‘Cheat Meals’ or ‘Refeeds’ is a subject that many who embark on a strict diet plan can quite often get confused.
What on earth is a refeed? When is a good time to refeed? Do you deserve one?
The issue with not knowing the answers (and the right answers) to these questions is that using them incorrectly can hinder any chance of you achieving your body goals. To solve this problem, we’re taking you back to a time where Nick himself was being put through his paces – and yes, he too goes through the same suffering that we all do…enjoy.
A Glance in to Nick Mitchell’s Active Lifestyle
Many of you will be aware that I am currently at the closing stages of the hardest and most disciplined diet I have followed in well over a decade. You may also know that it is my long held belief that unless you are one of the very fortunate few who can get ripped just by dropping bread from your diet, a bit, or even a lot, of suffering are inevitable consequences of doing what it takes to attain extreme condition. I am blessed with a fairly average metabolism, it is neither excessively slow nor is it excessively fast (genetically I am closest to my brother who has never seen his abs in his life, sorry Mark!), so despite my years of knowledge and tricks of the trade I still need to suffer at times, and the leaner and more carb depleted I become, the harder it is to function like a patient, tolerant, calm human being! For example, my upcoming photo shoot is in Los Angeles and I don’t think my serotonin deficient system can deal with all that bumper to bumper traffic driving on the wrong side of the road, especially as I’m bound to get lost several times each journey! Hiring a driver may be the most worthwhile investment of my year.
Just 36 hours ago I did my evening walk and it was a genuine effort putting one foot in front of the other. It is as though all the zest and life is drained out of you, and you want to lie down simply staring into space. Sleep is of course not an easy option as your metabolism is racing away, carbs raise serotonin levels and without them, it is impossible for me to relax, and my mind is a veritable whirlpool of activity. On the positive side, I have been a productive demon this last month or so, even though I haven’t been able to chill out even once.
Apart from yesterday.
As I write this, I feel great, I am looking forward to today’s double weight sessions, I have a spring in my step, and I even managed to take it easy a bit at home yesterday and relax. Oh yes, I also had a much-needed nap in the middle of the day something that has totally eluded me of late and was sorely needed. And I know for certain that I will be super strong and super pumped in the gym. I also look leaner, bigger, and actually weigh 117.4kg up 0.4kg from my actual starting weight 7 weeks ago when I was fat and full of post-Christmas bloat! I’ve posted my last 2 weeks of progress photos below this paragraph so you can see for yourself that I am on the road to being significantly leaner and bigger simultaneously. A feat that has shocked me and will take some evaluation when all is completed and I look back at my training and nutritional diaries.
So what has sent me from a shuffling zombie with barely enough stamina to pick up his (admittedly gigantic) toddler son, into an energetic, pumped up beast ready to attack the weights as if he hasn’t been murdering himself in the gym, and depriving himself in the kitchen, for nigh on two months? It is very simple, and you may well have guessed it already, I had a giant refeed day. The basic premise behind this is that as the body ‘flattens out’, becomes overtrained, drained of energy, and mentally and physically exhausted, then a short period of planned overfeeding will shock the metabolism, raise energy levels, kickstart any potential slowing down of the fat loss process, and (just as importantly for long term adherence to any diet) make you feel human again. In other words, all in all a wonderful thing! But stop for a second before you rush out to stuff your face this is also an extremely dangerous practice and I can think of scores of excuse makers I have encountered over the years who use their little bit of ‘refeed’ principles knowledge to serve as a crutch for their lack of discipline and mental weakness. It is all too easy to diet for a few days and then excuse yourself for 1-12 hours by fooling yourself into thinking you need a ‘refeed’. So what I am going to do now is tell what a true refeed is all about, how and why it works, and the practical rules that you need to follow to allow yourself to cheat yourself thin’ – Cheat yourself thin sounds better than ‘cheat yourself lean’ by the way, but take note that I for one do not want to be thin, its all about being lean for me!
If you get bored by science, then perhaps skip this paragraph, but I’d advise you not to. I’ll keep it simple and digestable (oh my, what a pun), and it will help you contextualise the later more practical refeed advice. As I hope you know by now, calories are important (see much more on this in my ‘Do Calories Count‘ rant) but they are not the be all and end all as macronutrient ratios are also significant because of the hormonal response they can generate. But even if you get your calorie intake spot on, and consume the right macronutrient ratio for your genotype, muscle mass, and body fat level, fat loss does not occur in a linear line. In fact, you will have found that fat loss starts quickly and then slows right down. For many people it crashes to an unflinching, soul destroying halt. But if you look at my own progress photos you will see that this has in now way happened to me, and in fact I have been clipping off body fat at a rapid and extremely consistent rate. This isn’t merely because I am a fat loss genius, and it certainly isn’t simply to do with my capacity for hard work, although this latter point is important whereas the former point is, I hope you realise, (a little) tongue in cheek. If it was just about hard work then those who were real grafters with their diet and their gym sessions would have no problems achieving extreme levels of conditioning, and this just doesn’t happen. The problem for all would be fat loss aficionados is that extended hypocaloric periods can cause a cataclysmic shutdown of one key hormone that regulates a healthy (by this I mean fat burning and fast) metabolism. This hormone, that many are ignorant of as I believe, and this is off the top of my head so if I am wrong just let me know in the comments section below please, it’s importance was only properly appreciated as recently as 1997, is known as leptin. And if you want to get really lean, then you need to make it your friend and become familiar with the right ways to control it, rather than as with 99% of cases have it control you. I regard it as the hormone that assesses your current nutritional status, which is why it is so significant to the person seeking significant fat loss.
Leptin has been described as the anti- famine / anti starvation hormone and it has a dominant role to play in regulating hunger and energy expenditure. This is the primary hormone that tells the body if it is starving or not. When leptin levels fall it plays a causal role in the majority of negative adaptations which occur during dieting, including but not limited to decreasing metabolic rate, decreasing fat oxidation, and a massively increased appetite. Leptin is synthesied in adipose tissue (fat cells) meaning that the smaller the fat cells the lower the leptin production, and the greater the hunger and the lower the energy expenditure as the body desperately clings to it’s remaining fat cells because your dieting has mimicked a famine situation. And just to make matters (much) worse, the type of dieting that seems to affect leptin levels the most detrimentally is low carbohydrate nutrition. The very type of fat loss diet that best suits the overwhelming majority of the population, including myself despite my relatively high muscle mass. So on the surface it seems we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t (my late Grandma’s favourite moan by the way), as if we go hard, go long, or just get lean, leptin levels plummet and our metabolisms fall through the floor. This is a problem that is very often exacerbated by the frustrated dieter’s misguided attempt to deal with stalled fat loss take in even lower calories and increase overall energy expenditure via exercise!
Knowing your science can be a useful tool for fat loss, though, and research has shown us the best ways to keep leptin elevated. It is, in fact, an approach, after a fashion, that bodybuilders have followed for as long as I can remember, but whereas their old concept of an occasional ‘cheat meal’ / ‘free meal’ (the latter is a significantly better way to view it as it doesn’t open the door to wholesale binging) to ‘boost the metabolism’ was correct in general, we now know some specifics that can really help nail down the right way to do it. Of course, just to confuse you, as with every aspect of body composition, the very best way encompasses both a science and an art, and we will address that too.
Refeed Rules and How To Raise Leptin Levels
An arbitrary cheat meal / cheat day will not cut it, so forget about hitting up your local Pizza Hut or McDonalds. It needs to be controlled.
Leptin has been shown to be highly responsive to glucose metabolism way above fat / protein metabolism, so the majority of your extra refeed calories should come from carbohydrates. Some will tell you that fast acting high glycemic carbs are the best to really spike leptin levels back up, but I feel this is a bit uncontrolled and I like to see the use of foods along the range of the glycemic index. So for example, porridge mixed with egg whites with a sliced banana is perfect as part of a refeed day as you get fast, medium, and slow digesting carbs and proteins.
Fruit, other than a couple of apples or a handful of berries, should be off the list. Fructose has very limited impact on spiking leptin levels.
When Should You refeed?
There is no specific set point in a diet when a refeed becomes necessary, it is all down to the individual’s conditioning, training state, and muscle mass. This is where a really experienced coach / personal trainer is worth their weight in gold.
You need to be lean, depleted, and starting to feel totally worn down. It will NOT happen in the first month of your diet unless you are already very lean to start with.
As a basic rule of thumb, if you are in any way unsure that you are ready for a refeed then you have answered your own question. When I helped Glenn Parker with his amazing 3-month transformation I recall looking at this ripped up physique, seeing the far away glaze across his eyes, and even a hibernating bear could have sensed his fatigue and ‘flatness’.
So I asked him what he was craving most, and when he responded with a desperate gasp of “Pizza, Boss!” - I sent him home with the orders that he had to eat three large pizzas of his choice that day!
Needless to say, the next day he came back and tore up his workouts, and that week he dropped from 8.3% to 6.9% – a phenomenal difference in a man already so lean.
How Much Should You Refeed?
This is a tricky question to answer in any sort of generic manner and it is where the science and the art of coaching come into play. When I had my recent refeed I ate about 1500gms of carbs in one single day! Now that is a hell of a lot of food, carbs and calories. But then again, I have been training twice a day, limiting my calories and carbs, and I weigh between 18-19 stone at sub 10% body fat. A smaller person than me would need far less. And a professional bodybuilder would need way, way more! It is a very individual thing and the best way to really learn is to experiment on yourself and track how your body responds. In my opinion this is the only way to truly learn all the tricks of the body composition game, and one of the key fundamentals as to why anyone seeking a personal trainer to assist in fat loss / muscle building needs to find someone who has done it to themselves multiple times.
In terms of determining refeed levels, keep reminding yourself that the lower the leptin levels the more calories above daily maintenance will be required to spike them back up and shift the body into an optimal fat burning mode.
I was very flat, so a refeed day was in order for me. It may be that you need a refeed window that is much shorter. Either way, ensure you damn well deserve that refeed before you stuff your fat face, it is not an excuse for gross piggery!
Have Your Refeed on a Rest Day
We are trying to raise all sort of good hormones so don’t try and over stress the already tired body by refeeding on a training day. My own preferred option is to do a lot of early morning cardio on a Sunday and then refeed. That way I finally get to chill a bit, as dieting tends to wire me out a lot, especially as my body fat drops into single digits, plus the carbs can make you very sleepy, especially when you have gone without them for a while.
So a Sunday afternoon nap is often the order of the day, thus enhancing the restorative and recuperative qualities of a properly planned refeed.
The Hormonal Consequences of a Refeed
Anyone who has ever been on a real diet and dropped their body fat down to the level that a refeed is necessary will tell you just how exhausting and draining a process it can be.
I currently have the patience of a schizophrenic on PCP and the sex drive of a neutered flea.
All because I am on low carbs, low calories, and my body fat % is dropping to a place that it doesn’t really want to get below.
What a refeed and the consequent spiking of my depleted leptin levels does for me is make me feel more like a fully functioning human being again. At least for 48 hours anyway! Increasing leptin raises my liver glycogen levels, boosts testosterone, growth hormone and thyroid levels, whilst simultaneously reducing cortisol output. All in all, this turns one into a fat burning, muscle building machine!I truly believe that the correct use of the refeed principle has been a key component to me leaning up so aggressively whilst not really dropping any actual bodyweight. Basically, I have achieved the Holy Grail of simultaneously adding muscle and losing fat.
I truly believe that the correct use of the refeed principle has been a key component to me leaning up so aggressively whilst not really dropping any actual bodyweight. Basically, I have achieved the Holy Grail of simultaneously adding muscle and losing fat.
And for the females amongst you, hard dieting and lower body fat levels play havoc with menstruation and fertility levels. On top of this there is the additional issue of osteoporosis for very lean women, so regular refeeds can be of massive benefit here.
Where do I begin with the pitfalls of incorporating a refeed into your fat loss programme!? As I see it there are two major issues with refeeding that everyone needs to address:
Only refeed when you really need it
Yes, I know that I have told you the right time and occasion to refeed, but trust me when I say that a lot of you won’t listen to me or will just fool yourselves. As I write this, my mind harks back to a former client who proved the adage that a little learning is a dangerous thing, especially in the hands of a weak minded man! This was a character who would constantly harp on about all the tricks to get lean, and the need to reefed was always on his mind. I can categorically guarantee you that he will never ever get close to even 10% body fat because he is so adept at fooling himself and taking the path of least resistance, believing that he needs to, and I quote, “spike his leptin levels after a hard five days of dieting”. He will be fortunate to ever even hit 15% body fat.
Just to repeat myself, if you are in any doubt whatsoever that you are not ready to reefed, then do not do it. You pretty much need to be at the end of your dieting tether, and the reefed comes in when fat loss has either ground to a halt or your (well trained) muscles are so depleted of glycogen that walking for five minutes has become a chore. I myself know that I need a serious reefed and that I am starting to get in shape when even typing this blog becomes a physical challenge. And no, I am in no way exaggerating, there are times at the moment when lifting my fingers up a few mm is an onerous burden!
A Refeed Day / Refeed Meal can too easily open the door to cheating
I have been plodding along, maintaining my dietary rigour and discipline with nary a backwards / sideways thought, and my previous cravings for breads, sweets, and ice cream had all disappeared by the wayside. But then I have a reefed day, my pleasure seeking neurotransmitters are kicked up, my body remembers how nice it is to have a full stomach and how uncomfortable it is to have an empty stomach, and all of sudden going cold turkey after a day of self-indulgence and rampant blood sugar levels become a renewed challenge of the highest proportion until equilibrium is established again.
The only time that I have ever been seriously tempted to break my diet is the day or two after a heavy reefed day. Being aware of a potential problem should help you to mentally prepare for it before it happens, but if you find yourself succumbing to cravings after refeeding then the solution is staring you in the face. Limit your refeed to just one or two meals and see how you progress. If you are one of those who only needs to have one ‘free meal’ / ‘cheat meal’ and all of a sudden your dietary discipline disintegrates then in all honesty you are better off avoiding wild refeeds altogether. In these circumstances, your best bet is to refeed on nothing more outlandish than brown rice and porridge. And if this sounds a tad unappetising, let me tell you that as I write this from the depths of my own diet, a big bowl of porridge sounds like manna from the heavens right about now!
Getting your refeed strategy spot on can be a bit of minefield. It is one of those advanced fat loss strategies that I am very hesitant to discuss with many people simply because it leaves the door open to cheating and the kind of mental head games that can totally scupper an otherwise sound fat loss regime.However, appreciating how the hormone leptin works and assuming that you have heeded my warnings that refeeds are only to be used when fat loss is stalled and you have otherwise been doing everything else right, it is an extremely powerful tool for allowing you to become super lean whilst maintaining all your hard earned muscle mass and (for the ladies who read this blog) ‘tone’ both of which are vital to keep looking both cosmetically at your best and functioning at the right level metabolically and hormonally.
However, appreciating how the hormone leptin works and assuming that you have heeded my warnings that refeeds are only to be used when fat loss is stalled and you have otherwise been doing everything else right, it is an extremely powerful tool for allowing you to become super lean whilst maintaining all your hard earned muscle mass and (for the ladies who read this blog) ‘tone’ both of which are vital to keep looking both cosmetically at your best and functioning at the right level metabolically and hormonally.
Nick Mitchell, CEO and Founder of Ultimate Performance
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