Many people will use cheat days or refeed days when they’re trying to lose weight or improve their body composition.
These different approaches come with their own advantages and disadvantages. But when it comes to cheat days vs refeed days, which is better?
Deciding between cheat days and refeed days is important if you want to see the best results and select the option that works best for you.
To help you achieve weight loss or body composition changes, refeed days are better.
This is because they allow you to consume additional carbohydrates to support further weight loss, without over consuming high calorie foods that could derail your diet.
Whilst refeed days arguably deliver the best results, there are other factors to consider including their impact on leptin levels, workout performance, and the mental break they provide from dieting, as I’ll go on to explain.
From reading this article, you’ll understand:
– How refeed days can give better weight loss results than cheat days
– Whether cheat days or refeed days are best for improving leptin levels, maximizing workout performance, and providing a break from dieting.
Table of Contents
Cheat Day Vs Refeed Days (Which Is Best?)
Overall, refeed days are better than cheat days.
Through consuming extra carbohydrates, refeed days help to increase leptin levels, which supports further weight loss.
As calorie consumption is controlled, refeed days won’t derail your diet in the way that cheat days can.
The strategy of a refeed is to replenish muscle glycogen and leptin which become depleted after a sustained period of time in a caloric deficit.
The more time you spend in a calorie deficit, the more your body will enter ‘survival mode’ as you’re basically indicating that you don’t have access to a surplus of food while also expending a lot of energy through the gym.
This means your body will fight to hold on to fat stores making it harder for you to burn body fat.
A refeed will therefore temporarily switch off those survival mechanisms by showing your body that you’re not starving or in danger of death.
Cheat days will also do this by presenting a calorie surplus but the truth is that many (and I mean many) people will take a cheat day too far.
They’ll consume so many calories that it not only takes them into a calorie surplus average for the next week, in many cases people gain water weight and even body fat from simply overindulging.
A controlled cheat day can work but for most people, refeed days are a better option when dieting or looking to improve performance when in a calorie deficit.
I’d say the only benefit a cheat day has over a refeed is the psychological aspect of having a mental break from a diet.
This can be crucial when it comes to sticking with a long term diet so it will very much depend on the individual.
I take results and performance far more seriously than wanting a cookie to satisfy cravings so I’d almost always opt for the refeed day.
For people just looking to lose weight and not be ripped, cheat days will obviously be more of a preference.
There’s no right or wrong answer here, like I say each person will have different needs and desires but from a purely results driven perspective, refeed days are better solutions for fat loss focused phases.
What is a Cheat Day
A cheat day is a scheduled and unrestricted break from a diet.
Cheat days have gathered a bit of a cult following over the last decade with many trainers programming them into fat loss diets and social pages/communities showing the “most epic cheat day meals” for people to rate or compare.
Cheat days are often seen as a way to have a guilt free break from a diet. However…
As cheat days have become so popular, most people will take them too far and see them as a way to overindulge on foods that they’ve been restricted from having. Common cheat day foods include:
- Fast food
- Ice cream
- Fried foods
I could list a lot more but just look at this video showing how popular cheat day “challenges” have become.
Most personal trainers and nutrition coaches will allow cheat meals for clients as these can be controlled, cheat days however are a very risky thing to utilize when on a fat loss diet.
Cheat day pros:
- Give you a break from dieting
- Satisfy cravings
- Ensure long term diet adherence
Cheat day cons:
- Easy to overindulge
- Can lead to short-term weight gain
- Difficult to recover from cheat days (mentally and physiologically)
See also – How to recover from a cheat day
What is a Refeed Day
A refeed day, or refeed days, involve temporarily increasing carbohydrate consumption.
Instead of being in a calorie deficit, during a refeed day you would eat additional carbs and increase your overall calorie consumption by around 10 to 20%.
This is done to increase leptin levels, restore muscle glycogen, and also provide a temporary break from a sustained period of calorie restriction.
Refeed days help to prevent weight loss plateaus, keep training performance (in particular resistance training) high, and give a mental break for dieting.
I’ve described a refeed in a slightly better light than a cheat day because refeed days are a strategic diet protocol that are used sparingly and only when needed.
Cheat days on the other hand are abused and have far more downsides than refeed days.
I’ve never heard anyone say they regret having a refeed day, increased training performance and mood levels are often the result the following day.
Cheat days on the other hand are often followed up with feelings of guilt, disappointment, decreased performance in the gym, a feeling of ruining their progress, and countless other negative consequences.
Therefore, a 500 calorie increase for a refeed seems to be a better option than a 2,000+ calorie blow out on a cheat day.
Wouldn’t you agree?
Refeed day pros:
- Replenish depleted muscle glycogen
- Boost leptin levels
- Improve workout performance
- Help maintain long-term weight loss
Refeed day cons:
- Need to be programmed by a nutritionist or personal trainer (ideally)
- Easily to overindulge and binge eat
- Difficult to time refeed days for optimal results
Related – How often should you have a refeed day?
What’s the Difference Between a Cheat Day and a Refeed?
To expand, when deciding between cheat days and refeed days there are different factors to consider.
Whilst the most important factor is which provides the best results, other things to consider include their impact on leptin levels and workout performance, as well as the break they provide from dieting.
I’ll cover each in more detail below.
Weight Loss Results
Refeed days are more controlled than cheat days which can lead to faster weight loss results.
During both refeed days and cheat days you will consume more calories than usual.
However, during refeed days this process is controlled as you would plan in advance the amount that you’re going to eat as well as the macro split and calorie content of what you’re eating.
As refeed days are done in a controlled way, you won’t overdo it and consume a huge calorie excess which could undermine the results you want to see from dieting.
If you’re looking to find out more about refeed days, check out this video:
In comparison, cheat days are not controlled. By design they are intended to be a break from your diet during which you can eat whatever foods you like and as much as you want.
During cheat days people often overdo it and consume a huge calorie excess.
Consuming an excess of calories on a cheat day can undermine the results you want to see in terms of weight loss and prolong the time you spend dieting as a result.
Therefore, cheat days can easily derail your diet, particularly if they’re done frequently.
Refeed days can also deliver better weight loss results than cheat days due to their impact on leptin levels.
When you decrease your calorie intake and begin to lose body fat hormonal changes take place.
As this happens, your body automatically responds by decreasing leptin levels. Leptin is a hormone that helps regulate appetite and encourages calorie burning.
When leptin levels are low, your body sends signals to eat more, increasing your appetite, and burn fewer calories, slowing your metabolism.
In comparison to fats and proteins, carbohydrates are best for increasing leptin levels.
By consuming a high amount of carbohydrates during refeed days you prevent leptin levels declining and stop your body from sending signals to increase your appetite and slow calorie burning.
As a result, you continue to lose weight and don’t experience a weight loss plateau which would prevent further weight loss results.
In contrast, during a cheat day there isn’t any guidance on what kinds of foods you eat.
You might eat a lot of carbohydrates but this isn’t a requirement of a cheat day.
Therefore, you may not increase leptin levels during a cheat day and are unlikely to see the same benefits that you would by having a refeed day.
Refeed days can also help with exercise performance through restoring glycogen levels.
Glycogen is what’s known as a ‘long-chain carbohydrate’ and it is stored in muscles to be used as an energy source during physical activity.
When dieting, glycogen stores decrease and your body’s ability to store more becomes limited.
By increasing carbohydrate intake during a refeed day you can replenish these glycogen stores, which supports energy levels and better performance during exercise.
In comparison, during cheat days there is no guidance on what kinds of foods you eat and many people will over-consume by eating foods with a high fat content.
As carbohydrates aren’t prioritized during cheat days, they don’t lead to the same glycogen store restoration that refeed days do.
Therefore, cheat days don’t benefit workout performance in the same way that refeed days can.
Break from Dieting
Another factor to consider when evaluating whether cheat days or refeed days are better is the break from dieting that each option offers.
Following a strict diet for long periods of time is challenging.
Many people become fatigued and may stop sticking to their diet as a result.
Cheat days and refeed days offer a break from dieting, though they do it in different ways.
During refeed days you would eat more carbohydrates. However, this process is controlled as you would still track what you eat, as you would on other days.
As you’re only consuming extra carbohydrates, there isn’t flexibility in what you’re eating or the amount that you consume.
Therefore, a refeed day is not a complete break from your diet.
In contrast, there are no restrictions on what you eat or the amount you eat during a cheat day.
Foods that are typically discouraged when dieting can be eaten and you don’t need to keep track of what you’ve eaten during a cheat day.
Resultantly, cheat days offer a better break from dieting, as well as from tracking what you’re eating.
Some people find that this break leads to improvements in their wellbeing. Taking a break from dieting can also help people to stick to their diet on other days.
However, whilst cheat days can have a positive effect for some people, for other people they can promote binge eating behaviour.
In summary, cheat days and refeed days are both used during fat loss phases where someone has been in a calorie deficit for a sustained period of time.
Both will provide benefits when it comes to improving mood, hormones, performance, and long term progress with your fat loss goals.
If you’re reading this though and anything but an experienced dieter and trainer, a refeed day will almost always be the better option.
They are easier to program, far more controlled and have more benefits than downsides.
If you’re getting cravings for a calorie deficit and end up watching YouTube food challenges, the last thing you should be doing is having a cheat day and ending up taking it too far.
I’ve done this myself in the past and once you give yourself an unrestricted day to eat what you want, the outcome is almost never optimal…