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Why You Need To Know About “Re-Feeds” When Low-Carb Dieting

That low-carb diet sure was a good idea. Until it wasn’t. Now you’re experiencing weight loss plateaus. Low energy. Hormone imbalances. Maybe even a decline in athletic performance. All of which means it might be time for strategic carbohydrate re-feeds.

What is a carb re-feed? An intentional increase in carbohydrate consumption, often done on a periodic basis such as daily or weekly, that can minimize potential negative hormonal or metabolic effects from long-term low carbohydrate intake.

The Effects Of A Low Carb Diet

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Leptin

Leptin is released by fat cells and communicates to your brain how much fat (i.e. stored energy) you have. Your brain recognizes higher leptin levels as an indicator that you don’t need to worry about food; low levels indicate that you’re running low on energy resources, so your brain responds by trying to get you to save more energy. As a result, you may experience food cravings (especially for calorie-dense food), mood swings, less energy, and plateaued fat loss efforts.

Combining a low carb diet also with consuming less calories results in decreased leptin levels; increasing carb intake can boost leptin levels and alleviate the negative symptoms associated with leptin deficiency.

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Insulin

Low-carb diets have shown promise to be beneficial for weight management, type II diabetes, and neurological disorders, owing to the positive effect on lowering blood sugar levels. But a long-term, very low-carb diet can result in chronically low insulin levels. In the absence of carbohydrates, little to no insulin is secreted, which can actually cause cells to become resistant to insulin signaling. Chronically low insulin levels can have negative effects on health.

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Weight Loss Plateaus, Hypothyroidism, and Physical Performance

It’s common to see significant weight loss in the first week or two of low-carb dieting, but then a weight plateau can start to creep in. If you’re close to your fat loss goal and have reached a plateau, a carb refeed can give you the hormonal boost needed to shed those last few pounds.    

Insulin plays an important role in thyroid hormone production, which is why it’s unwise for someone with a known thyroid condition to stay on an extremely low-carb diet for too long. If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of hypothyroidism such as hair loss, cold hands and feet, or low energy, you might see some improvement by increasing your carb intake.

Carbs are needed for optimal high-intensity performance, as  they provide the fuel for your muscles in the form of glycogen. Long-term low carb dieting can lead to depleted glycogen in your muscles and liver, and hinder your ability to perform high intensity, glycogen-demanding exercise.

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One diet strategy that has been shown to actually increase endurance is the “train-high, sleep-low” method, where athletes alternate between periods of low- and high-carb intake. The aim is to maintain the ability to efficiently use both carbs and fats for energy, which has the potential to reduce risk of disease and improve performance.

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Ways To Do A Carb Re-feed

There are several ways to do a carb re-feed; each method involves a significant spike in carbohydrate intake at a scheduled time. The size and frequency of the carb re-feed will vary based on individual activity levels, genetics, biomarkers, and so on.

Common carb re-feeds include daily, weekly, and post-training methods. Daily carb re-feeds have a recommended carb amount of 50-200g of carbs. Pick a meal to consume a larger amount of carbs, and is most often post-workout at dinner. This works well for serious athletes who train often and need to enhance recovery between sessions.

Weekly carb re-feeds have a recommended amount of 100-300g of carbs, where you pick one day or meal weekly to eat a larger amount of carbs. This is ideal for people who aren’t so physically active, are looking for the health benefits of a low-cab diet, but want to avoid negative long-term effects.

Post-training re-feeds have a recommended amount of 50-150g of carbs, where on big training days, you increase your normal amount of carbs in the first meal post-workout.

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