What is a diet break?
A diet break is a period of time, usually 1 to 2 weeks, where calories are increased to maintenance levels or above meaning the dieter is no longer in an energy deficit. If adjusted correctly, the dieter should not gain weight during this time but maintain their current weight.
What is the aim of a diet break?
The aim of a diet break is to minimise or partially reverse adaptations to energy restriction (dieting). As we diet, various adaptations occur which make it harder to continue to lose weight. This is what makes dieting so hard!
The idea is that diet breaks could make continued fat loss easier.
The notion that eating more will help you lose weight is usually a load of rubbish, but this is a situation where it actually could.
What are the benefits of a diet break?
#1 – Increased training intensity
Higher calories, especially carbohydrates will allow you to train harder.
#2 – Increased motivation
Being able to train harder and improve performance is motivating. Feeling pumped and excited at the end of a session as opposed to being depleted and exhausted is a welcome change when dieting.
#3 – Increased energy
Anyone who has dieted has experienced low energy levels. Increasing your calories will give you more energy throughout the day, not just in the gym.
#4 – Increased recovery and adaptation to training
Adapting to training requires energy e.g. building new muscle tissue or increasing mitochondrial density.
#5 – Increased leptin
Leptin is a hormone which regulates the bodies energy supply. When levels are low e.g. when dieting the body is driven to reduce energy expenditure and increase energy intake by reducing subconscious activity and driving hunger respectively. Therefore increasing leptin will make continued weight loss easier.
Side note: There is also a psychological benefit. I am not really going to touch on them here but briefly, you can be less restrictive with your diet during your diet breaks which may allow you to be more sociable and enjoy more foods you like which will likely increase long-term adherence.
How long should a diet break be?
It is important to make clear that these benefits do not seem to occur with a re-feed meal, nor do you avoid adaptations to energy restriction by intermittent fasting. The benefits to those methods are largely psychological. A controlled period of eating at maintenance is required to reverse or attenuate adaptations to energy restriction without compromising weight loss.
What should I eat?
The main focus is to bring calories back to maintenance levels. However, we do also want to consider where these calories are coming from. Studies have shown that carbohydrate but not fat overfeeding restored leptin levels. As I mentioned above, Leptin is a hormone that is involved in the regulation of the body’s energy stores. Leptin is released primarily from fat stores and as we lose fat less leptin is produced which signals to the brain that energy levels are low. The body then makes adaptations to try to conserve and bring in more energy such as reducing energy expenditure and increasing energy intake by driving hunger. For this reason, one of the aims of a diet break should be to increase leptin levels which should reduce hunger and increase spontaneous activity.
To do this we want to increase carbohydrate intake.
When should I use a diet break?
As with most questions, it depends! You can utilise a diet break when you feel you or your client needs one or would benefit from one e.g. when they have been dieting for a prolonged period of time and are feeling fatigued and unmotivated.
Or you could schedule one in during a heavier block of training (if doing this be sure that the increased training load is not negating the increase in calories). You could also time a diet break to coincide with a holiday or social occasions.
Finally, you could systematically schedule in a diet break every few weeks or months. Essentially is a case of finding out what works best for you or your client. Some people may wish to diet more extreme i.e be in a larger deficit but have diet breaks more frequently.
Who are diet breaks for?
Diet breaks can be for anyone.
Different goals will require applying diet breaks in different ways. For example, your weight loss client who is looking for long-term sustainable weight loss may wish to use diet breaks to increase long-term adherence and enable easier continued weight loss. For this client your goal should be creating a sustainable way of living, eating and exercising that can be continued for the rest of their life.
At the other end of the spectrum, a bodybuilder dieting down to show condition may want to schedule in diet breaks for the same reasons as above – to enable easier continued fat loss and also to allow for a higher intensity of training.
Bodybuilders who do intend to incorporate diet breaks should acknowledge that this will likely make their dieting phase longer as fat loss will slow during the break. Diet breaks can be utilised by anyone wishing to lose fat.
If you want to know more about diet breaks or discuss how you might use them feel free to contact me via my website or social media.