How Is a Refeed Different Than a Cheat Meal and Can It Boost Your Fat Loss?

Among bodybuilders and physique competitors, refeed days are nothing new. For the average fitness enthusiast, though, refeeding sounds a lot like a cheat meal — but the two concepts are actually quite different. Could the differences act as your secret weapon to overcoming a weight-loss plateau?

While refeeds and cheat meals sound similar, a refeed day focuses on one specific macro. (Image: Westend61/Westend61/GettyImages)

Refeed Days vs. Cheat Meals

The biggest difference between refeeds and cheat meals is the type of food each entails. While cheat meals — or, for some, entire cheat days — allow for gorging on any type of food, refeeds are typically limited strictly to increasing one macronutrient: Carbohydrates.

What's more, cheat meals don't have any limits in terms of calories while refeeds increase the calorie count to just slightly above weight-maintenance levels, according to a February 2014 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine. If you opt to include a cheat meal, try offsetting the extra calories by eating less throughout the day, or doing a longer workout if weight loss is your goal, the Cleveland Clinic suggests.

Both refeeds and cheat meals can have a positive effect on your mental health, though. Both cheat meals and refeed days might help a person stick to their otherwise ideal menu plan because you know that you'll get the extra food that you're craving soon, suggests Stacey Penney, NASM-CPT of the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Increasing carbs via a refeed day may also have an additional mental benefit: Complex carbohydrates increase the amount of serotonin, or the "happiness" chemical, in your brain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Therefore, periodically increasing the number of carbs you eat may improve your mental state and make it easier to stick to your healthy eating plan.

What's the Point of a Refeed Day?

Bodybuilders and figure competitors often incorporate 24-hour refeeds one to two times a week with the goal of temporarily increasing their circulating leptin (the hormone that signals that you're full) and giving their metabolism a boost, the February 2014 study notes.

Plus, bodybuilders use weekly refeed days to offset declines in metabolic rate and fatigue, enhance fat loss and manipulate sodium and fluid levels before a competition, per a December 2017 study in the journal Sports. However, the study concluded that these strategies warrant further investigation into both their efficacy and safety, so you'll want to take these claims with a grain of salt.

Cutting Carbs Can Actually Make You Hungrier

The hormone leptin plays a number of roles in overall metabolism and fat gain or loss. It's released from the fat cells and tells the brain that the body is satiated after eating and regulates both energy balance and body weight, Jim White, RD, ACSM, health and fitness expert, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

When you eat less food — particularly carbs — the amount of leptin in your body drops. In fact, a carbohydrate-free diet decreased leptin concentration by 19 percent, a July 2016 study published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism found.

Lower leptin levels may trigger an increase in both appetite and food cravings. Because leptin is crucial to satiety and weight control, a decrease in the hormone's levels could make you feel hungry and potentially cause you to overeat, according to the Hormone Health Network.

"Thyroid hormones, which control the body's metabolic rate, are also affected by the lowered rate of leptin in the blood," White says. "These factors make it difficult to continually lose weight, despite adherence to restricted caloric intakes. This can be especially true in scenarios where calorie restriction is combined with a high volume of physical training."

"Calorie restriction, for any significant period of time, has effects on a person's metabolism, physical performance, psychological status and sometimes overall body composition," White adds.

Weight loss and caloric restriction cause an overall decrease in resting energy expenditure (REE), which is the number of calories a person burns while at rest, White explains. "This happens as a protective and evolutionary adaptation. If fewer calories are available, the body responds by becoming more efficient. To compound this effect, weight loss may reduce lean muscle tissue, which will also decrease REE, as muscle tissue burns calories at rest."

How to Do a Refeed the Right Way

With a cheat meal, you might go overboard on any sort of food, no matter how unhealthy it is. With a refeed, you'll want to focus on high-quality carbs while minimizing fat to avoid going overboard on calories while keeping the amount of protein that you eat at the same level.

And certain types of carbs are better than others, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. After all, you could just gorge on french fries and drink a large glass of soda and call it a day because you've gotten in a bevy of carbs.

The healthiest form of carbs — the ones you should focus on if you decide to incorporate a refeed day — are unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans. These foods deliver fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Smart options include:

  • Steel-cut or old-fashioned oats for breakfast
  • Whole-grain bread for lunch sandwiches
  • Brown rice, quinoa, beans or whole-wheat pasta for dinner
  • Whole fruit, such as apples or oranges, and vegetables for snacks

And the fiber content of these high-quality foods might be the key to weight loss. A study published in February 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that a higher-fiber diet — one that averaged about 19 grams per day — could help a person lose weight as well as improve other health indicators, such as blood pressure and insulin response.

So, Can Refeeds Help You Lose Weight?

Not all health experts agree that refeeds are a viable way to manipulate your weight-loss efforts or increase your fat burn. Plus, there's no quality scientific evidence to promote the benefits of a refeed, says Danielle Schaub, MSPH, RD and culinary and nutrition manager for Territory Foods.

"It is true that eating too few carbs or calories will lower levels of the hormone leptin, which sends signals to your body to eat more calorie-dense foods," she says. "This happens because the body only understands a calorie deficit as one thing — starvation — and it slows down your metabolism so that you can survive on less energy and signals to you to eat more food. The downside is if you're trying to lose weight, you want your metabolism to keep burning calories at a high rate."

Schaub notes that your metabolism doesn't change in one day or even one week, so the idea of incorporating carbs just one or two times a week doesn't play out realistically. "The idea that a refeed 'shocks the system,' speeds up the metabolism or reboots weight loss is simply not proven," she says. However, Schaub does support the idea that refeeds can have psychological benefits. "It is hard to sustain a calorie or carb restriction for a long period of time, so a refeed provides a mental break," she says.

The bottom line: If you find that a refeed helps you stick to your diet, go ahead and incorporate a day or two into your plan, making sure to focus on those quality carbs. However, don't expect it to help you drop a pant size fast.

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