A diet break is a break from dieting. (Surprise surprise!)
But there is a lot more to this than the simple fact that you aren’t eating in a calorie deficit. It also brings up a whole new set of questions from how long should a diet break be to how often you should consider taking one.
In this article, I hope to help you answer some of the most common questions about diet breaks which can allow you to lose weight and keep it off.
Let’s get into it!
What is a diet break?
A diet break is a period of time where you eat at your maintenance calories. The biggest mistake people make is considering the diet break as a period of ‘I can get back to my old habits before I start starving again’.
Instead, the diet break is actually a planned and controlled break which gives you both a physiological and psychological break from dieting and helps you get back to losing fat with a little more enthusiasm.
Is there any evidence to support the use of diet breaks?
Yes, there is!
The MATADOR (Minimising Adaptive Thermogenesis And Deactivating Obesity Rebound) study from 2017 concludes that intermittent energy restriction (i.e. diet breaks; don’t confuse this with intermittent fasting) leads to greater weight loss and more importantly, greater fat loss!
The whole reason for conducting this study was to find out whether or not diet breaks reduce the effect of metabolic adaptations which occur during longer periods of dieting and if they are useful in reducing the rebound that occurs after a fat loss phase.
How long should a diet break be?
To achieve the physiological benefits of diet breaks, most experts in the field recommend taking at least 10-14 days off the deficit.
This is simply because certain hormones take longer to recover than others. Taking shorter diet breaks can still be helpful from the adherence point of view, but to reap the full benefits of the diet break, 2 weeks seems to be a good place to be at.
How frequent should diet breaks be?
To be completely honest with you, this depends on so many factors that making a generalised statement feels impossible.
If you have no idea of when to throw in a diet break, then every 4-6 weeks could be a good starting point, but as I said, it really depends on the situation and a lot more context is needed to make this decision.
If you are someone who does not have a set deadline to meet, and if you feel like the diet is becoming so hard that it could result in a period of uncontrolled eating, taking a diet break could be a good idea. In the same way, if your strength is falling at a rapid pace, taking a diet break could be a good idea.
Also, if you know that you are going to face a period where dieting will be hard, instead of struggling to diet and facing the risk of potential over-eating (which will lead to you feeling guilty), throwing in a diet break could be a good idea. For example, if you know you cannot diet in the last week of December, schedule a diet break around that period instead of trying to diet and ending up binging, only to feel guilty and ashamed of yourself.
Will I gain weight during a diet break?
Scale weight will go up when you enter a diet break, primarily because of the higher calories, predominantly from carbs.
This means your body will end up holding more glycogen and water which will push your scale weight upwards. This is why it is important to understand the difference between weight loss and fat loss, and why tracking progress solely based on the scale isn’t the best idea. There won’t be excess fat gain as long as you eat at your maintenance so the increase in scale weight shouldn’t be something you have to worry about.
Now, let’s look at some benefits of a diet break…
Psychological break from dieting
No matter who you are and how much experience you have with dieting, you cannot deny the fact that at some point, eating in a calorie deficit becomes irritating. While you can always manipulate meal frequency and macro-splits to find an approach that makes it easier for you to adhere to a deficit, there will always be that element of dieting which makes it ‘uncomfortable’.
This becomes even more true when you want to diet down to a body fat percentage you have not previously dieted down to. Thus, taking diet breaks in this situation can be very beneficial from a psychological point of view, even more so when you have a lot more weight to lose.
Physiological benefits of taking a break
Let’s say that you have the ‘mental toughness’ to diet for a long period of time. Even if you don’t care about the psychological benefits, diet breaks could still be beneficial in the big picture of your fat loss phase.
To understand why, you first have to know the implications of being in a calorie deficit for a long period of time. Firstly, your metabolic rate slows down; not because of ‘starvation mode’, but because of you being lighter, being lazier (lesser energy expended in the form of NEAT) and the influence of metabolic adaptations that take place while dieting.
Not only this, but hormones like leptin, cortisol, thyroid and testosterone also end up getting affected by dieting. While this is inevitable while dieting, throwing in diet breaks could reverse the damage to a certain extent.
Thus, this alone is a pretty compelling reason to utilise diet breaks.
Better training performance
Having more food can positively impact your training and this is a big plus, especially if you are a natural athlete.
While entering a short diet break will not be sufficient to pack on a lot of lean mass, it can still allow you to perform better and recover some of the strength you lose while dieting.
Learn to stay at maintenance
If you have only been hopping between cycles of constantly under-eating and over-eating, learning to eat at maintenance can be an invaluable lesson.
While there is not much evidence backing the fact that eating at maintenance for a short period can allow the body to ‘settle at your new weight’, the fact that you’ll be able to learn to maintain your progress every few weeks is a big win, especially from a behavioural point of view.
Diet breaks aren’t for everyone and the frequency and length of diet breaks depend on the situation.
That said, they could be beneficial for most individuals trying to lose weight in a sustainable manner and can help them keep it off.
The simplest way to summarise diet breaks would be to bump up your calories to maintenance with the increase coming predominantly from carbs for a period of 2 weeks for both physiological and psychological benefits.