. All of the foods you’ve been dreaming of eating (like the ones listed above) are high in carbs but they’re also high in fats as well.
Now eating fat doesn’t necessarily make you store body fat, but it IS the most easily stored macronutrient. It just won’t help you replenish your muscle, brain and liver glycogen stores.
Instead of the foods you are dreaming of eating, you need to increase carbs from foods with lower fat content. This means rice, pasta, oats, jam, bread. Leave out the meatballs and cheese with your pasta!
Conclusion: Use refeeds intelligently!
If you’re just trying to get beach lean, you can probably do this without even needing a refeed at all.
Note: If you’re struggling to get lean, this free ebook will help you.
Do you want to be shredded and have jaws drop in awe at the sight of you shirtless? You might need to start incorporating one or two refeeds as you get past about 10% bodyfat.
If your goal is to get on stage and win a bodybuilding competition then I don’t really have the right experience to help you. However, I imagine you’ll be starting to incorporate refeeds much more often as you get near this goal.
Do it intelligently, don’t go crazy – that’s a cheat day! If you do go crazy, oh well – get back on plan the next day!