As a bodybuilder, the kitchen is as important as the gym floor. Day in and day out, you’re measuring, calculating, and tracking to hit your goals with the weight plates and your physique. But some days, you’ve just got to let loose.
All your meal prep and macros tracking is certainly helping your gains, especially during a weight loss phase. But it’s exhausting to maintain such strict control over what you’re eating. To best fuel your body and your mind, you need breaks from the stringent habits that come with dropping weight.
For some bodybuilders, refeed days serve as their break from caloric deficits. For others, cheat meals are where it’s at. But in the battle of having a refeed day versus cheat meal, you’ll have to make some tricky decisions. Here, you’ll learn everything you need to decide which method is best for you.
- What Is a Refeed Day?
- What Is a Cheat Meal?
- Refeed Day Vs. Cheat Meal Similarities
- Refeed Day Vs. Cheat Meal Differences
- When Should I Do a Refeed Day?
- When Should I Have a Cheat Meal?
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A refeed day happens during a weight loss phase. You take a break from eating below your maintenance level of calories. Instead, you’ll eat slightly above your maintenance level of calories, usually taking those extra calories in the form of carbohydrates. All things being equal, eating your maintenance amount of calories helps you maintain the weight you’re currently at.
During a weight loss phase — when you’re leaning out, sometimes in between bulking — you’ll typically eat less than maintenance calories. On a refeed day, you’ll eat a little more than your maintenance calorie level. This will give your body a temporary break from the restrictions of eating fewer than maintenance calories.
Refeed days will typically feature more carbs than usual, giving your body a direct burst of training fuel — and the potential to enjoy that extra bit of carbohydrate goodness.
Athletes that use calorie counting as part of their nutrition strategy can use BarBend’s calorie calculator to figure out how many calories they’ll need to safely drop weight. Then, you can recalculate to adjust for your maintenance needs on a refeed day.
Other athletes may want to avoid counting calories, even if they’re looking to lose weight. That might be due to personal preference, a history of disordered eating habits, or simply because they’d prefer to track their macros rather than calories.
If you take a more intuitive approach to your nutrition, opt to simply add a portion or two of carbs to your favorite meal on a refeed day.
For athletes who prefer to track their macros, BarBend’s macros calculator can help you figure out how best to get enough carbs, protein, and fats. Macronutrients, aka protein, carbs, and fat, are what make up your calorie intake. Even if you’re primarily tracking calories, make sure you’re keeping your protein levels high, as they help with muscle building and retention. Carbs, too, give your workouts energy.
Remember to get plenty of diverse micronutrients in your diet, too.
A typical cheat meal is a brief abandonment of rigid diet rules to eat an unrestricted amount of otherwise “prohibited” foods. (1) For example, you might strictly avoid white rice in favor of brown rice during your typical days in a weight loss phase. Your cheat meal may involve a lot of sushi with white rice galore.
What comprises a cheat meal depends on the person taking it — and their goals.
Strongman Robert Oberst can crush 12,000 calories in a single cheat meal. That’s more calories in one sitting than someone who isn’t a pro strongman eats over several days.
On the other hand, three-time reigning Classic Physique Olympia champion Chris Bumstead considers a dairy-free breakfast wrap and two pancakes a cheat meal. That may sound like another athlete’s regular Sunday brunch plans.
To help you determine what constitutes a cheat meal for you, consider your typical food intake and nutritional habits. Think about what foods you love that you might miss in your day-to-day approach to meal prep. Maybe that means ordering takeout from your favorite restaurant when you’d otherwise cook a meal at home.
While they’re not the same, refeed days and cheat meals are certainly nutritional cousins. They’re both meant to offer relief from a day-to-day restrictive, weight-loss-oriented diet.
With a refeed day, you have slightly more carbs. With a cheat meal, you may go all out on a burger and fries. Either way, you’re taking a break from a restrictive diet. While restricting your intake, you may endure altered hormone levels, lethargy, hunger, and general exhaustion. Ironically, you may also start hitting plateaus with your weight loss goals. (2)(3)
When you give yourself a boost with more calories than you’re used to, you may give your body — and mind — a break from the rigors of intense food-related discipline. This might help make a weight loss phase feel a bit more sustainable.
Potential Training Boost
Refeed days and cheat meals are both intended for when you’re going through a caloric deficit. When you give yourself that extra burst of calories — whether in the measured way of a refeed day or the all-out fashion of a cheat meal — you might be able to give yourself a boost of energy in training.
During a fat-loss phase, you’ll generally train to maintain muscle mass. In a caloric deficit, some athletes may find it difficult to maintain their muscles A refeed day can be particularly helpful here, especially as they typically focus on upping your carb intake. This is meant to give you an extra boost of energy to fuel your workouts.
The potential boost in training energy you might get from a cheat meal may not happen immediately. If you go at it with a whole pizza with the works, you might feel too full and lethargic afterward to go to the gym at all. But the psychological break from restrictiveness might help you come back reinvigorated in your next training session.
If you’re approaching refeed days with the same discipline as your typical nutritional plan, you’re likely maintaining a restrictive diet approach. While you might be looser with your calories on refeed days, you’re still focusing on having only slightly more food than usual — typically more carbs.
Because of this, you’re still labeling many foods as off-limits. This black-and-white approach may be less extreme with refeed days because you’re giving yourself a slightly wider array of options once or twice a week. But you’re still ultimately working with restriction — which foods are allowed and which are not. This approach may negatively impact your weight loss goals and relationship with food long-term. (4)(5)
Cheat meals use the same black-and-white approach, though these meals are a more extreme example. They maintain the black-and-white dichotomy between permitted foods and prohibited foods.
The name itself — “cheat” — implies that what you’re eating and the amount you’re eating is in itself bad. Labeling some food as good and others as bad has been shown to decrease your chances of maintaining healthy eating habits. (4)(5)
You can try to mitigate this impact by reframing how you approach cheat days. Whereas most days are explicitly restrictive, you can think of “cheat” days or meals as more intuitive approaches to eating — where you listen to your body’s hunger cues and respond accordingly.
Both approaches may look similar — more food one day a week — but they look very different in practice.
Measured Vs. Anything Goes
The idea of refeed days is precisely about not tilting in the complete opposite direction of caloric restriction. Cheat meals give you a total break from counting calories or tracking what you’re eating — if only just for a meal.
That’s not to say that yo-yo-ing between refeed days and restrictive dieting can’t be a recipe for getting off track with your goals or even binge eating. But in their ideal form, refeed days are still focused on a calorie count and/or macro tracking, versus cheat meals where you’re taking a break from counting anything entirely.
Because cheat meals are so lax with the rules, you might start hitting a physique plateau if you do them frequently. While no one meal will derail all your hard work and progress, having a lot of cheat meals where you go all out can put a potential pin in your plans to lean out.
You won’t count a single macro during your cheat meal. You’ll be more mindful of your carb, protein, and fat intake when you eat a refeed meal. It’s not about macros — it’s about you.
On the other hand, you will be centering your attention on a particular macronutrient with refeed days. These typically focus on a slight increase in carbs. In this way, you’re still monitoring your intake. Sure, you’ll be less restrictive than you are on other days — but you’re not tossing the rulebook entirely out the window like you might during a cheat meal.
Though both refeed days and cheat meals may reinforce the idea of some foods as good and others as bad, cheat meals may more easily lead to binge eating. Research has shown that restricting your food intake makes you more likely to binge eat. (6)(7)(8)
The mindset of “anything goes” that comes with a cheat meal may lead you to overeat (past the point of being hungry).
On the other hand, a refeed day may feel more like a regular day in the kitchen. Just add an extra scoop of rice into your meal prep bag. A cheat meal, however, is just one meal instead of a whole day. You might develop a more now-or-never approach.
To help avoid this tendency toward binging, consider treating cheat meals as opportunities to listen to your body’s hunger cues. You might simply use them to eat when you’re hungry — and stop when you’re full — instead of ignoring hunger pangs as you might usually do during a weight loss phase.
Consider having one or two refeed days a week, depending on the specifics of your training plan, nutrition practices, physique goals, and personal preferences.
If you’re training particularly hard, you might want to err on the side of twice a week to make sure you’re getting enough carbs to fuel performance. On the other hand, if you’ve never done a refeed day, start once a week and see how it impacts your performance and energy levels.
You might opt for a refeed day over a cheat meal if:
- You’re looking to stay mostly on track with your nutritional plan.
- You want to increase your carb intake specifically.
- You need flexibility in your nutrition plan day-to-day.
- You want to avoid counting calories and instead focus on macro portions.
Some athletes prefer to have a cheat meal each week. This might be a day to eat out with your family or friends. Or you might indulge yourself with cooking or baking something you wouldn’t normally make for yourself.
But if you’re the type of person to consume a whole lot of calories during your cheat meal, you’ll want to make sure it won’t interfere with your gains. This is necessary if you don’t train in the mornings, and you’ll get too sluggish from a food coma after a cheat meal to train. Consider doing a cheat meal every two weeks rather than every week.
Here are some reasons you might want to have a cheat meal:
- You need a complete break from tracking or counting.
- You want to take just one meal as a break from restrictive eating instead of a whole day.
- You’re able to take a day away from training (if you’re opting to indulge heavily).
Refeed or Cheat?
Choose carefully when you’re taking a break from daily dietary restrictions. If it’s coming down to a refeed day versus cheat meal, assess what your goals are. Depending on your mindset and needs, you might find that a refeed day helps you keep on track better than a cheat meal.
On the other hand, you might love not worrying about what you’re eating when you’re out with friends or catching up on your favorite show — hence, a cheat meal. Ultimately, you might want to experiment with both approaches to see which method best suits your personal needs, mindset, physique goals, and energy levels.
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- Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014 Feb 27;11(1):7.
- Ogden, J. (2010). The psychology of eating: From healthy to disordered behavior, 2nd ed. In The psychology of eating: From healthy to disordered behavior, 2nd ed. (pp. xii, 378–xii, 378). Wiley-Blackwell.
- Lowe MR. Dieting: proxy or cause of future weight gain? Obes Rev. 2015 Feb;16 Suppl 1:19-24.
- Hill JO, Wyatt HR, Peters JC. Energy balance and obesity. Circulation. 2012 Jul 3;126(1):126-32.
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- Akkermann K, Hiio K, Villa I, Harro J. Food restriction leads to binge eating dependent upon the effect of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor Val66Met polymorphism. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;185(1-2):39-43.
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