The Role Of The Diet Break

The goal is to stay eating as much as possible, for as long as possible, so that you can get leaner than you ever have, in the most comfortable way you ever have. This will enable you to sustain it. Success in dieting is not only about making diet adjustments at the right time but knowing when to take diet breaks also.

What is a diet break?

When I say ‘diet break’ I am usually referring to a period of 7-14 days where we purposefully increase calorie intake and loosen the counting restrictions we place on ourselves. There are also times of the year where I suggest you don’t try to count your calorie or macro intake, such as for important holidays during the year (Christmas day, Thanksgiving, etc.), but for the purposes of this article, I’ll describe these as “days off” rather than a break.

Why you shouldn’t fear one day of binge eating

You will gain a lot of weight but won’t gain much fat.

Over-eating is a better choice of wording here. I would never recommend that a client binge eat but I do often recommend that clients eat to their hunger without worrying about counting their calories for this day, knowing that this will lead to them overeating.

  • It takes a 3500 calorie surplus to gain 1lb of fat.
  • People don’t generally overeat as much as they think, it just feels like it because they have been dieting.
  • I’d guess people overeat by approximately 1000 calories on average when eating freely (as long as they aren’t actively trying to eat as much as possible).
  • This would lead to slightly less than 1/3 of a pound of fat gain if that calorie excess were stored as purely fat, which is won’t be, as eating a large meal in a short period of time causes more of the calories to be released as heat instead of stored in the body, compared to eating normal-sized meals spread out over time.
  • The weight gain you will experience the next day comes from an increase in gut content and water. This happens because of the increased salt intake and the increased carb intake. (Carbs, when stored as the sugar in glycogen, have water molecules attached to them. 1g of carb intake brings approximately 3-4g of water with it.)
  • Most people will subconsciously eat less the next day.

Thus, you can wake up 5lbs heavier the next day and yet expect very little of that to be fat.

Reasons for taking a diet break

Physiological reasons: A short period of regular eating has the potential to reverse some of the metabolic adaptations to a caloric deficit, giving the hormones time to recover to normal levels. This means that you’ll be less hungry and pissed off all the time, have more energy, fewer cravings, and potentially you’ll be able to eat more than you otherwise would have and still progress with your diet.

Psychological reasons: Physiological reasons aside, taking periodical diet breaks is a good idea for the psychological benefits also. However they are an underused tool in the dieter’s arsenal, aren’t sexy to talk about, and the people that would likely benefit from them the most, the type A ‘stress heads’, are usually the least willing to take them.

How to implement a diet break

There are two categories of diet break: a full diet break, and a more controlled version.

The Full Diet Break:

This is by far my most common recommendation – a break from counting food intake entirely. With the exception of stage competitors within 8 weeks of their stage debut, this is what I have recommended to everyone thus far. So, if that’s not you then this is the choice I recommend you make even if it freaks you out to do so.

  • Eat to your hunger and don’tcount macros.
  • Keep your regular meal times.
  • Keep on training – you may well make some strength gains. Enjoy it.

If these instructions seem too easy, you’re probably just overthinking the diet break. Don’t worry though, that’s very common and you’ll see a detailed FAQ below.

The Controlled Diet Break:

There are certain populations that can benefit from a more structured diet break – competitors who are close to their stage condition, and so close to the ragged edge that if they are instructed to eat ad-lib then things could really go pear-shaped (excuse the pun).

Of the people I’ve coached (high hundreds), I’ve only had the full diet break go badly twice – by this, I mean that they gained a significant amount of fat during that time. (I should add the caveat that I decline to work with those that display, or I suspect of, disordered eating behavior as it’s far outside my area of expertise and I feel it to be unethical to do so.) However, I’ve had plenty of non-clients claim that they can’t do an ad-lib diet break in the comments on the site, which I suspect this is simply people confusing water or glycogen gain with fat gain.

I asked Eric Helms his thoughts on this topic, as he has more experience than I taking people from ‘shredded’ (~7-8% body fat) to ‘stage-shredded’ (~4-5% body fat) condition. More care can be needed at these times as that’s where the suffering tends to really start.

“When I run a diet break, I try to get a feel for how bad they are hurting psychologically, and often if they really need a mental break as well, I’ll revert to just counting calories vs macros.

For someone who has been hitting protein carbs and fat within 1-5 g for months, with low macro targets, giving them an extra 500 kcals, cutting cardio in half, and saying just hit your calories + or – 100 can be very liberating, comparatively, but it can also prevent folks going off the rails. Again, only a concern for the specific population I’m dealing with, but simply having a value to track can prevent the descent into binging.”

So to summarize then:

  • Raise calories by 500 each day (or, to calculated maintenance levels).
  • Remove the macro target, just hit your new calorie target to an accuracy of + or – 100 each day.
  • Cut cardio work in half (if performed).
  • Keep your regular meal times and keep training.