For most in the dieting world, they are the enemy.
They’re that one nutrient that everyone seems petrified of.
Mention upping carbohydrate intake to any dieter, and they run a mile.
Savvy, knowledgeable and switched on dieters know, however, that carbs are far from a dietary devil.
In fact, carbohydrates could be the one component in your program that are the key to healthy, sustainable and effective fat loss.
This is why re-feeding is just about the best damn dietary tactic you’ve never heard of.
A Primer on Re-Feeding
Before delving into the ins and outs of carbohydrate metabolism, detailed info on what a re-feeding is, and how you can apply it to your own diet, it’s important to set some ground work and give a brief overview of re-feeding:
A re-feed simply involves one day (or in some instances, a couple of days) each week where you strategically increase your intake of carbs and calories.
The theory behind this (which we’ll get into a lot more later) is that by ramping up carbs, you prevent progress plateaus, keep your fat loss sustainable and aid your long-term results.
Carbohydrate’s Role in Dieting
Due to the popularity of low-carb diets, and the speed at which these diets result in short-term weight loss, many poor, unsupespecting women have been duped into believing that low-carb is the only way to lose weight, and that any carbohydrate (especially in the form of foods like bread, pasta, white potatoes and sugar) is a complete weight loss saboteur and must be avoided at all costs.
The truth – far from it.
Carbs are your body’s main source of energy, hence why, when beginning a diet that’s severely restricted in carbs, you’ll feel lethargic and tired – often referred to as “low-carb flu.”
Without carbs, your body has to switch to burning fat for fuel.
While this may sound promising, it simply means that instead of burning dietary carbohydrate (the carbs you eat) it burns dietary fat (the fat you eat) – not necessarily stored body fat.
The other reason why people tend to be scared of carbs is because out of the three main macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat) carbs tend to have the highest impact on insulin release.
While chronically high levels of insulin are definitely a bad thing (as they’re associated with the development of diabetes and metabolic syndrome as well as increased fat storage) in a calorie deficit, and a generally healthy diet, you have nothing to worry about over carbohydrate and insulin release.
By going drastically low on carbs, all you do is make yourself feel terrible, over-eat protein and fat to compensate, and drastically reduce the likelihood of you sticking to your diet.
Why You Need to Lower Your Carbs
Didn’t I just say that low-carb diets were unnecessary and possibly detrimental?
Yep, I did.
However, while LOW carb diets may not be great, you probably do need to go a little lower than your current carb intake if you’re maintining at the moment, but wish to lose body fat.
It all comes down to calories, and the other macronutrients you’re eating.
To lose fat, you must lower calorie intake. But you still need ample protein and fat.
Protein and fat are the two essential macronutrients, so these are usually set first in a diet.
You need somewhere around 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (about 2.2 grams per kilogram) – though anywhere between 0.8 and 1.25 grams per pound is usually the given recommendation.
As for fat, somewhere between 0.3 and 0.5 grams per pound (0.66 to 1.1 gram per kilogram) is about right. Therefore, once these are set, and your calorie intake has been determined, you’ll probably find your carbs are a little less than they were before.
Most dieters would be on what I’d refer to as a moderate carbohydrate intake, and most of my female clients tend to eat between 100 and 200 grams of carbs per day, depending on their weight, activity levels, dieting history, and how long they’ve been dropping fat for.
The Perils of Low-Calorie Dieting
As you go through your diet, you’ll probably find that after a while, progress slows down, and you hit the odd plateau.
This is, in part, due to a reduction in the hormones that regulate metabolism. A key one of these is leptin.
Leptin is proportional to calorie intake – the lower your intake, the lower your levels of leptin and vice versa.
Ideally, you want to keep leptin as high as possible, to keep your metabolism ticking over at a good speed, and keep hunger at bay. However, keeping leptin permenantly high means eating a lot of calories, which woul clearly disrupt your fat loss.
This is where re-feeding comes in.
Re-Feeds? What the fudge?
As stated a little earlier, a re-feed involves eating a little more than you usually would. This excess comes in the form of carbohydrate.
You might think – “why on earth would I want to eat more to lose fat?”
The key was just a few sentences back – leptin.
See, the longer you diet for, the more your leptin levels decline, and as leptin drop, your metabolism slows, you get hungrier, and you feel like cr*p.
The good news, however, is that it doesn’t take THAT much to get leptin levels to rise again. In fact, it’s something as simple as raising your carbohydrate intake for just one day. That can be enough to keep leptin levels elevated for a few days.
Not only that, but from a psychological point of view, re-feeds are awesome.
More carbs? Who doesn’t like the thought of that?
So we now know WHY we need to re-feed, let’s look at the HOW.
The Rules of the Re-Feed
To begin, it’s important to understand two things – calories and carbohydrates.
While you do need an increased calorie intake during a re-feed, this shouldn’t be so high that it takes you out of a calorie deficit for the week.
In fact, it shouldn’t even get close.
Your re-feed days should take you up to roughly a theoretical maintenance calorie level. If you worked your maintenance out to be, say 2,200 calories per day, and are dieting on 1,600 to 1,700, your re-feed should probably be somewhere between 2,000 and 2,200.
Going way over (as you would in a “cheat day”) can be hugely detrimental, and the benefit of an increase in leptin is drastically outweighed by the negative consequences of such a huge calorie intake.
(For more on cheat days and binges, and how they can wreck your physique, see here – http://www.resultbasedtraining.com.au/stopthebinge/ )
Secondly, as carbs have the biggest impact on leptin and metabolism, this is the main nutrient we need to address.
Protein and fat don’t have much, if any, effect on leptin, so these usually stay the same, and sometimes may even be decreaded.
How Much and When?
A good rule of thumb on a re-feed day is to increase your normal carbohydrate intake by 50 percent.
That means if you’re usually on 150 grams of carbs, you eat 225 grams.
Down at 100 grams normally? Make it 150 grams.
Are you a bit of a “macronator” and eating 200 grams of carbs usually? Lucky you – have 300!
Using this formula, you can’t really go wrong.
From there, you can then make a few choices.
Doing this will probably take you up somehwere near to your maintenance level anyway, so to keep things simple, it’s often best just to hold your protein and fat steady. So a lady usually eating 150 grams of carbs, 150 grams of protein and 50 grams of fat in a day would just keep protein and fat at 150 and 50 grams respectively, but eat 225 grams of carbs for her re-feed.
If you’re on higher calories however, and have some left to play with during your re-feed, you can make a choice –
Either increase carbs even more, or, if it makes sticking to your diet a little easier, bump up protein and fat to get you to maintenance.
Some folk (usually athletes) may even decrease protein and fat by 10 to 20 percent on a re-feed day, to make room for extra carbs, without overshooting maintenance calories. This is an option, but is likely unnecessary for most.
As for how often to have a re-feed, unfortunately the answer is that ever so annoying one – “it depends.”
For most moderately active people, twice a week works a charm.
If you’re sedentary or only train once or twice a week, one re-feed should do, and if you’re incredibly active, you might benefit from three. The key is to try out all the options and see what gives you the best progress.
So, What Can I Eat?
Essentially, whatever you like, provided it fits your macros!
You do still need to hit your protein, fat and fibre goals, and focus on primarily nutrient-dense foods, but a re-feed is a great chance to eat those foods you’ve been craving, but usually struggle to get into your diet.
Say you fancy a Pop Tart or bagel for instance, (both around 40 grams of carbs) but can’t normally get them in to your 100 gram daily intake, having 150 grams on a re-feed makes it much easier to eat one of these, and still have plenty of carb allowance left for fruits, veggies and whole-grains.
Likewise, re-feeds are a great chance to go out with friends for a meal, or a few drinks, as social eating and drinking occassions tend to be fairly carb-heavy, so take the chance to do this.
One small caveat might be to aim to have your re-feeds on your hardest training days, as the extra carbs can help with recovery and energy, but this isn’t essential.
Other than that, enjoy those carbs safe in the knowledge that not only is it not harming you, it’s actually making your fat loss more effective.
Result Based Training