Refeed days and cheat days are designed to accomplish similar results but are almost entirely different approaches.
What is the difference between a refeed day and a cheat day? A refeed day is a controlled increase in calories that are used for mental and/or physiological benefits relief while dieting. A cheat day is an uncontrolled increase in calories that allows for a “free-for-all” approach to increasing intake while dieting.
When determining whether a refeed day or cheat day is the better option, it is crucial that we make the right choice, otherwise, we could prolong our dieting phase or fall off the wagon entirely.
After reading this article you’ll learn:
- What a refeed day is
- What a cheat day is
- How refeeds and cheat days are similar
- How refeeds and cheat days are different
- Which one produces the best results
What Is A Refeed Day?
A refeed day is a temporary increase in calories that is pre-determined and used to bring us out of a caloric deficit when we’re dieting. A refeed day is a controlled increase in the amount of food you eat rather than a “free-for-all”.
People use refeed days when they are dieting to try and lose weight or improve their body composition.
The goal with a refeed day is to temporarily bring ourselves back to a maintenance level of calories (the number of calories it takes them to maintain their current weight) rather than our deficit calories (the number of calories we’re eating to encourage weight loss).
A refeed day is beneficial while dieting because it has been shown to help improve our ability to stick to a diet, increase leptin levels which are important for helping us to feel satisfied and not starving. It can also increase our energy levels and improve any hormone concentrations that may have been affected from the decreases in calories below maintenance levels.
Therefore by incorporating refeed days we not only improve our physical health but also our mental health, both of which are important for us to get the most out of our diet.
A refeed day is done in a controlled manner, which is ideal because we won’t go overboard and set ourselves back from achieving our goals. Instead, we’ll be feeling refreshed and ready to head back into a deficit to work a bit more towards our ultimate weight/body composition.
However, a downside of refeed days is that we may never feel like we get a break from tracking our intake. This is because we still need to track our food while eating on a refeed day. Sometimes having a break from tracking can be the most refreshing way to recharge and get refocused when we’ve been dieting for a while.
A refeed day could last for 1 day or 2 days and mostly depends on our body fat percentage, how aggressive our dieting is, how long we’ve been dieting for. The leaner we are, the longer we’ve been dieting, and the more aggressive we are, the more we will need two-day refeed days over a one-day refeed.
The same principles apply for the frequency of refeed days, if we’re leaner, dieting more aggressively, or have been dieting for a while now then we’ll want to refeed on a weekly basis.
However, if we have more body fat, we haven’t been dieting for long, or we’re being very conservative then we can refeed less often (every 3 to 4 weeks).
After we’ve determined the length and frequency of our refeeds, we should focus on determining how our intake will change while refeeding.
The goal on refeed days is to bring ourselves back to a maintenance level intake and out of a deficit. Our maintenance will be based on our current body weight and not on the body weight that we were at before we started dieting.
To get an estimation of your maintenance calories and how to set up your macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) so that you maximize the benefits of refeed days, check out our refeed calculator.
Pros of Refeed Days
- Increases Leptin Levels
- Improves Diet Adherence
- Increases Energy Levels
- Keep Us On Track To Progress
Cons of Refeed Days
- Still Having To Track Intake
- Not As Much Freedom
Related Article: How Many Calories Should You Eat on A Cheat Day? (Explained)
What Is A Cheat Day?
A cheat day is an increase in calories that is more of a “free-for-all” because there are no restrictions on what we can eat or how much we can eat.
To summarize, a cheat day essentially means that for one whole day we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it without having to worry about how much we’re allowed to eat.
People utilize cheat days to give themselves a break from their diet to improve mental health and perhaps physical health as well. Cheat days are typically only used by those who are dieting to lose weight or to improve their body composition.
The potential problems of incorporating cheat days are that they can get seriously out of hand if we’re prone to going overboard.
If we’re someone who can put in some serious amounts of food in one day, then perhaps cheat days are not the best option because we don’t want one day to set us back from achieving our goals.
Most people won’t be able to derail their progress just from one day of overeating, but engaging repetitively in days of extreme overeating can trigger binge-eating. A binge is characterized by feeling out of control around food and unable to stop eating, even when not hungry.
If we start binge eating on our cheat days, it could cause us to overeat many days in a row which would absolutely delay us from reaching our goals.
To have a cheat day that does not resemble a binge, I would suggest trying to stick to our typical meals and meal times rather than eating all day long. This gives us a mental break so that we aren’t consumed with thoughts of food all day long.
Pros of Cheat Days
- Provides A Mental Break
- Improves Leptin Levels
- Increases Energy Levels
Cons of Cheat Days
- Could Prolong Our Dieting Efforts
- May Impact Diet Adherence
- Can Trigger Binge Eating Episodes
Related Article: Should You Work Out On Cheat Day? (Pros & Cons)
Refeed vs Cheat Day: 3 Similarities
1. Refeeds & Cheat Days Both Increase Energy Levels
Both refeed days and cheat days increase energy levels because we are temporarily consuming more calories, which will provide us with more fuel for our body to utilize throughout the day.
This allows us to perform better during workouts, recover better after workouts, and increase our daily non-exercise activities like walking, fidgeting, cleaning, etc. that we don’t have the energy for while dieting.
2. Refeeds & Cheat Days Both Provide A Mental Break
Refeed days and cheat days will both provide us with a mental break from dieting because we will temporarily increase our calories.
When our calories are higher it allows us to include more “fun foods” that may not normally fit into our daily intake while dieting because they are higher in calories. These could be foods like donuts, pasta, pizza, or any other foods that tend to have a higher amount of carbs and fats.
3. Refeeds & Cheat Days Both Boost Leptin Levels
Both refeeds and cheat days should boost leptin levels because when we eat more food we will typically be eating more carbohydrates, which have the most impact on elevating leptin levels.
With a refeed day we are guaranteed to boost leptin levels because we will be strategically increasing our carb intake in a controlled manner. Even though there is not necessarily a strategy for consuming carbs on a cheat day, we will likely gravitate more towards carb-rich foods anyway because they’re tasty and make up a variety of foods.
Related Article: Gaining Weight After A Cheat Day (Is This Normal?)
Refeed vs Cheat Day: 5 Differences
The differences between a refeed day and a cheat day are:
- Refeed Days Are A Controlled Increase In Calories
- Refeed Day Increases Are Carbohydrate-Focused
- Cheat Days Do Not Have A Limit For Fat Intake
- Cheat Days Do Not Need To Be Tracked
- Refeed Days Can Be Multiple Days In A Row
1. Refeed Days Are A Controlled Increase In Calories
Refeed days are a controlled increase in calories so that we’re eating enough to bring ourselves out of a deficit to replenish energy, glycogen, and enhance our mood.
Cheat days have no guidelines and typically result in an excess of calories beyond our maintenance level.
2. Refeed Day increases Are Carbohydrate-Focused
When refeeding the increase in calories comes from carbohydrates to encourage leptin levels to increase as well; therefore, protein and fats stay relatively the same as they are when our calories are lower.
With cheat days there are no set targets for any macronutrients and so we cannot guarantee that the excess calories are exclusively from carbs.
3. Cheat Days Do Not Limit How Much Fat We Should Have
With refeed days, there is a limit on how much fat we should consume (20% of calories or less) so that carbohydrates can be the macronutrient of choice to elevate leptin levels.
Cheat days have no guidelines on how much fat, or any other macronutrient that we should have because the purpose is to not worry about our intake for one day.
4. Cheat Days Do Not Need To Be Tracked
Refeed days do need to be tracked because there are targets in place that we still want to achieve so that we know we’re at maintenance and that the increase in calories came from carbohydrates.
Cheat days are designed to give us a break from the mental requirements of tracking and give us the opportunity to truly forget about macro tracking for the day.
5. Refeed Days Can Be Multiple Days In A Row
Refeed days can last for more than one day per week, which is especially useful for those who have been dieting more aggressively, for a longer amount of time, or are very lean.
Cheat days are typically only one day and should not continue beyond that to avoid entering the realm of binge eating.
Refeed or Cheat Day: Which One Produces Results?
It depends, when executed optimally both refeed days and cheat days can be beneficial for weight loss and improving body composition and therefore can both produce results.
The controlled nature of a refeed day can be more beneficial by increasing our calories and macronutrient intake just enough to get all the benefits we’re looking for without overdoing it, but may not give us the mental break from tracking that we might need to relax.
On the other hand, while cheat days sound like they may provide a mental break from tracking, they can get out of hand very quickly because too much freedom isn’t always the best thing. Especially if having this freedom to eat whatever we want causes us to start binge eating and develop an unhealthy relationship with food.
Ultimately, the one that produces the best results is the one that we feel we can adhere to, without complications, for the length of our dieting phase.
Other Refeeding Resources
- Refeed Day Example: Sample Meal Plan With Macro Breakdown
- Should I Refeed While Cutting? (Yes, Here’s Why & How)
- How Often Should You Refeed? (7 Signs You Need A Refeed Day)
- Will A Refeed Make Me Fat? 5 Tips To Limit Fat Gain On Refeeds
- Refeed After 5 Day Fast: 7 Rules To Follow & What To Eat
- Refeed After 3 Day Fast: 7 Rules To Follow & What To Eat
- How Many Grams of Fat On A Refeed Day (A Helpful Guide)
- Refeed vs Diet Break: Differences, Pros, & Cons
- Refeed vs Carb Cycling: Differences, Pros, & Cons
- Should You Refeed On A Rest Day? (A Nutritionist Answers)
- Should I Workout On A Refeed Day? (A Nutritionist Answers)
About The Author
Amanda Parker is an author, nutrition coach, and Certified Naturopath. She works with bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters to increase performance through nutrition and lifestyle coaching.