A strategy that has been gaining a lot of popularity amongst dieters and coaches with an overarching goal of weight loss is the implementation of diet breaks. Taking a 'break' from being on a diet sounds all good and fun, but can it actually be an effective strategy in helping lose MORE weight than a standard diet or continuous deficit? Let's look at what the research says to date.
What Is A Diet Break Anyway?
First of all, let's define a 'diet break'. What are they? When should we use them? And what for? A diet break is simply a short period of time during a fat loss phase where the dieter takes a break from dieting by increasing calories intentionally. These periods of increased calories can last anywhere from 1 or 2 days (usually more commonly referred to as a 'refeed') to one or two weeks (maybe even longer in some cases). Diet breaks can be implemented for a number of reasons. Some great fat loss plans will have the dieter set up with a plan to implement diet breaks within the plan right from the get go, while other times they may be implemented after long periods of a sustained calorie deficit to help mitigate the negative effects of being in a calorie deficit and help the body return to a more 'normal' physiological state. If your weight loss has been stalling at a relatively low calorie intake, you have been in a continued deficit (without 'off' days, 'cheat' days or periods of higher calories) for longer than 4-8 weeks, or you struggle with adherence to a diet for a period of longer than 4-8 weeks without feeling like you need a break or falling off the rails, then you might consider a diet break.
What Are The Potential Benefits of A Diet Break?
There are many psychological benefits to implementing diet breaks. These include avoiding diet fatigue (or lack of motivation/will to keep dieting), giving yourself a chance to eat higher calorie foods, decreasing fear around being in a more well-fed state, allowing your body a chance to improve performance and reverse some of the negative consequences that inherently come from being in a calorie deficit, etc. These reasons alone might be convincing enough for many coaches to implement diet breaks with clients, or for dieters to want to give them a shot. But if the psychological benefits aren't enough for you to consider incorporating a diet break at the sake of slowing your progress, rest assured that there are may actually be some real, proven physiological benefits as well. There is an infamous study that was done a few years ago (that has since been replicated in a number of different ways with similar findings) called the Matador study. This study took two groups of obese people and set them up to diet (be in a calorie deficit) for 16 weeks. One group stayed at a consistent deficit for an entire 16 weeks straight, while the other group would spend two weeks in a calorie deficit followed by two weeks at maintenance (this is important - they were not in a deficit, but they were still not ABOVE maintenance). Here's what was observed in the study: The (diet break) group who implemented the two week diet breaks in between periods of dieting: -Maintained more lean body mass while dieting -Lost a greater proportion of body-fat (of the weight that was lost)
-Lost more weight and body-fat overall.
-Were also able to KEEP the weight off that they lost dieting more efficiently than the control group -Maintained a higher metabolic rate higher throughout the course of the weight loss So it seems as though implementing diet breaks really can help to combat some of the inevitable negative effects of dieting on the body. As previously mentioned, more studies have since found similar results. More research may be needed to absolutely confirm that diet breaks improve fat loss results, but the current research suggest such and is very promising. Enough so that I would recommend diet breaks for most long-term dieters (those dieting and hoping to lose weight for more than 2 weeks).
HOW Should You Incorporate A Diet Break Into Your Diet?
It's important to note that diet breaks are still a time to increase calories and step AWAY from being in a calorie deficit. We know that when it comes to weight loss, being in a calorie deficit is the most essential order of business, so it's important to implement diet breaks properly if you want to utilize them to enhance your results. Otherwise, you may end up trying to do something good, but ultimately taking two steps forward and two steps back due to a poor approach and improper use of diet breaks causing a lack of the consistent calorie deficit needed to see results. First, you must really grasp and understand the concept that diet breaks are only really going to be effective if you can confirm that you have been in a true, consistent calorie deficit for a given amount of time, usually at least 2 weeks or more. This means that if you're a 'weekend warrior' or do really well with your diet a few days a week, but fall off or overeat a few days a week, there isn't enough consistency present in the current approach for diet breaks to be very promising. Instead of implementing advanced techniques such as diet breaks, it may be wise to first revise your current routine or priorities so that you are able to more successfully maintain a deficit for an (even somewhat) extended period of time. You have to be consistent with your intake for this to work! Secondly, diet breaks are not an excuse to forget about your diet and eat whatever - or however much - you want. For shorter diet breaks (or refeeds), it may sometimes be warranted to take calories slightly above maintenance, but diet breaks are not an excuse to eat whatever you want and still 'get back to your diet later'. If you overeat, that's not conducive to the goal of a diet break, and might actually perpetuate a cycle of binge-restrict eating which will undoubtedly end up negatively impacting your weight loss efforts. Just like with standard dieting, there is a method to the madness so you can't see diet breaks as an excuse to go off the rails. Third, know that there is no one-size-fits-all formula as to how diet breaks should be done (how long they should be, how many calories exactly you should eat, etc.). A two week on, two week off protocol has been studied and shown to be effective (though it does double the period of time spent dieting), but it's not the only way to structure diet breaks. Some may want or be in a good position to diet for longer periods, while some may be better suited to keep their stretches of uninterrupted time in a deficit shorter. Some may need diet breaks that last a week to a number of weeks, while some may only do a single day. There are many factors that will affect how each individual should optimally structure a diet break. For those of you who are concerned about weight gain during a diet break phase of higher calories, don't be. If you are eating at maintenance and not using the diet break as an excuse to throw your diet out the window, you won't gain much body-fat, but you might see the scale go up. This is due to fluid that is drawn in when you eat more food, having more food in your GI tract, and holding more water. The weight will come off in a number of days, and is NOT due to body-fat. In some cases, you may not see the scale come back down until you have returned back to your deficit calorie numbers for a few days or even a week or so. That is just further confirmation that your diet break was effective in resynthesizing your body to a deficit so that you continue losing body-fat at a reasonable rate. Based on the literature, many of the negative effects of dieting start to become especially prominent after at least 8-12 weeks of continuous caloric restriction, so if you have been very consistent with your diet, it's probably best to not go longer than 8-12 weeks with continuous caloric restriction. Most of the research on diet breaks shows the best results with breaks lasting at LEAST 1 week, though more research is still needed. So, Is It Time to Try A Diet Break? If you think you may benefit from a diet break, I would encourage you to consult a coach to see if it might be a sound strategy for you, or to try it out yourself and see how it works. Be patient with the process, have a structured plan, and adhere to it just as you would with your standard weight loss phases of your fat loss diet. With the tips above, you don't have much to lose (except more body-fat) and may actually get the best of both worlds: you get to eat more and see better results with structured breaks from your low(er) calorie diet.