A diet break may seem counterintuitive - why would you need a diet break when you still have weight loss goals to achieve? Does taking a diet break reverse all of the progress you made?
Once you make the decision to work on your nutrition you are not only committing to adjusting the foods you eat but also to adjusting that protocol over time - ideally a lifetime. To achieve and maintain results your newfound habits and behaviors must become an integrated part of your lifestyle.
Sustainable weight loss and health improvement are really big commitments that most people don’t fully grasp at the beginning of their journey. When you start, motivation is high, you are excited to get those initial results and the importance of assessing what this requires long-term is often forgotten. This becomes a problem when you need to take a break from dieting.
So today, we’re sharing everything you need to know about diet breaks. What does it really mean to take a break from dieting and what are the top five signs that you need one?
What is a Diet Break?
A diet break is an intentional decision to move out of a caloric deficit for a predetermined period of time. If you’re tracking macros, a diet break could mean putting your tracker away for a bit or increasing your calories and continuing to track.
How to Calculate Diet Break Macros
If you decide that you’d like to track your intake during a diet break, your next question is likely going to be how to calculate those new, higher macros.
This takes a deep knowledge of the science and experience knowing what kind of adjustments will likely work best for your lifestyle and preferences. If you are working with a WAG Nutrition coach someone is in your corner to objectively assess trends in your data to guide that change.
If you are not working with a coach a great rule of thumb is to increase your calories for maintenance - use WAG’s Free Online Macro Calculator to help you find yours!
The Difference Between Reverse Dieting and Diet Breaks
Although they are similar, a diet break and a reverse diet are different concepts that achieve different goals and results.
Reverse dieting requires a slow increase in calories to maintenance levels or higher once a body composition or weight loss goal has been achieved. This stepwise built-in calories brings you to a more sustainable intake level so you can eat more while maintaining your results.
A diet break is different in that the jump in calories is immediate instead of a slow build. Diet breaks are also taken with the intention of bringing calories back down after a set period of time so you can continue working towards your body composition or weight loss goals. Most diet breaks last around two to four weeks.
Signs You Need to Take A Diet Break
Did you know that taking a diet break can actually improve your ability to achieve your weight loss goals?
I know! A diet break for fat loss sounds almost too good to be true but studies have shown that a slower, steadier approach to dieting creates longer-lasting results.
If you have been in a calorie deficit (AKA, a "cut") for an extended period of time you may be intimately familiar with the shifts that occur both physiologically and psychologically. Calorie intake impacts things like:
- Hormone health
- Stress management
- Sleep quality
…and more. Over a period of extended dieting, these changes are exacerbated and impact your quality of life, rate of progress, and your ability to sustain that progress long-term.
This is one of the many reasons diet breaks are important. As you move further along in the dieting process your initial high motivation wears off, commitments you made lose their luster and if progress starts to slow you may begin questioning everything.
A diet break is something WAG Coaches utilize to help you avoid burnout, improve diet adherence and reach your goals faster.
So, how do you know if it is time for you to take a diet break for fat loss?
#1: Your Weight Loss has Stalled
You have been dieting for many weeks - maybe even a few months - and while the scale was heading towards your goal at a steady pace, you have recently reached what feels like a plateau.
You’ll know you hit a weight plateau if your weight loss has stalled for four weeks or longer. This is a good sign that a diet break might be the right next step for you. But, before you jump into your diet break let’s check on a few things first.
Before taking a break you need to make sure that you’re really experiencing a weight plateau. Here are a couple things to consider:
- Have you had any events or experiences lately that made adhering to your program less accurate? If yes, it is possible that those have been contributing to the plateau and getting back into a routine and ramping up your accuracy will start showing progress again.
- Are you in a true calorie deficit? If you’ve lost a significant amount of weight, your metabolism may have adjusted and your calories/macros may need to shift to keep you in a deficit. A nutrition coach can help you really nail down if this is the case.
- Have you been more lenient with your nutrition tracking? It is common to be very adherent when you start a new program. Over time, this precision may take a hit (consciously or subconsciously) and you may need to bring more attention back to accurate tracking to ensure you’re not eating more than you think.
Take an inventory of your behaviors and your program to honestly assess if a shift in your habits and routines needs to take place before a diet break. If you’re a bit stuck, learn What It Takes to Get Lean. We’ll walk you through the exact level of accuracy and adherence that is required at various stages in the diet cycle.
But, if you’ve been nailing your targets and see the scale stalling for four weeks or more, this is when a diet break for continued weight loss would be a great option.
#2: Your Performance has Drastically Decreased
You’re hitting the gym and you just can’t access the same gear you used to. You’re frustrated, sore and wondering what happened!
Low calories = less energy/fuel for training and performance! Nutrition timing can only go so far so if training is important to you and it has taken a big nosedive, it may be time for a diet break.
Reducing calories over time to achieve weight loss goals can be done while keeping your performance goals a top priority, especially if you’re new to resistance training or have more weight to lose.
But if you’ve hit a stage where performance and recovery are starting to suffer this is a strong sign a diet break can be in your future. No matter how closely you monitor your intake or nutrition timing at a certain point a break is exactly what you need.
#3: Hunger is Through the Roof
It is one thing to be hangry if you were busy and ate lunch a few hours later than usual. But, it is a whole other beast to be hungry and thinking about food all day long. If you are experiencing extremely high hunger it is another strong indication you may need a diet break.
But before jumping right to a diet break, peek at this infographic. These high-volume foods will help you feel full without taking up too many calories. If you look at this list and think “wow, I haven’t been eating any of those foods” you may be able to keep calories where they are and swap out higher density carb sources like potatoes, rice, bread and high sugar fruits for higher volume options.
Still curious about food volume? Read our article about how to actually feel full. We cover quick and easy ways to add more fiber and volume to your routine. These changes can take you from hungry to satisfied if volume is your issue. If none of those resonate - a diet break can be your answer!
A diet break can work wonders when it comes to resetting your hunger hormones (I am talking about leptin and ghrelin here!) If you want to take a deeper look into the science of appetite and hormone balance Precision Nutrition has a great article HERE.
#4: Your Diet is Increasing Your Stress
You started a diet to positively impact your life - you wanted to change your habits, health, body, performance or all the above. But along the way, maybe it started feeling like more of a burden than a blessing.
Life doesn’t stop when you’re dieting. Work continues, relationships start and end, and there is no one who is immune to the hardships that life presents. If you find yourself experiencing a high degree of stress it may be time for a diet break.
Dieting is hard work which is why millions of people all over the world struggle with long-term adherence and commitment. Achieving your nutrition goals requires you to change aspects of your day-to-day life and sometimes this means saying no to tempting treats or other things you would have said “yes” to before making a commitment to your health. This can wear anyone down and burnout is very common.
Before taking a diet break, make sure this does not mean you revert back to any unhealthy comforting habits like late-night snacking, overdoing the sugar or keeping alcohol a nightly occurrence. While these things may feel great in the moment, they will likely increase your stress long-term.
If you are taking a diet break due to stress we recommend a few things:
- Create a time limit for yourself. For example, set a goal to utilize a diet break as a weight loss strategy for 1-2 weeks.
- Consider the different parts of your program and decide what to let go of (ex: strictly tracking everything you eat) and what habits, if continued, will help with stress management (Ex: eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods and continuing to exercise).
Speaking of stress, there is another major player that can impact it! Let’s dig into sleep.
#5: Your Sleep is Suffering
Sleep is the foundation of a healthy life - without the appropriate amount of high-quality sleep the rest of your life can feel the negative effects. When you are on a diet you are in a caloric deficit and for some people this can impact sleep patterns and in some rare cases cause insomnia. If this is happening to you - a diet break might be just what you need.
If you want to read more into the science of calorie deficits and sleep problems THIS is a great resource.
Just like there were considerations when it came to stress and hunger, there are some things you need to evaluate before deciding if a calorie deficit is impacting your sleep. THIS ARTICLE has our favorite tips and tricks for making your environment more sleep-friendly. Assess if these are things that could use some work before jumping to a diet break. If you’re nailing all of these things, low calories could be the missing piece and a diet break may be warranted.
How Often Do You Need A Diet Break?
There is no perfect answer for how often a diet break is necessary or useful. That being said, people who are leaner typically need diet breaks (or times at maintenance) more often than those who have more weight to lose and/or have less muscle. But, a general rule of thumb for most people is to take a 1-2 week break after 12 weeks of consistent dieting.
Because you will always be more emotionally connected to your results than a third party it can be harder to make these decisions on your own. This is one of many reasons 1:1 nutrition coaching is so powerful. WAG Coaches assist their clients in making these decisions from an educated, experienced place while taking your lifestyle and the objective data into account.
Dieting is a way to transform your life for the better. Taking breaks can help you increase adherence, enjoy the process and ultimately achieve the results you are looking for!