One of the biggest nutritional questions asked is what is more beneficial a refeed or a cheat meal? What is the difference between both, and how can they help the individual? Since this is such a broad question, I wanted to write out my explanation of both. Refeeds and Cheat meals are not only important in a fat loss phase (which I will detail later), but both can be used in the offseason or for contest prep. There are certain factors one has to consider when using both which is where I will start.
First, what is a refeed, and what is a cheat meal? A refeed simply a way of increasing calories over maintenance to help boost t3, leptin, and hormone levels. Refeeds are important for those especially in a fat loss phase to help boost your metabolism and increase fat loss. They also give the trainee some extra energy to
power through workouts from the prolonged deficit. They can also be used in the offseason if one is carefully tracking their macros as a way to increase calories. Instead of eating the same amount every day, people like to carb cycle and include refeeds on heavy training days (think legs or back). These are ways to increase the caloric intake still over the seven day period and lead to lean gains. The benefit of refeeding when in a deficit allows leptin to increase (which is the satiety hormone in the body that helps reduce hunger and regulate energy balance).
How to set up a refeed:
What should macros and calories look like on a refeed, and how often should I refeed? These are two very common questions that can be easily addressed. For those in the offseason, one time a week refeed would be ideal, but when in a fat loss phase this is where it gets tricky. As you start a diet, I would suggest refeeding one time a week to start. How you set up your other six days is personal preference. Some people like to eat the same caloric intake every day, and some like to carb cycle (between high((Refeed)), low, and medium days). I would first take the individuals caloric intake and increase it at least 25% coming mostly from carbohydrates. I would also drop protein and fat intake slightly because of how protein sparing carbohydrates are especially when fat and protein minimums have been met. Let’s take for example someone on 2,000 calories looking to refeed. I then would add at least 25% calories, which would be 500. Next are protein and fat intake. I have individuals around 1g/lb of protein and at least 20% of the calories coming from fat. If the individual was 150 pounds that would be a 150g protein of fat and 45g fat. 150g of protein = 600 calories, and 45g of fat = 405 calories leaving us with 995 from carbs on a general day (248g carbs). On a refeed day I would dip protein to 135g and fat to 40g and leave the remainder in carbs. 40g Fat = 360 calories, and 135g protein = 540 which leads to a total of 900 calories. 2500 – 900 leaves us with 1400 calories in carbohydrates. Divide that by 4 to get 350g.
Regular days (6x a week at 2000 calories)
150g Protein, 248g Carbs, 45g Fat
1x Refeed: 135g Protein, 350g Carbs, 40g Fat
How often to refeed:
Some other important things to note about refeeding during dieting and offseason. The longer you go in the offseason, the less important it may need to refeed. Reason being is your caloric intake raises to a surplus almost daily (unless you carb cycle). At this point, the need to spike carbs and calories may be not necessary. Refeeding when you are giving the body plenty of calories on a daily basis, it could lead to unwanted fat gain. This could be offset if you drop calories significantly on off days (carb cycling or calorie cycling) and include higher days on heavy workouts such as legs or back.
On the dieting front, the amount you refeed will be dictated by a few factors. The first factor is the duration of the diet. The leaner you get, the more you will have to refeed, or the larger the will have to become. Most people handle smaller more frequent refeeds then very large refeeds. The reason being some people cannot handle such massive calories and will cause them to hold weight over the course of the week. Instead, the smaller refeeds they can blow through quicker and get right back into a deficit. As to how many times that is, again it depends on the individual, their metabolism, and how well they handle carbs. Some individuals who are mesomorphs can get fat by looking at a carb and will need to be very protective over their carbohydrate amount. Those who have very fast metabolisms could refeed upward to 2-3x a week when in a long-term deficit and still make progress. Using the scale and mirror are key factors to seeing what you should do and how you should manipulate your refeeds.
Cheat Meals & Benefits:
Now on the other side of the coin, what is a cheat meal? A cheat meal to my
description is an uncounted meal that is taken to replace one meal in your diet. Most people like to grab a meal on the weekends and not think about the caloric intake and move on with their diet. A lot of people enjoy these because they can go out and be social and grab a meal with friends. Another nice aspect is it gives you a psychological relief of tracking a meal or eating something different then what you may be used to. Myself I am a huge fan of variety, and when I diet for so long, there are certain things that just do not appeal to me because of the caloric amount and volume I can get out of that source. For example pasta and pizza, if I were to fit those into minimal calories when dieting you will get the satisfaction of 2-3 bites and be starving later. Psychological relief, a ways of being social, and a little break from the diet never hurt anyone, or did it?
The biggest drawback of cheat meals:
The biggest drawback of replacing one meal of “whatever you want” in an effort to reward yourself or give yourself mental freedom is it can do more harm than good. This is where the relationship with food and the individual have to go hand in hand. Giving someone a green light to eat may not be the best thing to do. Reason being is their eyes are larger than their stomach’s. In this case, they end up eating too much, feel guilty, and then intake so many calories it sets them back on their goal. Even in the offseason if you eat like this once a week it can lead to fat gain at a much faster pace that is ideal for your rate of lean gains.
When to have cheat meals:
This is always a debated topic as well for when to have a cheat meal. I have found a few things that need to be addressed first before giving a specific time. For those who struggle with their relationship with food, and can just eat and eat until the cows come home I suggest it as their last meal. The reason I say this is because once the meal is over, it’s over. You go to bed and start back on your diet the next day.
For those who have a bit more control, I suggest it post-workout. Right after a workout insulin sensitivity is high, and the calories will be able to push back what you lose from a very hard workout.
The last factor is training time. If you train first thing upon waking you could 1) have it post-workout, or 2) have it the last meal the night before. This way it helps store glycogen stores and helps power through an early morning fasted session.
Frequency of Cheat Meals:
I would suggest one meal a week for all goals. When dieting just like with refeeds you could increase to 2x a week depending on how fast you are metabolizing those meals. Remember the size of the cheat is a huge factor. Some people eat way too much and it will delay how fast they push through the food, and could backset their fat loss phase.
So what is better – a cheat meal or a refeed?
Totally depends on the individual and how well they control their intake on cheat meals. Replacing one meal with a sub, and not an endless buffet would be a wise idea. Some people go to the extreme when it comes to a cheat meal which does more harm then good. Refeeds are calculated and controlled, for most cases, this will be the better way to go. Refeeds are consistent with calories where cheat meals can be all over the place. One week a meal could be 1200 calories another it could be 2,000 calories or greater in one single sitting. With cheat meals the difference in calories could be the key factor to helping you attain your goal faster or longer. For those who just want to enjoy some freedom, a cheat meal is the way to go.