The start of any diet is exciting.
You feel motivated by the thought of change, the idea that through the simple acts of eating and exercising you can change your body. The first few weeks and months usually go well too;
The weight comes off consistently
You feel engaged and motivated
Your diet plan is satisfying
However, slowly but surely the weight loss slows down, your motivation wanes and your feelings of hunger never seem to go away. Next thing you know you’re binging every weekend, putting away pizza, chocolate and popcorn like it’s being discontinued.
Then, bam, you wake up one morning and realise you’re not calorie deficit is no longer a calorie deficit and you’ve gained back all the weight you lost and more.
Why Does This Happen?
In a nutshell it’s because of something called body weight set point.
Body weight set point means your body operates independently of your wishes, storing excess calories as fat whenever possible to protect itself from periods of famine or hunger.
You see, your body doesn’t want you to lose weight.
Generally speaking, it’s happy how it is.
Obviously, your body doesn’t need to behaviour in this ‘survival mode’ any more, food is widely available, and the likelihood of severe hunger or famine is exceedingly low. However, it doesn’t realise this, and not only will it store fat when given the chance it will also try and stop you from losing it.
You’ve probably noticed this…
How every time you try and lose weight things start well but slow down over time and often end up with you back where you started.
This is your set point at work.
When you eat in a calorie deficit and start losing weight a series of metabolic changes occur that work in direct opposition to your efforts. Your body actively makes weight loss more difficult by;
Increasing feelings of hunger and reduced feelings of fullness
Reducing in the amount of spontaneous (NEAT) exercise you do
Slowing down your metabolic rate
The increased hunger comes from a change in the hormones Leptin (makes you feel full) and Ghrelin (makes you feel hungry) which are responsible for controlling your appetite. (3)
Usually these 2 hormones work together to help you control your calorie intake and maintain your weight. (4) However, when you eat in a calorie deficit your body reduces the production of Leptin.
This results in the oh so familiar feelings of hunger, and the cravings you always get when trying to lose fat.
Reduction in Exercise
The second part of your body’s response is to reduce something called NEAT.
NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) and is the fancy way of saying everything you do that isn’t planned exercise, sports, sleeping or eating. It essentially means you do less of all the little things you might normally do when not losing fat.
For most people 2 of the biggest changes are;
Walking less, opting for escalators and elevators instead of stairs
Fidgeting less, your body reduces activity to conserve energy
Although it doesn’t seem like much, this reduction in NEAT means you burn less calories, can eat less food and makes fat loss more difficult.
Slowed Metabolic Rate
At the heart of your body’s attempts to maintain it’s set point is a process called adaptive thermogenesis.
This is the decrease in the number of calories you burn everyday beyond what is expected from the change in your body weight and reduction in activity that is typically associated with being in a calorie deficit. (5)
In other words, as you diet your daily calorie needs will decrease, often by a large amount to the point that you’re not in a calorie deficit at all. The longer you’re in a calorie deficit and the bigger the deficit is, the worse this effect. (6)
All this adds up to mean the longer you diet and stay in a calorie deficit the harder your body makes it for you by manipulating a variety of factors;
Slowing your metabolism
Decreasing energy levels
Reducing NEAT activity
Negatively affecting mood and motivation
Impacting sleep quality
Increasing cravings and hunger
Reducing your sex drive
Reducing levels of testosterone
The longer you’re in a calorie deficit and the larger your deficit is, the worse these effects are. This means over time maintaining a calorie deficit becomes more and more difficult.
Does this mean you can’t successfully lose fat?
Of course not.
What it means is that you need to manage these side effects by strategically spending time out of a calorie deficit and at calorie maintenance.
This is where refeeds come in.
What is a Refeed Day?
A refeed is a planned increase in calories and carbohydrates used when dieting to negate some of the downsides of eating in a calorie deficit.
They do this in 3 main ways;
Prevent Leptin levels from dropping any lower and potentially increasing them
Replenish glycogen stores which improves strength, performance in the gym and recovery from exercise
Provide mental reprieve from the rigours of dieting which improves long-term adherence to a calorie deficit
When it comes to refeeding, you want to prioritise a high carbohydrate intake. This is because the primary goal of a refeed is to raise Leptin levels and research shows that carbohydrate is far superior in comparison to fat at doing this. (7, 8)
Eating a high carb intake also has the additional benefit of increasing glycogen stores in your muscles and fuelling your workout performance. (9)
It’s also preferable to refeed on a training day as the increase in muscle glycogen can then be put to good use. However, you could also schedule the refeed to coincide with a day you know you’re going to eat more.
This way you can use your refeed strategically to either get a little training boost or be able to eat more whilst sticking to your diet.
How to Set Up Your Refeed Day
When it comes to refeed days the first step is to determine how often you should do it. The answer to this question is based on your current situation. This because the leaner you are and the longer you’ve been in a calorie deficit the more likely you are to be suffering from metabolic adaptation. (32)
The guidelines are as follows;
If you’re new to dieting and haven’t been in a calorie deficit for too long, then refeed every 1 – 3 times a month
If you’ve been dieting for a while, are already a low body fat % or have noticed a sustained dip in performance in the gym then refeed once a week
To set yourself up for the refeed you want to raise your calories to between your maintenance and 250 over with following macros:
Protein = 0.8 – 1g per lb of bodyweight
Fats = as low as possible (30-40g is what’s largely recommended)
Carbs = everything else goes to carbs
The day after you refeed you can expect to see a temporary increase in body weight due to the increase in food intake, muscle glycogen and water weight. Don’t panic, it’s not weight gain. This is normal and once you return to your normal diet it will go away again.
A normal side effect of dieting is a reduction in daily energy expenditure and the slowing of weight loss.
As a result, many people think they can’t lose weight and give up on their goals. However, this doesn’t have to be the case.
By using strategic refeed days you can help to minimise the impact of these effects and sustain weight loss.
Setup your refeed in 3 simple steps;
Determine how often you need to refeed
Increase your calories to maintenance level on your refeed day
Prioritise a high carbohydrate, normal protein and low fat
Go back to your calorie deficit & reap the benefits of a successful refeed