It’s almost that time of the year. Many people will begin to end their bulks and shed the blubber that they put on over the winter.
The diet usually starts out simply enough. You’ll begin by dropping the calories. You start to see gradual but consistent changes. You decide to amp things up and include some more cardio into your plan as well. The scale begins to budge faster now, things are going quite well.
BAM! Like a freight train, it hits you. You hit that dreaded wall. You’ve reached the infamous plateau.
You’re not losing weight anymore. Your performance is declining. You always seem to be in a sour mood. You need to be drinking coffee every hour on the hour in order to just survive the day.
So what do you do? Drop the calories even more? No, you say to yourself, you’re already hungry as it is, and this will just exacerbate that issue.
How about more cardio? Hell no! You’re tired as it is already, you feel like you can’t manage any more of an increase in activity.
Well, my friends, there may be a solution out there that you may have heard of but never tried before.
Refeeds and Cheat Meals
These are two different types of dieting strategies used to combat this plateau. But what are they and how do they work?
Well before we dive into each of the strategies, let’s examine what exactly the function and purpose of them are.
Leptin and Ghrelin
These are two potent “hunger hormones” in your body that regulate appetite and energy balance within the body. Both leptin and ghrelin directly contrast one another.
Simply put, a drop in leptin signals for hunger while a drop in ghrelin would signal that you are satisfied or full, and vice versa.
As you progress further and further into your diet, leptin will continue to drop. This is what causes that intensifying hunger and drop in metabolic rate. Cheat meals and refeeds would theoretically combat this issue. But the caveat here is that we have to find the right balance. We have to eat just enough more to reaccelerate our fat loss, but not too much that we throw off our calorie balance and end up gaining fat. This is the trickiest part for most people.
This is the one that most people are familiar with. But notice a subtle detail here. I said MEALS, not DAYS. Trust me, no matter how far you are in your diet, you DO NOT NEED an entire day to break your plateau. That’s just ridiculous, and most often just an excuse to eat like a pig and not stay disciplined.
This method often doesn’t utilize calorie or macro tracking and is usually pre-planned as well. Depending on the macronutrient composition of the meal, it has the potential to raise leptin and provide psychological relief to the dieter.
However, the problem here lies in the fact that as cheat meals become increasingly popularized and endorsed (particularly in social media), the risk for developing eating disorders increases, such as binging episodes. As we continue to diet, we want our relationship with food to remain healthy. Remember, beyond the vanity of this endeavor, we are also doing this for the betterment of our health.
Plus, the use of the word “cheat” creates its own set of problems. This also has the potential to damage ones’ relationship with food, as the word “cheat” has a negative connotation and stigma attached to it. People have often referred to this type of meal as a “free meal” in order to remove that taboo.
This is where refeeds come into the picture.
Think of this strategy as the more balanced and planned out version of a cheat meal. Basically, it is an increase in one’s calories by only increasing carbs. Protein is often set to around 1 gram per pound of body weight, and fat is dropped anywhere between 25-50 grams per day to make room for more calories from carbs. Calories are increased to about 20-30% above the person’s calorie deficit.
Just note that these are ballpark figures and that there are no scientific studies out (yet!) that have determined a “best number” of macronutrients and calories to consume for a refeed. This requires constant experimentation and monitoring of one’s own physique and performance over time.
Now what’s the benefit of doing this over a flat-out cheat meal?
Well, you’ll increase leptin more so than cheat meals would. Carbs have been shown to increase leptin far more significantly than dietary fats do. In one study, leptin was increased by 28% after a carbohydrate overfeeding compared to fats which didn’t even increase leptin to a statistically significant level.
Plus, it’s more structured manner allows you to more easily track what is working and what isn’t. When you’re utilizing cheat meals, it’s not as easy to see what foods make you perform and look better, as you’re most likely not tracking them either.
But with refeeds, you’re able to modify and adjust the amount and type of carbs that you’re using, as fats and proteins remain constant. That’s one of the most important things to do when performing experiments, even on yourself; keep as many variables as constant as possible.
But It’s Not All Black-and-White Either…
As with anything in fitness and bodybuilding, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Those who prefer cheat meals may not have any psychological issues with food whatsoever and find that it works better for their particular physique and increases their motivation. That’s fine. You have to do what works for you.
But others may find that once they get off track one time, they develop that all-or-nothing mentality and begin to binge and use it as an excuse to fall off of their plan. Try both of them a couple of times and see which one works better for you.
How Often Should I Utilize These Strategies?
Depending on which one you decide to choose, frequency is going to differ.
If you go the cheat meal route, I’d stick to a more pre-planned route. I would pick a certain day of the week to use it (probably a weekend day) and use it as the last meal of the day. This reduces the chances of excessive binging later in the day and allows you to start fresh the next day.
If you’re prepping for a contest or photoshoot, I’d switch to the refeed strategy for the last 2-3 weeks, as you want the most control possible as you get closer to your deadline. But if you’re just dieting with no set deadline, then experiment and determine which frequency is best for you. The leaner you get (sub-10% body fat), the more often you’ll need to implement them.
If you go the refeed route, I’d start out with once a week after you’ve been in a deficit for about 2 months or so. You don’t really need it that much before this point, depending on how lean you start the diet. Just like with the cheat meal route, the leaner you are, the more often you’ll need to implement them. As you get to the 8-10% body fat range, you’ll probably need to do it 2x/week.
So again, you’ll really need to try these out on yourself in order to see which one works best for you. The scientific community is finally beginning to look at this in the bodybuilding and fitness community, so expect to see some interesting revelations in the industry relatively soon.
Do you use refeeds or cheat meals (or both?) If so, which one do you prefer? Let me know in the comments!
Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram @zach.macdonald
Boston-born bodybuilder currently residing in the beautiful city of Tampa, Florida in pursuit of a Master's Degree in Exercise & Nutrition Science. Competitive NPC Classic Physique athlete with a passion for strength training, health, well-being, and the science that makes it all possible. I want to sift through all of the B.S that's out there to provide you with the best information possible for you to achieve YOUR goals, whatever they may be. Human physiology is an amazing thing, let's find out what the human body is capable of!