A diet break is exactly what it sounds like: taking time off from your diet regimen for a period of time that could be as short as a single meal or as long as a few weeks or more. Specifically, a diet break means raising your food intake to or above your “maintenance” level of calories so that you’re no longer in a calorie/energy deficit.
Why should a person take a diet break?
The not so obvious formal answer: Raising one’s calories by such an amount can reverse certain physiological (and psychological) occurrences, resulting from a prolonged calorie deficit, that can slow down, stall, or even reverse your hard-earned fat/weight loss.
The much more obvious informal answer: Dieting can suck, and sometimes it’s a good idea to make something less sucky so that you don’t go insane.
The main point of this post, in advance:
Being able to effectively implement diet breaks will make fat loss – and weight maintenance thereafter – much, much easier. Not to mention healthier, physiologically AND psychologically
The specific topics we’ll cover:
- Why regular diet breaks are essential from a scientific standpoint.
- Why regular diet breaks are also essential from a practical standpoint.
- Putting common fears of “breaking” a diet to much needed rest.
- How to implement diet breaks correctly, so that you don’t backslide on your hard-earned progress.
The best way to informally organize the diet break concept is to break it into two types: short and long. We’ll define a “short” diet break as anything less than 24 hours, and a long diet break as anything longer than 24 hours.
You can jump to a pertinent section using the table of contents below, if you wish:
Clickable Table of Contents by Section
Why regular diet breaks are essential from a scientific standpoint
I’ll try to keep this section as concise as possible – there are indeed entire books written upon the diet break concept, one of which I recommend on this site and will refer to at the end.
To start, it’s obviously important to understand the precursory effects of prolonged dieting that necessitate regular breaks. Metabolism does slow, indeed largely due to the fact that lighter bodies burn less calories (ref), but also in part to short/mid-term hormonal changes. In summary:
- Thyroid hormones go down (and TSH often thereby goes up)
- Leptin (the satiety “I’m full” hormone) goes down
- Ghrelin (the appetite “I’m hungry” hormone) goes up
- Testosterone goes down
- Cortisol goes up
Unsurprisingly, metabolic hormones are strongly influenced by food intake: in the face of apparent scarcity, things down-regulate, and in the face of abundance, things up-regulate and restore. At first glance the implication might seem kind of depressing – you might worry that you’ll be permanently off keel until you return to your starting weight, meaning you’re doomed to being stuck wherever you start off, even if it’s not where you want to be.
But here’s the good news: The rate of change isn’t the same in either direction, meaning – and this is the key – that you can restore these hormones faster than it took for them to fall in the first place. If suppressed levels are the result of several weeks of dieting, then it’s entirely possible for them to restore with a ~2 week diet break, maybe even less (barring extreme prior restriction – we’re assuming the dieter isn’t doing a reckless crash diet).
In other words, you can essentially, for lack of a better way to describe it, restore your metabolism to what is was when you started without actually gaining any of the fat/weight back. That’s the key.
By doing so with taking a diet break, you can resume expeditious loss of fat as you were when you first started dieting.
For a full explanation of the science, I recommend (as I said I would) Starve Mode by Leigh Peele:
The book fully explains everything I’ve summarized here (as well as covering the more extreme situations that are frankly outside the scope of this here post), thereby demystifying the dubious yet popular phrase “starvation mode.” Click here to check out my full review of the book.
Why regular diet breaks are also essential from a practical standpoint
This is the most important section of this post, mainly because, while the science behind the diet break concept is now fairly well known and discussed, the practical implications behind the diet break concept appear to be vastly underdiscussed. Moreover, I think the practical implications of diet breaks are one of the most important things for realistic weight loss success, and maintaining that success for the lifetime long run.
One of the major practical problems with fat loss dieting isn’t so much that it’s hard to do, it’s that it’s restrictive enough to make many common real life situations seemingly unfeasible. Classic example: restaurant/party night out with friends – if you’ve only got 500 or so calories to work with at the end of the day, an entree and cocktails seems impossible, let alone possible to fully enjoy.
But lets say you decide to take a “short” diet break and allow yourself maintenance calories for the day, or maybe even a 10-20% surplus? All of a sudden you might have 1000 or more calories to work with. You might not be able to go completely off the rails – and you probably shouldn’t – but you can certainly order a entree and a drink or two and enjoy it, like a normal person would and should. If you’re +10% on one day of the week, but -20% on the other six days of the week that’s still -16% calorie deficit for the week.
Point being: Allowing yourself a maintenance (or slightly higher) break day once in a while will not noticeably stall your progress, and, psychologically speaking, getting to take a break from it all, relaxing and enjoying a big meal with friends once in a while is the kind of thing you need to, as I said, not go insane. But humor aside, it’s seriously important that your regimen isn’t utterly incongruent with your natural tendencies or social norms, because you won’t be able to sustain it.
The same can be said for longer diet breaks, if and when they’re needed. Think about the trade: you essentially get a diet vacation and a reset, all in exchange for merely having to wait an extra week or two to eventually hit your goals. Ask yourself: Has anyone in the history of health and fitness ever cared that it took a few extra weeks to reach their goal weight? I’ve never met one. If you’re prepping for some kind of event, that’s one thing, but that doesn’t apply to 99.9% of people reading this – who cares if it takes a little longer? I doubt you would.
A Corollary Point: Actually Good Enough Beats Theoretically Perfect, Every Time
Consider two scenarios, and tell me which sounds more appealing:
- Lose 30 pounds of fat over 30 weeks, no diet breaks, no cheat meals, 100% compliance
- Lose 30 pounds of fat over 36 weeks, two 2 week diet breaks, and 28 more days worth of flexible cheat meals with weekend getaways, impromptu dinners, and perhaps some nights of debauchery.
Enjoyment aside, which one of those seems actually doable?
And what would you rather be saying:
- “Welp, I completely caved on my Spartan diet and I’m back at square one.”
- “It took a little longer than I initially thought it would, but I still did it!”
Another Corollary Point: Pain and Misery Isn’t Actually A Requirement For Results.
Yes, it’s indeed true that some discomfort must be tolerated for fat to be lost (or to achieve pretty much anything worthwhile in life), but the idea that pain and misery perfectly correlates with results is just outright illogical. Strive for effectiveness, not suffering.
Putting common fears of “breaking” a diet to much needed rest
A lot of people fear rebounding hard and putting all of the weight back on if they take a diet break. The fear is irrational, but understandable – it’s tough to feel like you’re risking your painstakingly slow progress that’s taken months of dedication to achieve. I get it.
But that won’t happen – Just like you can’t burn off several pounds of fat in a few days, you similarly can’t pack on that much fat that quickly either, even if you were trying to. So, you’re certainly not going to gain back much or any fat if you raise your calories to maintenance or even slightly higher.
Consider a set of before/after pics I took from a 2 week diet break, during which I ate at maintenance +10% and took 2 days of full blown ad libitum (meaning no counting) eating:
The lighting is arguably better in the after pic, sure, but I can confidently claim that I certainly did not gain an appreciable amount of fat. I think I actually wound up looking better in fact. But most importantly is that I felt much better, and I wasn’t dreading the remaining tail end of my diet.
How to implement diet breaks correctly, so that you don’t backslide on your hard-earned progress
For “short” diet breaks, I’d say take as many as you want, as crazy as that sounds, especially if you don’t care about postponed results. Gluttonous social events (within reason) should be looked forward to and enjoyed, not feared. To reiterate the math, a single day at a 10% calorie surplus merely brings a weekly 20% deficit to a 16% deficit, and two days at maintenance brings a 20% weekly deficit to a mere 14% deficit – you’re not going to significantly impede your progress with regular short diet breaks, even to the tune of 1-2 times a week.
For “long” diet breaks, it’s prudent to take one at least every few months. Keep in mind this would be in addition to “short” diet breaks that are intermittently sprinkled in. These are general recommendations loosely sourced from Lyle McDonald and from Leigh Peele’s Starve Mode (here’s a link to it again):
Full Diet Break Frequency:
|How Lean Are You?||Diet Break Frequency|
|> 25% body fat||every ~15 weeks|
|15-25% body fat||every ~10 weeks|
|< 15% body fat||every ~7 weeks|
The specifics are largely going to be dependent on the individual situation. If you feel like you need a full break, I wouldn’t recommend anything less than 10 days eating at least at maintenance, and 2-3 weeks might actually be in order.
As far as specific food/macro recommendations go, the only real consensus that I’ve seen is that one should try to eat as many carbohydrates as possible within the allotted calories, even if it means eating lower protein (Peele recommends as low as .55g/lb bodyweight of protein to fit as many carbs in as possible). The reason is that dietary hormones are more sensitive to carbs than either fat or protein, meaning you can restore things faster with the same amount of calories (meaning your restoring things faster without extra weight/fat gain) if a greater percentage of those calories are carbohydrate.
And that’s about it – the specifics of a diet break aren’t complicated, the issue is mostly just being patient enough to defer results in exchange for being sufficiently realistic.
Authors note: Some of these comments are older because this is an update to an older post