WHAT IS A DIET BREAK?
A diet break is a strategic break in your fat loss diet (we will refer to this as a diet) with the purpose of better preserving muscle mass, adherence, satiety and the prevention of large metabolic adaptations. A diet break refers to a week, or more, of eating calories to a level that does not allow for weight loss. Basically, a week that you eat to “maintenance calories”, or enough calories to just maintain your current body weight. Immediately following the end of your diet break you will resume your diet until you are scheduled for another diet break, or until your goal is achieved. These breaks are utilised periodically, along with a diet and exercise plan, to prevent many negative adaptions that are associated with long periods of dieting.
What are the rules to a diet break? A diet break will typically last anywhere between one week all the way up to four. Dr. Layne Norton recommends that you should not spend more than a 3rd of your total diet in a diet break. However, little information is available on the most effective frequency for a diet break.
You may consider spending two weeks in a diet followed by two weeks worth of a diet break (or similar with three or four week periods etc.). Personally, I like to utilise a ratio of 2:1 – two weeks dieting followed by a single diet break week. However, I believe the ratio vary’s for each individual and, ultimately, the best ratio is one that best suits your individual needs.
WHY WOULD WE NEED A DIET BREAK?
As we diet down for an extended period of time, our metabolism adapts to the reductions in calories. Over time the rate of fat loss starts to stagnate, so in search of dropping weight we proceed to take action through eating less and less calories. But what happens when we continue dieting on less and less calories over time? Eventually we hit breaking point. The amount of calories we are eating is far too low (especially for healthy consumption), we discover that we are not losing any more weight, we get frustrated and eventually, this all leads to a collapse in our diet. To prevent many of these negative reactions from happening we may want to consider the use of regular diet breaks in our diet.
With a diet break we may help reduce a lot of the metabolic adaptions that occur through long term dieting. Ultimately, as we progress on a diet our body will adapt to the low amount of calories we are feeding it. Additionally, it has been shown that NEAT levels drop during the course of a diet. This makes fat loss more difficult. This is essentially our body’s method of preserving our life on little amounts of food (think hunter and gatherer when food was scarce). We want to prevent this reaction from our body and ensure that our body is burning calories at a regular and inefficient pace with minimal resistance. We want to lose weight through eating as many calories as possible, without the adaptions that occur from our metabolism. A diet break may help prevent a lot of these metabolic adaptions. Additionally, diet breaks also help provide a calculated break from dieting. This break is an excellent tool for yo-yo dieters who struggle to maintain a diet for a prolonged period of time. Following concentrated, and short, periods of dieting a diet break represents a psychological and physical break, or holiday, from the whole concept of dieting. During a diet break it is typically to consume more calories, specifically the calorically dense foods that you have been craving during the diet – for me this looks like pizza, peanut butter and ice cream bars. That’s right, and I still lost weight!!!
Example: Peter weigh’s 80kg, he exercises 3 days per week and walks an average of 6000 steps per day. Peter is looking to lose 8kg. It is calculate that to lose 1% of body fat per week it will take Peter 10 weeks of continuous dieting. Peter’s maintenance calories are estimated at 2821.
For 10 consecutive weeks Peter starts his diet of 1927 Calories and does not change his exercise routine or steps. Gradually Peter will decrease his calories week-to-week as his metabolism adapts. This is necessary in order to lose the required 0.8kg of weight per week. After 10 weeks Peter ends his diet eating 1450 Calories per day, as a result of the metabolic adaptions, and he has successfully met his target.
If Peter were to introduce a diet break, at say a ratio of 2:2, Peter would need to diet for 20 weeks total (10 in a deficit, 10 at maintenance). Peter starts his diet at 1927 Calories and does not change his exercise routine or steps. Peter will need to adjust his calories, due to some metabolic adaptions, but, due to the diet breaks, Peter finishes his diet at 1720 Calories per day and has successfully met his target. During half of the diet (during diet break weeks) Peter was eating ≤ 2821 Calories – including pizza, chippies, donuts, ice cream, etc.
In both examples Peter was able to reach his target. However, for 10 consecutive weeks Peter’s diet was continually restrictive, making it very difficult with weeks of feeling hungry. In comparison to to 20 weeks, Peter was able to enjoy half of the diet without too many restrictions (he still counted his calories on diet break weeks as he didn’t want to add on weight). Additionally, at the end of the 20 week diet Peter was consuming 270 calories more per day than compared to the end of the 10 weeks continuous diet.
BENEFITS of a Diet Break
- You get to eat more food during diet break weeks – week/s of eating maintenance calories. For some this can make dieting manageable.
- You maintain a higher BMR on average – compared to those who diet consistently without a break, a diet break can help preserve a relatively high BMR, similar to that of when you first started dieting.
- Consistent weight loss on more calories – with diet breaks your metabolism output stays relatively high. If your metabolism stays high this means you will not need to reduce the calories to such ridiculously low quantities.
- Adherence – You may find diet breaks make dieting more manageable, breaking diet weeks into a manageable 2 or 3 week period before you enjoy a ‘break’.
- Consistent weight loss – with limited adaptions to your metabolism and better adherence, a diet break may provide you with the tools to remain consistent and receive consistent result. Previously you may have given up, or got bored of your diet before you successfully met your target.
NEGATIVES of a Diet Break
- It will increase the length of your diet – If you diet for 2 weeks and take 2 weeks’ worth of diet breaks this will extend your dieting time. For example, 16 weeks dieting could end up taking 32 weeks.
- You might overshoot your calories – A diet break requires a little calculation but mostly trial and error. You may over shoot, what you expect to be your maintenance calories, and add a little weight on for the diet break week/s. This would prolong the diet process. It is recommended that you count your calories for a diet break and take regular weight measurements.
- Maintenance calories change – you will not always eat at the same maintenance calories in one diet break to the next. As your body drops the weight it is natural for some metabolic adaptions, you will need to recalculate your maintenance calories for each diet break.
My own experience with a diet break
Personally, I find the diet breaks to be exceptionally helpful. Recently on my contest preparation for a bodybuilding show (that got cancelled) I utilised diet breaks successfully and I found them to be essential for my diet. Around 15 weeks of a continuous diet I hit a wall. I was turning moody, I was constantly thinking about food and I was worried about eating the right portions of every meal. I nearly gave up, I was feeling sorry for myself and as a result of this mood shift I had two really bad weeks. I decided to implement the 2:1 ratio (weeks dieting : diet break). I had previously tried 3:1 but this wasn’t a good fit for me – I guess 3 weeks became just too long. By implementing more frequent diet breaks I was able to enjoy the food I was consistently craving, I really zoned in for the two weeks of dieting because, in my head, I had a short term target. After a change in ratio my diet actually began to really tighten up and improve. In addition, I actually noticed a shift with my metabolism. I suddenly became content with eating lower calories during dieting weeks and actually struggled to eat the large amounts of calories on my diet break weeks. The fat loss didn’t stop either, I was still burning fat on target. Win win.
Diet breaks were a relatively new concept to me before my diet. Thanks to Layne Norton’s book ‘The complete contest prep’ I was informed, in detail, of the benefits (I would recommend this book to anyone looking to achieve low levels of body fat). Before my diet I was of the position that a strong mind-set was all that you required to achieve a successful diet…oh how wrong I was. Now, I believe diet breaks are essential, especially for those that struggle to maintain a diet or tend to have outside factors affecting your diet (work, stress, family commitments, etc.). There is nothing wrong with admitting the need of a diet break, especially if they help you achieve your fat loss goal. Sure, implementing diet breaks may prolong your diet, but isn’t it better to finish your diet eventually than to give up… again?
Need help with your diet?
If you would like to discuss diet breaks in more detail, please send me a message today. If you would like some coaching and guidance on diets and tailor-made food and exercise plans please check out my online training services. Alternatively, if you are in the Dundee area please free to message me about 1-to-1 personal training sessions.
If you like what you read please leave a comment below, i’d love to hear from you. Or, if you have decided to utilise a diet break please let me know how you got on!