Re-feeding and cheat meals have become quite popular concepts – particularly for those on restricted eating plans. They provide a break from the structure of their diet and allow a little indulgence during times of restraint. They also have the potential to help you on your weight loss and fitness journey.
But, like a lot of fitness trends, it can be hard to tell how effective these practices actually are. And, given what they involve, they could easily undo a lot of your hard work. So… what’s the real story with refeeding and cheat meals?
Here we take a look at what these practices are and how they work. We explore what they involve, the potential benefits they provide, and the questions people still have about them. We also go over how to add refeeds or cheat meals to your nutrition and supplementation routine.
What is refeeding and how do you do it?
Put simply, refeeding is intentionally eating more calories for a day or a specific meal. It usually comes after an extended period of caloric deficits and is often worked into a diet plan. As such, refeeds are usually regular occurrences, occurring every week or fortnight.
While there’s no set way to do a refeed, they are generally carefully planned. Calories are usually increased by a set amount, often taking the total daily intake up to the person’s maintenance amount. The foods eaten are also carefully selected, focusing on those with a high carbohydrate content.
Refeeding is particularly popular with dieters because it may help counteract some of the issues associated with a long-term caloric deficit. For example, it’s said to boost hormone and energy levels and reduce hunger. It can also help push through a weight loss plateau, encouraging the body to continue burning fat stores for energy.
What is a cheat meal?
While a cheat meal is like refeeding – and the terms are often used interchangeably – there are a few key differences. Most notably, while refeeding is usually tracked and controlled, a cheat day is not. It’s usually seen as a chance for those who have strictly controlled their eating to cut loose.
As such, there’s no real target for the extra calories consumed, and calories aren’t really tracked. There’s also no real restriction on what can be eaten or an attempt to achieve a set macronutrient balance. Instead, a cheat meal lets you eat whatever you want… and however much of it you want!
With that in mind, cheat meals are more focused on giving dieters a break from their self-imposed restrictions. It allows them to indulge in their favourite foods and ‘treat’ themselves for their hard work. It also provides a mental break from the focus and control required to stick to a reduced calorie diet.
The benefits of refeeding and cheat meals
If you want to work out the potential value of refeeding and cheat meals, you first need to understand adaptive thermogenesis.
Adaptive thermogenesis is a bodily process that adjusts your metabolism to match your caloric intake. It’s a natural survival measure that reacts to extended periods of calorie deprivation by increasing energy intake and decreasing energy output. It does this by releasing various hormones to strengthen food cravings and slow down the burning of calories.
As you would expect, this can have a major impact on weight loss, significantly slowing your progress. It’s triggered by a reduction in the hormone leptin, which comes from fat cells and helps regulate appetite. As your body fat decreases, so does the production of leptin, which can trigger adaptive thermogenesis.
This is where refeeds and cheat meals may help, potentially boosting your body’s leptin levels. It’s believed that by increasing your caloric intake, you can actually speed up your body’s fat burning process. However, any increase would only be temporary; hence the need to have refeeds or cheat meals regularly.
Carbohydrates are also believed to be particularly effective at increasing leptin levels. Also, as most calorie-restricted diets recommend cutting back on carbs, increasing your carbohydrate intake can help boost energy levels. This is because when the body is in a caloric deficit, it struggles to store glycogen, which is used for quick-release energy.
In addition to boosting your fat-burning potential, when done correctly, refeeding and cheat meals can also help with:
- Improving your physical performance: As refeeding can help you replenish your glycogen stores, it can boost your overall energy levels. It can also increase the quick-release energy your body can access during times of intense activity – like during workouts.
- Avoiding bingeing: Being on a restricted diet often leads to overeating when you finally give in to your cravings. However, if you allow yourself a little more freedom to indulge on a regular basis, it should help you manage your cravings.
- Staying committed to your eating plan: One of the biggest challenges when sticking to a restrictive eating plan is overcoming the feelings of deprivation. However, refeeds and cheat meals allow you to indulge in the foods you miss most, combating the feeling you’re missing out.
The case against refeeding and cheat meals
While both of these techniques are widely popular, there are still some concerns about their efficacy. In fact, there’s limited scientific evidence connecting extended periods of moderate caloric deficits and significant reductions in leptin levels.
The belief that a single meal, or even a full day of meals, could boost leptin production is also contested. Some note that if it takes weeks for leptin levels to decrease, they will take a similar period to increase.
Beyond questions of effectiveness, there are a few other concerns associated with refeeding and cheat meals:
- The risk of taking it too far: Once you loosen the restrictions on your eating, you may find it difficult to control yourself. This means it could be quite easy to break your refeed rules or go overboard with your cheat meal.
- It can justify poor dietary choices: If you’re trying to lose weight, while creating a caloric deficit is important, so is making healthy food choices. Refeeds and cheat meals allow you to make less healthy choices and rationalise when you break your diet.
- It reinforces the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods: Both processes can demonise certain foods, positioning eating them as a negative thing. While some foods should only be eaten occasionally, stigmatising them can have long-lasting negative impacts.
- It could lead to disordered eating: The swing between tightly controlling what you eat and completely letting loose can really mess up your relationship with food. This is particularly true when it comes to cheat meals, which can easily turn into shame-filled binges.
Detractors of refeeding and cheat days generally suggest people adopt a more holistic approach to their diet. As part of this, they recommend eating a wide range of foods, including consuming ‘treats’ in moderation. They also advocate for more moderate reductions in caloric intake when attempting to lose weight.
Structuring your nutrition and supplementation plans
When adding refeeds or cheat meals into your eating plan, you will first need to decide their frequency. This should be often enough to get their benefits, but not so often as to compromise your weight loss. You should also consider your weight loss goals and how much progress you have already made.
For example, if you are just starting your weight loss journey, fortnightly refeeds or cheat meals may be best. Alternatively, if you have been on a restricted diet for a number of months, weekly cheat meals may be okay. Similarly, if you’re nearing your goal weight or body fat percentage, weekly refeeds could help get you across the line.
Also, if you are going to go down the refeeding path, you should spend some time planning your approach. While there are no set rules, refeed days often have a caloric intake that is 20% – 30% higher than usual. There’s also usually a strong focus on consuming the majority of calories from carb-rich foods, like pasta, potatoes, and whole grains.
There are a few different ways to achieve these changes. For example, you can continue your regular eating plan, adding in high-carb foods to get in your extra calories. Or you can completely restructure your eating for your refeeds, building the day’s menu around some of your favourite foods.
If you would like more information on structuring your diet, check out MAX’S Ultimate Nutrition Guide. This includes example eating plans for a range of purposes, experience levels, and health and fitness goals.
When it comes to supplementation, you can generally continue taking the same products on your refeed days. This is particularly true if your supplements have been selected with weight loss in mind. For example, if you are already taking a high-quality whey protein, you can also have this on your refeed days.
However, if you’re using a specialised weight loss blend, like MAX’S Shred System, you may want to swap this for a standard whey protein on your refeed days. Or, if you need help getting in the extra calories, you could substitute in a mass gainer, like MAX’S SuperSize Ultra. In addition to increasing your total calories consumed, these products usually contain a specially formulated high-carb blend.