One specific nutrition strategy that has risen in popularity in recent years is called a Diet Break. This is a fat loss/weight loss strategy that involves a strategic manipulation of calories and has been touted as an effective tool.
Fat loss is a very common goal among athletes of all levels due to the desire to be leaner. Therefore it is not surprising that more and more active individuals are looking into diet breaks as potential way to improve fat loss or for those wondering “how to break a weight loss plateau”.
What is a diet break?
Should you be eating more to lose weight?
Are diet breaks an effective way to achieve fat loss?
These are 3 questions that come about often when I am speaking with new clients about this subject.
In this short guide, you will learn about diet breaks and how they can be used to improve your fat loss results. Consider this your Diet Breaks 101 Mini Guide.
What Is A Diet Break?
So what is a diet break? That should be the first question you ask and it is obviously the first question I shall answer for you.
Diet Breaks are strategically planned “breaks” from your calorie deficit during a fat loss phase. We all know you need to be in a calorie deficit to achieve weight loss and fat loss.
However, diet breaks provide the opportunity to break from this calorie deficit and constant dieting by increasing your calorie intake to maintenance levels for a set period of time.
This is an important point that you need to ensure you keep in mind. Diet Breaks are NOT a free-for-all or a complete break from dieting (despite the name). They are instead a controlled break where you eat at your maintenance level calories.
You should not eat in a calorie surplus and should continue using food tracking to ensure you are strategic with your diet even during a diet break.
How Long Should A Diet Break Be?
The duration of a Diet Break is not a one size fits all thing. How long you do a diet break will depend on many different factors such as your goals, your stage of dieting, as well as your preferences.
However, a good rule of thumb is that a diet break period is typically 1-2 weeks in duration. Any longer than that and you are potentially reaching a point of diminishing returns. Any shorter and it’s not even a diet break at that point.
So 1-2 weeks is a good guideline and a solid starting point for the vast majority of people so feel free to use it yourself.
How Many Calories Should You Eat On A Diet Break?
One of the most common questions people ask when they are thinking of doing a diet break is: “how many calories should I be eating on a diet break?”.
There is no way to give an answer for this as everyone has a different calorie requirement so there is no set amount you need to eat. Diet breaks (and dieting as a whole) does not work like this.
All I can say is that Diet Breaks = eating your maintenance calories. So whatever that is for you is “how many calories you should be eating on a diet break”. Simples.
How Often Should You Do A Diet Break
There is also no hard and fast rule when it comes to how frequently you need to implement a diet break phase. Your individual needs and preferences again come to the forefront here.
Do what you feel is best for you while also considering what is best for your goals (this is why having a Sports Dietitian can help). What diet break strategy works best for you, may not be good at all for the next athlete in line.
Nevertheless, some key mistakes to avoid include the following:
So essentially don’t do it too often and don’t avoid doing it if you diet for a long time. Other than that, your frequency should be tailored to you and doesn't have a right or wrong answer necessarily.
Benefits Of Diet Breaks 10
Now we get to the part of the blog where we talk about how Diet Breaks can benefit you (yep I know this is what you wanted to read from the start).
Keep in mind that the benefits will vary from athlete to athlete. Also, the science of diet breaks and the associated outcomes is still a growing research topic so watch this space.
Nevertheless, we have been able to uncover some of the proposed benefits of doing a diet break and I have outlined them below in more detail. All in all, the gist of it is that they can be helpful for fat loss so let’s deep dive into the fun.
Reduce Metabolic Adaptation
The primary benefit that has been attributed to diet breaks is it’s positive impact in reducing the potential metabolic and physiological adaptations and compensatory mechanisms associated with prolonged dieting and calorie deficits.
When you diet and cut your calories, your body will start to adapt to these changes as a form of survival because at the fundamental level our physiology is still primal and caveman like.
Our bodies and mind doesn’t know we have food around us 24/7. All it knows is that “this human is cutting my food supply and I am stressing out”.
This leads to your physiology adapting to this by down regulating certain processes in the body and up regulating others. This can look like: increased hunger, reduced metabolism, decreased satiety, reduced movement and energy usage, and reduction in certain hormone function.
Diet breaks have been proposed (and shown in research), to likely reduce the extent to which this adaptation occurs or simply the speed at which these changes manifest in your body and lead to barriers to fat loss potential.
This leads to increased fat loss efficiency - a intangible metric that looks at how effectively you lose weight over time and the ease at which you do so.
This is an example of “eating more to lose weight”. While it’s not exactly directly linked, it can help your weight loss efforts indirectly and thereby help you ultimately achieve your goal/s.
Reduce Hunger Levels
Hunger levels reducing is connected to the above point about metabolic adaptation so you may be wondering why I am making it its own separate point.
The reason is simple. A reduction in hunger levels as a result of diet breaks is both the most pronounced physiological benefit but is also one which has been found in more studies.
Therefore, it needs to be reinforced that diet breaks may be able to help with general metabolic optimisation but it’s the hunger reducing benefit which should be considered as most likely to happen.
Improved Consistency & Compliance
Successful fat loss requires a long term adherence to your nutrition plan as well as being consistent with your diet week in and month out.
However, dieting is simple but it is not easy. When you are trying to lose weight and sticking to a calorie deficit, you will find that it gets harder and harder as time goes on. Therefore you can see how easily compliance and consistency with the diet plan can drop like it’s hot.
Diet breaks can help with improving your adherence to your diet by reducing perception of restriction. Essentially, diet breaks can help you mentally by making your diet feel easier to stick to by allowing you a “break” where you aren’t dieting as strictly.
Add the benefit of increased leptin from diet breaks (leptin = satiety hormone) as mentioned earlier, and it’s easy to see how a diet break can help you keep on keepin’ on!
Additional Benefits Of Diet Breaks
Now that we have covered the major players in the benefits game of diet breaks, let’s look at a couple other lesser thought of benefits that can be just as valuable during a fat loss dieting phase.
Opportunity To “Top Up” Nutrient Stores
When you are in calorie deficit, you are typically eating less total food than you were previously. Quite simply, it isn’t as easy to hit your nutrient requirements when you are restricting calories and dieting.
This applies to both macronutrients and micronutrients but dieting mostly impacts micronutrient intake because macros typically work on a sliding scale depending on your calorie intake (except maybe carbohydrate intake which can be limited in big deficits and impact more active people…but that’s a topic for another day).
Anyways, diet breaks have you increase your calories for a short period of time up to maintenance calories which for some people could be an increase of 500 calories or more.
Either way, you would be eating more calories which would mean more food. More food clearly provides increased opportunities for hitting your nutrient targets.
Therefore, a benefit of diet breaks is the opportunity to essentially top up your nutrition and fill in any gaps that dieting has caused.
Provides Opportunity For Mental Preparation For The Future
The reality is that you should NOT be dieting for too long. You definitely shouldn’t be dieting and in a calorie deficit indefinitely.
There will be a time when you will have either reached your goal or need to maintain your weight instead of continuing to lose bodyfat. This is the time when your mindset will need to change and adapt because dieting is a dynamic process.
Doing a diet breaks gives you a glimpse or bit of a “taste test” of what that will look like when you inevitably reach your longer term maintenance phase. This will prepare you mentally for the future and this can be invaluable for long term sustainable management of your body composition.
What Does The Science Say?
So we have talked about the definition of diet breaks, how to implement one, and the associated benefits of doing one. However, we should also look at a couple studies that looked at the efficacy and effectiveness of diet breaks.
The two studies that are most notable are: The MATADOR Study and The ICECAP Trial. An outline of each study is detailed below for your reading pleasure you nerd.
The MATADOR Study
First up we have the MATADOR study. MATADOR stands for Minimising Adaptive Thermogenesis And Deactivating Obesity Rebound (yeah try say that quickly).
Essentially the study had two groups: one group did continuous calorie deficit dieting for 16 weeks while the second group did 8 x 2 week blocks of calorie restriction (alternating with 7 x 2 week diet breaks for a total of 30 weeks).
The results found that greater fat loss was achieved with the intermittent diet break group. This was attributed to the likely benefit of diet breaks minimizing metabolic responses and improving fat loss efficiency. See the snapshot below for the specific details of the study.
The caveat here is the duration of dieting when doing the diet breaks. With implementing 2 week diet breaks after every 2 weeks, this led to doubling the time needed to lose the weight.
This shows that there are potential practicality issues with diet breaks but also keep in mind that very seldom will you see this type of regimen in real life (aint no body got time for that!).
The ICECAP Trial
Secondly we have a more recent study and the most notable one in the last couple of years. The ICECAP Trial stands for: Intermittent vs. Continuous Energy restriction Compared in a resistance-trained Adult Population.
As the name clearly suggests, this is another study looking at the impact of intermittent energy/calorie restriction dieting vs. a regular continuous calorie deficit phase.
The study participants were separated into two groups: one group did 12 weeks of continuous energy restriction while the other one completed 4 x 3 week dieting phases interspersed with 1 week diet breaks.
The results found that no discernible differences were found in total fat loss and retention fat free mass between the two groups, however the diet break group showed reduced appetite suggesting improved satiety and better hunger control.
Recap - Are Diet Breaks Worth Considering As A Fat Loss Strategy?
All in all, diet breaks can be an effective tool to supplement your fat loss efforts. The general consensus among nutrition professionals is that the primary mechanism by which it helps is through its positive impact on the mental burden of dieting.
This is through reducing perception of restriction - thereby leading to improved adherence and compliance. Like I always say…the easier it is to do, the better you will do it. Dieting is the same kettle of fish.
The benefits of diet breaks are noteworthy and therefore in my opinion as an experienced Sports Dietitian, diet breaks can be an effective strategy when implemented correctly and for the right reasons. While they won’t act as a fat loss “magic” solution in itself, it can be part of an overall effective fat loss strategy.
So need a break? Have a Kitkat if you want but also consider a “Diet Break”.
Want 1:1 Help To Achieve Your Best Fat Loss Results?
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Brisbane Sports Dietitian & Nutritionist
Hi there! My name's Aleksa Gagic - i'm a Brisbane Sports Dietitian & Brisbane Sports Nutritionist. I have 7+ years experience in providing professional nutrition consulting and want to help you learn about the power of flexible nutrition.