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What's a "Refeeding" Day and Do You Need One?

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Photo: m-imagephotography / Getty Images

Switching to a healthier eating style isn't always easy—especially when it means eating foods you love less frequently (hi, pizza!) and reducing the amount you eat overall (#portioncontrol). And while all diets should have some room for indulgence, it's sometimes necessary to keep your eyes on the prize if you want to see results. That might be why dieters and clean eaters alike have latched on to the concept of regular "refeeding" days. Never heard of 'em? Here's what you need to know.

What's a Refeed Day?

"When used in weight management or exercise/training terms, a 'refeed day' typically refers to a particular day of increased caloric intake to refuel the body after having been in a depleted state, due to either caloric restriction and/or increased physical activity," explains Jason Machowsky, R.D., C.S.C.S., a board-certified sports dietitian and exercise physiologist at Hospital for Special Surgery.

Basically, that means you up your calories temporarily to compensate for eating less or exercising more. Most often, this strategy is used by people who are counting macros or following a lower-carb eating style, such as the keto diet or paleo eating style. Usually, a "refeed" is done once a week by increasing carbohydrate intake to bring total calories for the day up to weight maintenance level, as opposed to eating at a caloric deficit for weight loss.

Why do this? Well, in theory, upping your carb intake occasionally helps reduce the likelihood of hitting a plateau with weight loss. "The idea is that eating a day of calories closer to your weight maintenance needs, with more calories coming from carbohydrates, might increase your leptin levels (the hunger hormone that regulates fullness), and thus speed up your metabolism," says Amy Goodson, R.D., C.S.S.D., a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics.

While it might sound like a "cheat day," it's really not. "Whereas a cheat day is basically an uncontrolled day of eating all the foods you don't eat on your normal eating plan or diet in whatever quantity you want, a refeed day is defined as a controlled way to increase calories above a normal weight-loss or diet plan without going overboard," Goodson says. "Think of refeeds as thought-out, planned versions of cheat meals or days." (BTW, here's why cheat meals might be the reason for your weight gain.)

And though refeed days have been used by athletes for a long time, they seem to be gaining traction at the moment. "They're popular now because keto is so popular, but it's virtually impossible to follow all the time," says Julie Upton, R.D., C.S.S.D., founder of Appetite for Health. While some people are able to stick to keto long-term, many crave carbs after a while, and having a refeed day occasionally can help people stick with it, Upton says. The same goes for other eating styles that may reduce carbs or overall caloric intake.

Does It Actually Work?

While the reasoning behind refeed days sounds like it makes sense, there's unfortunately not much science to support the idea of doing them. "As far as boosting the metabolism, there are so many factors that impact metabolism that it's hard to tease out the effects of a single refeeding day," says Machowsky. There also aren't many high-quality peer-reviewed studies that look at refeeding for weight loss specifically, so looking there for evidence isn't much help.

Plus, "your metabolism does not change in one day, good or bad," says Goodson. "Over time, if you consume fewer calories than you need to maintain weight, it is possible that your metabolism will adjust to the amount you give it and thus need less to survive." This is often why people plateau with weight loss, and it's why dietitians usually recommend eating as much as you can while still losing weight—so you have additional calories to cut when your plateau inevitably occurs. "This is not accomplished in a day or even a week, but over a longer period of time," emphasizes Goodson. "So the idea that a refeed day speeds up metabolism on a normal basis is likely far from the truth." (Related: Is Metabolic Testing the Key to Crushing Weight-Loss Plateaus?)

But there may be some limited physiological advantages to refeeds, particularly for athletes. "Eating more will require more energy to break down the food you are eating, so that may increase your overall caloric expenditure for that day," says Machowsky. "You may also have more energy that day (or likely the following) so you may just naturally move more." It might even be a good idea to plan a refeed for the day before a tough workout, so your body can put the extra calories to use.

The Mental Benefits of Refeeding

While science doesn't support the metabolism-boosting benefits of refeed days, there is something to be said for their mental benefits. "Eating lower-calorie and lower-carb is hard to sustain without a cheat day, as typically people's favorite foods might take up over half their day's calories," says Goodson. And while she advocates for more of an 80/20 approach to life in general, if you are reducing calories for a shorter amount of time, a refeed day might help you reach your goals by giving you a short break from calorie and carb restriction. (Related: Why the 80/20 Rule Is the Gold Standard of Dietary Balance)

What's more, it can be a great way to give yourself a little break from a lower-calorie diet without going to the opposite extreme and bingeing. "If you have a 'refeed day' the way it is designed—just consuming your weight maintenance calories or a little higher for one day—then it's not likely to cause weight gain." That means you can eat a bit more and still stay on track.

It's also worth noting that people who do refeed days regularly often see weight loss success, so there may be something to the idea. "It is really hard to say if it actually does something for them physiologically, or if it just helps mentally and thus they stay on track longer," says Goodson.

How to Try Refeeding for Yourself

If you think refeeding days sound right for you, they're simple to implement. "A general rule of thumb is you typically add about 20 to 30 percent to your calorie intake during your refeed periods," says Brandon Mentore, C.S.C.S., a trainer and Precision Nutrition coach. "A refeed can be structured in multiple ways, but the most common types are short and long. A long refeed is the most strategic, and is typically done after two to four weeks of dieting." This long refeed can last anywhere from eight hours to two days, and is done in hopes of stimulating leptin and giving you a mental break from your diet.

A shorter refeed would be done on a more regular basis and could last just two hours (i.e., one meal), or a whole day, says Mentore. It's important to note, though, that short refeeds are mainly appropriate for people who are working out pretty hard and need to replenish their glycogen stores (the usable energy from carbohydrates). In either case—whether you're doing a whole day or just one meal—you want to increase your normal caloric intake during that time by 20 to 30 percent, primarily adding carbs.

Goodson agrees that structured refeeds are mainly a good fit for people with intense training schedules. "While most anyone on a diet or eating plan to lose weight needs some type of splurge to keep them sane and on track, it is likely that most everyday exercisers don't need a whole day," she says. "I typically recommend my clients pick a meal to two and eat some of what they want—not everything they ever wanted. On the other hand, those training intensely might benefit from this designed splurge or refeed." Whichever category you fall into, experimenting with refeeds could be a strategy you add to your tool belt to help you stay on track, but it's certainly not going to make or break your success.

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