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Diet Break? Or Breaking your Diet?

Diet Break? Or Breaking your Diet?

In today’s blog, we will be discussing Diet Breaks. You probably have heard of this term being thrown around in dieting circles before, so what are they? How do they work? When to implement them and the do’s and don’ts when it comes to using it as a tool in your fat loss journey.

What is a Diet Break?

A diet break, simply put, is when you take a break from dieting and eat at a controlled amount of calories (usually maintenance levels) for a specified period of time. The purpose of a diet break is to reduce the negative effects of metabolic adaptation caused by long periods of calorie restriction. If you haven’t read our blog article on metabolic adaptation , I highly suggest you do. In that article, I mentioned diet breaks as a useful tool to minimise metabolic adaptation , but today, we will go more in depth on diet breaks as a whole. 

How do they work?

As a general rule of thumb, a diet break is run for a period of 2 weeks where the person dieting increases their daily caloric intake up to maintenance levels. The science behind this strategic break from dieting is to reduce the negative metabolic effects associated with an extended calorie deficit. Generally when you diet for a period of time, we see a down regulation of metabolic rate and an upregulation of hunger hormones. Making it harder to continue to adhere to your nutrition plan. Incorporating diet breaks can reduce this, making it easier to adhere to your nutrition plan.

There is also a psychological benefit to taking a diet break too. 

You know those times when you have been on a fat loss diet for weeks on end and your mind just needs to take a break and you just want to eat more food? In reality, you just feel mentally burnt out. Well, this is when implementing a diet break would come in handy as it will help to keep your sanity in check and give your mind a rest from all the dieting and an opportunity to eat more food and feel like a ‘normal’ human being again so you can get back into a fat loss phase with renewed enthusiasm.

Now you’re probably wondering how and why is this relevant to you? Well, let’s take a look at the below two scenarios. You guys will get what I mean by diet breaks being both physiologically and psychologically beneficial. In this next section, we will look at two different types of diet breaks that can be implemented to help with achieving continued success in a fat loss diet.

Scenario One (Physiological Benefit)

Paul has been dieting for 12 weeks and has lost around 8kgs of body fat. But recently he has found his fat loss has come to a plateau and even dropping calories further hasn’t led to any more fat loss, he is frustrated to say the least as he has been doing everything right but the fat just isn’t coming off!

He also feels intense hunger and cravings at times and has low energy and motivation as well as his weights in the gym dropping. Not to mention, his wife has not been happy with him due to his low libido and unwillingness to do anything around the house. Paul is experiencing the negative side effects of metabolic adaptation due to being in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time.

Solution – (controlled 2 week diet break)

How can a Diet Break be implemented to help Paul continue to lose fat and offset the negative side effects he is experiencing caused by metabolic adaptation?

He can follow these steps:

  • Paul’s maintenance calories are somewhere around 2800 calories so this is what he will be consuming for the next two weeks.
  • The increase of calories from what he was previously eating in a calorie deficit will primarily come from carbohydrates.
  • Carbohydrates will keep you the most metabolically healthy out of all three macronutrients (it stokes the furnace so as to say)
  • Meal frequency is kept the same as during the calorie deficit phase, just increased volume of food in each meal
  • Focus on nutrient-dense real whole foods with some room for the foods Paul was craving before which he couldn’t have during the diet phase

Physiological benefits Paul will experience:

  • Increased energy levels 
  • Improved gym performance
  • Healthier and more efficient metabolism
  • Reduced hunger hormones (leptin and ghrelin)
  • Increased muscle glycogen retention
  • Increased recovery from gym workouts

Scenario Two (Psychological Benefit)

Lisa has been following a fat loss meal plan for the past two months and adhering to it very well and lost 10kg. However, recently due to increased work demand and family duties, she has been feeling very stressed and moody and has been slipping up on her diet more frequently. As a result of that, her fat loss progress has come to a screeching halt. 

She feels mentally exhausted and burnt out and has been having urges to give up on her diet and eat everything in sight at times. Lisa is experiencing the negative mental side effect of being in a calorie deficit diet for too long and needs to take a break to allow her mind and to rest and take the constant pressure of being in a fat loss phase off her mind.

Solution – (semi-controlled 1 week Diet Break)

A one week diet break can be implemented to give Lisa a break from the mental stress she is experiencing from prolonged dieting.

She can follow these steps:

  • Increase her daily caloric intake to maintenance levels (2000 calories) for two week
  • Calorie increase can come from any food she is craving or anything she finds comfort in eating
  • Ensure she still hits her daily protein target and let the fats and carbohydrates fall into place 

Psychological benefits Lisa will experience:

  • Improved focus and mental clarity 
  • Decreased stress (lowered cortisol levels)
  • Better mood and overall happiness
  • Renewed enthusiasm to dieting

As you guys can see from the two scenarios above, implementing diet breaks at the right times during a diet phase can have both physiological and psychological benefits for the dieter. I’m sure the majority of us with fat loss goals have run into similar situations as Paul and Lisa and can relate to their experiences very closely. Now you might be thinking why the title of this article is called Diet Break or “Breaking your Diet”?

Since we have just talked about how to implement diet breaks to help with your fat loss journeys, you guys know the DOs; before we wrap things up today, I want you guys to know about the DON’Ts when it comes to implementing diet breaks so you don’t go “breaking your diet”. I’ll keep it short and simple with three main points to watch out for:

  • A diet break is not a fancy term for “I can eat anything I want and not account for calories and macros and not gain fat”; you need to eat a controlled amount of calories (maintenance levels and still continue to make smart and healthy food choices)
  • You will gain weight during a diet break (however, if you ensure you eat at maintenance levels and focus on the foods you were eating before just increased amounts) most if not all of this weight increase will be from increased glycogen and water levels in your body
  • During the diet break, you can use the time to include the foods you have been craving during your diet but don’t completely abandon the healthy eating habits you have built from before or I guarantee you WILL gain fat!

As a final note, I would just like to touch briefly on the frequency and duration of implementing successful diet breaks. From the two scenarios given earlier, Paul was given a 2 week break whilst Lisa was given a one week break. Why is this? Again it comes down to individual factors and what is it that needs to be fixed.

For Paul, he is feeling more of the negative physical side effects from metabolic adaptation, so taking a full two week diet break allows sufficient time for his metabolism and hormones to regulate so he can return to a calorie deficit with a decrease in physiological adaptations. Whilst for Lisa, she is just feeling mentally burnt out and needs time off from the pressure of dieting for her to keep on going with adhering to her fat loss meal plan. Therefore, taking a short one-weeker can allow her to feel “refreshed” again and eat the things she wants so she can return to her fat loss meal plans with a renewed sense of motivation and enthusiasm.

You may also notice Paul’s diet break is more strict and controlled with the majority of his calorie increase coming from carbohydrates and still focusing on the foods he was eating before while in a calorie deficit. Whilst Lisa on the other hand has much less stricter diet break, as she is allowed to eat what she wants as long as she satisfies her daily protein goals. However, the key here for them both is that they eat maintenance calories in order to achieve a successful diet break.

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