Cheat meals and refeeds are powerful ways to promote weight loss without many of the negative side effects that go along with dieting. Prolonged calorie restriction can lead to many problems that affect your metabolism and make it harder for you to lose weight.
Benefits of Cheat Meals and Refeeds
- Increased Thyroid Function – refeeds produce prompt recovery of thyroid hormone (T3) after prolonged calorie restriction .
- Controlled Hunger – refeeds can boost levels of leptin, a hormone that manages appetite and satiety, which in return will reduce cravings and hunger .
- Maximized Glycogen Stores – improved insulin sensitivity from calorie restriction leads to a greater capacity for muscles to store glycogen during refeeds. The extra carbs are more likely to be stored as glycogen instead of fat.
- Improved Testosterone Levels – testosterone levels are drastically reduced with prolonged energy deficits of 1,000 calories/day. Refeeds cause a quick recovery of testosterone .
- Improved Adherence – cheat meals are psychologically pleasing. They loosen the feelings of restriction and deprivation, which in turn can improve adherence and consistency over time.
Cheat Day Case Study
The science looks promising, but how does the idea of having a cheat day play out in the real world?
Let’s take a look at a client of mine. We’ll call her Amanda since she asked to remain anonymous.
Amanda struggled to lose weight the first couple of months of her program even though we had reduced calories four different times. Over the course of 10 weeks we systematically reduced her weekly average calories from 1705 to 1495 calories per day. This resulted in no weight loss.
Her tape measurements showed improvements and her body composition was changing for the better but our goal was to still lose about 20lbs.
That’s when we decided to restructure her calories. While maintaining that weekly average of 1495 calories per day, we built in a refeed day on Sundays.
We dropped her calories Monday through Saturday calories and used the “savings” for Sunday. The results? She instantly started losing weight.
|restructured calories – 1 refeed day/week|
This was not an isolated case either. I’ve used cheat meals and refeeds time and time again as a means to break weight loss plateaus without having to further reduce calories.
And to further help you see how to implement an effective cheat day, “Amanda” has given me permission to share her complete program with you.
It has everything from her daily fat, carb, and protein intake, to her daily workout program, to her body measurements, to my personal notes. If you want a copy of her program to help you with planning yours, just click here to download it.
How Often Should You Have a Cheat Day
Cheat meals and refeeds and most beneficial the longer you spend in a calorie deficit. This gives your body a chance to deplete some of its glycogen stores.
When you first start a weight loss program there’s a good chance you’re coming from a period of reduced physical activity and eating at maintenance calories or above. That means the physiological impact of a cheat meal won’t be as dramatic.
When it comes time to implement a refeed I tend to use them in one of two different ways:
- cheat meal once a week – I recommend you pick a day that is socially beneficial to you. That way you can better mesh your social lifestyle and fitness goals. If that day also falls on a workout day, then that’s all the better. Cut your calories the other 6 days of the week and add them to your refeed day.
- cheat meal twice a week – I mostly use this for people who are a little leaner or for people who struggle to get back on track after a larger refeed. The refeeds are smaller in nature and weigh-ins the following morning actually tend to be lower more times than not. Anecdotally I find that adherence is better using this method.
As you start getting leaner, the frequency of your refeeds may actually need to increase. The lower your body fat levels, the more your body wants to hang on to the energy reserves (fat) it has.
Cheat Day or Cheat Meal?
So you’re all excited about this cheat day. You’re dreaming of eating pizza, ice cream, chips, and fast food all day. Let’s take a step back for a second.
Remember, a cheat day is a preplanned approach to help you lose fat. It’s about you staying in control of food. You don’t want to blow a whole week’s worth of weight loss by bingeing and eating an insane amount of calories.
I recommend that at first you limit your cheat day to a single cheat meal. This way you can gauge its effect on fat loss and adherence. If you see that you are losing weight at a good pace, you can be a little looser with food quality and overall quantity.
If you struggle to get back on track after a cheat meal, consider opting for a refeed instead. A refeed is basically a day of increased calories coming mostly from whole foods, but in higher quantity.
Using Cheat Meals Most Effectively
Most of the physiological benefits of refeeds come from the increased calories and carbohydrate intake. In a perfect world you’d hold fat and protein constant and implement the calorie bump by increasing your carbohydrates.
Refeeds and cheat meals are best used when conventional healthy eating methods have stopped working for you. Improve the quality of your diet first. When the natural calorie restriction effect of simply changing the quality of your diet is no longer getting you results, start paying closer attention to your calorie intake. Then if purposeful calorie cuts don’t get your weight trending down, refeeds can be implemented to keep your progress moving forward.
Finally, it’s not unusual to gain weight the day after a refeed. Many people can step on the scale and see a 2-5lb gain, and that can lead to a spinning out of control.
Just remember that weight and fat are not the same and that it’s common to add some weight from both intracellullar (within the muscle) and extracellular (under the skin) water retention following a refeed. If this concerns you I’d recommend you stay off the scale for a couple of days.
Stay consistent and the extra water retention will be gone in a matter of days. While that’s happening fat loss will continue in the background, and your average weight week to week should be decreasing.