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 diet breaks when you feel depleted and how this can help prevent plateaus, so you can burn more fat in the long-run.
What happens as you get leaner
When you’re in a calorie deficit, you’re actually underfeeding your body. You give it less energy than it requires, so it will have to start burning body fat for “fuel”. The human body is adaptive, so if you constantly underfeed it, it’s going to adapt to this and start burning less calories. In science this is recognized as ”metabolic adaptation”.
Your metabolism basically starts ”slowing down”, so your body can maintain its current shape while you’re consuming less calories. From a survival point of view, this is great. 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 burn as much fat as possible, this isn’t favorable. To burn fat you need to consume less calories than your body burns. If you do this but your body starts burning less calories, you’ll be burning less fat overtime.
This is the main reason why it becomes harder to burn fat as you get deeper into your fat loss phase. Your body is adapting to the lower amounts of calories you’re feeding it. A study by the 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, a regular-sized male who burns 2500 calories a day, could be burning just 1800 (2500*0.72) calories a day after 2 months of restricting calories. Such a great adaptation may not be common, but it’s clear that metabolic adaptation has a noticeable effect on how your fat loss phase develops.
How diet breaks can help
If you want to keep fat loss going smoothly without starving yourself, you need to ensure that your metabolic rate doesn’t drastically drop overtime. Or else you will have to lower your calorie intake to such a degree that you won’t be able to enjoy enough food.
So we know that if you’re in a calorie deficit, your body will start burning less calories overtime, this is inevitable. Therefore the only way you can prevent your body from drastically reducing your metabolic rate, is by having periods in which you consume at or slightly above your daily energy expenditure.
Research shows that eating above your calorie requirements actually slightly increases your energy expenditure. Remember, the human body is adaptive, so it also adapts to overeating to a certain degree (don’t get the wrong message, if you eat 10,000 calories a day you’ll get fat).
So basically, you need to plan diet breaks into your fat loss phases.
We can distinguish diet breaks into two types:
- Refeed days
- Week(s) off from a calorie deficit
Research shows 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 less calories and basically makes you feel depleted.
Research shows that overeating on carbs (like during a refeed) significantly boosts your leptin levels and therefore can help offset some of the consequences of a calorie deficit.
But keep in mind, one day of overeating won’t magically ramp up your metabolism. All it does is slow down the adaptations your body is going through. This is how refeed days can help you. It’s not a fat loss secret that will make you burn 2x the amount of fat than usual.
A day not in a calorie deficit, is a day in which no fat loss occurs. That’s why you need to be strategic about how you implement refeed days.
If you’re high in body fat and just starting out with your fat loss phase, metabolic adaptations are less powerful. That’s why as you start your fat loss phase, you’re not in need of many refeeds. A good rule of thumb is to have your first refeed(s) when you notice your workouts start suffering due to low energy levels.
As you’re deeper into your fat loss phase, implementing refeed days more often (once a week or more depending on how lean you are), can be beneficial since metabolic adaptation is greater in this case.
During a refeed day you eat at maintenance level (the amount of calories you burn a day). About 50% of your calories should come from carbs, since overeating on carbs causes the greatest increase in leptin.
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, the more muscle you lose and the more stress you put on your body. But if you carry a lot of body fat, it’s nearly impossible to get lean within 12 weeks.
After months of restricting calories, you’ll eventually get to the point where all the metabolic adaptation you’ve gone through adds up and you need to go to extreme measures (decrease calorie intake more and perhaps add extra cardio) to achieve significant fat loss. This is the main reason why people plateau during a fat loss phase.
When this happens (usually after 10-12 weeks), it’s best to take 1-2 weeks off from “dieting” to give your body the chance to return near its former metabolic state.
Slightly overeating increases your metabolic rate, but fat gain is the last thing you want during your fat loss phase. So increasing your calories throughout your 1-2 week break until you’ve reached the amount of calories you were eating before your fat loss phase (former maintenance level) is how you want to approach your ”break” from dieting.
Final words on diet breaks
In this post we’ve mainly covered the physiological benefits from diet breaks. But it’s worth to say that taking a bit time off from trying to lean down can be refreshing mentally too.
That’s why cheat days are so popular, because they provide a small break. Now that you’re almost done reading this article, you know what to do instead if you feel like you need some time off. Unlike ”cheats”, the alternatives we discussed today will actually help you during your fat loss phase.
If you’re planning on performing a fat loss phase soon, I highly recommend you check out my free ”Maximizing Fat Loss Plan”. You can download it by filling in the form below!