What is A Diet Break?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from coaching 1000s of clients over the last 10 years, it’s the importance of diet breaks. Think of it as one step back to make bigger steps forward possible, like retreating in a battle to regroup, then attack and vanquish the enemy (which in this case is body fat).
To be successful with a diet, you not only need to know when to make diet adjustments but when to take diet breaks also.
A diet break refers to a planned period of 7–14 days, where we increase calorie intake and loosen the counting restrictions we place on ourselves.
They help break up the monotony of a diet and make adherence easier. When you have a lot of fat to lose, it can be very tough to stay motivated for months on end. Similarly, when you’re trying to get shredded lean, the body fights back harder during the last stages of the diet.
If a client needs to diet for any longer than three months, I’ll almost always get them to take a diet break of two weeks. If they have a lot of fat to lose, we’ll repeat this more than once. And if a client is trying to get especially lean, I may recommend they take one more frequently (every ~6-8 weeks), depending on how they are feeling.
But people skip them at their peril, and the end result is usually something like this:
This is not about mental toughness nor commitment. How you feel right now is not an indication of how well you’ll be able to adhere months down the line. Planning for diet breaks is about acknowledging in advance that there are limits to our ability to persevere. It’s the smart thing to do.
Diet Breaks are ‘Nutrition Periodization’
You’ve probably heard of periodization for your strength training, where you break your training up into phases, each with a specific goal.
Think of diet breaks as being part of something you might call nutrition periodization.
Most people don’t think of nutrition as something that can be periodized. But logically, you’re not going to diet forever, or you’d waste away.
If you’re still relatively new to training, you may be able to hover around maintenance calories for a while and achieve simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss (body recomp). But past a certain point, the changes are so hard to measure, you’ll need to move into a muscle gain phase, known as a bulk. (More about this here: Bulk vs Cut?)
However, as bulking phases always involve a little fat gain, you will need to diet after to bring your fat mass down again.
By repeating the process, with each cut-bulk cycle, you will gain more and more muscle mass over time and you can build and carve out your ideal physique.
If we zoom out a bit, this is how it looks:
(The maintenance periods are to give your gastrointestinal system time to adjust. Note that the diet duration should be shorter if you have done things right. See my bulking guide: How To Bulk Without Getting Fat.)
But for this article, we’re going to focus on just the diet break aspect. Remember, the goal is to include diet breaks so that your weight loss journey goes like this:
Rather than this diet > binge > quit pattern of so many dieters (or…of those who don’t know about diet breaks):
REASONS FOR TAKING A DIET BREAK
Psychological reasons: Taking periodical diet breaks is a good idea for the mental break from the monotony of dieting. (It’s similar to why we have weekends — to give us a break from work.)
Physiological reasons: It was thought that a short period of regular eating had the potential to reverse some of the metabolic adaptations to a caloric deficit, giving the hormones time to recover to normal levels. This would mean that you’d be less hungry, have more energy, and fewer cravings. However, while the diet break does have an effect, the result is more fleeting than initially thought.
The Two Ways TO IMPLEMENT A DIET BREAK
I recommend that people choose special days of the year to not count calories — Christmas day, your birthday, your wedding anniversary, for example — but I call these days off rather than a diet break.
There are two ways to implement a diet break: a full break from counting calories and macros, and a more controlled version. These both have their place.
The Full Diet Break
The full diet break is my most common recommendation for online coaching clients. It is a break from counting food intake entirely for a two-week period.
Here’s how you take a full diet break:
- Eat to your hunger and don’t count (or worry about) your macro targets, but don’t purposefully binge eat.
- Keep your regular meal times.
- Keep on training. You may make some strength gains, given the higher calorie intake. Enjoy it.
These instructions shouldn’t be surprising, but if they seem too easy, you’re probably just overthinking it. Don’t worry though, that’s very common, as you’ll see in the FAQ at the end.)
You will gain some weight this way, but the majority of it will not be fat.
Why The Majority Of The Weight Gain Will Not Be Fat
- It takes a 3500 calorie surplus to gain 1 lb of fat.
- If you are losing 1 lb of fat loss per week, you have a 500 kcal daily deficit.
- Even if we assume you eat a whopping 1500 kcal more each day (1000 calories in excess of maintenance), this will lead to a 7000 kcal surplus for a week, which is 2 lbs of fat gain (if it were all stored as fat).
- This is unlikely because you will subconsciously eat less after the first few days.
So, what’s the rest of the weight then?
Gut content, water, and glycogen stored in your liver and muscles.
- If you eat more, you have more food in your gut. This weighs more.
- An increase in salt intake (which will likely happen if you relax your food choices) temporarily bumps the water balance in your body.
- You’re highly likely to eat a lot more carbs. The glucose from those carbs is stored in the muscles and liver as a fuel source called glycogen. For that to happen, the glucose molecules need to have water molecules attached to them. As a rough heuristic, 1g of carb intake brings 3–4g of water weight.
This means you might gain 7 lbs in a week, but only 1 lb of it fat.
Of the 1000+ people I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach in the last decade, I’ve only had the full diet break go badly ~3 times. By this, I mean that they gained a significant amount of fat during that time.
(Note: I don’t work with those who have a diagnosed eating disorder or disordered eating behavior. So, this obviously skews the numbers.)
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.
THE CONTROLLED DIET BREAK
There are certain populations that can benefit from a more structured diet break.
If you’ve been dieting for a long time and you’re experiencing intense cravings, it is probably best that you do not eat ad-libitum. Physique competitors close to competition fall into this category, but ordinary people can find this too. If someone reports to me that their cravings are especially high, I’ll tell them to have a controlled diet break.
There are also some people who truly freak out when told not to count anything. This often comes from a poor past experience where they gained a lot of weight (for the reasons I just covered in the previous section), but they didn’t realize it wasn’t fat. If, after explaining that they still can’t handle the full diet break, I instruct them to take the controlled diet break.
Here’s how you take a controlled diet break:
- Raise calories by 500–700 kcal each day. (I usually take the current rate of weight loss per week in pounds, multiply by 500, and add 100–150 kcal to cover any metabolic adaptation.)
- 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.
Recommendations On Diet-Break Length and Frequency
- A diet break should be 7–14 days, with two weeks, recommended. Some hormones take longer to recover to normal levels than others, so it is best to not cut a diet break short.
- Frequency depends primarily on our level of leanness. The leaner we get, the more our bodies fight back, so the more frequently they should be taken.
The following table is based on my observations of what has worked well with online coaching clients over the years.
(Men / Women)
|Diet Break Length and Frequency
|<10% / 18%
|7–10 days, every 6–8 weeks
|10-15% / 18–23%
|10-14 days, every 8–12 weeks
|>15% / >23%
|Two weeks, every 12–18 weeks
(Use my visual guide to body-fat percentage to get an estimate for yourself.)
These are just general guidelines, not rules. Psychological factors come into play as well.
I base the 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 found that I’ve never had to recommend diet breaks more frequently than 8 weeks, even with those getting shredded lean.
Diet Break Q&A
Use the time during a diet break to include the foods in your diet that you have been craving, but don’t abandon all healthy eating habits, and don’t binge eat on multiple consecutive days or you risk fat regain. There are two types of diet break: the ad libitum break and a controlled break. This guide explains how to implement both.
It’s fine to take a week off your diet, but I recommend that you mark these breaks in your calendar in advance. This way, you’re less likely to bow to cravings at any given moment, and you’ll have something to work toward. Most of my fat loss clients have a diet break every 10–12 weeks. Almost all of them achieve a six-pack.
There isn’t a specific time length for a diet phase that can be considered too long. However, it’s essential to keep your diet sustainable, and having frequent and planned diet breaks is a helpful method for achieving that. I recommend people take a two-week diet break every 6–16 weeks.
The total length of your diet will depend on how much fat you carry. It’s fine to diet for however long it takes to no longer be in an “at-risk” health category. You can continue to do so until you have achieved your desired level of leanness.
You could take a diet break when bulking, but it’s unnecessary as you won’t be feeling hungry and deprived like when dieting.
When we diet, we have to reduce calories. This happens for a variety of reasons that fall under the umbrella term called “metabolic adaption.”
In an ideal world, a diet break would provide a lasting metabolic boost that would reverse some of the adaptations to dieting. This would mean we don’t have to continue to cut calories to lose weight. So, if adherence had been high and weight loss slowed, you’d just take a two-week diet break then return to your previous calorie intake, and you’d continue to lose weight at your target rate.
This is what was once hoped, and was my experience with some clients, but unfortunately, recent research has shown that the impact of a diet break on metabolic rate is short-lived.
What this means then is:
1) If you were losing weight at your target rate before the break, return to the same calorie intake after.
2) If you were short of your weight loss target, adjust your calorie intake downward. For every 0.2 lbs short of target per week, drop 100 kcal. (~100 kcal per 0.1 kg)
3) If the reason you took the diet break was that you were going through a particularly stressful period, and this period coincided with a lower rate of weight loss (or no loss at all), then it’s best to assume that water retention was the cause of that. Just return to your previous calorie intake after the break.
Of course, the art is making as few cuts as possible so that your diet is as sustainable as possible, which is where my How To Adjust Macros As You Diet guide comes in.
Have a read through this and run through the checklist: How To Adjust Macros As You Diet To Keep Progressing
You will almost certainly hit this number even if you don’t count.
A diet break shouldn’t be seen as a challenge of how much you can eat; it’s just a time to enjoy less restriction. If you drink a pint of water before you sit down for a meal, eat leafy green vegetables and protein first, and make a concerted effort to eat more slowly, this will help you eat less without counting.
This was a sample chapter from my book on dietary adjustments. Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments, as always.