Eating at a calorie deficit takes its toll after a while. You feel hungry all the time, crave high-calorie foods and fat loss slows down. When this happens, most people turn to cheat days or cheat meals. But this can actually offset a lot of the progress you’ve made.
In this article, I’ll explain why you should turn to a diet break when you feel fatigued from dieting and how this can help prevent fat loss plateaus.
What Happens As You Get Leaner
When you’re in a calorie deficit, you’re technically underfeeding your body. You give it less energy than it requires so it will have to start using body fat as “fuel.” The human body is adaptive, so if you constantly underfeed it, it’s going to adapt by burning fewer calories and making you more hungry to increase the desire to eat. In nutritional sciences, this is known as ”metabolic adaptation”.
Your metabolism basically starts ”slowing down”, so your body can maintain its current shape while you’re consuming fewer calories. From a survival point of view, this makes sense. Your body adapts to the scarcity of food, so it’s able to survive with a lower daily caloric intake.
But when your goal is to lose as much fat as possible, this isn’t favorable. To lose fat, you need to consume fewer calories than your body burns. So if you are in a deficit and your body starts burning fewer calories, you’ll be losing less fat.
This is the main reason why it becomes harder to burn fat as you get deeper into your fat loss phase. A study by Columbia University found that daily energy expenditure can drop anywhere from 8% to 28% after 5-8 weeks of dieting.
So in an extreme case, an average-sized male who burns 2500 calories a day, could be burning just 1800 (2500*0.72) calories a day after a few months of calorie restriction. Now, I must note, such great drops in daily energy expenditure are not common. But it’s clear that metabolic adaptations can have a noticeable effect on how your fat loss phase develops.
How A Diet Break Can Help
If you want to keep losing fat smoothly without “starving” yourself, you need to make sure your daily energy expenditure doesn’t drastically drop over time. Because if it does, you will have to further lower your caloric intake and/or do more cardio to keep seeing good fat loss progress as you advance.
So we know that if you’re in a calorie deficit and are losing fat, your body will start burning fewer calories over time. For most people, this is inevitable since you also need less energy to maintain and move around a lighter body. But we can likely slow down the metabolic adaptations from dieting by occasionally taking a diet break.
We can distinguish a diet break into two types:
- Refeed days
- Week(s) off from a calorie deficit
Research indicates that the adaptations your body goes through in a calorie deficit are partially regulated by the hormone leptin. The longer you’re in a calorie deficit, the more your leptin levels drop. This in return causes you to feel more hungry throughout the day, burn fewer calories and basically makes you feel depleted.
Research shows that overeating on carbs (like during a refeed) significantly increases leptin levels and, thus, may help slow down some of the metabolic adaptations that typically occur in a fat loss phase.
But keep in mind, just one day of eating more carbs won’t magically ramp up your metabolism. All it likely does is slow down the adaptations your body already is going through.
The benefits of a refeed are mostly psychological.
At the start of your fat loss phase, a good way to use refeeds is by autoregulating them. When you notice your workouts start suffering due to low energy levels and/or you have a social event coming up, have a refeed day.
As you’re deeper into your fat loss phase, you can implement refeed days more frequently (1-3x a week, scale upwards the leaner you are) since you tend to have increased hunger and energy levels take a hit.
During a refeed day, you eat close to your average maintenance level (number of calories you typically burn per day). There’s no need to complicate this day. Consume enough protein, hit your calorie targets, and have more foods you enjoy.
Week(s) Off From a Calorie Deficit
I like to keep my fat loss phases short and effective. The longer you stay in a calorie deficit, the more your metabolism slows down and the more susceptible you are to losing muscle. But if you have a good amount of body fat to lose, it’s nearly impossible to get lean within a few months.
After months of restricting calories, the metabolic adaptations you’ve gone through add up and you may need to diet more aggressively (decrease calorie intake further and perhaps add cardio) to achieve fat loss.
When this happens (usually after 8-12 weeks), it’s best to take a 1-2 week diet break before intensifying your diet. A diet break of 1-2 weeks gives your body the opportunity to reverse the metabolic adaptations its gone through.
Again, the human body cares about survival. A constant stream of calories for 1-2 weeks is more indicative of food availability than just 1-2 refeed days. So it makes sense that an extended diet break is more effective for reversing metabolic adaptations than a refeed day.
A diet break should be kept simple, it is nothing more than an extended refeed day:
The goal with this diet break is to help you increase your daily energy expenditure near its former levels and provide an extended psychological break from eating at a caloric deficit.
Because of the possible reversal of metabolic adaptations during a diet break, you’ll generally notice that you can return back to your regular caloric deficit after a diet break and lose fat effectively again. This way, you can prevent the endless drops in caloric intake over time while trying to lose fat.
Weight Gain & Diet Breaks
After spending a considerable amount of time in a calorie deficit, some people are hesitant about eating more. Oftentimes this has to do with the fear of regaining some of the lost weight. But I want to remind you that to look and feel better, we should care about fat loss, not weight loss.
Once you start eating more food in general during a diet break, it’s possible you gain some weight. However, if you eat around maintenance calories, the gained weight is not fat and temporary. One contributor to slight weight gain during a diet break is your muscle glycogen levels being refilled.
Muscle glycogen is the primary fuel source during high-intensity exercise. Having periods in which you eat more carbs will help refill muscle glycogen stores. This, in turn, may help you train harder. So it’s a good thing.
Another possible contributor to slight weight gain during a diet break is that you’re gaining back some lost muscle. So unless you are gaining excessive weight (more than 1% of your total BW in a week), I wouldn’t worry about the temporary fluctuations in weight during a diet break. Slight weight gain is to be expected.
That’s it regarding diet breaks! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave them below, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
Also, if you’re planning on doing a fat loss phase soon, I recommend you check out my “Fat Loss Checklist”. It covers the key points you need to consider before starting your fat loss phase. You will receive the checklist when you join my mailing list by filling in the form below!