Off plan meals vs. re-feeds

Written by Mark Coles - Follow on Google+ | Facebook | Twitter


This is such a popular topic, however, let me explain something before I continue. Off plan meals / re-feeds should really be used strategically when losing body fat. For those of you reading this article who are just starting out on your fat loss journey, you may not require or even deserve a cheat meal for quite a while.

This article is aimed at people who are ready to start using them to their advantage. When we work with clients, we tend to bring cheat meals or re-feeds in when they are between 10 and 12% body fat for males, and 12 to 14% body fat for females. If our clients are a lot higher than this, we generally avoid using them.

This is for two reasons; firstly, a person with higher body fat levels will often lack discipline in the early stages, and in my experience giving someone a cheat meal so early on only ends in disaster, as they don’t know when to stop. Secondly; any one with higher body fat levels, will usually be insulin resistant. In brief this means that their cell response and insulin production will be very different to someone who is a lot leaner. So in the case of someone with a higher body fat percentage, they can actually gain body fat as a result of using these strategies.

Now that I’ve cleared up that bit, let me move onto the point of the article.

In my opinion there is a distinct difference between a cheat meal and a re feed.

cheat meal vs re-feed

An off plan meal, as far as I'm concerned, is a meal that is simply off plan, something that is more in the way of a treat, and acts as a psychological break from the diet. I tend to use off plan meals pretty early on in a fat loss journey, whereas a re-feed meal actually helps a lot more than just giving someone a psychological break from their diet. When I see a lot of people having an off plan meal, it’s often not a huge difference in size to their usual meals (despite what they may think). Maybe all they have is an extra bowl of chips with their meal or a dessert. When someone has a re-feed, it’s a completely different ball game. 

You see when you diet down, especially to quite low body fat numbers, you will inevitably bring your calories quite a bit lower than normal. What happens when you consistently lower your calories for long periods of time, is a down regulation in some very important hormones that we do need for optimal fat loss and maximal muscle retention.

So when you diet for extended periods of time, this is what happens.

1. Your metabolism will lower

2. You have the potential to lose muscle mass

3. Your energy levels will drastically reduce

4. You will see an elevation in the stress hormone called cortisol. Chronic elevations of this hormone are also catabolic (muscle wasting).

5. You will see a negative impact on your thyroid levels

6. You will lower the levels of the hormone called leptin. Leptin plays a major role in regulating your metabolism and body weight. When your intake of food remains consistently low, your body will sense starvation (leptin has been called the anti starvation hormone). As a result, your leptin levels will lower. For increased fat loss, we want leptin levels as high as we can.

7. You will deplete you muscle and liver glycogen stores. Once they’re depleted you really will notice your workouts suffer, and day to day energy levels will be low. I know this only too well because I’ve been there, and it’s tough!!

8. You will see a reduction in your testosterone levels.

8 week physique

So when I talk about dieting for extended periods of time, I don’t mean the first 3 weeks of a 12 – 16 week body transformation, prep for a photo shoot or body building competition. This really is the time when I’d say the meal you’ll be having would be called a cheat meal. In the early stages, you shouldn’t be that low on your calories (if your coach is smart), so you shouldn’t be depleted, and most of your hormones will be relatively in tact. So a few weeks into the diet, a psychological break and a cheat meal (not excessive) will be a great reward for your commitment and hard work. There is no reason to go crazy, maybe a burger and chips (my favourite) is all you will need at this stage.

Now when you get deeper into your diet, when training volume is creeping up, calories are being gradually reduced, this is the time when your hormones will start to be affected, and this is also the time when your muscle and liver glycogen stores will start to become depleted pretty quickly. It’s at this time when I call this extra meal, a re-feed as opposed to a cheat meal. You see the re-feed will be a substantially larger meal, and it will have a significant effect on filling back up your glycogen stores, helping to increase your energy levels, and giving your hormones and metabolism the kick start they need to ensure consistent fat loss.

I see far too many people in the early stages of a fat loss programme, using re-feeds as opposed to cheat meals, and suddenly finding that fat loss is very slow (even noticing some body fat gain). In my opinion in the early stages, pick your hardest training day (leg day), and use your post workout meal as your cheat meal (simply double in carbs to what you have in your normal carb meals). As you get deeper into your diet and you start to notice a reduction in energy levels, poor productivity in the gym, larger weight drops, and slow fat loss, then start to look into using re feeds.

So my advice to you is this. Be smart when you’re using cheat meals or re-feeds. Know when it’s best to use one method over the other. They are a great tool when it comes to increasing fat loss, holding onto muscle tissue, and they can serve as a very rewarding psychological break when you’re really being strict and working hard towards your result.

Would you like more hints and tips to help you with your own transformation? Pick up a copy of our 8 Week Muscle e-book today.


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