This is a topic that I get asked about on a weekly basis, and usually by more than one person. Why is this? I believe it’s because it’s not very fun or exciting to focus on the boring stuff – i.e. hitting your macro goal day in and day out. On top of that, most people don’t end up seeing the instantaneous progress they are hoping for when they start a diet, so they think that adopting a ‘sexy’, new approach will dramatically move the needle for them.
Before I dive into each concept and explain what they are, their potential benefit, and how to implement them into your own diet, I want to address one common misconception. A refeed day is NOT a cheat day. I repeat, a REFEED day is not a CHEAT day! What’s the difference?
- Refeed Day: Strategically increasing your caloric intake through additional carbohydrates, on a specific day. Macronutrients and calories should still be tracked and accounted for.
- Cheat Day: Living in your ‘diet’ for most of the week, with one day per week being untracked – consisting of any and all food your heart desires.
It doesn’t take a nutritional expert to quickly identify the potential pitfalls with cheat days.
- While it’s only one day of the week, you can easily send your weekly calories skyrocketing and undo all the hard work sticking to your caloric deficit the rest of the week, ultimately derailing progress.
- Has the propensity to manifest, or exacerbate, binge eating tendencies.
- Promotes the idea that there are foods that are ‘good’ and foods that are ‘bad’ – can easily lead to an unhealthy and fearful relationship with food.
- It’s typically a day of low food quality, which can lead to GI distress and discomfort
So, what is ‘Carb Cycling’, what is a ‘Refeed’, and how should they be utilized?
What is it?
There are many things carb cycling IS, but the one thing it is NOT is a magic pill or trick for fat loss. So, if you were reading this in hopes of finding the fat loss equivalent of the fountain of youth…sorry to burst your bubble. In fact, there is no evidence out there that carb cycling is any more advantageous to fat loss when compared to a nutritional approach that has a linear calorie balance throughout the week.
Rather than the linear approach I just eluded to, where you consume the same macronutrient and calorie targets each day of the week, carb cycling is a strategy in which certain days of the week have a higher calorie target, while other days have a lower calorie target. And, yep, you guessed it! This calorie change is coming in the form of carbohydrate manipulation – certain days being high carb days and others being low carb days.
So, if it there is no added benefit from a fat loss perspective, why would one implore this strategy?
We tend to think of nutrition and dieting in a fat loss vacuum. That people only care about their diet, because they want to lose weight. However, there is a large subset of people out there who have performance goals, rather than aesthetic goals, and these people are typically the ones who utilize this approach.
The theory is on your training days, when your body will be using more carbohydrates as fuel, you ought to have higher carbohydrate intake, while on your non-training (off) days, your body won’t need as much fuel and thus, you ought to have lower carbohydrate intake. The problem with this theory is the fact that our body stores carbohydrates as glycogen and we don’t typically tap into these stores until 24-48 hours, later. This means that what you eat today, while it eventually gets stored as glycogen, won’t actually be utilized until tomorrow. So, back to the folks with performance goals – if you have a rest day from training on Thursday, a day when your main focus should be to rest, recover, and refuel for the coming training days, but you take in fewer carbohydrates (storing less glycogen), you aren’t optimally refueling your body and subsequent days’ performance may be hampered.
Who Can Benefit From It?
As I always say, “The best diet is the one you can adhere to.” The people who stand to benefit from carb cycling are the people who feel it allows them to adhere to their diets, better.
- If you feel ravenous after a training session and crave carbs, carb cycling could be for you!
- If the idea of having higher, ‘reward’ type, days sprinkled throughout the week – days where you’re able to include some more calorically-dense/carb-dense food options – excites you, carb cycling could be for you!
At the end of the day, it is simply a way of structuring your diet that may cause you to adhere better and stay more consistent. As I said before, though, weekly caloric intake needs to be kept in check. Studies show no added benefit from a daily undulating macronutrient and calorie intake, as compared to a linear macronutrient and calorie intake, as long as overall calories remained even.
I touched on cheat days at the beginning of this post and how they are DIFFERENT than refeed days. However, while different, they are very much based on the same philosophy: consuming one, very high calorie day per week will 1) refuel the body’s muscle glycogen, leading to increased performance in the gym, and 2) spike the body’s hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, which directly impact the speed of your metabolism.
While folks who came up with the concept back in the day were on the right path, what they later found out was that it takes 48 hours of ‘overfeeding’ (refeeding) to actually spike leptin and ghrelin, or trick them into boosting metabolism. While this debunked the physiological benefit of the 24-hour refeed, it didn’t render it useless. As with high carb days in carb cycling, 24-hour refeed gives the individual a mental break from living in a caloric deficit and an opportunity to include more calorically-dense food options into their diet, and likely even be more social. Creating sanity within the diet and driving increased adherence and consistency, is a major value add.
Still sounding like refeed days and cheat days are one in the same? The difference lies in their structure.
A refeed day is a CONTROLLED day – meaning, macronutrient and caloric intake are still measured and accounted for. In addition to this, the caloric increase on this day comes solely in the form of added carbohydrates. Benefits include:
- Replenish muscle glycogen
- Improve recovery from prior training sessions
A cheat day is an UNCONTROLLED day – meaning, macronutrient and caloric intake are not measured or accounted for. In addition to this, the caloric increase on this day comes from all macronutrients – increased fat, carbohydrate, and protein intake. Benefits include:
- A mental break from the feeling of living in a caloric deficit during a dieting phase
Structuring Your Carb Cycling & Refeeds
First things first – this is completely up to YOU. Whatever your preference is and whatever fits within your lifestyle best to keep you consistent and adherent to the plan, is how you are going to want to structure it. However, I still want to provide you with various options from which you can wholeheartedly follow or borrow ideas from.
CARB CYCLING: TRAINING DAYS vs. REST DAYS
- 3 days per week LOW DAYS
- These should be on days you rest from training completely and/or the days you just do cardio
- 4 days per week HIGH DAYS
- These should be on your training days
- If you don’t train on M/W/F/Sat, as depicted above, you have the autonomy to distribute them throughout the week to match your training schedule
CARB CYCLING: 2/1 CYCLE, REGARDLESS OF TRAINING DAYS
- This structure follows a 2 LOW-1 HIGH pattern, regardless of when your training days fall, which will cause your LOW and HIGH days to vary from week to week
- This can make it more difficult, as every day is changing from one week to the next
- Added benefit of having two ‘depletion’ days, followed by one ‘replenishing’ day
- You have the autonomy to make this a 3/1 cycle if you’d prefer
REFEED: 6/1 SINGLE REFEED
- This structure is going to look different if you are in a gaining phase or a cutting phase
- When gaining, your days will be laid out as above – 6 days of MODERATE calorie intake, with one day of HIGH calorie intake
- When cutting, your days will be 6 days of LOWER calorie intake, with one day of HIGHER calorie intake
- Thursday is a great day to have the weekly refeed, as most people Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, so Thursday is a great mid-week day to replenish glycogen and prepare for the rest of the week’s training
- You have the autonomy to stick that refeed day on whichever day of the week makes most sense for you
REFEED: 5/2 DOUBLE REFEED
- This structure is nearly identical to the 6/1 refeed, but with an extra day added after the original one
- This is going to bring about the same mental break from feeling like you’re dieting, while also providing hormonal benefits
- Best way to spike your hormones that will be taking a dip during a dieting phase – Leptin and ghrelin, testosterone, cortisol, sex hormones, etc.
- You have the autonomy to stick these refeeds on whichever days of the week make most sense for you
REFEED: CYCLICAL DIET BREAKS
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- This structure has you living in a caloric deficit for 5 weeks straight, followed by 1 week where you take a break from dieting
- This doesn’t mean you go off the rails that week and eat like a competitive eater, you simply return your calories to maintenance-level, before returning them to a caloric deficit, once again
- You have the autonomy to change the frequency of the diet break to whenever it makes most sense for you – every 6th week, every 8th week, every 10th week, etc.
While that was a lot of information, I hope it wasn’t overwhelming. The thing I want you to take away from this more than anything else is the fact that, as with everything nutrtion-related, it needs to be individualized to YOU. What are your goals? What does your weekly routine look like? What does your training schedule look like?
The most important question of them all, though – how can you set your nutritional plan up in a way that you can, and want to, adhere to it?
Maybe it’s hard for you to alternate. Maybe you don’t want to think about calculating different numbers on different days. Maybe you like one day per week that you get to have a refeed. And, maybe that one day per week refeed isn’t from carbs, but instead, it’s you going to grab a beer and a burger, because you need it more for the sanity and the relationship side of food, rather than for the glycogen replenishment and performance benefit.
There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to carb cycling and refeeds, but now you know the various options that do exist. The one constant, though, is that you should not be dieting (living in a caloric deficit) day in and day out, week after week. This is a recipe for eventually hurting your metabolism and hormones, hating the idea of ‘dieting’, and eventually loathing the process.