One of the best things you can do to continue to see progress on your weight loss journey is to consider taking a break from your diet. If you have more weight to lose, this is probably the last thing it seems you should do. But the reality is, a diet break can actually be exactly what you need to get past a plateau, or just to continue seeing progress in general.
I’ve actually found that most of our clients don’t understand what a diet break is, or whether they need one or not so let’s cover the basics as well as why it may or may not work for you and your goals.
What is a diet break?
A diet break is when you quite literally, take a break from your diet. In other words, you intentionally increase your calories and eat to maintain your current weight, as opposed to trying to lose more, for a period of time. That period of time is often referred to as "eating at maintenance" and can vary but is usually around one to three weeks.
For some, a diet break may mean simply taking a break from tracking. In fact, this is something I recommend most people do for special events, holidays as well as the occasional off day.
Why is a diet break important?
Adherence and consistency are going to get you the results you’re looking for. Taking a break can be exactly what you need to renew your motivation and help you retain the desire to stay on track when otherwise, you’d have burned out and given up entirely (and have to start all over again).
Additionally, it can help prevent too much metabolic adaptation and muscle loss. In short, whenever you cut calories and eat in a deficit, you essentially slow your metabolism down, and eventually, your calorie deficit will become your new maintenance calories. In other words, you’d have to eat that same amount of calories for the rest of your life to maintain your results. But most people simply aren’t able to eat so few calories forever – plus this puts many at risk of binging and accidentally overconsuming calories and gaining weight. Taking a diet break can minimize this adaptation (and a potential binge-restriction cycle) as you go along. Read more about metabolic adaptation here.
It’s important to note that taking a diet break may or may not slow down your weight loss progress overall. In one study, they showed that intermittent diet breaks actually saw the same overall results as the group who took no breaks at all. The goal of the study was to see how a person could keep their metabolism high while still losing the desired weight and diet breaks seem to be the answer. The participants who took diet breaks also felt more optimistic about their long-term goals. If slowing it down is what you need in order to be consistent in the long haul, then it’s a no-brainer. I recommend almost everyone take a diet break: give your metabolism a boost, eat more food, retain more muscle, reboot your hormones, and just feel better and enjoy life more overall.
How often should you take a diet break?
As always, how often you should take a diet break will vary from person to person. If you’re checking a few of the boxes below, then you definitely need a break. Your body will thank you both physically and mentally for some time away from the calorie restriction.
Someone who has more fat to lose likely won’t need to take a break as often. This person may benefit from one around every 12 to 16 weeks. On the other hand, someone who’s already quite lean may benefit by taking a break more frequently at around six to eight weeks. You can even take a break after only two to three weeks, which is what they did in this study. Basically, you should take a break as often as you need to in order to continue to be adherent and keep the weight off in the long run.
How do you take a diet break?
Whatever you do, don’t start eating the same amount you were before you started your diet as you’ll simply gain the weight you lost back and nobody wants that. Since you’re now in a smaller body, it takes fewer calories to fuel it. Find out your new maintenance calories by utilizing a calculator like this one. Or better yet, utilize an experienced coach to help take into account your personal lifestyle, preferences, and dieting history to determine your new maintenance calories.
For your extra calories, do your best to choose foods that aren’t highly processed and will help you feel fuller longer. Super processed or extremely calorie-dense foods can be easily overconsumed due to their high palatability and engineering to cause you to crave even more of it. And if food is often on your mind, you’ll be much more likely to overeat these foods unintentionally. Whereas, unprocessed nutrient-dense foods will be more likely to fill you up and keep excessive cravings at bay.
A diet break is different from a reverse diet in that you jump back up to your new maintenance calories quickly as opposed to intentionally reversing your way back up to spend a much longer period of time at maintenance. (Potentially a few months or even years). Both methods are extremely helpful at various times along your journey and are necessary for long-term results. A diet break usually lasts just one to two weeks with a plan to go back into your deficit just as fast as you came out of it.
Signs You NEED a Diet Break
Now that you know just how helpful taking a diet break can be toward reaching your long-term physique goals, how do you know if it’s right for you?
Pay attention to these signs that may indicate it’s time to take a break from your diet so you know what to be on the lookout for.
01: You Can’t Stop Thinking About Food
It’s one thing to be hungry because you got held up at work and didn’t get a chance to eat lunch. It’s another thing to think about food every day all day long. By trying to suppress and completely ignore these signals, you might just end up binge eating far more than you planned. A binge often leads to another restriction… and then another unwanted binge session... Get ahead of this vicious unhealthy cycle and honor your body’s signal to eat more food by taking a diet break.
02: Your Energy is Low
Your body needs fuel to keep you on your feet both mentally and physically. If your mental clarity is so slow, your feelings of frustration are high… or you’re unable to keep up with your usual pace, be it at the gym, work, or otherwise, it’s time to consider a diet break.
03: You’re Experiencing Hormonal Issues
Not enough fuel over an extended period of time can wreak havoc on your hormones. It can cause mood swings, anxiety, depression, and more. Ladies, if you’re experiencing an inconsistent or lack of cycle, you absolutely need to take a diet break. In fact, you probably need to reverse diet and spend a few months maintaining. Regardless, anyone who’s experiencing any persistent hormonal issues needs to increase their calories ASAP.
05: You’re Having Digestion Issues
When your metabolism begins to adapt, everything slows down… including your digestion. This can lead to bloating, water retention, and a whole slew of digestive issues. An easy fix is to help your metabolism upregulate by giving it the fuel it needs to function more optimally, even if just for a short period of time.
06: You’re Cold All the Time
This is often overlooked but is usually a pretty good sign that your body needs more calories to keep your engine running strong enough to keep you warm. If you’re not just a little chilled here and there but are just always cold, take notice. Whether it's your whole body or just your hands and feet, it's yet another sign it’s time to take a break from your diet.
07: Your Diet is Increasing Your Stress
Your body perceives stress as a threat and if experienced enough, it’ll stop prioritizing things we typically find important like hair, skin, and well, weight loss – that simply aren’t as important to our bodies. The crazy thing, though, is that our body doesn’t distinguish one stress differently from another. This means that if you’re stressed out over your diet, not only are you more likely to throw in the towel, your body is more likely to start storing those few calories you’re eating. So you may as well eat more. Take a break, reduce your stress, and you’ll be less likely to hit that plateau in the first place.
08: Weight Loss has Slowed or Stopped
If you know you’ve been hitting your calories and macros for sure. (Because let’s be honest, many of us “think” we are but don’t actually know for sure.) If you know for sure that you’ve been adherent and still aren’t seeing results after several weeks, a little break may be just enough to get your body to respond to the deficit again. Sometimes all your body needs is the reminder that there's actually fuel around (and there isn’t a famine) in order to continue to shed excess pounds.
Most people need a diet break from time to time in order to keep their metabolism from adapting so much that they have to live off of an unrealistically low amount of calories - and to be consistent over time. So instead of punishing yourself by forcing yourself to continue your diet despite being miserable – or giving up altogether – why not plan ahead to take a break from your diet.