Refeeds vs. Diet Breaks

written by: 

By Stefan Ianev

Refeeds & Diet Breaks: When and how to program them in to promote fat loss

If only fat loss were as simple as dropping calories, staying in a deficit until you have reached your desired body weight, then going back to eating at your previous maintenance to maintain your new weight. If that were the case, myself and thousands of other trainers and nutritionists around the world would be out of work. 

In reality, anyone that has ever dieted knows they have to deal with things like hunger, cravings, mood swings, low energy and libido, metabolic compensation, strength and muscle loss, looking flat, and rebound weight gain. All these things make dieting, especially for long periods at a time, much harder. This is where strategies like refeeds and diet breaks come into play. 

Refeeds and diet breaks both have their place and can be useful in offsetting or even reversing some of the negative metabolic adaptations in response to caloric restriction. 

Refeeds:

Let’s start by covering refeeds first. A refeed is a short period of 1-3 days of eating at maintenance calories or above.  

Generally a 1-day refeed is not sufficient to reverse the negative metabolic adaptations from dieting such as muscle loss or metabolic downregulation. However, a 1-day refeed may help mitigate these metabolic adaptations, especially if repeated often enough. 

Studies show delays can occur for up to several days after caloric restriction before metabolism starts to slow down and protein turnover increases (1). If a 1-day refeed is implemented every 3-4 days, that may delay the onset of these adaptations. 

Single-day refeeds are also sufficient to replenish muscle glycogen stores which helps improve performance in the gym and prevent crashing. For some individuals refeed days also improve dietary adherence and prevent uncontrolled binge eating. 

When to schedule Refeeds:

I use 1-day refeeds mostly with leaner clients since they are more prone to muscle loss and crashing on their diet. Overweight individuals are less at risk of muscle loss because of their higher body fat stores, which act as an energy reserve (2). 

The refeed days do not accelerate weight loss and actually, slow it down. In doing so they help preserve metabolism and lean muscle tissue. For this reason, I don’t use them with overweight clients as it may unnecessarily slow down their progress. 

Sometimes with leaner clients, I may also give them a 2-3 day refeed every 5-7 days instead of a 1-day refeed every 3-4 days. A 2-3 day refeed may have the added benefit of boosting metabolism and reversing any muscle loss (3,4). 

Generally, it will depend on how long it takes the client to crash, as to which method I use. Leaner clients generally refer to males under 10% body fat or females under 16% body fat.   

For clients with moderate body fat, I prefer to keep them in deficit for a bit longer, usually between 10-14 days, then give them a 2-3 day refeed. This usually refers to males between 12-18% body fat and females between 18-24% body fat. 

Since they are not quite as lean they can handle being in deficit for a bit longer, but then I like to give them a 2-3 day refeed instead of a single day, to reverse some of the metabolic adaptation. 

With more overweight clients I will generally keep them in a deficit for longer and avoid refeeds because they don’t get the same physiological benefit from overfeeding since they are usually insulin and leptin resistant. 

For these clients, I may give them a half-day or full-day refeed every 2-3 weeks or as needed to help with dietary adherence. It is more for psychological rather than physiological purposes. 

The table below summarizes the recommended refeed duration and frequency for clients at different body fat levels. 

Body Fat Refeed Duration and Frequency
Male < 10%

Or

Female < 16%

1-day every 3-4 days

Or

2-3 days every 5-7 days

Male between 12-18%

Or

Female between 18-24%

2-3 days every 10-14 days
Male > 20%

Or

Female > 30%

5-12hrs every 14-21 days

Macros for Refeeds:

For refeeds, in general, I recommend a carbohydrate intake of 4-5g/kg of lean mass per day, which is sufficient to replenish glycogen stores in most people. I will generally set protein intake at 2.4 to 3.2g/kg of lean mass, and the rest of the calories will come from fats. 

Even with single or multiple day refeeds, metabolic compensation and diet fatigue will eventually set in. This is where the diet break comes in. 

Diet Breaks:

A diet break is a period of eating at maintenance which usually lasts between 1-2 weeks and allows diet fatigue to dissipate, as well as a complete or near-complete reversal of metabolic adaptation to take place. 

When to schedule Diet Breaks:

Just like refeeds, generally the leaner the client is the more often they will need to do a full diet break. A very lean client may need a diet break every 3-4 weeks, clients with moderate body fat may need to diet break every 6-8 weeks, while a very overweight client may be able to go 12-16 weeks without a diet break. 

Another factor that will determine how often some will need to diet break is how aggressive their deficit is. This is why I monitor biofeedback markers with all my clients so I know when they are due for a refeed or diet break.   

Refeeds and Diet Breaks are a tool that all coaches need to know and use for their clients in deficits. Learn how and when to use and apply them in the Clean Health Fitness Institute Performance Nutrition course, which is now online! Enrol now during our pre-sale and SAVE $100!

Yours in health,

Stefan Ianev

Clean Health Fitness Institute

References

  1. Müller M.J, et al. Metabolic adaptation to caloric restriction and subsequent refeeding: the Minnesota Starvation Experiment revisited. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015; 102(4), 807-819.
  2. Hall KD. Body Fat and Fat-Free Mass Interrelationships: Forbes’s Theory Revisited. The British Journal of Nutrition. 2007;97(6):1059-1063. 
  3. Boden G, et al. Effects of prolonged hyperinsulinemia on serum leptin in normal human subjects. J Clin Invest. 1997 Sep 1; 100(5): 1107–1113.
  4. Davoodi SH, et al. Calorie Shifting Diet Versus Calorie Restriction Diet: A Comparative Clinical Trial Study. International Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2014; 5(4), 447.

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