Adopting a healthier lifestyle can be challenging, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
With most weight loss diets focusing on consuming smaller portions and fewer calories, many people struggle to stick to these diets due to feelings of frustration when they don’t experience results — even if they follow the plan perfectly (
That said, many people are reporting success by adding a refeed day into their weekly eating routine.
Simply put, a refeed day is a planned increase in calories for one day on a weekly or biweekly basis. It’s intended to give your body a temporary respite from calorie restriction.
This article tells you all you need to know about refeed days, how to do them properly, and whether they’re right for you.
What is a refeed day?
A refeed day is a day on which you intentionally overconsume calories after a period of being in a calorie deficit — whether it arose from eating fewer calories or increasing physical activity, or both (
The idea behind a refeed day is to counteract the negative effects of being in a calorie deficit, such as lower hormone levels, increased hunger, lethargy, tiredness, and hitting a weight loss plateau (
Although this sounds similar to a cheat day, the two should not be confused.
In contrast, a refeed day involves thoughtful planning and controlled food intake. Unlike cheat days, only a moderate increase in calories is permitted, and the type of food matters, as most refeed days emphasize calories from carbs over fats and protein (
While refeed days can vary from person to person, the main goal is to eat in a calorie surplus in a controlled manner.
A refeed day is a temporary break from calorie restriction that involves a controlled day of overeating with a focus on carbs. It aims to counteract the negative effects of calorie restriction and aid weight loss.
How does a refeed day work?
You may wonder why a temporary calorie surplus would lead to weight loss, but the reasoning behind it addresses one of the main problems most people have when losing weight — a weight loss plateau or slowdown.
As you decrease your calorie intake and begin to lose body fat, a change in hormones occurs, which tells your body that you’re experiencing a calorie deficit. At this time, your body will begin to look for ways to reduce it as much as possible to limit weight loss (
In particular, a hormone known as leptin begins to decline. Leptin is produced by fat cells and tells your body that it has adequate fat stores, helping regulate appetite and encouraging calorie burning (
However, low levels of this hormone signal your brain that you’re entering an unknown period of calorie deprivation. As a result, your body receives signals to eat more food and burn fewer calories. This process is known as adaptive thermogenesis (
Adaptive thermogenesis is a protective process that alters your body’s metabolism to increase energy intake and decrease energy output to slow weight loss.
Additionally, the rate at which you burn calories can change. For example, you may experience a decrease in exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).
EAT involves deliberate physical activity while NEAT includes any energy used for daily tasks, such as walking, fidgeting, and general movement. Other components of your energy expenditure include your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and the thermic effect of food (TEF) (
Due to the changes that occur as you lose weight, you may feel less energetic about exercise, opt for the elevator instead of taking the stairs, and move less in general.
Though this may be viewed as a problem, it’s an evolutionary process that helped people survive during times of famine or starvation (
By introducing a refeed day every week or so, you might temporarily increase your leptin levels through increased calorie intake, which may help keep your body’s fat-burning process working more efficiently (
Carbs are the main focus of refeed days due to their superior ability to increase leptin levels, compared with fats or proteins. Therefore, by eating carb-rich foods on your refeed day, you’re likely giving your body the best chance to balance its leptin levels (
Refeed days may elevate hormone levels, such as leptin, reducing the effects of adaptive thermogenesis, a survival process that has been shown to slow weight loss.
Refeed days may provide certain benefits.
May prevent a weight loss plateau
The main reason for refeed days is to prevent a weight loss plateau.
When people are trying to lose weight, they may see immediate results initially, but this is usually followed by a period during which no weight loss occurs. This is partially due to a survival process called adaptive thermogenesis (
By feeding your body excess calories mostly in the form of carbs, your leptin levels temporarily increase, which may prevent adaptive thermogenesis from interfering with your weight loss (
However, more research is needed to better understand the effects of temporary refeeding and leptin levels (
May lower your risk of binging
However, cheat days are designed as a way to binge on an unlimited amount of food, which may lead to a distorted relationship with food and limit your progress. In contrast, refeed days are designed to gently and purposefully increase calories, which may reduce binging (
Introducing a refeed day may help limit binging by permitting foods typically discouraged on many diet plans, especially carb-rich ones. Furthermore, it may help satisfy cravings and decrease feelings of deprivation (
However, a refeed day coupled with an overly restrictive diet won’t likely resolve this. Therefore, opt for an eating pattern that welcomes a wide-range of foods that you enjoy (
May improve physical performance
Refeed days may help improve physical performance.
During periods of calorie restriction, your body’s ability to store glycogen is limited. Glycogen is a long-chain carbohydrate that’s stored in your muscles and liver and used as a quick energy source during physical activity (
Since refeed days emphasize carb intake, this may help replenish glycogen stores, potentially improving your performance in the gym, on the race track, or on the field.
Though more research is needed, refeed days may help you overcome a weight loss plateau, avoid binging, and improve athletic performance.
Despite the possible benefits, some potential downsides need to be considered before introducing a refeed day.
Lack of research
Though the theory of refeed days makes sense, there isn’t much research on the topic. Moreover, adaptive thermogenesis is still a contested topic among researchers, further calling into question the effectiveness of refeed days (
Moreover, the human body is incredibly sophisticated and can easily adapt to changes in food intake. Your metabolism does not experience lasting changes from one day of being in a calorie surplus or deficit and is largely dependent on genetics and age (
Just as it takes many days to weeks of calorie restriction for leptin levels to decline and adaptive thermogenesis to take place, it likely takes more than a single day to adequately elevate leptin levels enough to support weight loss (
Easy to go overboard
Even though you may have a thoughtfully planned refeed day, you may have a hard time controlling your intake once you start. Depending on the intensity of your calorie restriction during the week, you may experience intense cravings that override your good intentions.
Therefore, when trying to lose weight, it may be best to limit yourself to no more than a 500 calorie deficit per day through both increased exercise and a modest decrease in calorie intake (
Though this balanced approach may make weight take longer, you may be less likely to regain it in the long run (
Part of the diet mentality
Although refeed days encourage a temporary respite from calorie restriction, they still emphasize diets as a way to lose weight.
Considering most diets fail to produce long-term weight loss, following a healthy lifestyle that does not eliminate entire food groups or encourage an intense calorie restriction may be most sustainable (
Most guidelines recommend a conservative approach to weight loss for long-term success. It involves a modest calorie deficit through increased physical activity and the consumption of whole, minimally processed foods (
Through this approach, weight loss may be achieved without the need for a refeed day.
May create a distorted relationship with food
Any diet comes with the risk of negatively affecting your relationship with food.
Though refeed days encourage carb-rich foods for one day, they’re usually paired with diets that vilify carbs or other food groups, creating an unhealthy “good versus bad” mentality (
Moreover, only allowing one day free of calorie restriction every week or two may create a heightened sense of stress and fear surrounding food and calories. This may ultimately lead to disordered eating thoughts and behaviors (
If you have a history of disordered eating or eating disorders, it may be best to avoid refeed days and diets altogether, or to consult a qualified health professional.
Although refeed days are popular, there’s limited research on their efficacy. Moreover, they’re usually paired with extreme diets that may promote a negative relationship with food and disordered eating thoughts and behaviors.
How to set up a refeed day
If you’re interested in incorporating refeed days into your eating routine, it’s best to spend time planning them out to ensure you’re not going overboard. Moreover, you may need to adjust the rules to meet your body’s needs.
Generally speaking, most people in a calorie deficit should consider including a refeed day once every 2 weeks, although this will depend on your body fat percentage and goals. Those with lower body fat percentages may need to increase their number of refeed days (
Use the following chart as a reference:
|Body fat percentage (%)||Days of refeeding|
|Men: 10% or more||Once every 2 weeks|
|Women: 20% or more||Once every 2 weeks|
|Men: 10% or less||1–2 times per week|
|Women: 15–20%*||1–2 times per week|
*Note: Most women should aim to have a body fat percentage above 15% to support reproductive and overall health.
Although there are no official guidelines, most refeed days should aim to increase daily calories by 20–30%. For example, if you need around 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight, you should aim to have 400–600 additional calories per day.
Aim to consume most of your additional calories from carb-rich foods, such as whole grains, pasta, rice, potatoes, and bananas, as carbs have been shown to increase leptin levels more than protein or fat (
You can continue to eat protein and fat at each meal. However, prioritize carbs first, then protein, and limit fats.
Most refeed diets recommend limiting fats to around 20–40 grams per day and suggest consuming around 0.68–0.9 grams of protein per pound (1.5–2.0 grams per kg) of body weight.
To ensure you’re meeting your body’s needs, it may be best to speak to a healthcare professional before implementing a refeed day into your eating regime.
On refeed days, aim to increase your total daily calories by 20–30%, with most of the increase coming from carbs.
If you’re wondering what a refeed day would look like, here is an example. Keep in mind that the portions of each food will vary depending on your weight and other needs.
- Breakfast: 3–4 whole wheat pancakes with maple syrup, walnuts, and 1 scoop of whey protein powder (or an equivalent serving of plant-based protein powder)
- Snack: 1 cup (225 grams) of cottage cheese with raspberries
- Lunch: turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, and mozzarella cheese
- Snack: shake made with cow’s or plant-based milk, bananas, berries, hemp seeds, and whey protein powder
- Dinner: 5–6 ounces (140–170 grams) of chicken breast, 1–2 cups (195–390 grams) of brown rice, 1–2 cups (175–350 grams) of sautéed vegetables
- Dessert: 1/2 cup (130 grams) of chocolate pudding
Conversely, follow an eating pattern similar to that of your regular diet and add additional servings of carbs to each meal.
Meals on refeed days should emphasize carb-rich foods with moderate amounts of protein and limited fats.
The bottom line
Refeed days are designed to give a temporary break from calorie restriction.
The theory behind refeed days is to improve your hormone levels, namely leptin, to prevent weight loss plateaus caused by a process known as adaptive thermogenesis. They may also decrease your risk of binging and improve athletic performance.
However, more research is needed to better understand the purpose and role of refeed days in weight loss. Moreover, they may not be suitable for those with a history of disordered eating.
If you’ve reached a weight loss plateau, you may want to consider incorporating a refeed day into your routine.