Dieting can be stressful and difficult to follow, which is why many people, especially active individuals and athletes, take diet breaks. You've probably heard a term diet break a lot of times but aren't quite sure how it works. What is a diet break? How does it work? Keep reading to learn more.
What is a diet break?
A diet break is defined as a planned and purposeful break from dieting (1). The break can range in duration from a few days to several weeks. Although a simple term, diet break is largely misunderstood. Pausing calorie deficit associated with diet will not cause further weight gain if executed properly. In fact, a diet break is primarily utilized to promote weight loss. Followed by both “regular” people and bodybuilders and athletes, diet break aims to support weight loss endeavors and allow the body to respond to the diet more effectively.
Types of a diet break
There is more to diet break than we think. This practice involves more than pausing the calorie restriction for a while. Diet break can be divided into different types based on the type of diet and the overall goal you want to achieve. Below, you can take a look at different types of diet breaks that people practice.
The partial diet break
The partial diet break is the most suitable for competitors and people who are coming off of an extreme calorie deficit. During the partial break, you can add about 500 calories or increase calorie intake by 20% to perceived maintenance. This is done regardless of weight loss and body goals. Instead of counting loosely, a person continues to track as usual. The only difference is the significant increase in calorie intake (2).
The full diet break
The full diet break is ideal for men and women who are not restricted by time or deadline. In other words, it is most suitable for people who are not competitors, unlike the partial diet break. This type of diet break is characterized by tracking calorie intake loosely for 10 to 14 days. During this time, you need to eat at normal times and engage in strength training, but reduce cardio workouts.
Traditional, free, and refeed break plans
Besides full and partial types, we can also categorize diet breaks into traditional, free, and refeed break plans (3). Below, you can see the basic overview of how they work:
- Traditional diet break – refers to a complete or partial diet break, which lasts for one week or longer. This diet break plan is achieved through different approaches. One way is to substitute certain meals daily. The other approach is to take a break from the current diet plan completely. In other words, the traditional plan refers to the two most common categorizations of diet break mentioned above. Not every approach is suitable for all people. Multiple factors are taken into consideration before choosing the diet break plan. These factors may include compliance to diet to warrant a break, how long a person has been in a calorie deficit, whether a person has hit a plateau
- Free meal – also known as a cheat meal and off the meal, refers to a meal a person can enjoy, but it’s not a part of their diet plan. Generally speaking, cheat meals are introduced mainly for sanity purposes, but they can have some hormone and metabolic benefits too. This variation of diet break can work for off-season competitors and “general” population
- Refeed plan – more specific and measured than other forms of diet break. Refeed protocol is primarily used among athletes and physique competitors. The protocol revolves around adding food (usually carbs) to the current plan to be integrated into one meal spread throughout one day or multiple days. Refeeds are focused on carbs and also include low-fat and moderate-protein foods. The protocol is introduced in instances when an athlete’s nutrition plan is low in calories over an extended period. Refeeds can support metabolic function and maintain hunger at a tolerable level
Does diet break work?
Diet-related trends keep emerging, and most of them are not supported by science. Usually popularized on social media, many trends in diet and nutrition do more harm than good. That's why it's entirely natural to wonder whether diet break actually works. Although this practice needs further research, current evidence supports its benefits.
The International Journal of Obesity published a study conducted by the Australian research team, which showed that taking two-week-long dieting breaks can promote weight loss. The primary objective of the MATADOR (Minimizing Adaptive Thermogenesis And Deactivating Obesity Rebound) study was to evaluate whether intermittent energy restriction is more effective than continuous energy restriction for weight loss.
For this purpose, scientists enrolled 51 obese men who were assigned to 16 weeks of continuous or intermittent energy restriction completed as 8 * 2-week blocks of energy restrictions with 7 * 2-week blocks of energy balance.
At the end of the study period, men from the intermittent energy restriction group lost more weight and fat mass. Based on the results, the scientists concluded that intermittent energy restriction leads to greater weight and fat loss because it reduces compensatory metabolic responses. That way, weight loss efficiency improves (4).
The study above confirmed that taking diet breaks can be more effective for weight loss than continuous dieting. This is not such a surprise if we bear in mind many people follow their diet plans religiously but fail to lose weight. Poor weight loss in continuous dieting could be due to a wide range of biological mechanisms that calorie restriction triggers. When we decrease food intake during dieting, resting metabolism lowers, and this phenomenon is called "adaptive thermogenesis." As a result, it can be more difficult to lose weight (5) even if you’re sticking to the diet program religiously. On the other hand, diet breaks aim to navigate around this problem and support a healthier, more effective weight loss.
While the MATADOR study is the most well-known piece of evidence that confirms the benefits of diet breaks, it was not the only one to do so. The International Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study that compared the effectiveness of calorie shifting diet compared to a calorie restriction diet in 74 subjects who wanted to lose weight. The participants were randomized to four weeks control diet, six weeks of calorie restriction or calorie shifting, and four weeks of the follow-up period. Results showed that the calorie shifting diet was associated with a greater improvement anthropometric measure. Calorie shifting was also linked with decreased hunger, increased satisfaction, and improved adherence (6).
As seen in the studies above, making diet breaks is an effective strategy that helps you lose weight. But it also has many other benefits.
Benefits of a diet break
Diet break could be perceived as the much-needed rest from a dietary program and a strict eating plan. Of course, it is, but it also has many other health benefits. Diet breaks are beneficial for both mental and physical health. Below, you can see the rundown of some of the most important benefits of taking a diet break.
Improved weight loss
The studies mentioned above confirmed that taking diet breaks could be more effective for weight loss than continuous dieting. Pausing your diet prevents compensatory metabolic reactions that would otherwise make it difficult for you to slim down. That's not the only reason why diet break is good for weight loss – it also makes it easier for a person to stick to their eating plan. Diets can be strict and difficult to follow, and many people give up. The introduction of a diet break allows a person to rest a little bit from their current eating plan and motivates them to keep going.
Blood sugar levels are difficult to manage in patients with diabetes mellitus, but it is necessary to prevent complications associated with this condition. Whether you’re looking for a way to manage or prevent diabetes diet break can be helpful. A study from the Nutrition and Metabolism found that intermittent calorie restriction can lower fasting blood glucose levels just like continuous calorie restriction. That being said, intermittent calorie restriction i.e., diet break, is better than continuous calorie restriction in improving glucose homeostasis. Scientists hope their study will pave the way to further research and help control the progression of diabetes mellitus (7).
Greater fat loss
Fat, especially in the abdominal area, is stubborn and difficult to get rid of. Reasons you’re not losing weight during diet programs are numerous, including metabolic adaptation, water retention, health issues, following fad diets, and unhealthy eating patterns, among others (8). Diet breaks can improve metabolic rate and thereby accelerate fat loss. That’s exactly why the above-mentioned studies showed that subjects who adhered to diet breaks lost more fat than their counterparts.
Dieting, especially very low-calorie intake, can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol (9). This can cause a domino effect or chain of reactions where other hormones are also unbalanced. Hormonal balance is vital for the proper function of our organs and tissues i.e., crucial for our overall health and wellbeing. Hormonal fluctuations can also impair metabolism and make it difficult for you to slim down. Diet breaks help hormones regain their balance.
Higher stress levels are common in people who are dieting. We expect a lot from calorie restriction, want results fast, and are under a lot of pressure. This makes us more anxious and frustrated. The negative feels intensify when results don't occur at the expected pace. Diet breaks can help manage stress and boost your confidence in the whole process. You feel more motivated and optimistic, which can also translate to your performance in the gym.
When to take a diet break?
To get the most out of diet break, you need to plan it strategically. The best thing to do is to work with a nutritionist or a personal trainer who will recommend the ideal time to take a break from your eating plan. Generally speaking, after 12 weeks of dieting, it is advisable to take two weeks of diet break (10).
The body sends us some signals to tell us it's time to take a diet break; we just need to "listen" and notice those subtle signs. If you're doing it on your own, without professional guidance, there are some signs that say you can benefit from a diet break. These include (11):
- Rate of fat loss and muscle gain has slowed down, stopped entirely, or reversed
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Loss of strength and endurance
- Decreased physical performance in the gym
- Weakened immune system
- Calorie intake decreased several times already, and you can't think of lowering it any further
If the above-mentioned factors apply to you, it’s time to consider a diet break.
These guidelines can also help you determine whether you need a diet break:
- Body fat percentage over 15% - take a diet break every 4-6 weeks
- Body fat percentage over 15-25% - take a diet break every 6-12 weeks
- Body fat percentage over 25% - take a diet break every 12-16 weeks
How to take a diet break?
Now that you know all the benefits of a diet break, you're probably wondering how to take it. The exact practice may depend on a person to person and the type of diet break. But in most cases, you need to do the following (12):
- Eat meals at normal times
- Don’t count the calories
- Eat until you are full
- Stick to moderation i.e., don't use it as an excuse to indulge in junk food too much (13)
- Expect that you may gain some weight (water weight) which you will lose once the diet break is over
- Don’t worry about the ratio of carbs, proteins, and fat unless you are following a strict plan or refeed (14)
In other words, during diet breaks, you need to eat like a person who is not on a diet. Again, this all depends on the exact type of diet break and whether you're an athlete, bodybuilding competitor, or a person who just wants to maintain weight in a healthy range (15).
Diet breaks prove to be beneficial for an effective weight loss and also have other health benefits. They need to be strategically planned to yield the best results. Diet break is not the excuse to eat whatever you want, just to break from a calorie deficit.