Epic Meal Time

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 forwards. 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 summarize 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 meal times 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.  [*Don’t. 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.

Browse the other diet adjustment guides using the menu at the top, or get access to my full book on the topic of how I adjust the diets of my clients to take them to shreds and how you can do that too, here.

Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy. 

About the Author

Andy Morgan

I'm an online nutritional and training coach living in Tokyo, Japan. After seeing one too many people get ripped off by supplement and training industry lies I decided to try and do something about it. The site you see here is the result of a lot of Starbucks-fuelled, two-fingered typing. It's had a lot of love poured into it, and I hope you find the guides to the diet and training methods I use on this site useful. When I'm not helping clients you'll likely find me crashing down a mountain on a snowboard, racing around Suzuka circuit, or staring at watches I can't afford.

269 Comments on “Do You Need To Take a Diet Break?”

  1. Hi Andy,

    I’m 8 weeks out from my competition and I got to almost stage ready (did 36 weeks prep with 20 weeks cut.. 8 weeks reverse then 8 weeks cut) at 16 weeks out by the end of my reverse diet my calories were 3200 maintaining my weight (200-201 lbs). I started stalling weight loss with uncontrollable hunger and I got to 2200 cal at 196-197 lbs. I wanted to know should I get back to 2200, 2400 or higher after the end of 10 days diet break (at 3000-3300 cal).
    Also, when should one start reverse dieting before a show or just keep the cut until peak week?

    1. Hi Ala. Firstly, congratulations in getting competition ready weeks in advance. You will now have time to practice your peak week and experiment with carb loading to see what works best for you / gives you the best condition on competition day. This will be exceptionally useful if this is your first competition because it differs from person to person and there isn’t one size fits all.

      The downside is that you’re a little too early (I’d shoot for 2-4 weeks ideally) and will now have to suffer with hunger and lethargy longer until the show. (There is a world of difference between how the body responds to being at 8-9% body fat, and 4-6% body fat.) You did the right thing with the diet break, you could consider upping calories for a few weeks to lessen it.

      Anyway, to answer your questions: Start there, gradually increase if you can do so and maintain your condition. This paper that my co-author on the Muscle and Strength Pyramid books was part of may be useful to you if you haven’t seen it yet: Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation

      Hope that helps.

  2. Perfect article coming at the right time!

    Feel like I have been dieting for as long as I can remember, and I feel like it has messed up my metabolism a little.
    Feeling tired and grumpy, crazy hungry bit as soon as I eat I feel full pretty quick.

    I think the hormones are out of whack, so a little break will only be beneficial for the mind and body

    Thanks Andy!

  3. I’m going to do this. I had one quick question. You stated that during the diet break, you should only perform half the cardio that you were doing before the break. After my diet break is over, should I go back to doing the amount of cardio that I was before the break or should I slowly increase it? For instance, I’ve been doing 40 mins of power walking 3x per week and 25 mins of hiit cardio 3x per week. I would cut that in half during the diet break to 20 and 12:30. After the diet break, should I slowly increase it or go right back to 40 mins of power walking and 25 mins of hiit?

  4. Andy,

    Men! great article, it let me much more relaxed. Also great page.

    I have a little question about after the diet break. I opted for a 2 week controlled break at maintenance. When I finish with the diet I just go back to my normal numbers right? even if my weight went up.

    Thank you very much,


    1. Hi Federico, thanks for the question. Your numbers will go up. That’s irrelevant to the decision. Base it on this:

    2. If fat loss was progressing perfectly fine before the diet break, go with the previous numbers.
    3. If fat loss was just a little slow prior to the diet break, go with the previous numbers.
    4. If the rate of fat loss was considerably slower than targeted, and adherence was good, then consider a reduction.
    5. Hope that helps.

  5. Hi Andy, you are awesome! I’m finishing my first diet break and it’s exactly as you wrote here! An increase in weight (7-10 lbs) but actually no really big changes in stomach measurements, after the first week of break they actually decreased a bit. Now I’m expecting a little increase in the last week of diet break, but honestly, it didn’t seem to have affected me that much in terms of gaining too much fat!

    Can’t wait to start dieting again! Thank you for your website, so much precious informations here!

    Greetings from Italy!

  6. Hi Andy!

    In the diet break (for 2 weeks), how would you train? You deload volume / intensity or mantain high intensity with the same volume?


    1. Hi Rodrigo. Keep training as you have been training. Deload timing should be considered independently. I’d have one every 4-8 weeks, as this will allow residual fatigue to dissipate and allow further progress. There are many ways to do a deload, but the simplest is cutting down the number of sets for each exercise performed by ~1/3 for a week.

  7. Hi Andy!

    I’m in the beginning stages of getting healthier. I have no plans to compete, I just want to feel/look better. I’m aiming to lose about 100lbs, and I’ve lost just over 35lbs so far. I’ve been at it for about 4 months, and in the last 2 weeks I’ve hit a plateau (hovering +/- 5lbs in the low 230s). Even though my body fat percentage is high, is a diet break something I should be implementing at this stage?

  8. Hi Andy,

    My 2-weeks diet break went a “little” bit out of control and I’ve gained more weight then I normally should. Do you think it’s a good idea to add a cardio during first week or two just to increase my metabolism and lose additional weight faster?


      1. Thanks for reply. Today I’ve lost 1/3 of weight I’d gained after just 1 day of dieting 😉

  9. Hi Andy,

    I’m not sure whether I need a diet break. I finished my bulk at around 13.6bf and since 2-2.5 months ago I’ve been cutting (first 4-6 weeks small deficit) now I’m around 500 deficit and for the past 2-3 weeks I see little to no progress I can safely estimate my bf around 10-11 again and wonder whether I should take a diet break. 3 weeks ago I did a cheat day and lost some weight for the next 6 days since then I have 1 cheat meal a week but no new progress…what do you think?

    Thank you!

  10. Hi Andy thanks for the reply . I forgot to ask in my previous comment , do you recommend training breaks ? I am an older trainee , mid forties , work shift work which interrupts sleep on a weekly basis leaving me tired often . Perhaps this explains my slow progress ?
    Regards Chris .

    1. Deloads are a good idea in a training plan periodically, as this will allow any built up fatigue dissipate before it becomes a problem. Every 4-8 weeks generally. This can be as simple as: Any exercises usually performed for 2-3 sets, reduce by one set. Any exercises usually performed for 4-5 sets, reduce by 2 sets. – A common guideline I give to clients when assessing that one will be beneficial.

  11. Hi Andy , do you recommend diet breaks for those on a recomp . I’m approaching 12 weeks with steady but slow results . Strength stats are progressing , belt is getting looser , weight dropping etc , have not bothered to test for BF as don’t trust my Tanita readings . And also what other programs do you recommend for a recomp , I’m currently doing Starting Strength . Thanks for all the info .
    Regards Chris.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for the questions.
      Do you recommend diet breaks for those on a recomp?
      – While not necessary for the hormonal benefits (assuming you’re not losing weight) it could be beneficial for the psychological release.
      have not bothered to test for BF as don’t trust my Tanita readings
      – Good, they’re shit.
      What other programs do you recommend for a recomp?
      – Programming is independent of a cut, bulk or recomp, what changes is just the level of training volume that can be handled/adapted to. Have a read of these articles:
      Which Training Program Is For Me?
      Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress
      The Core Principles of Effective Training
      Hope that helps.

  12. Hi Andy,
    Thanks for all of the info on this site, it is a fantastic resource and the most practical guide I have found.
    How much is work/life stress going to effect the ability to work through a plateau assuming all other things are equal (enough sleep, diet adherence etc). I have tried taking a diet break and switched to IF, but I recently took a weekend off and managed to put on 1-2 kgs (mostly around my midsection). The thing is I haven’t been able to drop the abdominal fat since I put it back on.
    Is this common or should I just accept that my life is too stressful to get to the level of ‘shredded’ I am aiming for?

    1. How much is work/life stress going to effect the ability to work through a plateau assuming all other things are equal (enough sleep, diet adherence etc).
      It’s critical. The effect will be to shift down your training response curve (the degree to which could put you in muscle loss territory), it’s also probably causing water retention masking the fat losses you do have. I’d come to a period of maintenance, then when life is less stressful go for it then.

  13. My psychiatrist wants me to participate in a form of immersion therapy. A full WEEK diet break where I don’t count macros or calories or restrict food choices. Any thoughts on how to take the first steps for someone that ONLY eats veggies, fruits and unprocessed grains. Thank you so much in advance if you are able to offer any helpful advice/tips!

  14. Hi Andy,
    I’m planning taking a diet break during my two weeks vacation in mid august. After all I’ll be cutting for a full 12 weeks by then. What would you recommend to be careful during the break since I won’t be training also during these two weeks, because you recommend even during the break to keep training.
    You ‘ve been changing my body to the better for three weeks now I’m 39y and haven’t seen my abs ever! Now the top two started to emerge !!!!

  15. Hey Andy,

    When coming off of a diet break whether due to a plateau or another reason..when we go back to the diet should we resume from the calories we were dieting on before or adjust lower based on our lower body weight? I know we have to adjust as we lose fat and weight so just wondering if coming off a diet break would be an ideal time to do it.


    1. Mac, thanks for the question. I don’t have a single clear answer for you, but I’ll try to explain my decision making process when assessing this for clients.
      – If the client was progressing well before taking the diet break, I’d keep the macros as they were.
      – If the client’s progress slowed a little, I’d probably still keep them as they were (unless on a deadline, or motivation is wavering).
      – If progress slowed considerably or stalled, then I would consider making a decrease, unless the client was experiencing a lot of stress prior to the break. – Stress can cause water retention which masks fat loss. Diet breaks help relieve stress. So in this case I’d keep the macros as they were and wait to see if there was a whoosh of weight loss in the two weeks following the diet break, taking them to a weight lower than their previous level prior to starting it.

      Hope that helps Max. More of this stuff in my book:
      The Last Shred: How to adjust your diet like a pro to reach single digit body fat

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