A diet break is a planned and purposeful break from dieting, anything from one day, up to two weeks. I get all of my clients to take them, as they help prepare them psychologically and physiologically for the next phase of dieting. Adherence is easier, results are better, skip implementing them to your own peril.
Everyone wants to be ripped, now. Nobody wants to wait. Our capacity for patience is being eroded every day by our ‘Get it now, Pay later‘ culture. Let me be very clear: If you take this attitude towards your diet then sooner or later you are destined to fail.
Though most don’t realize (or want to believe) it, at some point in the pursuit of your fitness or physique goals you will have to take one step backward to take two steps forward. Plan for those steps and you won’t be frustrated. This is not about mental toughness – I don’t doubt your rock solid diet commitment or that you can handle any training routine thrown at you. Taking planned breaks is one of the best moves you can make for your long-term diet success. An unsexy topic for sure, but necessary and quite fun.
What follows is a sample chapter from my book on dietary adjustments. In this article, you’ll find a quick rundown of the reasons for taking a break, full guidelines, and my own FAQ I’ve developed from client questions that’ll probably make you laugh.
The Role Of The Diet Break
The goal is to stay eating as much as possible, for as long as possible, so that you can get leaner than you ever have, in the most comfortable way you ever have. This will enable you to sustain it. Success in dieting is not only about making diet adjustments at the right time but knowing when to take diet breaks also.
What is a diet break?
When I say ‘diet break’ I am usually referring to a period of 7-14 days where we purposefully increase calorie intake and loosen the counting restrictions we place on ourselves. There are also times of the year where I suggest you don’t try to count your calorie or macro intake, such as for important holidays during the year (Christmas day, Thanksgiving, etc.), but for the purposes of this article, I’ll describe these as “days off” rather than a break.
Why you shouldn’t fear one day of binge eating
You will gain a lot of weight but won’t gain much fat.
Over-eating is a better choice of wording here. I would never recommend that a client binge eat but I do often recommend that clients eat to their hunger without worrying about counting their calories for this day, knowing that this will lead to them overeating.
- It takes a 3500 calorie surplus to gain 1lb of fat.
- People don’t generally overeat as much as they think, it just feels like it because they have been dieting.
- I’d guess people overeat by approximately 1000 calories on average when eating freely (as long as they aren’t actively trying to eat as much as possible).
- This would lead to slightly less than 1/3 of a pound of fat gain if that calorie excess were stored as purely fat, which is won’t be, as eating a large meal in a short period of time causes more of the calories to be released as heat instead of stored in the body, compared to eating normal-sized meals spread out over time.
- The weight gain you will experience the next day comes from an increase in gut content and water. This happens because of the increased salt intake and the increased carb intake. (Carbs, when stored as the sugar in glycogen, have water molecules attached to them. 1g of carb intake brings approximately 3-4g of water with it.)
- Most people will subconsciously eat less the next day.
Thus, you can wake up 5lbs heavier the next day and yet expect very little of that to be fat.
Reasons for taking a diet break
Physiological reasons: A short period of regular eating has the potential to reverse some of the metabolic adaptations to a caloric deficit, giving the hormones time to recover to normal levels. This means that you’ll be less hungry and pissed off all the time, have more energy, fewer cravings, and potentially you’ll be able to eat more than you otherwise would have and still progress with your diet.
Psychological reasons: Physiological reasons aside, taking periodical diet breaks is a good idea for the psychological benefits also. However they are an underused tool in the dieter’s arsenal, aren’t sexy to talk about, and the people that would likely benefit from them the most, the type A ‘stress heads’, are usually the least willing to take them.
How to implement a diet break
There are two categories of diet break: a full diet break, and a more controlled version.
The Full Diet Break:
This is by far my most common recommendation – a break from counting food intake entirely. With the exception of stage competitors within 8 weeks of their stage debut, this is what I have recommended to everyone thus far. So, if that’s not you then this is the choice I recommend you make even if it freaks you out to do so.
- Eat to your hunger and don’t count macros.
- Keep your regular meal times.
- Keep on training – you may well make some strength gains. Enjoy it.
If these instructions seem too easy, you’re probably just overthinking the diet break. Don’t worry though, that’s very common and you’ll see a detailed FAQ below.
The Controlled Diet Break
There are certain populations that can benefit from a more structured diet break – competitors who are close to their stage condition, and so close to the ragged edge that if they are instructed to eat ad-lib then things could really go pear-shaped (excuse the pun).
Of the people I’ve coached (high hundreds), I’ve only had the full diet break go badly twice – by this, I mean that they gained a significant amount of fat during that time. (I should add the caveat that I decline to work with those that display, or I suspect of, disordered eating behavior as it’s far outside my area of expertise and I feel it to be unethical to do so.) However, I’ve had plenty of non-clients claim that they can’t do an ad-lib diet break in the comments on the site, which I suspect this is simply people confusing water or glycogen gain with fat gain.
I asked Eric Helms his thoughts on this topic, as he has more experience than I taking people from ‘shredded’ (~7-8% body fat) to ‘stage-shredded’ (~4-5% body fat) condition. More care can be needed at these times as that’s where the suffering tends to really start.
“When I run a diet break, I try to get a feel for how bad they are hurting psychologically, and often if they really need a mental break as well, I’ll revert to just counting calories vs macros.
For someone who has been hitting protein carbs and fat within 5 g for months, with low macro targets, giving them an extra 500 kcals, cutting cardio in half, and saying just hit your calories + or – 100 can be very liberating, comparatively, but it can also prevent folks going off the rails. Again, only a concern for the specific population I’m dealing with, but simply having a value to track can prevent the descent into binging.”
So to summarise then:
- Raise calories by 500 each day (or, to calculated maintenance levels).
- Remove the macro target, just hit your new calorie target to an accuracy of + or – 100 each day.
- Cut cardio work in half (if performed).
- Keep your regular mealtimes and keep training.
Length and Frequency
- 10-14 days, two weeks recommended. Unfortunately, some hormones simply take longer to recover to normal levels than others, so there is no cutting a diet break short.
- Frequency depends primarily on our level of leanness. – The leaner we get, the more our bodies hate us (the harsher the metabolic adaptations become), so the more frequently they should be taken.
|Body fat % (men)||Diet Break Frequency|
|<10%||every 4-6 weeks|
|10-15%||every 6-8 weeks|
|15-25%||every 10-12 weeks|
|25%>||every 12-16 weeks|
Women add ~7%.
Above are my own recommendations on diet break frequency, adapted from Lyle McDonald’s original recommendations after gaining experience. This is just a general guide and psychological factors will come into play as well. I base frequency of diet breaks on how a client is doing mentally (mood, cravings, stress), as well as physically (energy, sleep, recovery). With slower rates of fat loss, diet breaks can be less frequent. In my coaching experience, I’ve personally found that I’ve only had to recommend diet breaks as frequent as every 8 weeks, even with those taking it to what I’d consider ‘shredded‘.
- You can expect a rise in the scale weight due to the increase in carb intake.
- You may feel fatter, but you’ll note that the weight that you gain here (7-10 lbs isn’t uncommon) doesn’t correlate with the same level of increase in stomach measurements that you saw yourself lose over the last few weeks when you lost that same amount of weight. This is because most of the gain in weight will be your muscles filling with water and glycogen – so you’ll feel bigger and fuller, and for the leaner folks, more vascular.
- Some water will be gained under the skin, and there will be a little fat gain, but nothing extreme (unless you purposefully binge eat the entire diet break – which is a very rare exception if everything else has been set up well thus far).
FOR COACHES: Talk to your prospective client about the subject of diet breaks before taking the client on. You don’t have to go into exceptional detail, but just mentioning it will give you less resistance down the line when you make the decision that it would be best to take one. Also, before taking a client on, remember to check their diet history – they may need to take a diet break before you begin working together.
1. Why is there weight gain when taking a break from dieting?
1g of glycogen holds 3g of water. Our muscles are made up of ~70-80% water which is stored from muscle glycogen. Glycogen comes from the carbs we eat. So if you eat more carbs than normal, which you will when you take a diet break, your body (the muscles mainly) will hold more water giving you the false impression that you’ve gained fat if you rely solely* on scale weight to gauge progress. It’s actually just water weight. [*Do not. Track your progress this way.]
2. Lyle McDonald recommends to eat above 100-150g of carbs a day. Does this mean I need to count? You said don’t count.
By not counting, you will almost certainly hit this number anyway. Don’t count.
3. In Lyle’s article it also says to go to maintenance calories…should I follow that or just follow like you said by just eating to my hunger?
Following your hunger, generally speaking, will be somewhat around your natural maintenance. If you skip breakfast, feel free to keep doing so. If you don’t, then keep as you are. If you fancy having breakfast then feel free to do so on a few days – not a big deal.
4. I’m too scared to not count my macros/calories.
Do the controlled version of the diet break then.
5. Should I still make “healthy” food choices?
For the most part, though if there are certain foods that you have been avoiding then now is a time you can indulge.
6. I can pile in a huge amount of food, if I do the full break, are you telling me to binge eat?
No, or you will put on fat. I’m not questioning that you can eat a hell of a lot. Don’t think of this as a two week cheat just a break from counting, a time to relax. Listen to your body. Take your time when eating and eat to your hunger, nothing more.
1lb of fat ~= 3200kCal of stored energy. If your maintenance calorie intake is 2500kCal, even if we assume that any excess over regular calorie maintenance is stored perfectly as body fat, then that’s more than 5700kCal you’d have to consume on a single day to gain a pound of body fat. Doable, yes, but not likely if you are eating sensibly.
7. Should I have a diet break when bulking? If I do, will there be fat gain?
While not technically necessary, a break can be beneficial mentally.
The human body works hard to maintain the status quo – homeostasis. This is true when in a calorie deficit as it is bulking – gaining or losing weight isn’t what our bodies want to do. When bulking we have to consciously eat beyond what hunger signals would usually dictate that we eat. A diet break will naturally bring your intake down to maintenance or slightly above, and there won’t be any significant fat gain.
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always.