carb refeeds
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Carbohydrate Refeeds: How To Add Refeeds To A Low Carb Diet (And Why You Would Want To)

carb refeed

If you’ve been following a low carb diet for a while and have been experiencing weight loss plateaus, hormone imbalances, low energy, or a decline in athletic performance, you might want to consider implementing strategic carbohydrate refeeds.

A carb refeed is an intentional increase in carbohydrate consumption, often done on a periodic basis such as daily or weekly. These refeeds are an effective strategy for minimizing potential negative hormonal or metabolic effects from long term low carbohydrate intake.


Why Carb Refeeds Are Important

Carbohydrates and Insulin

We know that carbs have an impact on the hormone insulin. And when our bodies don’t respond properly to insulin, we increase our risk for disease (metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, Alzheimer’s, and more).

Insulin is responsible for telling our cells (mostly muscle, liver, and fat cells) to soak up sugar from the bloodstream. If your cells don’t respond, the level of sugar in your blood remains high and can begin to have toxic effects. This is called “insulin resistance”.

One way we can become resistant to insulin is from eating carbohydrate-rich foods in excess, especially from refined, heavily processed sources. These foods result in excess glucose in the blood, leading to chronically elevated blood sugar and cells that eventually become resistance to insulin signalling. Chronically elevated blood sugar is a serious problem in and of itself, but so is becoming resistant to insulin, as it serves many important functions in the body.

Insulin Isn’t All Bad

Just because insulin resistance sucks doesn’t mean we should immediately demonize insulin. Insulin is talking to so many more things than just muscle, liver, and fat cells. It’s also a signaling hormone for the:

  • Thyroid — up-regulating enzymes that stimulates beneficial thyroid hormone conversions
  • Bones — modulating osteoblast activity to promote bone growth
  • Brain — binding to brain cell receptors to help regulate hunger, adiposity, neuro-inflammation, and some cognitive functions
  • Other hormones — balancing estrogen and testosterone levels, interacting with cortisol, growth hormone, dopamine, serotonin, and many others
  • Immune system — enhancing neutrophil, macrophage, T cell, and natural killer cell activity

As you can see, insulin is not merely a fat storage hormone and has many other important functions in the body. That’s why it’s vital to keep cells responsive or sensitive to insulin.

Optimal insulin sensitivity can be achieved by eating the right amount and right type of carbohydrates at the right time. Sounds simple, but there’s a ton of individuality involved. Especially when it comes to very low carb diets.


What Happens on a Very Low Carb Diet?

Insulin

Low carb diets have shown promise to be beneficial for weight management, type II diabetes, and neurological disorders. This is, in some part, likely due to the restriction of carbohydrates and the ensuing positive effect on lowering blood sugar levels.

However, one of the drawbacks of a long term, very low carb diet is that insulin levels can be chronically low. In the absence of carbohydrates, little to no insulin is secreted, which can actually cause cells to become resistant to insulin signalling in the very same way that too many carbohydrates can!

In other words, chronically high AND low insulin levels can have similar negative effects on our health. It’s a Goldilocks hormone, and the goal is to strike a balance of optimal insulin sensitivity.

Leptin

Leptin is another important hormone in this puzzle. It’s 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 tell it that you are running low on energy resources, so it responds by trying to get you to save more energy. What you may feel from this are food cravings (especially for calorie dense food), mood swings, less energy, and plateaued fat loss efforts.

When moving to a low carb diet also coincides with consuming less calories, we see a decrease in leptin levels and the accompanying side effects from above. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that an increase in carb intake has been shown to boost leptin levels and alleviate the negative symptoms associated.

In summary, while very low carb diets can have positive effects on insulin and leptin signalling initially, when done to an extreme without adequate carbohydrate refeeds, the benefits may backfire.


Signs You Might Need to Implement Carb Refeeds

Carbs and Physical Performance

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

In the endurance community, on the other hand, there’s a notion that very low carb, or ketogenic diets can lead to superior endurance performance due to their ability to make folks more efficient at using fat for energy. While studies support the claim that very low carb diets increase fat oxidation, they have not demonstrated any performance benefits.

One diet strategy that has been shown to actually increase endurance is the “train-high, sleep-low” method, where athletes switch between periods of low and high carb intake. The aim is to maintain the ability to efficiently use both carbs and fats for energy, referred to as “metabolic flexibility.” Not only does this ability reduce risk of disease, it also improves performance.

In other words, properly timed carbohydrate refeeds can be an effective strategy for optimizing athletic performance and maintaining metabolic flexibility when following a low carb diet.

Weight Loss Plateaus

Trying to lose the last few pounds of fat, but seeing progress stall? It’s not uncommon to see significant weight loss in the first week or two of a low carb diet, but then start to plateau. Coincidentally, it’s shown that 1 week is all it takes to see a drop in leptin levels.

If you’re close to your fat loss goal and have reached a plateau, a carb refeed can give you a hormonal boost needed to shed the last few pounds. This assumes you are adequately sensitive to your own insulin and leptin hormones. (However, if you’re farther away from a healthy weight and/or have signs of being resistant to insulin and leptin, you may not respond as well to a carb refeed.)

Hypothyroid or Adrenal Dysfunction

We know insulin plays an important role in thyroid hormone production, and it would be unwise for someone with a known thyroid condition to stay too low carb for too long. If you’re experiencing some symptoms of hypothyroidism (hair loss, cold hands/feet, low energy) on a prolonged low carb diet, you might see some improvement by adding carbs back into your diet.

Additionally, very low carb diets are associated with higher cortisol levels. If you’re someone already dealing with a lot of stress in other areas of life or have signs of adrenal dysfunction, the added stress of a low carb diet may not be the best choice.


How to Do a Carb Refeed

There are many ways to do a carb refeed, and depending on your situation one may be better than another. Each method involves a large spike in carbohydrate intake at a scheduled time, but the size and frequency will vary based on individual activity levels, genetics, biomarkers, and so on.

Here are a few common methods you can experiment with to see what works for you:

Weekly

Best For: Individuals who engage in lower amounts of physical activity, and are seeking the health benefits of a low carbohydrate diet but want to avoid negative long-term effects.

How to Do It: Pick one day or one meal per week to eat a larger amount of carbohydrates. For example, your refeed could be on a weekend or on your most physically-active day.

Recommended Amount of Carbs: 100-300g carbs, depending on the individual.

Post-Training

Best For: Individuals that perform a few intense training sessions (heavy resistance training or HIIT) each week and want to optimize performance and recovery, while maintaining ideal body composition.

How to Do It: On big training days, increase your normal amount of carbohydrates in your first meal post-workout.

Recommended Amount of Carbs: 50-150g carbs, depending on the individual.

Daily

Best For: Serious athletes who train nearly every day or multiple times per day who need to enhance recovery between sessions.

How to Do It: Pick a meal to consume a larger amount of carbs. Most often this is post-workout at dinner.

Recommended Amount of Carbs: 50-200g carbs, depending on the individual.


Determining Your Ideal Amount of Carbs

If you want to make an educated guess on whether or not you’re better off on the low or the high end of these ranges, you can look at your ancestry. If your ancestors’ traditional diet was high in carbohydrates, it’s likely you will respond better to more carbs. If they had a lower carbohydrate diet, you may respond better to fewer carbs. This article on Mark’s Daily Apple has great tips for dialing in your diet based on your ancestry and genetic profile.

Given that the same carbs can have completely different effects on different people, some self-experimentation might be needed for the best results. One easy way is to take detailed notes of how you feel with different carb amounts like this.

Alternatively, you can go straight to the source and use a glucometer to measure your blood sugar response to different amounts and types of carbs, as outlined by Robb Wolf in the 7-Day Carb Test from his book “Wired to Eat.”


Worst Sources of Carbohydrates

When choosing where to get carbs for your refeed, some sources are better than others. Refined carbohydrates, stripped of their fiber and micronutrients, tend to cause a greater spike in blood sugar compared to their whole food, fiber-rich counterparts. This spike and the ensuing crash can wreck energy levels. Additionally, refined carbs have been shown to promote overeating and weight gain, alter your gut biome, and damage your intestinal barrier. No thank you.

Here are some carb sources that you’d be better off avoiding during refeeds:

  • White bread
  • Pastries
  • Pasta
  • Candy
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Most packaged foods — check the ingredients!

Best Sources of Carbohydrates

A good carb choice is going to be one that replenishes glycogen, balances insulin sensitivity, and also provides valuable nutrients. Unrefined, complex carbohydrates from whole-food sources are going to be your best bet for getting the most out of your carb refeed.

Here are some of the best carb sources for a refeed:

  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes, squash, yams, etc.
  • Properly prepared grains like white rice, quinoa, oats, etc.
  • Whole fruits
  • Nutritive sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, or blackstrap molasses

Whole foods like these are ideal, but sometimes life gets in the way. In a pinch, there are plenty of more convenient and portable options, usually in the form of a packaged meal or energy bar. However, you’ll want to be a bit selective, because as it turns out, not all energy bars are created equal. Pick one up and check the ingredients list — is it full of actual foods or does it look like the glossary of a chemistry textbook?

Kion makes a clean energy bar that we think is pretty rad and certainly passes all these tests. If you’re looking for something easy for a refeed that also includes whole, nutritious ingredients like honey, quinoa, almonds, cacao, and coconut, we’ve got you covered.


Summary

Carb refeeds can be a valuable tool if used appropriately. There are several options, from once a day to once a week, but some experimentation will be necessary for determining the exact method that works best for you.

Some of the benefits you may start to see after strategically including more carbs in your diet include:

  • Balanced hormones
  • Better body composition
  • Enhanced athletic performance and faster recovery
  • Increased energy
  • Reduced cravings
  • More restful sleep

Not sure where to start? A safe bet for any refeed is after an intense workout. Aim to have an extra serving of a natural carb source post-workout to naturally replenish glycogen stores. And if you don’t have access to your own kitchen, you can always chuck a few Kion bars in your gym bag!

55 thoughts on “Carbohydrate Refeeds: How To Add Refeeds To A Low Carb Diet (And Why You Would Want To)

  1. Sultan Sallaj says:

    I would actually agree with most of this article, except the carbs to avoid part:

    White bread
    Pastries
    Pasta
    Candy
    Sugar-sweetened beverages

    The point isn’t about what doesn’t come with it, the part is what spikes up your insulin the quickest. The above list does that, so they are okay (except for anything containing fructose). You can add fiber, and nutrients along with it if you’re concerned, but your body makes no difference. You gut biome responds to sugar of any kind, regardless of the source. What you should actually avoid is low glycemic indexes, those are HARDER to figure out because it takes hours for your insulin to rise, so you’ll never know where you are in your insulin spectrum through your day. Higher glycemic indexes are EASIER to figure out because insulin is expected quickly; there are extra benefits of getting your body to produce insulin when you need it most on time.

    Side note: perfect protein carb ratio for post0workout is 1:4

  2. JC says:

    Should we wait until we’re fat adapted before we do a carb refeed? I am a fit guy, with 5 weeks in, blood ketones ranging from 1.6 an hour post meal, up to 3.6 (during intermittent fasting) I feel good but have lost considerable strength , size, and feel some weakness by the joints.

    This Likley maybe my drop in protein intake (fear it would kick me out of ketosis). I want to refeed, but am afraid it will restart the work I’ve done to achieve fat adaptation

    1. Team Kion says:

      You’re probably better off giving full fat-adaptation a chance. Check out Mark Sisson’s Keto Reset Diet and the folks over at Ketogains for troubleshooting fat adaptation, especially as it pertains to athletic performance!

  3. Jill Curtis says:

    If you have PCOS and Insulin Resistance, should you incorporate carb refeeds? I’ve been very low carb/low fat/high protein for 6 weeks, and not had cravings for carbs until today. I did much more exercise than normal, yesterday, and then today came down with a fever. I’m craving certain carbs like crazy, and I can’t tell if it’s because I need them or if I just need to ignore it. Plus with PCOS and IR I don’t want to be counter productive to my weight loss by eating carbs if I shouldn’t.

    I’m currently doing macros that are 15% C/30% F/ 55% P on a 1200 cal/day diet

    1. Team Kion says:

      We can not make recommendations that pertain to specific medical conditions. We suggest working with your primary care provider to see if increasing your carbohydrate intake might be beneficial for PCOS/insulin resistance.

  4. Colin Carr says:

    If someone workouts out earlier in the day, say around 9 or 10, and its a harder session, could you still wait until dinner to have carbs? I know the above info says to do it post workout, which could be before dinner for many, but I ask because I know carbs at dinner can also help with providing a serotonin release and better sleep?

    1. Team Kion says:

      Absolutely – this is what’s referred to as Carb Backloading.

    2. Team Kion says:

      If you’re doing intense early workouts, it would probably be best to eat something following the workout… However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be carbs. Those can still be saved for the evening in most cases, and will help you recover for the next morning’s workout 😉

      1. Colin Carr says:

        I just saw this reply. Thank you!

  5. Ryan B says:

    My daily caloric intake is around 2400 calories. 1800 from fat, 408 calories from protein, and 192 calories from carbs. If i’m going to add 100 grams of carbs for a carb refeed, should i replace some of the calories from fat, or protein, for the 400 calories (100g) of carbs i intend on eating.

    1. Team Kion says:

      Yes. Best practice is to keep carbohydrate and fat intake inversely correlated. Lower your fat intake on carb refeed days, lower your carb intake and up your fats on lighter activity days. Keep your protein intake consistent.

  6. Eleanor says:

    What about the practice of a carnivore. There are many people thriving on this diet for years without carbs.

    1. Team Kion says:

      Some people do indeed thrive on a carnivore diet. Likewise, some thrive on an omnivorous diet, some do well with low-carb, others need more carb intake to keep them going. There are tons of different options out there, and there is no single “best” choice. Bio-individuality and knowing what works for you is the key.

  7. lux says:

    I call that BS. Where are the references? No scientific studies to back up these claims. Just opinions of some anonymous people.

    1. Team Kion says:

      You can find several studies linked in the article. Please note that we don’t believe carbohydrate refeeds are appropriate or necessary for everybody. It’s still important to consider context and respect bioindividuality!

  8. Bryce says:

    Hi i was wondering if a carb refeed would be good for me? I generally walk about 10 miles a day due to my career. According my Fitbit supposedly I burn anywhere from 2k to 4k calories a day and also do crossfit 2 to 5 days a week depending our newborn sons sleep schedule. I have lately been feeling pretty dang good doing keto about 75% of the time I generally use a salt water mixture to help with electrolytes and still feel fatigued.

    1. Team Kion says:

      It sounds like you’re very active between CrossFit and your job. If you’re supplementing with electrolytes, consuming adequate calories, and you still feel fatigued, then yes – carb refeeds might be good for you. The only way to know is to try it out and assess how you feel!

  9. Katherine Sadler says:

    I really like this article, I think I would benefit from refeeds because I have thyroid problems, but my problem is when I do eat carbs I get ravenously hungry afterwards. If I eat fruit like bananas, rice or potatoes its guaranteed to spike my hunger a couple of hours afterwards. I could stick to vegetables and low sugar fruit but would that be enough carbs? What are some more complex gluten free carbs I could try?

    1. Team Kion says:

      You might want to try wild rice or sweet potatoes, both of which are less likely to cause a massive blood sugar spike. You also might want to try Robb Wolf’s 7-Day Carb Test (linked in the article) to determine which sources of carbohydrates work best for you.

  10. Josh says:

    How can an individual tell that they’re fully fat adapted? When I first started I went 4 weeks of very low carb…then started weekly carb-ups. I felt great! After a few weeks of this I slowly started to feel the symptoms of keto-flu again after my refeeds. I’m now strictly low carb (week 2). And feel amazing. Any tips would be great! Thank you.

    1. Team Kion says:

      The simplest way to tell if you’re fat-adapted is by subjectively assessing energy levels. If your energy is consistent, you feel comfortable delaying or skipping the occasional meal, and you feel comfortable exercising in a fasted state, then you’re likely fat-adapted. On the other hand, if you find yourself getting ravenous between meals and generally lacking energy, you’re likely not fat-adapted.

  11. EEProf says:

    A very clean, cogent and informative discussion of the ‘issue’. The problem is that people insist on going ‘all out’ when it comes to diets and with little or no attention to their age, body composition and metabolism†. The Paleo Diet is an excellent example with the amusing discovery, by science, that paleo peoples ate grains and had dairy. Keto is another one. It’s been around since the 20’s and unless you are epileptic or afflicted with certain cancers, going ‘all out’ is not going to help with anything. The key is to control your diet in terms of whole-food macros against your personal state† as well as your exercise regimen.

    1. Team Kion says:

      Could not agree more. There’s a tool for every job, but when you only have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: biochemical individuality is key.

  12. Alfonso says:

    If you’re doing Keto will eating 50+ gms of carbs post workout knock you out of Ketosis? Trying to become fat adapted but STRUGGLING! Oh and now I have dry eyes and from what I’ve read this can be a low carb side effect…

    1. Team Kion says:

      The answer to that question is highly individual. Some people can consume 50g of carbohydrate post-workout and remain in ketosis, others might not be able to use that 50g well. It depends on how fat-adapted you are.

      Do some self-experimentation. You can try taking a few weeks to get fully fat-adapted, or you can try to find some balance with periodic carb refeeds or carb-backloading. You might want to look into Mark Sisson’s book The Keto Reset Diet for information on how to take a more targeted approach to ketogenic and low-carb diets.

      Regarding dry eyes (and other keto side effects), make sure you’re consuming adequate electrolytes to stay hydrated. A lack of electrolytes is a major contributor to many side-effects of a low-carb diet.

      1. Alfonso says:

        I finally had a bit of a breakdown yesterday and decided to have a re-feed. Ended up consuming about 200 gms of carbs (rice and beans) thinking it would throw me out if ketosis quickly and would help with my dry eyes. Woke up this morning with that familiar metallic taste in my mouth so I drank about 32 oz of water, had a bulletproof coffee then tested my ketones. I’m still in ketosis! Maybe my body is more fat adapted than I thought and my dry eye is a little better already (may be too soon to tell). Going to go slay myself in the gym later and try another 50gm re-feed and see how I feel. Hopefully I’m on the road to figuring out my own personal formula.

  13. Shirley says:

    Thank you! Great information. I really do need some carbs on a daily basis. I work out a lot and skip breakfast most days. I have noticed my sleep suffers when I go too low carb.

    1. Team Kion says:

      Many of us at Team Kion have experienced the same thing. Glad you’re finding what works for you, Shirley!

  14. Aaron says:

    Thanks for this. Question – what about carb loading before an intense workout or before playing hockey? Wouldn’t that provide your body with a greater jolt of energy to perform better?
    thanks !

    1. Team Kion says:

      Some quick-digesting carbs before a workout can absolutely be beneficial, even in small amounts (10-20g carbohydrate total). Just make sure you pick quick-digesting carbohydrates (like fruit or honey) so you don’t feel weighed down before your session.

  15. Terry says:

    I just finished reading Maria and Craig Emmerich’s book, keto. In it, they argue against carb refeeds, saying that it can take two full weeks to get back into lipolysis, and that when you carb-up you enter an in between state where your body isn’t fully keto-adapted but also isn’t getting enough carbs to be a full sugar burner and therefore you use more lean protein to satisfy the glucose needs, which leads to a loss of lean mass. Do you have any info or feedback on this idea? Thanks!

    1. Team Kion says:

      This depends on how fat-adapted you are. We _do_ recommend getting fat adapted before utilizing carb refeeds, but the ultimate goal is to develop metabolic flexibility – the ability to effectively metabolize both fats _and_ glucose for fuel.

      Many people do well in the beginning stages of a low-carb diet, especially if they have a lot of excess body fat to metabolize. Carb refeeds can be used as a “next step” protocol for those who are already fat-adapted and are seeking to boost athletic performance, get through a weight-loss plateau, avoid the potential hormonal downsides of long-term carbohydrate restriction, or just reap the benefits of a low-carb diet without going all-in.

      Carbohydrates _can_ indeed interfere with ketosis and fat metabolism. However, if you time your intake correctly (ie consuming them post-workout when you’re insulin sensitive), the effects on fat-burning will only be temporary. Many athletes and active populations find that they can increase their carb intake and maintain effective fat metabolism, as long as they get the timing and quantities correct. Again, metabolic flexibility is the goal.

      In regards to the loss of lean mass: as long as you do some resistance training, consume adequate protein intake, and eat enough calories overall, then this is unlikely to be an issue. This is especially true if you’re consuming an appropriate amount of carbohydrates – after all, why would the body need to break down muscle to satisfy glucose needs if the glucose is already present?

      We believe heavily in biochemical individuality. The only way to tell how one dietary approach is going to work for you is to try it, test, and see how you respond. If you’re going low-carb and stalling out, as many people do, maybe it’s time to add back in some carbs with the methods we discussed.

      1. Terry says:

        This is a very thoughtful and informative answer–thank you! I have been pondering this and also came up with the bio-individuality factor, too. One more thing—how much protein per lean body weight do you recommend? There seems to be the camp that says keep it very low ( .5 grams of protein for every pound of lean body mass) to keep Mtor pathway deactivated and then the camp that says you will always be getting some glucogenesis and your body NEEDS more like .8 grams of protein for every pound of lean mass. Is this a matter of bio-individuality as well? I’m a fit active 52 year old woman and wouldn’t mind building more lean muscle mass and certainly don’t want to lose any.

        1. Team Kion says:

          Again, the answer is highly individual. For most people, .8 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass is a reasonable number to shoot for. If your goal is to build muscle, then you could aim a little higher, between .9 and 1 gram per pound of lean mass.

          You definitely don’t want to activate mTOR and be in an anabolic state all the time, but you also don’t want to spend your entire life in a catabolic state. Balance is key. This is where compressed feeding windows, periodic fasting, and other things that stimulate autophagy (including strength training and coffee consumption) come into play.

  16. Dustin says:

    What is the proper way to prepare white rice to make it qualify as a good carb for a refeed?

    1. Team Kion says:

      White rice is generally fairly benign. It’s not a “whole” grain and therefore cannot be soaked or sprouted, so the best way to prepare it is to simply cook it slowly using your stovetop or automatic rice cooker. You can also use broth in place of water to increase both flavor and digestibility.

      1. Jay says:

        Question about White Rice; I see Ben mentioning it many times. Please explain why its favored by him & why it might be a better choice for me than Brown Basmati Rice which I use frequently.

        1. Team Kion says:

          Many people have an easier time digesting white rice because it’s not the whole grain. White rice lacks the bran and the germ, which provide more fiber but can be difficult to digest.

    2. EEProf says:

      Google ‘resistant starch’, you want to make your rice resistant for your refeed 💪

  17. George says:

    Excellent article. Than you

  18. Lazar says:

    That was helpful. I was recently wondering how much a 175lb 6ft tall guy like me who is active needs. Thanks Ben.

    1. Team Kion says:

      Everybody has different needs. The self-experiments we mentioned in the article, like the 7 Day Carb Test, should help you find an appropriate quantity and types of carbohydrates for you.

  19. Good article ~ what is an example of “properly prepared” grains, please?
    Appreciate you ~Connie

    1. Team Kion says:

      Properly prepared grains are minimally processed (ie not flour), and preferably soaked and sprouted to decrease lectin content and increase digestibility.

  20. Margaret Ames says:

    Thanks!

  21. Helena says:

    Great that, it might also be a good to keep fat intake lower on the days or meals when you’re carbohydrating 😀 thanks Ben for this article, makes much sense.

    1. Team Kion says:

      Great point!

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