The Importance of Carbohydrate Cycling and Re-feeds when Dieting 


Have you ever found yourself in that situation where you find it easy to lose body fat at the start of a diet and as the process continues that progress slows?  This is perfectly normal, in fact it is part of the process of losing body fat for anyone simply due to the adaptions the body will make when it is faced with a calorie deficit for any pro-longed period of time.  When we implement planned re-feeds into this process though we are able to slow down those adaptions and sustain the diet for longer and, in many cases the method can be used to break through fat loss plateaux’s.  In this article I will give a brief explanation as to why implementing re-feeds is important when dieting and then I will explain the methods that I find work best for most people and how you can apply them to your own diet!

When we begin a diet, usually the hardest thing to do is to adhere to it!  It can be a challenge getting into the routine of following a strict meal plan and above all being consistent with it.  After a week or so as this becomes habit and we start to see results it becomes much easier.  However, when reducing calories for any period of time, there will come a point where progress stalls and I’m sure many of you will have experienced this yourselves.  Before I explain the methods I use to avoid this, here is a little background about why this would happen in the first place.

The reason boils down to the way the human body evolved to be able to survive, a hormonal response that occurs effectively as the result of the body understanding that food has become scarce resulting in a drop in metabolism, increased levels of hunger and an attempt by the body to store as much fat as possible for when it really needs that energy.  This is known as the starvation response and when we are trying to lose body fat these process certainly do not help with regards to that goal!


So what causes this response to happen?  Well, let’s start with a hormone called leptin.  Leptin is a signalling hormone that amongst other roles, notifies the brain of levels of stored energy in the bodies adipose tissue.  As levels of body fat decrease, the level of leptin synthesis also decreases resulting in negative effects on the hypothalamus.   These reduced leptin levels, detected by the hypothalamus, result in an increase in the production of peptides that cause the feeling of hunger and a decrease in production of peptides that cause the feeling of being full.  In addition, the bodies metabolism is decreased as the body attempts to survive with minimal energy expenditure.  The activity of the enzyme responsible for the deposition of fat triglycerides from the bloodstream into the body’s fat cells (Lipoprotein lipase) is also increased, encouraging the body to store fat!  In addition to this, there is also evidence that other negative hormonal changes occur such as increased cortisol levels and reduced thyroid hormone, testosterone and growth hormone levels all of which we do not want when dieting!

If you have been dieting for a while and believe your body has already entered into starvation mode, I suggest resetting the response before beginning your diet again.  To do this back of the diet, give yourself a day or two of consuming well above maintenance calories and then eat around maintenance for a further couple of weeks at least.  During this period I would also suggest backing off the cardio, sure you may well put back on a little weight but it will be nothing compared to what you will lose soon after when you resume your diet and avoid the starvation response.

 Now, whilst we can not avoid the response happening completely, we can reduce it considerably.  Re-feeding will help boost leptin levels and will also give the additional advantage of stocking up your bodies glycogen stores, namely in the muscles which will make them look fuller!  Although on this re-feed day you may well be consuming a calorie surplus, as long as the longer-term (over 7 days for example) calorie intake is lower than the amount of calories burnt you will still lose weight.

 Many articles have been published on how to re-feed and carb cycle and are often very general in that they suggest either weekly re-feeds or following a zig-zag, high, low and moderate carb day pattern with little consideration to the individual or the activity levels on any specific day.  What I am about to explain are methods you can use that are based around body composition as well as activity levels.  At the end of the day, whilst there is some argument for re-feeding on a rest day, this will lead to some fat storage.  Therefore, the approach I like to take is to incorporate a high, moderate and low carb approach where the moderate day is dominant.  Therefore, for most of your training days you will be consuming the amount of calories and carbs that you have calculated to be sufficient to put you into the required deficit.  On any non-training days the carbs need to be cut back, it makes sense that as you are expending less energy you need to consume less on these days.  Re-feed days will replace a moderate carb day on the training days and the frequency of re-feed days depends mainly on your body composition.

If your body fat is currently above 20% I would suggest that there is no need to re-feed.  Remember though this is a general guide as if you are dieting very aggressively, or are doing so for a pro-longed period of time, then it may be advantageous to add a re-feed day, or at least a planned cheat meal into your diet which would effectively be your re-feed.

 If you have a body fat between 15% and 20% I would suggest either incorporating one re-feed day or one cheat meal a week.  If having a cheat meal may result in 10 cheat meals I would suggest a re-feed day without cheating!  If you are dieting aggressively then a good re-feed with a cheat meal may be the best option.


 If your body fat is around 10%-15% then one re-feed day a week would also be beneficial and as body fat becomes lower, re-feeding more often becomes useful which I will go into in a moment.

But first, it is important to note that re-feed days should be done on one of your heavier training days.  This is the day when you are consuming the most calories so it makes sense for this day to be one of the days where you burn the most and also allow your body to take advantage of the increased glycogen uptake and anabolic hormone response.  Therefore, days where you train larger body parts and lift more weight such as legs or back are ideal days to re-feed.

When incorporating weekly re-feeds I suggest trying to increase carbohydrates by about 50-100% which should take your calories to maintenance level or above, protein and fats should be reduced slightly on these days (fats more so than protein) in order to keep the total calories in check and as they can be spared as an energy source there will not be a negative impact of this.

Some experimentation will be needed to get the amount of increase of carbohydrates, the frequency of re-feeds, when to re-feed and the amount to reduce protein and fats by correct.  The above serves as a good guide, but the individuals body type and target calorie deficit play a part in the exact method I would use.

When body fat gets below 10% it becomes a bit more tricky to keep leptin levels from dropping too low and therefore, more frequent re-feeds may be needed.  One method I like to use to help clients shift that final bit of body fat is the 1:1:3 ratio method, where on training days they will consume x amount of carbohydrates for 2 days and then double the intake on the third day.  If a non-training day falls between these two days then the pattern would be broken and they will consume their standard non-training day, low carb day meal plan.  So for a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday training pattern the following would apply:

  • Monday – moderate carbs

  • Tuesday – moderate carbs

  • Wednesday – low carbs (non-training)

  • Thursday – high carbs

  • Friday – moderate carbs

  • Saturday moderate carbs

  • Sunday – low carbs (non-training)

  • Monday – high carbs

  • etc…

So how do you know how many carbs to consume on each day?  Well you should already know how many calories you are consuming each day and your macros – creating your entire diet is beyond the scope of this article I’m afraid!  But once you know the amount of carbs you should consume if you were to consume the same amount on each training day, you can calculate how much to apply to the moderate and high days.

 Let’s say you have calculated that you need to consume 166.6g of carbs per day on days which you train (non-training days are going to be less and need to be excluded from this calculation as it depends on your diet and how many carbs you have already decided you need to consume when you don’t train to minimise muscle loss without adding any fat) in order to be in the desired calorie deficit.  Multiply this number by 3, as it is a 3 day cycle, to give you the total number of carbs to consume over those 3 days which in this case is 500g.  To follow a 1:1:3 ratio, divide this number by 5 (1:1:1+1+1) and that gives you the amount to consume on the moderate carb days.  You then triple this number for the higher carb days.  Therefore, you will be consuming 100g on the moderate carb days and 300g on the higher carb days.  This method works extremely well as body fat levels get very low and you are close to a show or competition and looking to lose those last few pounds!

 I hope you find the above useful and can find ways to incorporating it into your own diet as the human body is very clever!  It has a very intelligent system to prevent sustained fat loss and tricking it could just be the key to achieving your body composition goals!