Now, that might sound strikingly similar to the idea of cheat meals, but it should be considered a different practice.
The term "cheat" implies that you're going against the requirements of your diet. That's why most cheat meals include large amounts of foods like cheeseburgers, donuts, and French fries - foods typically not allowed. And if you've ever used a restrictive diet and cheat meals, you know it's a much-needed break.
Refeeds, on the other hand, are meant to provide more calories to avoid adaptation, while maintaining normal eating habits.
Instead of a one meal free-for-all, a refeed allows you to stick to your standard macronutrient ratios and increase total calories back to normal for a few days or even weeks.
From experience, cheat meals are opportunities to break from the monotony of a restrictive diet. Refeeds are more of a controlled break from dieting to avoid the adverse metabolic changes that come with calorie restriction.
WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS ABOUT REFEEDS
While most of this information, like calorie balance and adaptation, isn't up for debate, the idea of refeeds and breaks from dietary restrictions aren’t as common. So, do refeeds provide a meaningful benefit?
Research suggests they do.
TWO-WEEK REFEEDS VS. CONTINUOUS RESTRICTION
A recent 2018 study published in the International Journal of Obesity, perhaps best exemplifies the power of using regular refeeds for effective and sustainable weight loss (12).
In this study, 51 obese men took part by restricting calories by 33% for 16 total weeks. The catch, however, was that half of the participants used two-week refeeds.
For example, the standard group participants restricted calories by 33% every day for 16 weeks straight. The other group followed the same process, but increased calories back to normal at two-week intervals, for two weeks. As such, this process took 30 weeks for the refeed group.
Despite spending the same amount of time in a calorie deficit, the subjects using two-week refeeds saw more impressive results. For instance, their fat mass declined to a greater extent than the standard group. Plus, their metabolic rate remained elevated, despite weight loss (12).
Here, we can easily see the power of using refeeds. Yes, the dieting process took twice as long, but those participants found greater success and had fewer metabolic adaptations, making weight changes simpler and easier to sustain (12).
TWO-DAY CALORIE MAINTENANCE SUSTAINS METABOLIC RATE
A different study published just last year in the Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology came to similar findings (13).
Over seven weeks, one group of participants restricted calories daily while a second group ate maintenance calories for two days every week.
At the end of the study, both the refeed group and the standard dieting group lost a significant amount of fat mass. However, consistent with other studies, using refeeds prevented a significant reduction in metabolic rate. The standard group, however, showed a significant decline – suggesting adaptation (13).
LONG & SHORT DIET BREAKS HELP AVOID PLATEAU
One fascinating study found in the journal Obesity shows us differences between short and long diet breaks compared to a straight-calorie restriction diet (14).
Interestingly, the main idea behind this study was to understand how breaks or relapses from one’s diet would affect progress and the ability to return to dieting habits. This is indeed a concern for refeeds, particularly for individuals that don’t have consistent control over food intake.
Over 20 weeks, all participants restricted calories. They dieted while following one of three procedures:
- No break – restricted calories daily for 20 weeks.
- Short break – 2-week break after weeks 3, 6, and 9.
- Long break – 6-week break after week 7.
After each break, they returned to their normal dieting calories, while monitoring body weight.
Impressively, in addition to showing no difficulty managing diet breaks, participants lost a similar amount of bodyweight across groups, with no differences between groups. However, the data shows that straight calorie restriction caused a plateau. In fact, participants in the no-break group lost virtually no weight from weeks 14-20 (14).
While the diet break groups lost weight at a slower pace, they lost that weight more consistently. Plus, the short break group stopped breaking after week nine, yet continued to lose weight. Had additional breaks been added, weight loss would likely have been even greater.
Based on these trends, we see that regular diet breaks might be slower, but allow for more consistent changes that avoid plateau and provide a more sustainable approach (14).
PERIODIC OVEREATING PROMOTES SUSTAINABLE WEIGHT MANAGEMENT
It's no mystery that restricting calories leads to weight loss. But what we see with the previous studies is that periodic refeeds help sustain a healthy metabolism, despite weight loss (12, 13, 14).
When calorie restriction is sustained indefinitely, we see a plateau in weight loss, which is to be expected. When periods of increased calories come into the mix, we see that this plateau is avoided, at the cost of speed (12, 14).
Perhaps the greatest benefit here is that refeeds help to avoid that metabolic adaptation, which is particularly essential for after the diet ends. Metabolic adaptation means that increasing calories puts you at risk of rapid weight regain (15).
These studies suggest that periodically increasing calories can help sustain your metabolic rate, despite you losing weight. As a result, increasing calories back to normal is less likely to result in excessive weight regain. It’s a win-win situation for weight loss and maintaining that weight loss (12, 13, 14).
HOW TO USE REFEEDS & DIET BREAKS
Based on new research, it seems apparent that regularly breaking from calorie restriction is a smart move if you want weight loss to be sustainable. If you're interested in trying this process, here are a few guidelines.