A diet break is a planned break from a diet, where you eat at maintenance calories instead of a deficit or surplus. These breaks are intended to help with the psychological difficulty of longer term dieting.
While diet breaks haven't caught on in general, I've seen them recommended by high level coaches for years.
More recently, the research has supported the idea that diet breaks even enhance your results when compared to continuous diets.
What is the concept of a diet break?
A diet break is exactly what it sounds like - a planned break from a diet, where you take time off and eat at maintenance rather than eating to gain or lose weight. When dieting to either gain or lose significant amounts of weight, this places a great deal of stress on you - both psychological and physical in nature. Over time, this stress adds up - and this means that we need to take a break.
The concept isn’t terribly different from the concept of a deload in an exercise program. In a deload, you take a planned “easy” week that is designed to allow you to recover more fully, reset physical and psychological fatigue that accumulates over time, and set yourself up for future success.
Studies have shown that when deloads are implemented, lifters often see the same results over time versus people who don't take deloads - making them seem clearly superior when it means you can take a bit of extra time off and spend less time training. The time off during a deload is always less than the time it takes to start losing strength and muscle, so at the very least you should expect not to see any negatives. At best, you may see some enhanced adaptation to future training.
While there’s a lot of debates about whether or not deloads are necessary, or how frequently they should occur, we can generally agree that we need to take breaks from time to time with our training. In fact, it’s something that lifters focus on and talk about probably a lot more than is necessary, since most lifters aren’t training hard enough to really warrant serious deloads anyway. All the same, their appreciation is almost universal - virtually everyone can agree to use them periodically.
So why wouldn’t we have a similar concept for diet?
After all, diet is much more stressful in many ways than training is. Hunger, crashing hormone levels, decreasing energy, decreased metabolism, and psychological difficulty will all happen during a cut. If you try to cut weight for too long, chances are that you’ll start losing more muscle than fat, causing you to sabotage the hard work you put into building that muscle in the first place. When bulking, the opposite occurs - you may feel on top of the world in terms of how quickly you’re recovering and how much training you can handle, but at the same time you’ll constantly be forced to stuff yourself to gain weight, and if you stick with it too long, you’ll start to gain more fat than muscle, again sabotaging your training.
The solution is simple - a diet break. You take a bit of time off, sticking with maintenance calories, and then either return to your cut or bulk, or switch to the other.
A diet break helps smooth things out. A bit of time in maintenance helps solidify your results. If you’re worn down from a cut, it gives you time to recover and rebound to normal. If you’re starting to gain fat in a bulk, it gives your body a bit of time to adjust to this new muscle mass and burn off a bit of that fat.
Up until recently, diet breaks were virtually unknown. It was something I saw being recommended by a few high level coaches, but it wasn’t a concept that seems to have caught on with the general public. Luckily, the research has begun to catch up, and we now have data on the value of diet breaks.
First, a study in 2003 found that taking purposeful diet breaks had no negative impact on overall weight loss effort, even though unplanned lapses do typically have a negative effect on results. This study encouraged some particularly research-forward people to recommend diet breaks, but otherwise the concept was largely unexplored.
More recently, a larger scale attempt to test the theory was undertaken. This study divided weight loss participants into two groups: one group who dieted continuously for 16 weeks, and another which alternated dieting and maintenance in 2 week blocks for a total of 30 weeks. The diet break group saw superior results in every aspect - better fat loss, better weight loss, and better maintenance of their metabolism during this weight loss.
Now, it’s important to remember that they also spent twice as long (30 weeks vs 16) to accomplish these results. However, they still spent the same amount of time in a state of calorie restriction: the way the study split everything up, it was 16 weeks of restriction mixed with 14 weeks of maintenance.
Still, we can say that slow and steady truly does win the race, and we can make an even clearer argument against crash diets and continuous dieting, neither of which have had a good track record in the past. These diets have proven to be psychologically challenging, and to have serious drawbacks in terms of long-term health and metabolic function.
I would also like to point out that this isn’t the only way to do diet breaks. You may choose something like 4 weeks on/2 weeks off, or 8 weeks on/4 weeks off. You could even alternate weeks. While the research supports the concept of diet breaks, more research is needed to figure out an optimal break strategy, and in the meantime it's probably best to experiment and figure out what works best for you.
Planning for these periods of maintenance seems preferable and superior to simply trying to diet continuously, crashing, falling off the boat, and then getting discouraged and refusing to get back on.
I typically recommend diet breaks with clients - and the more extreme the diet that the client wants, the more frequent and serious of a diet break I recommend. I also often recommend breaks between a bulk and a cut or vice versa - since this allows your body to adjust to your new bodyweight a bit before you shock it by throwing it into the exact opposite of what you’ve been doing for a while. Diet breaks between bulk cycles are not yet supported by the research, but I've seen them recommended by quite a few good coaches over the years, and I tend to agree with their usage.
I believe diet breaks are a powerful and important tool you should be using to manage your dietary efforts. If nothing else, they will make your diets much more sustainable, and much less psychologically difficult.
Enjoy this post? Share the gains!
- Ignore Those Absurd Diets If You Want Real Results
- Why A Binge Can't Possibly Ruin Your Results
- Understanding Your Actual Metabolism
- Programming Your Macros Part 1 - General Health and Wellness
- Programming Your Macros Part 2 - Gaining Muscle
- Programming Your Macros Part 3 - Weight Cutting and Weight Loss
- Calories Matter, Even When You Think They Don't
- I Don't Think We Should Glorify Hard Work
- It's OK To Be Lazy!
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