Should I Program A Refeed Day for My Nutrition Clients?
Curious about refeed days? We’ve got you covered!
With great power comes great responsibility. Once you’ve mastered the art of creating macro plans, troubleshooting common holdups, and providing your clients with a sense of self-responsibility and accountability it is time to enter the murky waters of the intermediate level nutrition coach.
At this point, your clients trust your competency with the elementary content and will likely begin asking you more difficult questions like...
What is a refeed day?
Do I need a refeed day to lose fat?
How could a refeed day help with gym performance?
This is not the 101, but the 102.
Prescribing refeed days takes some time and practice. Today, we’re providing you with some general guidelines to help you along the way.
That being said, always keep in mind that nutrition is not one-size-fits-all and as a nutrition coach, it is your job to get to know your client, experiment, communicate openly and find what works best for them.
Let’s get right into it...
What is a refeed day?
A refeed day is usually prescribed when a client is in a calorie deficit and is characterized by an increased consumption of calories - usually coming from carbohydrates - for a short period of time .
Long-term dieting can depress hormone production and this decreased hormone production can lead to a slower basal metabolic rate, increased hunger, decreased energy, and a lower sex drive. In women, depressed hormone production can result in adverse changes to the menstrual cycle.
The intent of the increased carbohydrates is to provide the body with enough short-term energy to restore (or at least improve) hormonal balance. The human endocrine (hormone) system is sensitive to the short-term energy that carbohydrates . Increased carbohydrates can also help to alleviate some of these negative adaptations that occur during dieting.
Refeeds also work to top off glycogen levels in muscle tissue which can mitigate decreases in performance and muscle loss while in a calorie deficit. Most coaches will also decrease fat in order to maintain some kind of caloric balance. Some coaches even decrease protein in an effort to maintain caloric balance and keep carbohydrate uptake high.
Does my client need a refeed day?
Refeeds can last anywhere from 24-hours to 3+ days. Whether or not your client needs a refeed day (and the length of that refeed) is nuanced and depends on a variety of factors. We can break this down into a few different categories:
- History of dieting
- Current body composition
- Training volume and intensity
- Psychological factors
Let’s break these down a bit more:
History of Dieting
The more that a client has dieted in the past, the more likely they are to have a depressed metabolism.
In these cases, utilizing a refeed day to reverse some of the metabolic damage from a chronic dieter. For these clients, a few 24-hour refeed days throughout the week or a longer period of consecutive refeeding could be helpful. You can learn more about negative adaptations from dieting and things to consider when adding calories in this article.
Current Body Composition
The leaner a client is, the more likely it is that they'll require a refeed day to stay lean and feel their best.
With body fat levels low, clients burn glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates in the muscle) for energy at a higher rate than body fat . This requires replenishing energy stores by eating more carbohydrates to top off the tank.
When clients get below 15% body fat (BF) for males and 23% BF for females, a refeed becomes a helpful strategy that can work to mitigate some of the negative hormonal adaptations occurring at these leanness levels .
Because women’s bodies are generally more reactive to low body fat levels due to their bodies protecting reproductive health, refeeds for leaner females may be more important than leaner males. A regular menstrual cycle is a necessary part of female health. Leaner female clients, without refeed days, run the risk of losing that cycle and should consult a doctor if this happens.
Training Frequency, Intensity, and Goals
The harder a client trains, the more likely they are to need a refeed day. Training load and intensity accumulate over the course of a week.
Oftentimes, these hard-training clients are unable to eat the volume of food on a daily basis needed to replenish their energy stores. Focusing on more carbs consumed on a particular day can reverse some of that fatigue accumulation.
Be mindful that the hard-training client usually needs to be leaner to utilize a refeed to replenish training deficits. Clients with more body fat to lose will tap into their stored energy in the form of body fat to make up the difference and generally don’t need a refeed as often.
If a client expresses that their main goal is to improve performance, it is also worth having a conversation about how being in a calorie deficit may not be the “best” way to achieve this goal. As a coach, it is your job to ensure their expectations are realistic given their plan, adherence, and goals.
Refeed Days for Psychological Health
Even if a client doesn’t need a refeed day for physical reasons, there are psychological benefits to higher calorie days. If a client begins to feel “restricted” at lower calorie levels, a day with a few more macros to play with can help them stay more consistent overall. A refeed could give them a chance to work in a higher-carb treat in moderation and build a healthier relationship with food.
If you consider employing a refeed day for psychological reasons, it is important to get on the same page with your client in terms of the goal around this period of increased calorie intake. Let them know that it is a great way to have a “break” but that they still need to land within their higher targets to stay on track towards their goals.
In general, we do not recommend employing a refeed day for clients working through all-or-nothing mindsets around food intake. Tackle those food relationships first!
In all four of these cases, clients must be prepared to endure the psychological load of a refeed day. Certain individuals will be very hesitant to try a refeed day because they think they will “gain too much weight”.
Although it’s plausible to see the scale a bit higher after a refeed due to water retention, if executed properly, they will not gain fat. This is when educating your client of the benefits of the refeed and what to expect a day or two after can go a long way.
What Should I Eat on a Refeed Day?
You’ll get this question a lot!
It is really important to chat about food quality with your clients. As mentioned above, a refeed day can give your clients a bit of wiggle room to enjoy a treat that would be tougher to fit into a “normal” day of eating in a deficit, but your client will get the biggest hormonal and physical benefit from their refeed day if a majority of the excess carbohydrates come from whole foods. Here are some examples:
- Starchier vegetables like squash, potato, beets, turnip, etc.
- Fruit like apple, pear, pineapple, and mango
- Denser grains like rice, quinoa, and whole wheat breads/pastas
In the WAG Coach Certification, we’ll teach you how to employ refeeds from a physical and psychological standpoint so you feel confident and your client feels supported and comfortable.
Refeed Days and Fat Loss
Can your client use refeed days to lose fat?
Refeeds actually tend to work most successfully for clients with fat loss goals. A refeed does three specific things to aid in fat loss and for the right client, they work wonders.
- From a psychological perspective, a day with increased calories gives the client a greater degree of freedom. This increased freedom will improve compliance in the long term.
- From a hormonal standpoint, refeeds support endocrine health and that endocrine health will promote a healthy metabolism. A healthy metabolism will ensure that a client doesn’t have to dive too far into a deficit to achieve results. The more a client eats to lose weight, the better off they will be. Losing weight at 1500 calories is much easier than losing weight at 1200 calories.
- Lastly, a refeed day will enable the client to work harder in the gym, allowing them to build a more muscular body composition. When a client says they want to lose weight, what they almost always mean is that they want to lose fat and have a better body composition. Replenishing glycogen stores will allow them to lift heavier and recover stronger. The same things that build muscle during a surplus are the same things that PRESERVE muscle during a cut. Maintaining muscle and losing fat is what gives clients that aesthetic.
How Much and How Often?
So, you’ve decided to give your client at least one refeed day. Now the questions become, how often should I prescribe a refeed day for my client and how many additional carbs does my client need?
How Much Does my Client Need to Eat?
Most refeeds bring a client back up to around maintenance calorie intake or slightly above . We teach you how to accurately calculate a client’s maintenance calories in the WAG Coach Certification.
Remember, these calories almost always come from carbohydrates. So, if your client is currently eating 1,700 calories and you calculate their maintenance to be around 2,100 calories/day, this would be about 100 extra grams of carbs on a refeed day.
2,100 calories - 1,700 calories = 400 calories
400 calories / 4 cals per gram of carbohydrates = 100g carbohydrates
This may be a great place to start if your client is training intensely. If they’re not an avid athlete, you could start a bit lower and monitor changes in body composition, mood, energy, sleep, etc. and adjust from there. You could also try splitting the 100 calories into two 50g refeeds throughout the week.
If your client needs a refeed day mostly for psychological reasons, you could start around 50g once per week so they have enough wiggle room to fit in a serving of a carb-dense food somewhere in their day without going overboard.
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all!
How Often Should My Client Refeed?
Remember when we talked about body fat percentage? Those with lower BF generally need to refeed more often than those with higher BF percentages. On top of that, women tend to need refeed days more often than men [1,2].
1-2x refeeds per week is a great place to start for most clients with goals of losing weight. From here, encourage them to take their refeeds:
- On a training day
- On the day(s) of the week they notice high hunger and/or fatigue
Remember to stress the importance of using these extra calories for whole foods as much as possible if they want to get the biggest benefit from their refeed day and continue working towards fat loss goals.
A refeed is an intermediate-level macro-tracking strategy aimed to maintain hormonal balance, energy, and compliance. Specific clients will benefit from refeed days once they’ve established consistency with a static set of macros. For the right client, refeeds can be used to make fat loss phases more effective and comfortable!
Are you making these nutrition mistakes?
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- Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr., 11(7). Doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
Peos, J. J., Norton, L. E., Helms, E. R., Galpin, A, J., Fournier, P. (2019). Intermittent dieting: Theoretical considerations for the athlete. Sports (Basel), 7(1): 22. doi: 10.3390/sports7010022