How many times have you started a diet (with all the gusto) and eventually given up?
Sometimes because you don’t see the progress you wanted. Or because the weight loss is stalling. Or maybe because you’re just pissed off from always being on a bloody DIET!
Well, that crap needs to end! And that is only possible when you follow a calorie deficit diet that is sustainable over a long period.
But what makes a diet sustainable?
Flexibility! A flexible diet gives you the room to enjoy life (by life, I mean food 😍) and still achieve your goals. This includes cheat meals and diet breaks.
And in this article, I will tell you how you can use Diet Breaks as a strategic solution to achieve weight loss.
A diet break is a 3-14 days period where you are eating more food than you’re in your deficit (weight loss) phase. Ideally, during a diet break, you’re consuming your maintenance calories.
For many of us, our diets might last well over a few months, sometimes even years. Taking a strategic break every 8-12 weeks can make the diet more bearable and help avoid binge episodes. Making your progress look something like this:
But if you don’t take a break and keep pushing yourself, the chances of giving up are much higher because no one can be on a diet forever! Making your journey look like this:
So, taking diet breaks can positively affect you in 2 ways: physiologically & psychologically. We will discuss both in detail below.
So, how often should you take a break from dieting?
There are many situations where taking a break from your diet can help reset the body. But there is one pre-requisite. You need to be in a calorie deficit! If you aren’t in a calorie deficit (i.e., diet), you don’t need a break from it!
Having cleared that, let’s see which are the situations where you can take a diet break:
- You are following your nutrition and workout plan religiously, but the progress has slowed down. You feel like you have hit a plateau (You should carefully track everything for at least 3 to 4 weeks before reaching this conclusion)
- Your workout/training is getting affected, and you are losing strength
- You are feeling mentally and physically tired
- You have cut your calories quite a few times and don’t think you can sustain another reduction in calories
- You have been on a diet for too long. You are unhappy with the process and need a break
If you are feeling any of the above, you should consider a diet break. And remember, taking a break doesn’t show your weakness. Instead, it shows your commitment towards how seriously you want this!
The science behind diet break
Diet breaks work because they help in reversing metabolic adaptation. Metabolic adaptation is what can stall weight loss and often lead to the ‘plateau’ phase.
To understand metabolic adaptation, we need to understand what metabolism is. There are 4 ways in which the body burns energy. And these 4 components together form your metabolism.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
These are the calories required for your body to survive. Let’s say you spent the whole day laying in bed looking at the ceiling (no food, no movement, nothing). The amount of energy your body will need to perform functions like breathing, blood circulation, etc., is your BMR. So, a chubby / bigger person will have a higher BMR.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
These are the calories you burn during digestion. It depends on the food and the quantity you eat. Like chilly, some foods have a high TEF, thus burning more calories during the digestion process.
Thermic Effect of Exercise (TEE)
These are the calories burned during a workout. Any workout – cardio, strength training, etc.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
These are the calories you burn during non-exercise activities. This could include walking, fidgeting, home chores, etc. NEAT many times can be the game-changer in weight loss.
In case you have been dieting for a while, your body will see the following changes:
- Your BMR will reduce as you are now a smaller person than before
- TEF will decrease as you are eating less food (because of the diet!)
- TEE will reduce as fewer calories are required to move your body
- NEAT will reduce as a low-calorie intake will make you lazy
So, metabolic adaption is when your metabolism is adapting to the reduced calorie intake. This is how our body survives, adapting to the new changes. But when it comes to losing weight, this very survival mechanism works against us.
Additionally, the leptin and thyroid hormone levels reduce while dieting and result in a reduced metabolic rate. Changes in insulin, cortisol, and testosterone are also observed. You can check out this comprehensive paper on metabolic adaptation to know more.
So, by eating more and taking a diet break, can we reverse this adaptation? And is there any proof for this?
Does a diet break actually work?
Yes, it does! A few studies have shown that people using diet breaks can achieve significantly higher fat loss than those who don’t.
The study done in 2003 is the first to provide any actual application of diet breaks. Here, intentional breaks during the diet were given to the participants. The results showed that overall weight loss was the same between the experiment group (who took diet breaks) and control group (who had no breaks).
The next was the MATADOR study. The objective was to
- Confirm if a diet with planned ‘diet breaks’ can improve weight loss efficiency
- Observe the result after 6 months of regular eating or being off the diet
The result showed that the experiment group (followed diet breaks)
- Lost more weight and fat than the control group (no breaks)
- Has less adaption in their metabolism than the control group
- Maintenance calories were higher at the end of the diet than the control group
- Regained lesser weight after 6 months of the diet than the control group
In fact, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia wrote an article a while back based on the findings of this study.
The latest study done in 2020 on diet breaks and refeeds showed better muscle mass retention during weight loss.
Ok, so now that we know it works, let’s look at why diet breaks are good.
What are the benefits of a diet break?
There are some very critical benefits of taking a diet break. These will help make your weight loss journey happier and the results sustainable.
1. A Psychological or mental break from dieting
Dieting over time takes a lot of grit and willpower. No matter how desperately you want to achieve your goal, it will get to you. It is irritating and pissing off! But there is no way around it. So, taking a break from your diet can help you feel better in the head.
This gets even more crucial, depending on how much weight you need to lose.
If it is 4-5 kgs, you can be on a diet for 8 – 10 weeks and get done with it (approx. 0.5 kgs a week).
But if you have over 25kgs to lose, it can take up to a year to achieve your goal. And dieting for a year non-stop sounds insane! It can even lead to a lot of stress and anxiety. And the odds of someone sticking to this year-long plan is just wishful, to be honest.
Diet breaks can come in super handy and give you much-needed mental ease. I have also written an article on how you can eat sugar and lose weight, which can help in the weight loss journey.
2. A Physiological break from the diet
As we already established, eating in a calorie deficit for a long time can slow down metabolism. Taking a break from the diet at this point can lead to reversing these effects. Thus, after taking a break, you can eat more calories to lose the same amount of fat than when you started the break.
I would say this reason itself is enough to consider a diet break.
3. Improvement in training
A diet break allows you to eat more carbs, which will restore glycogen in the liver and muscles. This will help you lift heavier and push harder at the gym. Thus, making you lean and muscular instead of skinny.
Diet breaks also help in maintaining the lean muscle you already have while losing weight. This is a huge plus when considering the training’s efficiency and is the ideal way to reach your goal weight.
4. Learning how to stay at maintenance
If your weight has constantly yo-yoed or you have been in the dieting – overeating cycle, eating at maintenance is a very crucial lesson.
Since you need to eat at your maintenance in a diet break, this prepares you for when you reach your goal. It’s like a short tutorial in making the most appropriate food, training, and lifestyle choices, so you don’t undo all the hard work.
So, how to take a diet break? What to do and what are the diet break rules?
Ok, so now that you are convinced of taking a diet break, let’s discuss how exactly it should be done.
1. Calculate the new maintenance calories
Owing to the metabolic adaptation that we already discussed, your maintenance calories will not be the same as when you started the diet. Thus, it would help if you calculated the new maintenance calories.
Here’s how to do it:
Take the average weekly weight you lost over the last month. Let’s assume it is 500g (approx. 1 pound).
This means that you are in an average weekly deficit of 3500 kcal since burning 3500 kcal approximately equals 1 pound weight / fat loss.
According to this, you can increase your daily intake by 500 calories, i.e., weekly by 3500 calories.
Another simple formula you can follow to calculate your maintenance calories is multiplying your body weight in pounds by 12.
Try to hit the calorie goal by + or – 100 calories. No need to track it too closely as this phase can also be a break from meticulously tracking calories
2. Adjust the macros
Although a diet break gives you more room to enjoy food, ensure that you maintain your protein. Here are 3 simple steps to make sure that you don’t go too far off the track:
- Prioritize your protein intake!
- Eat a lot of veggies!
- Try to maintain wholefoods as the primary source of carbs.
If you’re doing the above three, please enjoy your favourite food more regularly during your diet break.
3. Maintain the rest of your lifestyle
This applies to the training schedule and eating habits. Make sure to continue to train as usual and follow similar eating patterns and meal frequency. Don’t let go of the good habits you have developed in your weight loss phase.
4. Cheat meals/cravings
A diet break is a time where you can indulge more freely. This doesn’t mean that you can binge or go back to old/unhealthy eating habits. Eat things you are craving but in moderation. Remember the golden rule – you need to be on your maintenance calories.
Pro tip: Just follow step no#2, and you should be good.
5. Be mentally prepared
A diet break isn’t about eating crap without keeping a close watch. On the contrary, it is crucial to be aware and follow the rules not to put on weight. Don’t get tempted, and don’t let the diet break control you.
There are a few people who recommend an unrestricted diet break. This could work for some but can often get out of hand. So, following a structured approach would be my advice.
How long should a diet break last?
A diet should be around 3 – 14 days.
Physiologically: The main physiological aim of a diet break is the recovery of the hormones, and the 10 to 14-day period is the ideal recommended time for that to happen.
Psychologically: Shorter diet breaks can also be taken. They have a positive psychological effect and make adherence to a diet easier but won’t be able to reset the metabolism.
So, then you can ask, is a 4-week diet break too long?
Well, it isn’t. No break is too long if it helps you move forward and achieve your goal. Sometimes we just need a break from all the dieting craziness. To not micro analyze our calories anymore. So, if you think you need a more extended break, by all means, please go ahead!
What should be the frequency of a diet break?
A simple answer to this would be 8-12 weeks.
But to be honest, it isn’t as simple as that. How frequently you take a diet break primarily depends on how much body fat you have to lose. As you get leaner, your body starts to fight back, and you need to take diet breaks more frequently. Industry experts recommend diet breaks as below.
- Body fat more than 25% – diet break every 12-16 weeks
- Body fat between 15-25% – diet break every 6-12 weeks
- Body fat less than 15% – diet break every 4-6 weeks
These are just guidelines and not rules. You can always refer back to the list mentioned at the beginning of the post on when to take a diet break and follow that. The simple reason for this is that everyone’s body is different and can react differently.
Try to schedule these breaks when you know sticking to your diet might be difficult. This could be a holiday or the festive season, or your birthday week! Not only will this let you enjoy yourself at that time, but also knowing the fact that a diet break is coming will make the dieting phase easy.
It’s critical to use the diet break tool correctly to ensure you reach your goals instead of stalling your progress.
What to not do on a diet break?
A diet break can easily go south. So, it’s critical that you follow the guidelines, and always remember…
- Don’t binge/overeat
- Eat your maintenance calories
- Maintain your protein intake
- Maintain your meal timings and frequency
- Ensure you get in all your workouts
- Make smart choices
- Don’t let go of the healthy habits created in the dieting phase
Ok, so we have spoken about the benefits of a diet break, what to do and not do. But are there are cons?
What are the drawbacks of a diet break?
The first and the most obvious drawback of a diet break is that it will take you longer to reach your goal. This will depend on how frequently you take a break and for how long. So, if you have a time-bound plan, this might not be the best idea.
2. Increase in scale weight
You tend to put on some weight on the scale once you start a diet break. This is considered a drawback by few people. It is critical to note that this weight is not fat.
So, what is the extra weight you gain in a diet break?
This weight comes from glycogen, water, and gut content.
- Due to the higher consumption of carbs, the body will restore the liver and muscles’ glycogen. And to store 1 gram of glycogen, the body retains 3-4 grams of water. So, you can gain up to 500 grams on the scale for storing 100 grams of glycogen. But remember, restoring glycogen is a good thing! It helps improve training performance.
- Relaxing the eating habits can result in more consumption of salt. This can also cause water retention, adding to the scale weight.
- Consuming more food will increase the gut content, which will also add to the scale weight.
Remember that the weight will tend to fluctuate but will help you reach your fitness goals faster and with minimal muscle loss.
3. Not much of a relief for some
The diet break might not be as much of a relief to a small-sized individual. This is because the additional calories that can be consumed by them in a diet break might not be too much. Let’s take an example:
- Maintenance calories = 1700 – 1800 calories
- Deficit calories = 1400 – 1500 calories
- Additional calories on a diet break = 200 – 300 calories
- Maintenance calories = 3000 – 3200 calories
- Deficit calories = 2500 calories
- Additional calories on a diet break = 500 – 700 calories.
300 calories aren’t much, but 700 calories can be a large meal.
Some people don’t find a diet break as a ‘break’ from their diets.
Diet break is a great tool having both physical and mental benefits. I refer to them as the happy place in the weight loss journey, helping me reach my goal sustainably and healthily.