Before we get into the differences are between the two, I will say now that they aren’t the same. In fact, far from it!
A cheat day is where you decide to blow all your calories and macronutrients out of the window! There would be no counting of calories and no worrying about macronutrient targets. You eat whatever you want, whenever you want, throughout the day. It can be satisfying, as at times it’s a much needed mental break-away from counting calories and macros.
A carb re-feed day, on the other hand, is very much controlled and strategic. You know exactly what you’re putting into your body, how many calories you’re consuming and what macronutrient split you’re going to follow.
Typically, a carb re-feed is appropriate for someone who is very lean and usually in a calorie-deficit. If you’ve been in this deficit for quite some time, then your muscle carbohydrate stores are running extremely low. A carb re-feed day means increasing your carbohydrate intake by up to 50%, and in some cases maybe even higher, depending on how lean you are. You’ll drop your protein intake a little and keep your fat count as low as you possibly can, so you’re less likely to store fat and instead, you’ll boost your leptin levels (a hunger-regulating hormone).
Leptin reacts well with glucose, meaning you need to consume the extra calories from carbohydrates. This, in turn, will become glucose. The idea here is that your glycogen stores will be replenished. Your metabolism will also react positively because you’re feeding your body with what it’s craving. Below is an example of a carb re-feed day, of someone who weighs around 180-200 lbs (82-90kg) and has a very active lifestyle.
Usual calories and macronutrients:
Calories – 2,300kcal
Protein – 220g
Carbs – 180g
Fats – 77g
Re-feed day calories and macronutrients:
Calories – 2,610kcal (possibly even higher)
Protein – 190g
Carbs – 350g (possibly even higher)
Fats – 50g
The above figures are only an example and they might not be right for everyone. My advice would be to experiment with re-feed days. Bring in more carbohydrates after the first time you re-feed and see how your body reacts!
Should you choose a cheat day or a re-feed day? This will depend on a few different factors but the main question to ask is, what are your current goals?
People who might consider a cheat day:
#1 People in a calorie surplus
#2 People who have saved (not consumed) a lot of calories on other days surrounding the cheat day
#3 The average gym-goer who is content with having good nutrition 6 days of the week and having a day off
#4 People who need a mental break away from counting calories and macros
People who might consider a re-feed day:
#1 People who are very lean and need to fully refuel their systems after a week of an intense calorie deficit
#2 Those in preparation for a competition or photo shoot to replenish their bodies for the next week of intense dieting
#3 Those whose nutrition has hit a plateau and weight loss has stopped. They could be starving their bodies if their calories are too low.
We conclude that the difference between cheat days and carb re-feed days are pretty big. Your fitness will help you choose which will suit you best.