Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
18 Jun

Carb Refeeding and Weight Loss

Part of the allure of the Primal eating plan is that it’s effortless. There’s no calorie counting, no stressing over macronutrient intakes – eating PB simply means choosing to eat real, whole foods that man has been eating for tens of thousands of years. You can go higher carb or lower carb (I initially recommend low carb, just because it makes losing weight and stabilizing your metabolism incredibly easy, especially for folks coming off the SAD), and as long as you’re eating real foods you’ll be getting healthier and losing body fat.

This isn’t enough for everyone, though. To go back to yesterday’s “hormones as software” analogy, some people are hackers who relish digging deep into the fine print of software manuals discussing human nutrition and hormonal responses. Others – the bulk of my readership – are cool with using their standard-issue, factory Mac or PC to reap the basic benefits of Primal living, while others prefer learning Unix and taking night classes in comp sci down at the local community college after work. They’re the ones who spend the time to fiddle with the programming language of our bodies in order to become real hormonal hackers. I get that. I love that stuff, too, if only to able to take the information and distill it for a large audience. Though one can see tremendous results with minimal effort following the simple principles of the Primal Blueprint (i.e. how I approach my own eating habits and how I recommend others do as well) digging deeper into the science of leptin and how carb refeeds impact leptin levels can unlock an entirely new level of fat loss (and understanding of why that fat loss is occurring).

All this leptin and carb refeeding stuff was prompted by reader questions; I get a fair amount of questions about carb refeeds, and, because the PB is a moderate to low-carb plan, people (understandably so) tend to assume that carbohydrate refeeding contradicts its basic tenets. They make an incorrect assumption.

As mentioned earlier, the Primal Blueprint is the simplest, most enjoyable, most sustainable way to normalize your weight, a description borne out by my own experiences and the experiences of my readers. If you don’t want to fret over every last macronutrient as you lose weight steadily, a low carb, high fat, moderate protein Primal eating plan will do the trick. That said, I am not overly concerned with getting folks to 6% body fat, nor am I interested in producing champion body builders. I have nothing against getting as lean as possible; it’s just not my focus. Turning the Primal Blueprint into a super-leaning out program would mean changing its inherent nature as an effortless system without weighing and measuring. You see, I’m concerned with helping people reach their natural genetic potential through sustainable lifestyle behaviors. And for most people, their natural genetic potential is pretty damn good – lean, strong, fit, healthy. Very few people can achieve that ultra-ripped, Men’s Health cover model look without significant, painstaking adherence to a strictly regimented program.

Carb loading or carb refeeds can be used, quite effectively, by those interested in dropping the last couple body fat percentage points. I wouldn’t recommend it for overweight individuals. For them, sticking with a low carb, Primal eating plan is the easiest, safest way to drop the pounds. And you can do it with Primal foods.

The purpose, as I see it, of carb refeeds is the restoration of leptin levels in the dieter. As we know, caloric restriction reduces leptin levels. With lower leptin comes increased hunger and reduced adherence to a diet. Cravings arise. Energy wanes, immunity suffers. The lack of leptin elicits the cascade of hormones that down regulate metabolism and energy expenditure. Your muscles use less energy and become more efficient – but weaker and less effective. Menstruation and fertility become issues. Dropping calories even more just makes the problem worse. You need to restore leptin, at least for a bit, to right the path. A carb refeed can help you achieve this.

Who needs to refeed? No one “needs” a carb refeed, especially if he or she is feeling good, looking good, and continuing to lose weight with plenty of energy. I never consciously stuff myself with carbs, and I’m doing okay. Remember, too, that a low-carb eating plan doesn’t equal a low calorie eating plan. If your weight loss has stalled, however, and hunger is a constant issue, no matter the depths of your caloric restriction, it may be wise to consider a periodic carbohydrate refeed. If you lack energy throughout the day and your immune system is suffering, you might need to restore your leptin levels with a carb refeed.

Here’s the quick and dirty Primal way to do it:

On your heaviest training days (heavy lifting, sprinting, anything that results in glycogen depletion), increase your carbohydrates and limit your fat intake. Yes, limit your fat intake to around 50g (eyeball it – don’t demolish that stick of butter today). Don’t cut it out altogether, mind you, but emphasize carbs over fat. Fat doesn’t have much of a short-term effect on leptin, and, since we want to increase leptin in the short-term without gorging on overall calories, limiting fat and emphasizing carbohydrate is the way to go. Don’t do much to your protein intake. Just keep it relatively normal. Limit your refeeds to once, maybe twice a week, and always after really big workouts, but really go for it. Eat a lot of yams, sweet potatoes, fruit, plantains, squash – any Primal source of starchy carb will do the trick (grains and legumes are still problematic, so keep away). Eat more total calories than you’d normally eat and way more carbohydrate calories than you’d normally eat – at least 250 g-300 g worth. Finish your refeed day with a decent chunk of lean protein (chicken breast, cottage cheese).

You’ll probably get that bloated, water-weight feeling the following day, especially if your diet is relatively low-carb, but that will go away after a day or so. Leptin will rise (independent of fat storage), glycogen will replenish, and your appetite will normalize. Since you’re already fairly lean with low circulating leptin (and, remember: you should be relatively lean before employing refeeds), your leptin senstivity will be high. The leptin bounce won’t be enough to dull your leptin receptors; that generally only happens with the obese, who have chronically elevated leptin.

There are other methods. Some experts recommend two or three day-long carb binges. Others say a week long refeed works best. I don’t know about you, but that seems like too much work. I honestly can’t see myself giving up pastured butter and ribeyes for a week straight. Starch without fat gets real old, real fast.

I may not find refeeds necessary for my goals, but I recognize that they can help people reach their goals. Everyone’s different. I can’t guarantee my way will work – you may have to get super strict and follow Martin Berkhan’s or Lyle McDonald’s methods to reach your desired level of leanness. Still, the Primal refeed is worth experimenting with, especially if you’ve reached a plateau lasting a month or more. I’m a big fan of steady, gradual weight loss, and the leaner you get the slower it gets, but it’s not for everyone. The above recommendations simply represent a way you can adhere to the Primal eating plan and still tinker with carb refeeds without overly disrupting your usual diet.

If you’re still having trouble reconciling the refeed notion with your idea of Grok’s lifestyle, just imagine you found a bushel of mangos, or happened upon a particularly fruitful trove of edible roots. You think Grok would have tossed those mangos to avoid the carbohydrates?

Let me know how it works out for you!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Periodic carb refeeding is part of Rob Faigin’s Natural Hormonal Enhancement. He gives suggested amounts for athletes and non-athletes. Years ago (before reading Faigin) I was low-carb for 6 months, hit the wall bigtime, hungry every minute of the day; my thyroid was depressed. Low-carbing is catabolic; you need the occasional high-carb meal to get anabolic again. It was months before I regained my energy, and most of the weight I lost flew back on.

    Anyway, my DH has been on Faigin cycling for about 2 years now and has lost 45 lbs and kept it off, even while eating the weekly pizza. I’ve lost 27 lbs since January (and I’m a sedentary woman in her 60s). I can tell when I’m ready for my carb-load: I’m hungry in a way that my usual meat and veggies don’t satisfy.

    Faigin’s carb-loads are low in protein and fat; he recommends starch rather than sugar/fruit. They are not an excuse to eat just any awful sort of stuff (no twinkies, in other words). It is always the last meal of the day, twice a week. It’s really working for me. I’m VLC the rest of the time.

    ColoGrassFed wrote on June 20th, 2010
  2. This was a good primer on refeeding, Mark.

    I am not sure why people think I am dismissive of paleo. I have previously said that the paleo diet is a great model for a lifestyle approach to nutrition. Very conducive for health and maintenance of a lean physique. I am only critical of extremists in most nutritional camps.

    The Primal Blueprint style of paleo seems very liberal and doable. The way Mark describes paleo here, potatoes and cottage cheese being “ok”, is very close to how me and most of my clients eat: whole foods only, not very heavy on grains, minimum of supplements etc.

    Anyway, just wanted to clear that up.

    Martin Berkhan wrote on June 20th, 2010
    • “am not sure why people think I am dismissive of paleo”

      Because they haven’t read your stuff 😉 You clearly have a great system out of the box thinkers (like Mark) can recognize.

      I like poking around your site. Keep up the work.

      Grok wrote on June 20th, 2010
    • Yes I agree your site is great.

      Your articles are in my reading rotation when I should be working.

      You seem to know your stuff you should write a book or something….

      chima_p wrote on June 20th, 2010
  3. We just started cutting out grains and going low carb last Thursday. My husband went through grain withdrawals yesterday and got the shakes. We were eating plenty, I went through the same thing a day before him. This refeed sounds like it may be great. I would love to get through a month without having to do this, but if we can’t then a refeed may be very benificial.

    angie wrote on June 20th, 2010
    • Well, you absolutely should not refeed for a while. Your body is changing from a sugar furnace to a fat furnace. Introducing carbs again to soon would not help at all only hurt.

      Aaron Curl wrote on June 22nd, 2010
  4. Great article on the benefits of carb refeeds. That made perfect scientific sense. Also good point about giving a program that is for the masses. You are right that the bulk of the people are not looking for even 10% body fat. I have a question. Does the body lose sensitivity to carb refeeding after say doing it for a couple of weeks. What has your experience with this been?

    Paramjit wrote on June 20th, 2010
  5. This website is a religion! Primal eating? Give me a break. Paleo diets are a joke!

    Dom wrote on June 21st, 2010
    • Don’t knock it until you try it, dude. I’ve lost over 90 pounds in 10 months, regularized and normalized my blood sugars, normalized my cholesterol, and eliminated my arthritis, migraines and IBS. When you’ve tried the Primal Challenge for a month, you’ll see changes you can’t deny. I dropped 26 pounds in the first month alone.

      Griff wrote on June 21st, 2010
  6. I wonder, can we really feed the people of the world without replying on grains?

    Why does it seem that asian countries, where rice is a staple, don’t seem to have problems with obesity?

    Rich wrote on June 24th, 2010
    • No, we can’t. But we never should have had this size of population in the first place. And have you looked at the Asians in modern societies any time recently? Heart disease, obesity, diabetes – they’re all skyrocketing there.

      Griff wrote on June 24th, 2010
  7. Hi Mark. I reintroduced more carbs into my diet recently. Around 150g (only starchy veges, fruits etc), which not high compared to western standards is high for low carb. However, I did it because I was just feeling so hungry, depressed and low in energy all the time. So far I feel much much better. I still have the fat too. It seems to be working. Maybe it was the leptin?

    Dan wrote on June 26th, 2010
  8. What about refeed on rest days? I follow a 3on/1off program (crossfit).

    Normally i can time a refeed so it falls on a workout day, but sometimes after a particularly intense workout, I might take an extra rest day or whatever.

    Anybody have any comments/thoughts on a off-day refeed?

    Thanks!

    John wrote on June 29th, 2010
    • I’m interested in knowing if a carb refeed is effective or not on rest days as well.

      Vicki wrote on June 30th, 2010
  9. Vicki,

    “I’m interested in knowing if a carb refeed is effective or not on rest days as well.”

    It’s effective in the sense that it will have the same metabolic effects, but with regards to nutrient paritioning (where the calories go) it’s definitely more favorable to have refeeds after your training.

    Martin Berkhan wrote on June 30th, 2010
  10. i went low carb since last thursday and it helped me break my plateu, i was not overweight to begin with, but now i’m on a fast track to eliminating all my body fat (incredibly close) and building muscle… THANKS MARK

    Cesar wrote on July 12th, 2010
  11. Great post Mark. I like the layman terminology and your approach to describing a complex endocrinology lesson.

    I’ve recently hit a one month plateau eating modest low carb (100-150g per day). I’m going to try this approach, but with the more neurotic approach the Martin outlines. I’m a neurotic person, and it works for me;)

    I know in the past when I’ve bumped my carbs, I feel like Superman on crack. Euphoric, to say the least.

    Derek wrote on September 5th, 2010
  12. I have been low carb for the past week, below 20g per day. My energy levels are good, and I’m leaning out nicely. I am between 12-15% bf and want to lean out and get to 6-8% bf. I crossfit 6 days a week. I wanted to do a carb refeed every 10 days. Would it be too soon to implement that? I wonder if the cost of raising leptin levels outweighs the cost of not allowing my body to rely heavily on fat for fuel rather than carbohydrate for fuel. Is having the refeed this early going to take me out of the predominant fat for fuel mode, and how long should I go before I have one?

    Alex wrote on September 7th, 2010
  13. I think you can get the same leptin reset without carb loading just by cycling calories. I have been Zero Carb for 18 months (1.5 years) and yes, I’m a female. I also support the paleo diet, so I’m not against it being ZC. Anyway, I am an active lifter and I do cardio, bodyweight, hiking, etc. I just have one day a week or two where I eat higher calories in protein and fat, keeping the same ratios I normally do (about 65-70% fat and 30-35% protein). I see no reason the body needs carbs for your activity level if you are fat adapted as I am after 18 months. I have no desire to add in any other foods. I don’t believe women do less well on VLC/ZC; it all comes down to goals and personality. I am sitting at 104lbs. and 14% body fat and this is due to ZC and fasting.

    Katelyn wrote on September 10th, 2010
  14. Katelyn,

    One of Mark’s references in this blog post showed that dietary carbohydrate stimulates leptin, not dietary fat.

    I’m what I call “modest carb”, usually 100g per day, but the “refeeds” have helped me keep body fat in single digits easily. I’m into it, it feels good, and really does work. On those days I eat about 200g-250g carbs per day, but not more calories, just different ratios. After eating modest low carbs for so long, it’s almost difficult and gluttonous to eat 200g per day. Which is still far less than the average American.

    Derek Weiss wrote on September 10th, 2010
    • Derek:

      I think most of the problems low carb dieters run into down the line, which is blamed on low carb, is due to low calories. I was just pointing out that because I am active, I eat more than I feel hungry for, being Zero Carb, to make sure I get my nutrition in (I like to track and use Fitday every day and weigh my food…it is easy because my meal is some meat, eggs and butter). I eat 95% organic / grassfed meats, eggs and butter. I just don’t see that it is necessary for active, healthy people to do carb refeeds, particularly as it was not an automatic option for paleo man. I am not saying not to do it, but I hate the inference that one cannot be highly active, and female, and be Zero Carb for the long haul. I plan on doing this for the rest of my life if the past 18 months is any indication of the success I will continue having.

      Thanks,
      Katelyn

      Katelyn wrote on September 10th, 2010
      • Hey Katelyn,

        I would be very interested in hearing about your journey in ZC and VLC! You are right now where I’d want to be, and I do seem to do better on VLC than most women. I’m just constantly conflicted because of all the contradicting opinions/ information out there!

        I’d love to hear from you: ally.makher(at)gmail.com

        NSWM wrote on October 19th, 2012
  15. Katelyn,

    I think the most important thing is to do what makes you feel good and what works for the you, the individual.

    I don’t feel well below 75g carbs per day, and not to be vain (well, that’s a lie), but doing weekly carb refeeds has helped me keep the elusive “six pack”. I stalled out just eliminating more carbs.

    The other appeal for me to doing refeeds is my unending interesting in endocrinology and how it relates to every day life. Fun stuff.

    Derek wrote on September 10th, 2010
  16. Short question. Will a low carb primal eating plan always result in low leptin levels and associated lower basal metabolic rate thereby limiting weight loss?

    SeanChan wrote on November 11th, 2010
  17. You mentioned not eating grains (?) and legumes on high carb, just curious why’s that?

    Z wrote on November 25th, 2010
    • Because grains and legumes are toxic to the human body.

      Griff wrote on November 25th, 2010
  18. Great site with nice articles… thanks for sharing.

    Freddy wrote on December 10th, 2010
  19. Great Product…

    It’s a best way to weight loss easy, fast and sure…

    It’s a Program highly recommended!!!

    Richie

    Richie Diet wrote on January 3rd, 2011
    • Hi Spam :)

      Grok wrote on January 5th, 2011
  20. The primary aim of a refeed is to prevent your body from feating upon itself for quick energy.

    Low carb for too long triggrs hormones (not just leptin) because your body now thinks it may be starving. A single day of hi-carb is enough to “reset the clock” and allow *extremely* low or even zero-carbs again.

    If you need to shred fat fast, try near zero-carbs (veggies ONLY) for 3 days, and a refeed towards the end of the 4th day.

    Rinse and repeat.

    I don’t care what body fat level you start off with, that will work.

    Someone suggested going low on water – no. Water helps the whole process along.

    The idea of just going low-carb for a week, or weeks, even months, at a time? No. Your body will simply react and adapt.

    The whole idea of a refeed is to trick your body into thinking carbs are plentiful, just not right now, so it is happy to switch to the ’emergency’ energy of fat – because it doesn’t think this is a real emergency.

    If it DOES think this is a real emergency (low carb for too long) then it will nibble at your own muscle tissue for fast energy. Such as during a workout.

    Fat storage isn’t intended for daily use, it’s for extended emergencies such as illness or major injury. So the trick is to assure the body that calories, especially carbs, are readily available – but for now let’s use some fat.

    It’s a balancing act. Your body will react within 3 or 4 days, so that’s the ideal time for a refeed. And yes, you SHOULD consume enough healthy carbs for insulin to start storing some as fat – that’s the trigger that prevents the ‘starvation reaction’ hormones.

    Sorry for such a long post but my impression is many readers misunderstood the original article.

    Mark is talking about long term versus short term. Long term just ‘reduce’ carbs and you’ll do well. If you want a bodybuilder style ‘shred’, zero carbs and refeed every 3 or 4 days.

    A.

    Alan wrote on January 5th, 2011
    • I believe you’re confusing low carb with low protein and low calories.

      Also, fat storage *is* intended for daily use. If you don’t understand this you don’t understand why people go low carb.

      mm wrote on September 11th, 2011
    • Finally some good and coherent info! :)

      NSWM wrote on October 19th, 2012
  21. Wow terrific info here. i like your title because i love apples too. The Diet Solution

    eric wrote on January 19th, 2011
  22. Hey guys.

    A few things I wanted to point out after much success with carb re-feeds and cycling with my clients:

    If you’re over 15% body fat, all you ‘need’ would be one cheat meal a week, with a max of 100 grams of carbs in one sitting… Then you’d be back to low-carbing for 6 days.

    With my clients that lift “Heavy”, I place the re-feeds on the days of their most strenuous lifts, and try to have them eat the majority of their carbs pre & post workout.

    Like Mark Said, keep fat low (between 30-50 grams) and protein around 1 gram per pound.

    Food Sources: Sweet Potatoes, Quinoa, Brown Rice, Oatmeal, and Fruit (utilize mainly starchy carbs)

    Finally, if your goal is to lose fat (and retain or even gain muscle) then you will only have one or two “high-carb days” per week, the other five or six days being your paleo or fasting days.

    It’s really not too complicated:
    -High Carbs
    -Low Fat
    -Eat most of the carbs around workouts
    -Over 20% body fat: 1 cheat meal a week
    -12%-15%: 1-2 refeeds (If desired)
    -8%-12%: 2-4 refeeds (If desired)

    Matthew wrote on February 25th, 2011
    • Great comment. I’m saving this now. Thanks.

      Chris Aquilino wrote on March 14th, 2011
  23. I think I’ll have to try carb re-feeding some time after a workout. I’m feeling a little beat, and my hormones are low (female), so I figure it might be a good idea to try out; see if I get more energetic!

    And Mark, thanks for ALL your GREAT, GREAT posts! I love reading them; keep ’em coming!

    Rikke wrote on April 14th, 2011
  24. good luck i ran into this post. my biggest addiction foodwise is mashed potatoes and as of late i’ve felt a lil low on energy and craving carbs like crazy. at work i ate mashed potatoes like my life was ending and i didnt worry about low fat (had it with steak and tried this awesome avocado salsa). i didnt regret it either because the guilt sucks (stress u know). and i feel great right now =) hungers down, enegrys great ( just did the 500 rep WOW) and i had potatoes beforehand for breakfast. weights 116 and since spring has not changed even tho i have binged like this before (hard to resist when you work at a country club that has great food)

    steffo wrote on August 17th, 2011

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