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How to Implement Diet Breaks to Get Shredded Lean

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‘.

Expectations

  • 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.


FAQ

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.

– Andy.

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Colton
Colton

when taking a diet break at, what some mention maintenance for a week or two, is this maintenance pre diet? So if I diet down from 180 to 165, would my diet break be at maintenance at my pre diet 180lbs? Thank you in advance!

Kat
Kat

Hi Andy,

I enjoyed your article and am hoping this diet break will be the answer to my struggles. I just finished a 12 week Cut, but was largely unsuccessful. Not sure what happened as I followed my macros but had little weight drop and didn’t see a lot of change in progress pics. Naturally I’m anxious to try again. Anyway, thanks again for the article.
I hope this diet break and subsequent diet will go better.

Roman
Roman

Hey Andy!

I was wondering if a diet-break might be something for me? Since february I‘ve lost almost 60lbs, 25,6 KG exactly. I went from 98,6kg to 73 kg. But since I‘ve reached 73kg, I cannot drop any more bodyfat. My calories are pretty low, with cardio 3-4x a week and of course 5x . Also, I have terrible carvings for almost regular food. I have trouble walking past a bakery or a restaurant.

Do you think dieting for almost half a year at once is too long and a diet break could be a good idea?

Thank you very much for any advice in advance!!!

Solomon
Solomon

Hey Andy. Love the site and what you do! I just came off a 2 week diet break at the beginning of July. I resumed my normal calories and have been losing since then except for the past two weeks. I fell short of my target and then the following week (last week) I actually went up 0.2lbs.

I’m on pace this week to be at the same weight avg as last week. What should I do? Finish this week and give it a 4th week of potentially not hitting my target, cut calories now or take another 2 week diet break? I really don’t want to take another 2 week diet break so soon but I trust your knowledge. Your wish is my command. LOL. Thank you for your time.

Solomon
Solomon

No change in caloric intake or activity levels. No stress and I’m sleeping well. Sounds good! I’ll hold tight. Thanks Andy!

Zakaria JR
Zakaria JR

Hey Andy , i’m currently facing a plateau after 6 months dieting and aiming to have a break .. i currently have 1700 calories per day and my regular calorie maintenance levels should be from 2400-2500 calories ,, should i just up my calorie intake to this number ? i read before in one of your articles that after long cutting phase the body is Highly ready to store fat and for sure my metabolism now is so low .. won’t this make me store fat so quickly on the first few days until my hormones regulate and return to the normal maintenance level ?

Rob
Rob

I have great success cutting with a 40% difference in calories on training days vs rest days. Can I continue the 40% calorie cycling difference for my diet break?

Rob
Rob

Ok! 🙂 I’m also thinking my diet breaks and deloads/training breaks can be always scheduled at the same time together. Is this approach acceptable?

Steven
Steven

Hi, I have finals and want a diet break. I won’t be lifting either… should I still just eat at maintenance?

Sher
Sher

Thank you for this insightful article. So I recently lost almost 40kgs but my calorie deficit was very low, body was fatigued , hormones were a bit stuffed up, and hair loss was evident from too little calories. I’m now using macros and someone has me upping them every week little by little. Im at about 35% fat from looking in the mirror so I still want to lose more. When can I resume dieting and how will I diet in my case? Because going back to so little calories is apparently not good? I see so many people fall into this trap. Your advice would be appreciated. Also what is the difference between fat and glycogen? Excuse my ignorance I thought they were the same! 🙂 Thank u

Sher
Sher

Thank you for quick response. I’m currently maintaining at 1250 Cal’s. Every week it gets upped by another 50 Cal’s. Almost like a refeed. So problem I have with this is by doing what u suggest I’m back to too little calories. Is it fine to be at about 800 Cal’s a day and trying to cut and build? Sorry so many questions. I basically went from obese to wanting to be shredded. Its hectic and so fascinating at the same time this journey I’ve now undertaken.

Sher
Sher

Thank you for this info, will have a look into it Andy! Appreciate this site 🙂

Adam
Adam

Dear Mr. Andy,
I was on a long diet break. Started on the 4th of February around 195 pounds and took the break at the 31st of may 173pounds.
Before the diet break I ate around 1500 calories a day. My maintenance was 1950.

My question is, do I go back to eating 1500 or do I start at like 1800

Adam
Adam

Thanks a lot

Sherron
Sherron

Hey Andy!

Let me start off by saying that your knowledge and wisdom is second to none. I’ve been following you and your site for years! Love what you do!

I’ve been dieting for almost 5 months now (since Jan 1). I’ve lost around 50lbs. I haven’t really stalled or had to make changes to calories. So far in that 5 months, I’ve had back to back weeks where my weight loss fell short of my target only twice. The most recent was the last 2 weeks but so far this week, my average is on pace to be well above my target. (Swoosh?) I take your advice where you say to wait 4 consecutive weeks falling short of the target weight loss to make changes and I haven’t had that happen yet. I’m still progressing and strength has dropped only a little. I feel great mentally and physically! I’m about 20lbs off from my goal!

I was planning on taking a deload week in a couple of weeks and start a 2 week diet break at the same time just because I’ve gone so long in a deficit and lifting heavy (double taxing my CNS). Again, I feel great mentally and physically with very little strength loss. Do you think I should go with the 2 week diet break and 1 week deload or wait until I hit a wall so to speak (if do hit one before I reach my goal ha!)? Anything else you think I should or shouldn’t do, please let me know. Thank you for all that you do!

Sherron
Sherron

Thank you Andy. I’m going to wait two weeks to start the diet break since I have to travel for work for a few days. It will be easier having the diet break then instead of trying to take all of my meals with me etc.

Anna Cassel
Anna Cassel

Hi!
So I tend to diet break during friday and saturday .. could also be described as cheat days. My deficit during the weekdays are still going well and still gives a weight drop every week.

According to my nutrition program, I should have a 7 day diet break now, but I’m assuming that might be for those who actually diet correctly with no cheat days ..

Do you think I should go with the diet break or skip it and keep dieting? Mentally I’m feeling alright.

Jay
Jay

Hello,

Thanks for the article. So I have a specific question. I am now almost at the end of my diet and I will go on a vacation for 4 days where I will eat a lot and enjoy myself. I am unsure what to do after I get back. I am thinking right now that I am going to diet again and to do the reverse diet as planned. But at what macros do you think should I go into the diet again.

Thanks for your help,

Jay

Chad
Chad

Not sure if this article is aimed at weight lifters, I don’t even go to the gym.
Been Dieting for about 5 months now, I was 340 pounds ~5 months ago, now I’m at 285, but I’ve noticed lately that even on my 1300 cal a day diet, I am not really losing weight. Been reading up and I’m not sure, but it seems like some thing that your metabolism really slows down.
For ref- I am 32 yrs, 181cm height, male, and broad build.
Would a diet break actually increase my metabolic rate? Don’t know my fat%, but it seems to be around the 20-25% range according to a fat calculator I found online.
I’ve had no problems psychologically, I tend to stick to the my imposed calorie limit every day, give or take 30 calories. So unless there is a physiological benefit, I don’t think this would work for me.

Gabie
Gabie

Hi Andy,
Thanks for all the info! I have been on a diet for 4 weeks, and plan on being on it for another 2. I’m happy with my weight and physique, but i’ve been cutting for a photoshoot and have been on very low calories. I’d like to start reverse dieting so I can get my calories up to a respectable number (2K+). Do you recommend I start reverse dieting after the 6 weeks (adding 100 cals every 2 weeks), or should I take a break first? There’s so much information out there, i’m overwhelmed!
Thanks in advance,
Gabie xx

Jesus
Jesus

Hi Andy,

I am currently on a diet break. Start weight was 208lbs and currently at 182 before break. Been dieting for about 3 months. Took the diet break after platued at 182. Currently gaining about a pound a day and im around 186 after 6 days of break. I’m feeling really down about the weight gain even though I’m sure it’s alot of water weight as you mentioned in your artical. But I’m really anxious to get back to my diet and lose weight again. Does it really have to be 14 days for your leptin levels to return to normal? I’m thinking about going back on diet after 12-13 days.

Thank you,
Jesus

Hannah
Hannah

Thank you for the article it has been most helpful :).

I have been progressive overloading each week and am always up on lifts despite dieting. I notice I am losing fat however worried it won’t have much muscle to show underneath despite getting stronger. I haven’t ever bulked and didn’t really plan on. Are diet breaks something you can just continue doing throughout the year? Or does there come a stage you need to take your body completely away from a diet for say 1-3 months?

Elena Terziyska
Elena Terziyska

Thank you Andy!
That was a very helpful article! Amazing!
I have one question, I’ve just finished a competition prep and went on a huge bender post comp for a week, still roughly tracking and calculated that my daily calories are within 100kcal of my maintenance level.
However, what do you suggest for the week after that?
Would you be dropping calories again and slowly bringing them up?
I’m doing reverse dieting, finished prep on roughly 1300 kcal a day and ate around 2100 kcal in the first week after.
I’d like to increase my calories as much as possible but also not adding a lot of fat.
I’m female, 37yrs old, 172cm, currently 62.5 kg

Thank you once again
Elena

Cameron J Hamill
Cameron J Hamill

Excellent article! Thanks very much. I’m a 41′ year old male with about 16% Body Fat. I’m going to go on a 14 day controlled diet break.

I’ll still count calories and will aim for about 2000 to 2100 calories per day average. I need a mental holiday from my diet.

I have learned a lot from your brilliant article. Thanks very much once again.

Ali
Ali

If you come off an extreme deficit and want to do a controlled diet break, so you slowly increase your calories for a week, can you still execrise and maintain a “deficit” overall, to ensure no fat regain and partial weight loss throughout the week, or should you just flat out be conversing as much energy as possible?

Katy
Katy

Hi Andy,
Loved this article—really answered my questions.
I do have one last question, though. Am I still allowed to eat clean and do HIIT while I’m diet breaking?

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