Eating at a caloric 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 caloric 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 give you a greater drive to eat. In nutritional sciences, this is recognized as ”metabolic adaptations”.
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 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 lose fat, you need to consume fewer calories than your body burns. So if you’re in a deficit and your body starts burning fewer calories, you’ll simply be burning less fat over time.
This is the main reason why it becomes harder to burn fat as you get deeper into your fat loss phase. 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 great metabolic adaptations likely are not common, but it’s clear that this can have 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 over time, or else you will have to lower your caloric intake to an extent that you won’t be able to enjoy enough food anymore.
So we know that if you’re in a caloric deficit your body will start burning fewer calories over time. For most people, this is inevitable. Therefore, one way we can slow down the metabolic adaptations that occur is through occasionally taking a small break from eating at a caloric deficit.
We can distinguish diet breaks into two types:
- Refeed days
- Week(s) off from a calorie deficit
Research indicates that the adaptations your body goes through in a caloric deficit are partially regulated by the hormone leptin. The longer you’re in a caloric 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 offset some of the consequences of a caloric deficit.
But keep in mind, one day of overeating won’t magically ramp up your metabolism. All it likely does is slow down the adaptations your body is already going through. This is how refeed days can help you. From a physiological standpoint, it’s not an amazing fat loss tool that will make you burn 2x the amount of fat than usual.
But from a psychological standpoint, refeeds can be very effective.
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 you (for example) have a social event you want to attend, planning in a refeed day is a flexible solution.
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 you tend to be more hungry and fat loss becomes stubborn.
During a refeed day you eat close to your maintenance level (the number of calories you burn a day). There’s no need to complicate this day. Consume enough protein and have foods you enjoy, as it’s easier to fit them in.
Week(s) Off From a Caloric Deficit
I like to keep my fat loss phases short and effective. The longer you stay in a caloric deficit, the more your metabolism slows down and the more likely you are to lose muscle. But if you carry a lot of body fat, it’s nearly impossible to get lean within a few months.
After months of restricting calories, you’ll eventually get to the point where all the metabolic adaptations you’ve gone through add up and you may even need to go to extreme measures (decrease calorie intake more and perhaps add extra cardio) to achieve 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 may reverse metabolic adaptations, but fat gain is the last thing you want during your fat loss phase. So increasing your calories by about 500 calories first in your 1-2 week break is a good way to approach it.
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 highly recommend you check out my free “Fat Loss Checklist.” It covers the essential points you need to consider before you start your fat loss phase. You can download the checklist by filling in the form below!