Cheat days, refeeds, diet breaks and similar strategies are quite popular within the fitness crowd. It seems counterintuitive to deliberately break your diet by overconsuming more calories. We want progress fast and not waste any time, right? So let’s take a closer look and see what’s behind those concepts and if they are a viable tool for weight loss.
Before we can talk about what works and what doesn’t, we have to make sure we’re talking about the same things. Because there are a few terms that are often used but nobody really knows what they really mean.
Cheat days are days, or in the case of cheat meals, single meals that completely ignore the diet you are currently doing. There is no macro tracking and no holding back on the food selection. Imagine mountains of pancakes, towering burgers and eating icecream until you feel sick.
Diet breaks are longer periods, often one to two weeks where you loosen up the dieting regime a little. You still track your macros and make sure to eat a healthy diet, but you are not trying to lose body fat.
Refeeds are similar to diet breaks, but are often just one to three days long. You go back to maintenance calories, slightly reduce protein (if it was very high) and consume a few more carbs to improve performance and sleep as well as to reduce diet-induced stress.
Whenever we’re looking at weight loss, we have two pathways that we can go down. We have our traditional approach, which is known as continuous energy restriction which means the person is in a caloric deficit for every day of the duration of the weight loss phase.
On the other side we have the intermittent diet which is just a dietary protocol that alternates a period of dieting with a period of higher feeding. Note the difference to intermittent fasting, which uses shortened feeding windows as a mechanism to create a caloric deficit. Cheat days, diet breaks and refeeds are technically all the same: an intermittent dieting protocol.
There is a lot of anecdotal support from bodybuilders and other athletes that intermittent dieting protocols are beneficial for them. The suggested benefits mainly are better muscle glycogen levels and therefore better performance, mental refreshment, and preventing reductions in energy expenditure. Now, that’s all great, but it’s just subjective reporting and there is no good research supporting those claims yet.
When we go into a caloric deficit, as we begin a weight loss phase, we know that the caloric level that we start the diet on is only really effective for a short period of time before our body is going to adjust to it. We also know that our body likes to hang around at a certain body fat level, and that’s just because our body likes homeostasis. It wants everything to stay the same, change isn’t something our body likes a lot because it costs energy. That’s why it’s so hard to change substaintaly.
As we push body weight or body fat below that level, the body starts fighting back in a number of different ways. This pushback is known as adaptive responses to energy restriction and adaptations mainly occur to hormone levels and metabolism. It means that our body gets more efficient at using any energy we consume, it motivates us (also subconsciously) to burn less energy and consume more food. We are getting sluggish and hungry, making weightloss increasingly difficult the longer we push.
How intermittent dieting protocols can dampen or even reverse those adaptations is still highly debated and the topic of a lot of research. In theory phases of higher caloric input should revert some of these adaptations and there is some anecdotal backup for this, but we are still not sure yet. Nevertheless, taking a break every now and then can help overall compliance, arguably the most important factor of any diet.
As I already mentioned, taking a break from your diet in order to be effective doesn’t mean to binge on everything you can get your hands on. It still means you should track your macros and hit your numbers but you just have more leeway with it. How do you achieve it best?
Focus on getting high quality food: carbs from fruits and starchy vegetables, fat from fatty fish, eggs and full fat dairy. Protein normally isn’t affected by intermittent dieting protocols, so just stay on track. This essentially is just a healthy, balanced diet and you are allowed to eat more of it. Which is always great news, isn’t it? By the way this should be how a normal, sustainable way of everyday eating should look like. If you need some inspiration for healthy, tasty recipes, feel free to browse the recipe section of my blog.
It is debatable how long a diet break should last. Anything below three days is likely to be too short to revert any metabolic adaptations, but still could be beneficial for compliance. Longer periods are certainly better suited to improve metabolism, just make sure not to overdo it: you still want to lose weight, and for this you need to go back into a caloric deficit. So keep your goal in mind!
Every coin has two sides and the same is true for diet breaks and the like. Obviously any type of intermittent diet can slow down your weight loss. By definition you spend fewer time in a deficit as with a traditional, constant dieting setup. So if you have the willpower to white-knuckle your dieting approach and you have a lot of body fat to lose, you probably are better off with a constant deficit. Get it done and get it done fast.
Another potential drawback may be that you could experience compliance problems after you go back in a deficit. This is especially true if you indulged in foods that are normally off-limits on your refeed days. Sometimes this “breaks” the dieting mindset and allows your brain to throw cravings at you again. Your “inner menu” gets expanded by the foods you “cheated” with, possibly pushing you into a binge-cleanse-cycle not unlike to a mild form of eating disorder.
Choose wisely if you implement an intermittent dieting approach. There might be some unique upsides, but you also have to consider your personality type.
Personally, if I decide to cut again, I will implement refeed days at maintenance calories if things start getting grim. I already experimented a little bit with it during my latest cut and even if my diet breaks were very small, I started to experience some of the advantages like better mood and improved sleep quality. Because I know that I am prone to pronounced cravings, I will make sure to refeed on “clean” foods like fatty fish and fruits. This way I circumvent the danger of craving pangs.
If you need help with your diet, take a look at my online coaching service or ask me down in the comments if you need further clarification on any topic discussed above.