Posted 1 month ago

What is a refeed and can it help fat loss?

If you follow competitors on Instagram, you may see that – on the odd occasion, whilst they are dieting – they will have a day in which they consume a lot of food. This is known as a refeed.

A refeed is a strategically planned food “top-up”, that is only used when an individual is very lean. During a refeed, a coach will prescribe their athlete a set amount of carbs, protein and fats for the day. These quantities will be a lot higher than what that individual has had to consume in order to get as lean as they are. Therefore, it’s not a “cheat day” or a day where the athlete can just eat whatever they want!

So how does it all work you ask? Is the body “tricked” into thinking it’s getting more food which will “speed up your metabolism”?

No.

Here’s how it works:

The goal of dieting is to create a negative energy balance, also known as an energy deficit. This is achieved through managing an athlete’s calories in (macros) and calories out (expenditure through training, cardio and steps). A negative energy balance is achieved over the course of weeks, not just a singular day – hence why a prep diet is so long! In the process of creating this energy deficit, the body’s muscle glycogen stores will be gradually depleted, the stress levels in the body (cortisol) will increase, recovery will become increasingly impaired, and as a result, fatigue will accumulate. This is just part of the process, and normal consequences of dieting to the extremes.

I often say that this process can be described as digging a hole: which each successive day of dieting, we are shovelling more soil (fat) out the hole (body tissue) and making it deeper (leaner). Still with me so far?

After weeks of doing this, progress with fat loss can plateau and stall. There are many tools we can use in these instances (of which there will be a few of during the dieting process, such as: increasing cardio, lowering food, and/or increasing the use of fat burners. However, when an individual is lean, deciding to have a refeed can be the best option to move forwards, as it will most certainly bring about further fat loss.

A refeed will look different from one person to the next; typically, a strategic increase in food will be programmed in over the course of 24-48h, comprised mostly of carbs and/or fats. As an example, a male’s carb intake for the day might increase from 200g to 500-750g. Unfortunately, although there are some exceptions, if you are a female competitor such as a bikini athlete, it’s unlikely that you’ll need or be prescribed a refeed during a dieting phase as it is less likely to be needed.

You may now be wondering: what sort of witchcraft helps elicit more fat loss with such an increase?!

  • Firstly, by increasing food, that individuals’ muscle fullness will be restored, and as such, they’ll have more intramuscular fuel that will help them perform at the gym. In short, it means the person will have more energy to train harder, complete more reps, and push more weight during their session, which will inevitably increase their caloric expenditure. More caloric expenditure leads to more fat loss.
  • Secondly, a refeed will offset the effects of stress and lower that person’s cortisol levels. By lowering cortisol levels, our bodies become more efficient at mobilising fat as a fuel source, leading to further fat loss. You can read more about the effect of stress on fat loss here.
  • Thirdly, a refeed will reduce an athlete’s dietary induced fatigue. It’s no secret that the leaner you are, the less energy you have to do anything at all. Therefore, by pushing food up for one day and increasing their daily energy intake (calories), that person will probably move more and feel like it’s less effort to do so during the day. It’s not necessarily a conscious process, but refeeds can help us work harder during cardio and get more steps in during the day. And yes, you guessed it – that will lead to an increased total expenditure in calories, which pushes fat loss further.

Going back to the hole-digging analogy, a refeed would essentially act as a process of adding in grains of sand to the hole we’ve spent weeks digging. The depth of the hole won’t change, as the sand will simply go into the cracks. To this end, “energy balance” in itself remains unchanged, and the person remains in a caloric deficit, despite being “topped up” with food for one day. The energy balance is still negative, but we now have an increased ability to dig. You could even say that adding the sand allows us to shovel faster.

In summary, refeeds can help very lean individuals get even leaner. Some competitors will see a refeed as an opportunity to eat whatever they want for one day when dieting, which is far from the truth and would be quite a stupid thing to do when trying to get ready for stage. However, if prescribed and executed correctly, a refeed can be an effective tool at promoting further fat loss.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons