As I mentioned in my previous article, if one is to take a low-carb/low-calorie approach to dieting, specifically, a diet containing less than one gram of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight, you will want to incorporate what is known as a re-feed. Simply put, a reefed is a high carb day to recharge your batteries or, to be a little more technical, a re-feed is used to raise leptin and restore glycogen.
What is Leptin?
Leptin is a hormone that regulates appetite and energy expenditure. In short it controls your metabolism. Anybody on a low carbohydrate diet or extreme caloric deficit will experience a decrease in Leptin levels. As leptin levels drop, so too will your metabolism as your body prepares for starvation. When your body picks up on the drop in leptin and overall drop in total calories consumed, the starvation response of your body is to halt fat burning and preserve what the body has left. In many cases, this is where many inexperienced or uneducated dieters mistakenly conclude that have “plateaued,” and need to “kick it up a notch.”
Extremely low levels in Leptin actually promote weight gain. Lowering your calories and increasing your exercise in a state of starvation will not yield positive results. To get your body to continue burning fat when it thinks it is starving, you have to play a few tricks to convince it otherwise and bring your Leptin levels back up. A well implemented re-feed can raise Leptin levels and help one continue to burn fat.
What is Glycogen?
Glycogen is stored in the muscle and liver to be used when the need for energy is required. When you eat carbohydrates, they are digested and your blood sugar rises which produces an insulin response. Insulin shuttles the sugars into the liver and muscles which is then synthesized and stored as glycogen. When the food is completely digested, insulin levels start to return to normal as blood sugar lowers. Glycogen synthesis then stops and the glycogen is stored until it is needed, in our case, in the weight room.
When you lift weights, your body requires the extra energy to perform the lifting function. It will convert the Glycogen back to sugar and then fuel the body. This illustrates the importance of post-workout carbohydrates.
Implementing a re-feed
My general rule of thumb is one re-feed a week. This is to be performed on the same day every week. It can be on a training day or it can be on an off day. There is debate as to which day is better. I have tried both and to be honest, my results have been the same.
The benefit to training on a re-feed day is the energy. Some will speculate that you are putting the body through enough stress by bombarding it with calories, but I don’t believe this to be true. In fact, if I train on a re-feed day, I prefer it to be on a day when I am working my weakest muscle group.
A typical reefed lasts approximately 12 hours, although I have heard of some people going as long as two or three days. My first meal of the day is at 6:30am and my last is at 8:00pm. I have seen excellent results with this.
A person who is lean may need to re-feed more frequently than someone who has a higher body fat percentage. Listen to your body and track how well, or how poorly, you are performing both at and away from the gym. You will be able to tell when you getting too depleted as signs of restlessness, irritability, and cognitive impairment starts to appear. For those who have a body fat percentage in the teens, once a week is definitely enough. Single digit body fat percentages will probably require re-feeds every four days or so.
There are a few rules to keep in mind when planning your reefed.
1. Increase your calories to at least your maintenance level. This is accomplished by increasing carbs and lowering fat and protein.
2. Keep fat as low as possible on a re-feed day. Stick to only what is contained in your carb and protein sources and avoid any other direct sources. This is for two reasons; fat has no effect on leptin, and increased insulin levels will increase dietary fat transport into fatty tissue.
3. Since the goal is to increase leptin by means of increased carbs, lower your protein intake to about one gram per pound of bodyweight.
4. Although a carb source, keep fruit to a minimum, if at all. Fructose (fruit sugar) has no impact on leptin. Sugar in general is not where you want to be getting your carbs.
What to eat on a re-feed
A re-feed is not to be confused with a “cheat” or “free” day. This is not a day for bingeing, and although you can incorporate a lot of the food you may be craving, everything must be done according to a properly formulated diet and in moderation. Going out for pizza or dominating your local Chinese buffet is NOT a re-feed. We are talking about a structured plan with an emphasis on carbs, moderate protein, and minimal fat. Pretty much any carb source is acceptable – high GI, low GI, “clean,” and “dirty.”
Amongst my favorite re-feed carbs are: pancakes, breads/bagels, pastas, rice, cereal, oats, crackers, beans and potatoes. You don’t need to stick to whole grain breads or sweet potatoes either. If you want white bread, go for it. White potatoes? No problem. Buttermilk pancakes from white flour. You bet! I personally prefer to have both high and low GI carbs in my re-feeds. Refined carbs are more effective in raising Leptin. Anyway, think of how bloated an uncomfortable you would be if you tried to re-feed on oatmeal alone. All of that fiber is bound to make you miserable.
On a final note, “weight gain” is completely normal the next day. I like to weigh after a re-feed as a matter of reference, but I put no real stock in the number that shows up. The extra “weight” you are seeing is most likely water from the abundance of carbs. You cannot and will not get fat in a day. Keep in mind; it is normal for weight to fluctuate up to two percent daily – for a 150 pounds person that is three pounds.
The idea is to jump-start your metabolism, and if you dieted correctly up to the re-feed, you have nothing to worry about. If you are like me, an ectomorph extraordinaire, you can expect to weigh the same or lighter. Even after an influx of 400 grams of carbs from pancakes, white potatoes, Cheerios, white bagels, and beans, I still manage to come in light.