If you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you expend.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should spend every day in a caloric deficit while you’re dieting.
In fact, you might get better results if you take structured, intermittent “refeeds” — periods where you purposely eat excess calories during your diet. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about refeeds which you’ll learn about in this podcast.
You’ll also learn:
- Whether or not you need to do refeeds.
- How to set up a refeed.
- What, and how much to eat during a refeed.
- How frequently you should refeed.
- How to change your refeeds as you keep losing fat.
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How to Eat and Train for Fat Loss with Eric Helms
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**Armi Legge:** If you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you expend. If you keep this up, you will lose weight. Simple enough.
When most people diet, they stay in a caloric deficit the entire time. They might have a few days where they overeat, but for the most part, they stay in a caloric deficit until they reach their goal weight. For many people, this works well. They lose weight consistently and reach their goal weight without a problem.
For others, it’s not that easy. This is especially true for three kinds of people:
1) People who are diet resistant, also known as people with “thrifty genes.”
These people generally get hungrier, more lethargic, anxious, and agitated while dieting. They also tend to have a larger drop in metabolic rate, movement levels, and hormone levels while dieting.
2) People who need to lose a lot of weight.
Even if you have a lot of excess fat to lose, you often run into more problems in terms of hunger and weight loss plateaus if you lose a lot of weight, especially if you lose it quickly.
3) People who are pushing the extremes of fat loss or leanness.
This includes athletes, bodybuilders, models, figure competitors and other somewhat obsessive and very driven people who want to be very lean.
In all three of these cases, it’s not always a good idea to do a linear diet. That is, you might be able to lose faster while losing less muscle mass and maintaining your sanity by taking intermittent breaks from your diet.
We’ve talked about diet breaks in a previous podcast on binge eating. In today’s podcast, we’re going to talk about a more specific and structured kind of diet break called a “refeed.” You’ll learn why you should consider doing a refeed during your diet, how to set up a refeed, what and how much to eat during a refeed, how frequently you should refeed, and how to change your refeed as you keep making progress.
My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Impruvism Radio, the podcast that gives you simple, science-based tips to improve your health, fitness, and productivity without going crazy.
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I have another announcement for you today as well. We are getting very close to launching Impruvr, which is the first app designed specifically to help personal trainers manage their clients with as little hassle as possible.
Over the past year, I’ve been talking with personal trainers across the globe on how to make this app better, but we still want more input. If you’re a personal trainer who wants an easier, better way to track your clients’ progress, please get in touch. We’re trying to do everything possible to make sure this app meets your specific needs.
Remember that this is software, so pretty much anything is possible. One of the things we’re doing that other companies aren’t is treating all of our users like they’re part of the company. We even show early users some of the wire frames, potential feature changes, and design mockups to get their opinion before they’re ever used. Basically, you are our board of directors or advisers, whatever you want to call them.
So if you are interested in helping me build an application that will help you track your workouts and your clients’ workouts, please ping me on facebook or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Impruvr, you can go to www.impruvr.com.
Now let’s talk about how to do a diet refeed.
A refeed is a period of deliberate overeating while dieting. It works like this:
You’ve been dieting for a few weeks, meaning that you’re in a caloric deficit. Then you purposely raise your calorie intake for a short period of time and return to dieting. That’s a refeed. Usually, refeeds are high in carbohydrates and low in fat. This is for several reasons that we’ll talk about in a moment.
Refeeds are also more structured than a typical diet break or, even though I hate this term, “cheat day.” The main goal of refeeding is to help prevent or reverse some of the negative adaptations to dieting. We’ve talked about these changes in previous podcasts, but here are a few ways your body adapts to dieting, or in more clear terms, this is why most people think dieting sucks.
Your sex drive drops.
You become preoccupied with food and cooking.
You don’t get the same kind of enjoyment out of daily activities that you used to.
You sometimes lose strength and performance.
You sometimes lose muscle mass.
Your body temperature drops and you become more sensitive to cold.
You become more lethargic and fatigued.
You don’t handle stress as well and are usually more moody and easily angered.
Your resting metabolic rate drops.
You get hungrier and often don’t feel full after decent-sized meals.
Sex hormones like testosterone drop.
Leptin and thyroid hormones drop as well.
All of these negative effects from dieting also start to reverse when you eat more. The idea of refeeding is to help give your body a breath of fresh air from dieting so when you cut calories again, you lose fat faster and without feeling as crappy and miserable.
Refeeding doesn’t completely reverse these adaptations but it can limit their severity. You’ll still probably have a small drop in metabolic rate, testosterone, leptin, etc., but it won’t be quite as large if you insert refeeds into your diet.
There are several other major benefits from refeeding.
It boosts muscle glycogen, which improves performance and recovery.
Having large levels of glycogen also generally encourages people to move around more, which can increase the number of calories they burn. If you’re training hard, it’s often easy to let your glycogen levels drop when you cut calories. This generally decreases your performance and slows your recovery. By refeeding, you can ensure your glycogen levels are higher and you’re able to perform better in your workouts.
Refeeding also gives you something to look forward to. It’s basically a small break from your diet, where you can generally indulge slightly more than usual. It’s not a cheat day, per se, but you can still eat more than normal and be less strict about what you eat. Many people feel happier after getting to eat more carbs while dieting, which can also help their long-term adherence.
If you use refeeds strategically with your training and you’re willing to be very strict and precise about your calorie and macronutrient intake, you can sometimes gain a little muscle while dieting or lose some fat while gaining muscle. However, that is a topic for another podcast.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of refeeding is that it boosts leptin levels. Leptin is a hormone that tells your brain how much body fat you’re storing in the long-term and how many calories you’re eating in the short-term. Leptin also increases metabolic rate and movement levels, decreases hunger, and may also have some effects on immune function.
When you diet, leptin drops, which is one of the reasons you feel more lethargic and your metabolic rate decreases. When you eat more, leptin rises and some of these changes reverse themselves.
Now let’s talk about the different ways you can set up a refeed.
There are four main variables you can change to design a refeed.
1) Your total calorie intake
2) The macronutrient composition of your refeed
3) The duration of your refeed
4) The frequency of your refeed
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
1) Your total calorie intake
By definition, a refeed means you are increasing your calorie intake. You don’t necessarily have to be in a caloric surplus, but that’s usually what you should do.
For example, if you’ve been eating 2,000 calories per day to lose fat and your maintenance needs are around 2,500 calories per day, you should be eating at least 2,500 calories per day during the refeed. In most cases, you want to eat more than maintenance calories, so you would eat more than 2,500 calories per day.
2) The macronutrient composition of your refeed
Refeeds should be high in carbohydrates and most of the additional calories you consume should come from carbohydrate sources. This is for several reasons.
Carbohydrates boost leptin levels far more than protein fat. In fact, fat has almost zero effect on leptin levels.
Carbs are also essential for boosting thyroid levels, increasing muscle glycogen, and generally do a better job of making people feel more mentally recharged after dieting.
Carbs are also not converted as easily to fat as dietary fat, which means you can overfeed on carbs for short periods of time and gain slightly less body fat. However, this is assuming you keep your fat intake low. If you eat a bunch of carbs and fat while refeeding, the extra fat is generally going to be stored. This is because your body is primarily burning carbohydrate while refeeding and thus doesn’t need to burn the fat you’re consuming, so it stores it as body fat instead.
Generally, you should consume no more than about 50g of fat per day, at most, during a refeed if you want to completely eliminate fat gains. That’s about 4 tablespoons of butter. I also think it’s a good idea to measure or even weight your fat intake since it’s very easy to overdo it during a refeed.
If you do go over your fat intake, it’s not a huge deal. You might gain a little extra fat, but the refeed is still worth it overall. Don’t stress about this too much.
Remember that this only works for very short periods of time. You can’t overeat carbs for a week and avoid any fat gain. After several days of carbohydrate overfeeding, your body increases de novo lipogenesis, which is a process that converts carbohydrates into fat.
Also, keep in mind that you will probably gain a small amount of fat while overfeeding. However, it’s not enough to make any difference in your appearance for weight if you stick to the guidelines I’m going to give you later in this podcast. We’re talking grams of fat, not pounds.
Your protein intake while refeeding should be about as high as it was while you were in a caloric deficit. If you have trouble eating enough protein on these days or you just don’t feel like eating as much, you can generally get away with slightly less protein if you prefer. This is because calories in general are protein sparing, which means your protein requirements generally go down when you’re in a caloric surplus compared to when you are in a caloric deficit.
The type of carbohydrate you eat can also make a difference in your refeed. Starches like potatoes or rice tend to do a better job of boosting leptin than other kinds of sugar like fructose or sucrose, which is half fructose. Fructose is also easier for your body to convert to fat when overfeeding. However, over short periods, it doesn’t appear to make a huge difference.
Either way I think it’s better to get most of your carbohydrates during a refeed from starches such as sweet potatoes, rice, bagels, pasta, potatoes, bread, etc. It’s fine to have a little junk and some sweets, but don’t make it the majority of your calorie intake. If you stick to the 80/20 rule, you will be fine.
Also, make sure that you still keep eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, and fiber during your refeed.
3) The duration of your refeed
Most refeeds last between 5 hours to 3 days, which is 72 hours. In general, longer refeeds tend to have a more significant impact on reversing the negative adaptions of dieting. However, after a certain point, there is not much additional benefit to refeeding and it’s time to start dieting again.
Basically, there’s a point of diminishing returns where further refeeding doesn’t do any more good and you’re just wasting time that could be spent dieting. This point usually occurs after about 3 days of overfeeding.
A 5-hour refeed doesn’t have as much of a significant impact on leptin levels and other factors, but it still boosts muscle glycogen and helps in some other ways. In general, studies have shown it takes around 1 – 2 days for leptin levels to recover during a refeed. However, these studies were generally done on people who were dieting for a protracted period of time. They weren’t doing consistent refeeds and their bodies probably had significantly lower leptin levels.
My personal preference is to do short, more frequent refeeds. I generally think a 12 – 16 hour refeed works best. This is because most of the people I work with are already fairly lean and exercise a lot. I like this method for several reasons.
1) The refeeds can be smaller, which means people don’t have to make a huge change to their diet.
Suddenly overconsuming a ton of carbs can often be hard from a behavioral aspect for a lot of people. If someone has a history of binge eating, this is especially problematic. Even if you don’t have a history of binge eating, most people just don’t like going to a ton of trouble of changing their diet completely and eating a ton of different foods, including me.
2) More frequent refeeds generally help people avoid going through longer periods of being hungry and feeling like crap on a diet. Smaller, more frequent refeeds help keep hunger levels under control and generally make people feel better.
3) If someone is training a lot, more frequent refeeds help make sure glycogen levels don’t get too depleted for too long. It also helps athletes avoid huge changes in energy intake, which tends to increase their risk of getting sick or injured, though not all studies have found that to be the case.
This method also works well for athletes since they can focus less on their diet and more on their training since they aren’t making quite as big changes to their diet on a daily basis.
When I say a 12 – 16 hour refeed, I mean that your first and last meals are separated by about 12 – 16 hours. I don’t see any reason why you should need to wake up in the middle of the night to eat during a refeed. Even if there was a significant benefit, it would almost certainly be negated by messing up your sleep.
And next is the fourth variable that you can change to set up a refeed.
4) The frequency of your refeed
As a rule of thumb, the longer you diet without a break and the harder you diet, the longer you should refeed. After about three days of refeeding, there isn’t much additional benefit and you’re probably better off switching to maintenance calories or cutting calories again to lose fat.
As you get leaner, you should also increase the frequency and duration of your refeeds. This is because as you get leaner your body tends to fight back more and all the negative adaptations we talked about earlier tend to get worse. Heavier people can go a lot longer without refeeds and don’t usually need to eat as much when they do refeed.
Before we talk about how to set up a refeed, I want to mention something that’s very important. There is very little evidence on refeeding in general. Almost all of this information comes from studies on overfeeding or underfeeding after dieting or while dieting and it’s not like they’re comparing two different kinds of refeeding protocols, so any conclusions we draw are kind of sketchy.
That said, I think all of these ideas still have a lot of merit and indirect evidence, although they’re still based more on anecdote and experience of well-trained bodybuilders and dieters and athletes than they are based on research. So just keep your skeptical hat on when you listen to this.
Now let’s talk about how to set up a refeed.
First, take a self-assessment. Ask yourself questions like:
What’s your body fat percentage?
Have you been dieting?
How long have you been dieting?
How large is your caloric deficit while eating?
How do you feel? Do you feel lethargic, hungry, sluggish?
Are you exercising? How much and what kind of exercise are you doing?
Have you done refeeds before? How did you look and feel afterward?
After you figure these things out, you can decide whether or not you need to start doing refeeds and, if so, how to set them up.
The specifics of any refeed really depend on the individual and their situation but here are my general guidelines.
People with more body fat don’t need to eat as much when they refeed. They don’t need to refeed for as long. And they can go longer between refeeds.
People with less body fat and/or higher levels of exercise need to eat more when they refeed. They need to refeed longer. And they need more frequent refeeds.
The longer and harder you diet, the longer you should refeed, up to about 3 days. Generally, you also need fewer calories the longer you refeed.
Refeeds should always be high in carbohydrate and generally low in fat. In general, 8g – 12g of carbohydrates per 1kg of lean body mass and 50g of fat per day are good starting targets.
The majority of your carbs during your refeed, about 80%, should come from starches and other complex carbohydrates. The rest can come from fructose, table sugar, and other sweets and treats.
Keep eating the same amount of protein or slightly less while refeeding as you were while dieting.
Also, keep eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and fiber during your refeed.
Keep the calorie surplus of your refeed moderate, not excessive. In general, about 20% – 30% above your maintenance calorie intake works well. So if you need 2,000 calories to maintain your weight, you’d eat 2,400 – 2,600 calories during your refeed. That’s assuming that you’re using a more moderate refeed length that I prefer, such as around 12 – 16 hours.
I also think it’s best to time your refeeds so they coincide with your workouts. Try to plan your refeeds on the same days you work out, especially with strength training. More of the calories will get diverted to muscle growth and recovery, and you can generally maximize glycogen synthesis better if you eat extra carbs on a workout day.
However, remember that you still need to be in a caloric surplus, so don’t use the workout as a way to burn off all of the extra calories. That is not the point.
As you get leaner, increase the frequency of your refeeds. If you’re maybe 20% body fat for a guy or 30% body fat for a girl, you might start to do a refeed every 1 – 2 weeks of about 6 – 12 hours in length. If you’re a lean guy at about 8% body fat or a girl at about 12% – 15% body fat, you might need to do a refeed every 3 – 7 days, or sometimes even more often than that. Again, it completely depends on your situation.
I also think it works best if you consume carbohydrates and calories throughout the refeed period. Saving all of your carbs or calories for a single meal generally doesn’t work as well. You don’t have to have a ton of carbs at every meal or space all of your calories perfectly throughout the day, but have a little something to keep your insulin and leptin levels higher throughout the refeed period.
Start with a moderate refeed. Keep your calorie intake only 10% to 20% above your maintenance needs and consume maybe 6g – 8g of carbohydrate per 1kg of lean mass. Then adjust from there based on how you feel, how you look, how you perform, as well as how you keep losing weight.
So here’s the summary for refeeding:
1) A refeed is a short period of overeating during your diet to help reverse some of the negative effects of dieting. Refeeds usually last around 5 – 72 hours.
2) Refeeds don’t completely prevent all of the negative adaptations to dieting and they don’t necessarily make you lose fat faster. However, they do make the process far more pleasant and do a better job of maintaining your performance, muscle mass, and strength.
3) The extra calories during your refeed should mostly come from carbohydrates. In most cases, this will be around 8g – 12g of carbohydrate per 1kg of lean body mass.
4) Most of the carbohydrates you eat, around 80%, should come from starches rather than table sugar and fructose.
5) Keep eating the same amount of protein during your refeed or slightly less, if you prefer.
6) Keep fat intake less than about 50g, or maybe 10% – 20%
of your total calorie intake during the refeed.
7) Keep eating lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and fiber. Stick to the 80/20 rule in terms of food quality for the most part.
8) People with more body fat can go longer without refeeds and don’t need to refeed for as long.
9) As you get leaner, you should increase the frequency and duration of your refeeds.
10) If you’re fairly lean already and you’re an athlete, I think a 12 – 16 hour refeed about 2 – 3 times per week tends to work best as a starting place.
11) Keep modifying your refeeds based on how you look, feel, and perform, and how your weight goes. If you stop losing weight, you might need to eat less. If you feel bloated and puffy the day after your refeeds, you may need to eat less or make sure you’re eating mostly starches.
And that is almost everything you need to know about how to do a refeed.
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Thanks for listening and I will see you next week.
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