In my previous article, My Thoughts on Flexible Dieting, I discussed the importance of having some flexibility on your fat loss diet, some mistakes I made in the past and how I now go about setting things up when fat loss is the main goal.
For this article I’d like to touch on the preemptive refeed, which is a way of going by feel as opposed to having refeeds programmed into your diet ahead of time. For the dieter whose mind still teeters on the more analytical and oftentimes neurotic side, this approach may not be for you; well, not for now anyway.
First of all, let’s look at exactly what a refeed is. A refeed means to feed again following a period of malnourishment or under-eating. In some cases, such as severe starvation in the Minnesota Study, the refeed period lasted much longer than what we’re going to discuss today.
Prolonged Dieting and its Effects
After an extended period on a hypocaloric diet, one becomes hungry, irritable, and sometimes fat loss seems to stall, despite a consistent calorie deficit. It’s hard to say why but it just seems to happen.
Sometimes it’s a result of the diet causing one to be sluggish, thus moving less than they did at energy balance. It’s common for folks to be gung-ho about their new diet for the first few weeks, making sure to train regularly and move as much as possible, while watching their reflection slowly shrink and the scale move downward. But after time, it’s common for people to slow down, move less, thus reducing their daily burn and slowing fat loss.
Sometimes, it’s a result of water retention masking the fat loss.
Other times, it’s a result of certain hormones down-regulating due to a suboptimal environment. The body merely longs to survive as opposed to becoming what you deem as sexy and lean.
A nice way to see this in action is by getting a blood test after a decent period of dieting (6+ weeks) and viewing the drop in testosterone, T3, T4, etc. This is hardly necessary but if you’ve a great insurance plan and can afford it, it’s interesting to observe the effects on paper. Don’t worry, though. As long as you come out of dieting and into a period of maintenance or over-eating (also known as a diet break), your hormonal system will return to normal.
It’s also known through research that larger individuals (those with more body fat) possess more of the hormone known as leptin than their leaner counterparts. The only way, which we know of currently, to increase leptin is through a carbohydrate refeed.
Martin Berhkan gives a nice explanation of leptin in this article.
Leptin is a master-hormone with downstream effects on other hormones related to metabolism (T3/T4, neuropeptide-Y, epinephrine, among many others).
In the long-term, leptin is regulated by total amount of fat mass. A drop in leptin affects the other hormones negatively and vice versa. Low leptin leads to an increase in hunger and a decrease in metabolic rate, much like high leptin leads to a decrease in hunger and an increase in metabolic rate.
Generally speaking, lean people have low levels of leptin while obese have high levels of leptin. However, in the latter case, leptin resistance develops. This is likely an effect of chronically elevated leptin, much like insulin resistance is an effect of chronically elevated insulin.
The set-point theory of body weight-regulation is intimately connected to leptin and has a strong genetic component to it. Naturally lean people maintain a low body fat set-point by being leptin-sensitive; they can maintain a low body fat percentage and function optimally even with low leptin. But most of us aren’t so lucky, which is why getting really lean is typically a difficult task.
So as you might infer from this passage, controlling this hormone, albeit through our diet, is our best bet if we aren’t a naturally lean individual.
What Can We Do About It?
We can incorporate refeeds systematically or preemptively. If you’re familiar with Lyle’s Ultimate Diet 2.0, you’re aware of the glycogen-filling, monster of a refeed once per week. We’re talking about massive amounts of carbohydrate here – so much that when my roommate’s on the diet, I vacate the house due to the gaseous atmosphere a plethora of carbs can create.
Now, the preemptive refeed I’m going to discuss here is not along the same lines of what Lyle prescribes in the book. His protocol is very specific and includes a hefty amount of glycogen depletion. For the average dieter on a low(er) volume training program with a few sessions of cardio thrown in now and then, such a refeed is not only unnecessary, it would likely set a person back two or three steps. That’s not what we’re after here.
We’re after fat loss and a sensible approach to achieving it.
The Preemptive Refeed
If you’ve settled into a fairly relaxed diet and are ready for another tool to enhance your fat loss efforts, the preemptive refeed is very useful.
The general rule is this: the leaner(or more dieted down) you are, the more frequent your refeeds will need to be and vice versa.
The level of your activity and severity of a deficit will determine the amount of carbohydrate for each refeed.
Remember, this preemptive refeed is mainly for those who are running a consistent deficit and not following a specific diet that incorporates refeeds already. It’s mainly for the person who is consistently maintaining a daily deficit anywhere from the -500 to -1000 range.
One more thing – a refeed needs to be a calorie surplus to render positive effects on leptin.
For sake of simplicity, we’re going to assume our trainee weighs 180lbs, is consuming 1.25g/lb of body weight (BW) in protein and has an average BMR. Adjust according to your body weight and activity levels.
Training 5-6 times per week – weights and cardiovascular work.
Athletes and/or advanced trainees will fall under this category. Also those with occupations that require hard labor such as construction.
Frequency of 2 and sometimes 3 times per week around weight training.
Training 3-4 times per week – weights and cardiovascular work.
Active college students, those who are doing more walking/biking than driving. Those who have jobs that require them to be on their feet or that require mild physical labor.
Frequency of 1 but maybe 2 times per week around weight training.
Weight training 2-3 times per week – barely any cardiovascular work.
This applies mainly to those with desk jobs and those whose gym time is the only hour of the day they are active.
Frequency of once every 10-14 days around weight training.
*The carbohydrate intake can and will vary from person to person. These figures are just a starting point to get you headed in the right direction. Some will need to go a bit higher depending on training volume, occupation and maintenance level intake. Some will need to be fairly moderate with their intake.
Most of your days carbohydrates need to be of the complex variety. Think potatoes, oats, rice and pasta as opposed to sugary cereal, candy, etc. Eat a few piece of fruit to fill liver glycogen and then choose the complex sources for the remainder of your intake. These will keep you full and the increased satiety will often prevent you from overeating on junk (if you’re prone to such atrocities).
**The fat recommendations are lower to cover your bases (essential fatty acids), add some taste and allow for the extra carbohydrates to fill muscle glycogen.
This is all based on how you’re feeling. That’s the preemptive part of this equation. If it’s been quite a few days of hard training and low calories, you’re likely feeling tired and worn out – this may be a good time to set up your next refeed. Most folks, besides those who are already very lean, will likely be able to go weeks (at least 4-6) without any real need for a refeed.
If you’ve been dieting and notice yourself being extra compulsive, overly anxious, constantly dreaming about food, or developing an alternate personality, this may be your sign. If your sex drive is declining, a decent-sized refeed will usually do the trick. If one day doesn’t do it, eat a few more carbs the next day. Eat at maintenance or slightly over. If the issue persists, a full diet break may be warranted.
If you’re really lean, pushing it to the max and haven’t filled up with carbs in over a few weeks, go buy some potatoes, rice, your favorite pasta and get to work.