If you are a habitual dieter and watch your intake religiously all year long, you may already utilize “breaks” of some sort. Breaks from dieting take the form of “cheat meals”, “cheat days”, or “diet breaks”. No matter what your break looks like, taking time off of diligently planning your meals and watching your food consumption is an excellent strategy for long term results.
In practice, diet breaks are very advantageous. During prolonged bouts of dieting, hormonal profiles can take a hit due to the lowered carbohydrate intake as well as the chronic stress that being in a caloric deficit puts on the body.
The Hormones Of Hunger
Leptin is known as the “starvation hormone”. It sends a signal to the body that it has excess body fat to burn – and as long as a certain amount of leptin is present in the body, the body will tap into its fat when faced with an energy deficit. But once leptin falls below a certain level, the body begins to resist the fat burning – as the lowered leptin amounts send a signal to the body that it will need to survive on less food.
Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone”. Our bodies are primed for stress. However, we are primed for acute stress, not chronic stress. If someone pinches your girl’s backside at a bar, our hearts start thumping, our eyes dilate, our head starts to spin a bit, and a surge of adrenaline begins to take over. This is what’s known as “fight or flight”. We have two options – pummel the bastard or leave the room. Our bodies are well designed and adapted for this type of stress.
However, chronic stress has become a staple of our society. The constant, nagging, looming stress of work deadlines, traffic, inadequate sleep, and sub-par nutrition have added up to a slight, never-ending stress that we aren’t physiologically adapted to handle. These stresses can cause cortisol levels to rise, which in turn causes our bodies to become less efficient at its fat burning processes.
Prolonged dieting can cause both leptin levels to fall and cortisol levels to rise simultaneously. This combination can prove troublesome for even the most skilled dieters. The double whammy of falling leptin and rising cortisol can easily cause an incredibly frustrating dietary landmark – the “stall”.
Dieting is a cumulative venture. Everything must be seen as “big picture”. Our success when dieting isn’t determined by one, instantaneous decision. Our success is determined by the grand scope of what we do. Your caloric deficit for one day matters much less than your deficit for one week – or better yet, your deficit for one month. It’s best to view your dietary work as a “checkbook”. With your finances, you might be +$300 for the month, which would put you at roughly +$3 per day, on average. But that doesn’t mean you “made $3 each day”. Some days, you likely spent $200, other days, you likely made $2,000. Those instantaneous moments don’t determine the overall trend of your wealth – your monthly statement from your bank determines if you will spend your golden years on a yacht, or working for $8 per hour as a Walmart greeter.
Since dieting needs to be viewed as a cumulative venture, the cumulative effect of maintaining a caloric deficit for an extended period of time can eventually cause issues. When this happens, and we “stall” on our fat loss, we have a few choices to make.
The most obvious choice would be to cut calories. This can be done rather easily with some simple math and application. A slight downwards shift is all that’s needed to right the ship and continue on your way. This wouldn’t be detrimental unless taken to an extreme. The hormonal changes caused by dieting simply creates an environment where your metabolic rate becomes lowered – and your intake will need to be lowered as a function of this.
Looking big picture, one might find a different route to be beneficial. Taking a short “break” from the rigors of dieting can be advantageous to “reset” those hormones, raise your leptin to previous levels, take the edge off of the elevated cortisol levels, and clear your head for the next stage of dieting.
What ARE Diet Breaks?
A few items we express to clients when these situations present themselves:
- Diet breaks are not physiologically necessary until a stall happens. You don’t “need” to take a break every few weeks – it’s only physiologically needed when the fat loss levels off.
- Diet breaks are not “binges”. If you take time off of your diet to fulfill every hedonistic desire you have (food wise), you will gain fat.
- Diet breaks are unnecessary unless you are maintaining a caloric deficit. If you are “kinda, sorta, wishy-washy” with your calories, and your fat loss is stalling, it’s much more likely to be stalling as a function of being an ineffective dieter. Get on point first, don’t use a “diet break” as a crutch or an excuse. Tighten up first, and you’re likely to see a nice drop as a result and realize that a diet break isn’t needed.
- Diet breaks should only be used when your scale loss AND your measurements have stalled. You need to be taking body measurements. Your scale weight can be an important metric, but the leaner you get, the more water weight will have an effect on your scale weight. If your body measurements are improving, you are not stalling.
- Diet breaks can be used strategically before they are necessary. In our practice, most don’t need a diet break until around 14-16 weeks into their diet. Some can even make it 20-24 weeks before the fat loss begins to level off. However, if the dieter waits that long, once the stall is noticed, they may feel “rushed” to cut calories and “get to the end”. This is a poor way to view dieting. We always need to be invested in the process, not the end result. And the effects of long-term dieting can wreak havoc on your mental state. After the initial 12 weeks with us, we often advise a 2-week diet break. If there’s a good chance the dieter will need one in an additional 4 weeks anyways, we might as well get it out of the way. This allows not only for a physiological reset, but also for some psychological freedom from the constant counting and obsessing as well. Once the diet is resumed, the fat loss almost always takes off as a result.
When it’s time for a “diet break”, we have a few parameters we utilize. We much prefer a full, two-week break as opposed to a “cheat meal”, a “cheat day”, or a “cheat weekend”. We all have lives, and if we have a vacation, a weekend away, or a social event with friends/family, we suggest enjoying the time with loved ones and eating responsibly rather than deeming it a “cheating event”. Long term, we want to live fruitful, healthy, and lean lives without being tied to a kitchen scale and a measuring cup. These moments are excellent opportunities to practice mindful eating.
We always emphasize that we are taking a “diet break”, we are not having a “cheat” – anything. Just the pejorative connotation behind the word “cheat” is enough to psychologically trigger a binge. When we need a break, that isn’t an opportunity to allow our emotions and anxieties to get the best of us. We are still in control and “on plan” – we are simply utilizing a diet break as a part of our plans. It’s important to understand and see this clear distinction in the mental framework for our break.
How To Properly Diet Break
The actionable parameters for our diet breaks are straight forward.
1. Keep your meal frequency constant.
If you would like to mix in an extra meal here and there, no worries. But in general, it makes sense to continue to eat with the same frequency. This keeps the hormonal advantages to eating with a consistent frequency in tact and will make life much easier to resume once our break is complete.
2. Keep your meal choices similar.
The foods which you consumed during your first period of dieting should be very close to the foods you consume during your dietary break. Introducing lots of new food items have a tendency to trigger psychological changes, and possible binges. If you’d like to have a treat here or there, no worries – but your diet shouldn’t go from steak and potatoes to ice cream and cereal. Still stay hydrated, still eat your veggies, still emphasize your protein – just have some more of the foods you’ve been eating.
3. Do not count macros or calories.
This is as much of a mental break as it is a physical break. You can still eat the same foods, but keep your scale in your pantry. No “mental math”, either. Just eat and enjoy.
4. Eat to your hunger – eat until you are full and satisfied, but do not binge.
This is easily the most difficult part. After all, eating past the point of satisfaction is what has caused us to need to diet in the first place. In order for a diet break to work effectively, once you are full and satisfied, you will need to stop eating. Remain calm and mindful of the food you’re putting into your mouth. And before you eat something, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry, or do I want to eat for another reason?”
A very simple application of how to properly take a diet break is to continue to eat the same meals you always have, but just have a few “extras”.
For example, in my house, we love Mexican night. We eat Mexican every Monday.
In general, my meal consists of beef, onions, salsa, white rice, and seasoning. I skip a few items that I admittedly love – sour cream, cheese, guacamole, burrito shells – because they don’t fit very nicely into my macro numbers. I need to strategically eat in order to maximize fullness. And the rice maximizes fullness much more effectively than the burrito shell. The sour cream, cheese, and guacamole are simply too high in fat in order to maintain my deficit. Especially since I’m carnivorous and eat 1 full pound of ground beef with my Mexican. With a full pound of beef consumed, I’ve already got a rather large amount of fat residing in my belly.
When I’m on a diet break, however, I will eat those extras. I’ll put a light layer of shredded cheese, a dab of guacamole and sour cream, and I will eat my meal with some burrito shells.
I won’t drastically change my diet. I don’t head for the Ben and Jerry’s after my meal. We don’t call up Domino’s instead of partaking in “Mexican Monday”. But at the same time, I don’t count any macros, I eat a meal I enjoy with a few “frills” I normally don’t eat, and I can relax a bit and take a break from the rigors of constant counting and obsessing.
If you find yourself dieting for a prolonged period of time and find your fat loss to be grinding to a halt, you may want to consider taking a diet break yourself. Even if you haven’t slowed yet, if you are finding yourself struggling a bit psychologically with your diet, a small break may be just what you need to continue to lose fat, lean out, and improve your body composition.
Yours in true health,