Refeeds and Diet Breaks: A Guide for Competitors and Fitness Enthusiasts


When it comes to competition preparation or merely striving for fitness goals, the concept of refeeds and diet breaks is not foreign. However, the understanding and application of these dietary strategies often remain shrouded in myths and misinterpretations. Let's delve into these terms and explore how they can be leveraged for better performance and sustainability.

Refeeds and Metabolism: Fact or Fiction?

Cycling carbohydrate or calorie intake throughout the week is prevalent amongst competitors. The conventional belief is that this strategy helps maintain a high metabolic rate. However, the evidence supporting this claim is limited. There is little indication that a single high-carbohydrate or high-calorie day significantly impacts the metabolic rate.

However, the role of refeeds, diet breaks, and maintenance periods is valuable in longer-term diets for improving sustainability. Studies indicate that intermittent energy restriction can attenuate the loss of fat-free mass in resistance-trained individuals, implying that refeeds can help preserve your gains when dieting.

The Role of High-Carbohydrate Refeeds

There are advantages to incorporating a high-carbohydrate refeed day into your diet plan. During low calorie and carbohydrate periods, muscle glycogen stores become depleted, potentially reducing gym performance. A high-carbohydrate refeed day can replenish glycogen stores and improve performance during intense workouts. Therefore, aligning your high-carbohydrate refeed day with (or the day before) one of your toughest workout sessions can be beneficial.

Refeed days also offer a chance to satisfy your food cravings, providing a mental break and reducing the risk of binge eating. This flexibility can improve diet adherence, which is arguably one of the most beneficial effects of refeed days.

Intermittent Energy Restriction and Refeeds

Intermittent energy restriction (IER) is a weight-loss strategy gaining research attention. It involves alternating periods of dieting with periods of higher energy intake, often referred to as refeeds or diet breaks. The goals behind implementing refeeds or diet breaks are to stimulate the release of certain regulatory hormones positively impacting fat loss and satiety and potentially increase metabolic rate.

Contrary to the popular belief of refeeds causing backsliding of progress, research indicates that prescribed diet breaks did not lead to a reversal of progress. This finding has led some researchers to speculate that diet breaks or refeeds could encourage greater adherence to longer-term diets in individuals needing to lose significant amounts of body fat.

A Structured Refeed Day or a Cheat Day?

Competitors often use a refeed day as a "cheat day" or "cheat meal," allowing themselves to eat anything they want without restriction. However, a structured refeed day is recommended over an uncontrolled cheat day for optimal fat loss.

Moreover, calories from a cheat day still count. If you consume enough calories during your cheat day to offset the calorie deficit created throughout the rest of the week, weight loss will stall. An uncontrolled cheat day may lead to a dietary pattern resembling an eating disorder, where food is restricted for a significant portion of the week and a binge occurs on the cheat day.

Many proposed benefits of a high-calorie day during a diet are due to an increased carbohydrate intake, as hormones affecting metabolic rate, such as leptin and thyroid hormone, are more responsive to carbohydrate overfeeding than to protein or fat overfeeding. Therefore, to make the most out of a higher-calorie day, it may be beneficial to increase carbohydrate intake rather than fat intake.

Refeed Recommendations

For those incorporating a refeed day into their diet plan, a good starting point would be to increase carbohydrate intake to 1.5 to 2 times your normal intake once every 4 to 10 days. It's advisable to align refeeds with your most strenuous workouts so that you are refeeding the day before or the day of your most challenging workout to maximize performance.

You may also want to reduce protein and fat intake slightly on your refeed days if caloric intake is low and you notice a significant weight increase after refeeding.

Multiday Refeeds

While a refeed day may not significantly affect metabolic rate or hormones, some preliminary evidence suggests that more than one high-calorie or high-carbohydrate day a week may impact weight loss more substantially. However, it's important to remember that weekly caloric intake and energy balance still determine weight change. Therefore, the more refeed days you incorporate, the more caloric intake will need to be reduced on other days.

Diet Breaks

A diet break can be considered a prolonged refeed. It is typically a week or more of intake around your current maintenance level. A diet break can provide a beneficial mental break from a calorie deficit, improving motivation and dietary adherence.

The goal of a diet break is to maintain weight, not to lose it. However, preliminary studies have found that a diet break does not affect total weight loss and may even benefit weight loss progress.

If you're planning for a lengthy contest prep, incorporating diet breaks periodically may help keep dietary adherence higher and has beneficial effects on the declines in hormones and metabolic rate that occur during contest prep.

In conclusion, understanding and strategically applying refeeds and diet breaks can make a significant difference in maintaining metabolic health, improving performance, and sustaining long-term diet plans. Competing should enhance your life, not detract from it; therefore, maintain a healthy relationship with food during contest prep.