So, you’ve been slamming the cardio, and you’ve eaten more chicken breasts than you can count. The problem is, that your weight loss has now stopped.
Could you possibly be ready for a diet break? Yup, those exist – lemme explain how those work.
What is a diet break?
Well, it’s exactly what the name suggests. You take some time off from your dieting and eat vastly different from how you’ve been eating for the past few weeks. Yup – weeks.
Let’s get one thing down from the start, it definitely is not for everyone.
Similarly to a ‘cheat meal’, you low-key have to earn this meal. Typically, we don’t like to say we earn food – ever – as this could lead to the development of eating disorders. That being said, you must be pretty depleted to benefit from a diet break.
Depleted could actually refer to two scenarios, such as:
- Physically depleted: Your body is low on carbohydrate and glycogen stores
- Emotionally depleted: Your mind has begun suffering from being in ‘diet mode’ for too long
This means that for most people, the chances that a diet break is necessary, are slim. There is a saying under professional athletes “If you’re hungry but willing to eat anything from dry wheat bran to cardboard, then it might be time for a break”.
So, now we know who are the people who are most likely to need a diet break, but, what exactly is a diet break? How does a diet break look?
Simply put, you veer away from a lot of the dieting methods and tools you have been using up until now. That could look different for almost everyone, but typically it comes down to one delicious word…
Carbohydrates are amazing.
- They can help you retain muscle.
- They can make you stronger.
- They can save your marriage!
And they are what we will be playing with the most on a diet break – yes protein and fats will also shift slightly.
So, I’ve been dieting for a while, I’m as depleted as can be, so, what, I just eat 18 bags of fries? It’s slightly more complicated than that my Irish friend, let’s dig deeper.
When do I need a diet break?
Diet breaks are a period where you consume more food than you have currently been eating, and it usually gets implemented for either physical or mental reasons. Those reasons can be broadened as:
- Muscle Loss: This is the biggest red flag when it comes to dieting. If you get to a point where you are losing muscle, it has been time for a diet break, like, two weeks ago! You can measure muscle loss by keeping a log book on your strength levels in the gym
- Performance Stagnation: If you train in a progressive overload manner, and you are also completely new to training, failing to improve could be a sign of something being wrong. If you do not progress in strength for more than 3 weeks (Granted sleep, hydration, and stress management is on point) you might need a diet break
- Fat Loss Stops: This is one of the biggest reasons why diet breaks are implemented. We see that sometimes our body begins to refuse change. For example, if you’re following a 6-month plan to get ripped, you might need one or more diet breaks along the way.
- Mental Fatigue: This is simply due to the stress of being in a fat loss phase. The more experienced of a lifter you are, the less this is prominent
That is a general overview of when you could need a diet break. Other random reasons to have a diet break include things like going on holiday, a wedding, or a camping trip.
That being said, there are situations where some people think it’s time for one – when it’s not. These are reasons not to have a diet break:
- You’re hungry: You’re supposed to be hungry in a fat loss phase. You can introduce lean proteins or leafy green veggies to fight hunger (lean protein is unlikely to make you fat)
- You don’t like your current diet: This means it would rather be time to change the entire diet structure, seeing as your current diet plan does not seem to be sustainable
The biggest takeaway here is that there are actually, physical reasons for needing a diet break. But why are those reasons even there? And how in the name of peanut butter jelly sandwiches are more carbohydrates going to solve anything?!
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Why do I need a diet break?
Let’s get another thing straight – you have to be in a calorie deficit in order to lose weight. There is really no getting around that fact, and failure to do so will only lead to disappointment.
Creating a caloric deficit can be done in various ways:
- Decreasing Calories Eaten: Rather simply, you just eat slightly less. Typically you start off with 5 – 10% fewer calories than maintenance and only decrease when needed
- Replace some Carbs/Fats with Protein: This is a rather interesting way to elicit fat loss, but simply exchanging some carbs or fats for protein can lead to some fat loss
- Performing some Cardio: This shouldn’t be taken to the limit, and again, as much as needed, but as little as possible
These are the easiest ways to put yourself in a calorie deficit, and you should follow this structure for about 10 – 16 weeks. Aim to lose only 0.5 – 1.0% per week, as going more or less than that could lead to diminishing returns.
You will continue to lose weight progressively. Ideally, you would also build some lean mass and strength. Sometimes though, things stop working. You run into some resistance and the damn scale just won’t go any lower!
You could enter the diet break. The idea is that by providing the muscles and the body we could be ‘biohacking’ the body to combat certain hormonal responses we get when we diet down:
- Ghrelin: Ghrelin is a hormone produced by the stomach that signals the brain that it is empty. Commonly known as the ‘hunger hormone’
- Leptin: Leptin is produced by adipose tissue (fat) in the body, and aims to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger
- Cholecystokinin (CCK): Regulates digestion and appetite by emptying the stomach
- Cortisol: A stress hormone the body secretes naturally and can be split up into other versions like glucocorticoids
- Thyroid Hormones (T3, T4): Produced by the thyroid and dictate the overall metabolism of the body, but a host of other functions as well
- Testosterone: Not only important for health and sexual function but plays a massive role in muscle retention
These hormonal changes in the body are perfectly normal, and they’re supposed to happen. That being said, you can accidentally push a little hard and then these hormones fall way out of range.
When some of these hormones fall out of range too much, they can actually begin to affect you negatively, particularly cortisol. This whole process is also simply known as metabolic adaptation.
When you push too hard, the body will raise these hormones to protect you from running yourself into the ground. Dieting is perfectly viable for most people, but we all have a limit. Ideally, you’d want to follow the following tips to avoid burnout:
- Cut Slowly: Cutting your calories too quickly at the beginning of a diet phase will just lead to chronic dieting, and in some cases might even lead to muscle loss. A cutting phase should be between 10 – 16 weeks most of the time
- Protein-Protein Protein: Needless to say that your protein should be kept nice and high
- Nutrient Timing: Certain studies show that eating more of your carbohydrates around your workout window could lead to lower cortisol levels
- Train Appropriately: If you are always going to be training to failure on every set when calories are super low, it might lead to elevated cortisol levels
- Be an Adult: Let’s face it, you should probably be sleeping more, eating more veggies, and trying to manage your stress better. Try your best
- Supplement: Certain supplements like creatine could help you retain more muscle mass when in a calorie deficit
“But, we all mess up sometimes – that’s okay.
But it’s important to only rest, not give up.
Learn to rest, not give up.”
And what is one of the ways we can rest? A diet break, of course… Let’s get into how it can actually make you ripped.
Can a diet break really make me ripped?
Perhaps. See, those hormones we discussed earlier, can really bite you in the a*s if you don’t respect them.
The body is only trying to protect itself, and at some point, it has to say “Screw you, you’re not feeding me enough, I’m taking control”.
At this point, the body is somewhat of a toddler. It will require some convincing for it to lower some of those hormones, enabling you to continue losing weight. Very bad analogy – but you get the idea.
We are particularly interested in changing the levels of cortisol and the hunger hormones – ghrelin and leptin. Lowered cortisol could lead to greater gains and fat loss, whilst lowering the hunger hormones will have a greater impact on your mentality.
For this section, we would need to look at some studies:
- A 2021 Study found that a 1-Week diet break increased leg endurance, alertness, and decreased hunger
- Another 2021 Study found zero physical differences between diet breaks compared to pure dieting, however, those who followed the diet breaks said they could probably stick to the diet better
- A 2017 study found that the diet break group lost more weight than the normal dieting group (in obese men)
So, can a diet break help me get ripped? Well, if you have been dieting for so long and you feel like you might crack, absolutely.
See, by giving yourself a few days of eating at maintenance, you could stick to the diet plan far better over the next few weeks.
When you boil it down then, the reason most people would ever need a diet break is simply psychologically. And having the freedom to eat more and different foods for a few days can do wonders for your psyche.
Some people would need that ‘reset’ every now and then – in fact even some professional bodybuilders (the best dieters on the planet) take diet breaks. We are all human after all.
Cool, so what should I eat on a diet break?
So, now that we have established that a diet break could help you stick to your deficit better, and perhaps have some hormonal benefits as well. So, how should you be eating?
Firstly, you should aim to eat maintenance calories. This means only increasing your calories marginally – this is not a time for you to abandon your ripped body meal plan and go for all-you-can-eat sushi!
That being said, you can focus on the following guidelines:
- Smash some carbohydrates: When you are dieting, you are typically going to be eating fewer carbohydrates and fats – probably fewer carbohydrates. In a diet break, it could be beneficial to fill up your glycogen stores with some high-quality carbohydrates
- Still eat healthily: As mentioned before, this isn’t the time to go eat cake – unless you have a celebration of course. Just increase your normal food
- Train really hard: You have all this extra food, and your plates will be full. So, remember to add a few extra plates in the gym as well…
- Try to destress: You’ve been going through a period where you were very stressed due to dieting and training, it might be time to keep training intensity high, but maybe drop one or two sessions to spend time with friends or family to destress
In regards to how long a diet break should be, it can vary from person to person and is also influenced by how long the person has been on a diet. Typically, a diet break will be 7 – 14 days. That being said, some people might need more time.
One of the most important things to remember is that this break does not mean you can go mad at the buffet. You simply raise your calories to maintenance, meaning you might gain water weight but physically, it is impossible for you to gain body fat.
Diet Break Conclusion
The diet break has been in and out of the fitness world for a number of years. In one corner you have the hardcore dieters saying that there is no limit, you simply need to push harder. The other corner says that being kind to yourself could yield better results.
The reality is, it’s up to you to decide if you need a diet break. Diet breaks will prolong your dieting journey, so if you only have 10 weeks to get in shape, it might not be the best idea.
They can certainly help some individuals reach their physical goals. Certain people need a little break, need some kindness – especially beginners. That is perfectly okay, and you should always do what is best and sustainable for yourself.
Another to consider is that some people run with an extended leash. I, personally, am one of those people. You give me a tiny bit of dieting freedom and I lose my grip when I’m in a deep deficit.
If you are unsure, experiment. Just like you may have experimented to find your maintenance calories, you can experiment with diet breaks to see how they affect your progress.
If you do better in a very controlled environment, you might do better with a single cheat meal, or perhaps one cheat day. In the end, the overarching purpose of a diet break is to help you psychologically. If you need it, do it. If not, don’t – might save you some time.
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