Refeeding for Fat Loss
Author : Justin Nault
If you were to ask me my nutritional recommendations for a variety of health issues, my answers would be pretty similar. Low-carb and/ or Paleo. Notice, I said for “health issues,” not “performance goals.” Deliberate word choice because the two do not go hand-in-hand. The more clients I work with, the more I get the occasional question about refeeding. A client will stumble across a bodybuilding article somewhere or have a friend tell them about this old school protocol. The idea that eating significantly more calories once or twice a week can speed up fat loss.
Is this true? Could we joyously stuff our faces with excess food a couple of times per week and lose more fat?! Could we have our cake and eat it too, as they say?!
Nope. Not even a little bit. To understand why let’s first talk about what refeeding is.
Refeeding is that act of increasing caloric intake substantially once or twice per week. The basic “bro science” behind this myth is that you can influence leptin levels in the body through refeeding. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells in the body. In a nutshell, Leptin is responsible for telling our bodies when we should eat and when we should stop eating. It’s the hormone that lets us know we’re full.
Generally speaking, in the bodybuilding world, calories are still king. When someone wants to lose fat they simply eat fewer calories than they burn. It’s an approach based on bad (if not non-existent) science based on the idea that all calories are equal.
Operating at a caloric deficit for any period lowers leptin levels and slows your metabolism. Refeeding is designed to spike leptin hormone levels and boost your metabolism in hopes of accelerating fat loss.
The worst part? Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that can cause the massive leptin spike that bodybuilders are looking for. More specifically, refined carbohydrates (sugars). I really can’t even explain how detrimental this sort of practice can be to your body.
Why would I never use this approach?
Because using long-term caloric deprivation for fat loss is stupid.
If I put someone on a plan for fat loss, they will not be torturing themselves with a caloric deficit. In many cases, they’ll be eating more calories than they are used to while hitting proper macronutrient levels. Refeeding is only popular in the world of bodybuilding because starving yourself for fat loss is a standard practice in that world. Those people need refeed days; my clients do not.
To dive a bit deeper, anytime you restrict calories it tricks your body. The body thinks it is starving and it will start to catabolize itself. Unfortunately, it usually attacks its own muscle and tissue to create amino acids to be used for energy. Caloric restriction will also take a massive toll on your hormone balance. Not only will it affect leptin, but other important hormones like testosterone can drop drastically in the process. Especially when eating a very low fat diet, which many bodybuilders still do because apparently, we live in the 1970’s. The idea of refeeding is to let your body know that it is not starving, and the caloric restriction is temporary. Bodybuilders will do a carbohydrate refeed one or two days per week as a way of telling their body to continue acting as it would if there was not a caloric deficit.
Secondly, the entire premise of refeeding operates on the assumption that your hormones are not functioning properly. These bodybuilders look at a symptom (i.e. low leptin levels) and treat it (i.e. refeeding) without ever addressing the cause of said issue. If they were to stop for a moment and think logically about why their hormones are not functioning properly (i.e. caloric deprivation), they just might second guess their entire approach.
Long story short, refeeding is not necessary if you are not regularly restricting calories, which is not required for fat loss. Following a low-carb, Paleo diet, with proper macronutrient levels will not only help you lose fat, but it will also help balance your natural hormone function in the process! It’s a win-win.