Diet Break Guide

Diet Break Guide

Brazilian BBQ Restaurants – My first choice when taking a diet break.           

A diet break is a planned and purposeful two week break from dieting to help prepare psychologically and physiologically for the next phase. Skip implementing them to your own peril.

Everyone wants to be ripped, now.

Nobody wants to wait. Our capacity for patience is being eroded every day by our ‘Get it now, Pay later‘ culture.

Let me be very clear: If you take this attitude towards your diet then sooner or later you are destined to fail.

Though most don’t realise (or want to believe) it, at some point in the pursuit of your fitness or physique goals you will* have to take one step backwards to take two steps forwards. Plan for those steps and you won’t be frustrated. This is not about mental toughness – I don’t doubt your rock solid diet commitment or that you can handle any training routine thrown at you. Taking planned breaks is one of the best moves you can make for your long term diet success. An unsexy topic for sure, but necessary and quite fun.

In this article you’ll find diet break guidelines, a quick run down of the reasons for, and my own FAQ I’ve developed from client questions that’ll probably make you laugh.

*Examples: 

  • The skinny kid that wants to cut to reveal a six-pack Mike Chang promised him but he doesn’t have, cause he missed that he needs to build a muscular base first.
  • The wannabe MMA warrior, that decides they’re going to add HIIT, metabolic conditioning and strength training to their martial arts classes – missing simple point that all these things will improve dramatically if they dropped 50lbs with minimal training and diet efforts first.
  • Finishing a cut properly to set yourself up for a cleaner bulk.
  • A little fat gain when bulking.

What follows is a sample chapter from my book, ‘The Last Shred: How to adjust your diet like a pro to reach single digit body fat. I hope you find it useful.


Part 7: The Role Of The Diet Break

Remember, 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, so that you are able to sustain it.

This 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 referring to a period where we purposefully increase calorie intake and loosen the counting restrictions we place on ourselves. 

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 dieters 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.

What To Do

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’t count 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 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.
 

Length and Frequency

  • 10-14 days, two weeks recommended. Unfortunately some hormones simply take longer to recover to normal levels than others, so there is no cutting a diet break short.
  • Frequency depends primarily on our level of leanness. – The leaner we get, the more our bodies hate us (the harsher the metabolic adaptations become), so the more frequently they should be taken.
Body fat % (men) Diet Break Frequency
<10% every 4-6 weeks
10-15% every 6-8 weeks
15-25% every 10-12 weeks
25%> every 12-16 weeks

Women add ~7%.

Above are my own recommendations on diet break frequency, adapted from Lyle McDonald’s original recommendations after gaining experience. This is just a general guide and psychological factors will come into play as well. I base frequency of diet breaks on how a client is doing mentally (mood, cravings, stress), as well as physically (energy, sleep, recovery). With slower rates of fat loss diet breaks can be less frequent. In my coaching experience I’ve personally found that I’ve only had to recommend diet breaks as frequent as every 8 weeks, even with those taking it to what I’d consider ‘shredded‘.

Expectations

  • You can expect a rise in the scale weight due to the increase in carb intake.
  • You may feel fatter, but you’ll note that the weight that you gain here (7-10 lbs isn’t uncommon) doesn’t correlate with the same level of increase in stomach measurements that you saw yourself lose over the last few weeks when you lost that same amount of weight. This is because most of the gain in weight will be your muscles filling with water and glycogen – so you’ll feel bigger and fuller, and for the leaner folks, more vascular.
  • Some water will be gained under the skin, and there will be a little fat gain, but nothing extreme (unless you purposefully binge eat the entire diet break – which is a very rare exception if everything else has been set up well thus far).

FOR COACHES: Talk to your prospective client about the subject of diet breaks before taking the client on. You don’t have to go into exceptional detail, but just mentioning it will give you less resistance down the line when you make the decision that it would be best to take one. Also, before taking a client on remember to check about their diet history – they may need to take a diet break before you begin working together.


FAQ

1. Why is there weight gain when taking a break from dieting?

1g of glycogen holds 3g of water. Our muscles are made up of ~70-80% water which is stored from muscle glycogen. Glycogen comes from the carbs we eat. So if you eat more carbs than normal, which you will when you take a diet break, your body (the muscles mainly) will hold more water giving you the false impression that you’ve gained fat if you rely solely* on scale weight to gauge progress. It’s actually just water weight.  [*Don’t. Track your progress this way.]

2. Lyle McDonald recommends to eat above 100-150g of carbs a day. Does this mean I need to count? You said don’t count.

By not counting, you will almost certainly hit this number anyway. Don’t count.

3. In Lyle’s article it also says to go to maintenance calories…should I follow that or just follow like you said by just eating to my hunger?

Following your hunger, generally speaking, will be somewhat around your natural maintenance. If you skip breakfast, feel free to keep doing so. If you don’t, then keep as you are. If you fancy having breakfast then feel free to do so on a few days – not a big deal.

4. I’m too scared to not count my macros/calories.

Do the controlled version of the diet break then.

5. Should I still make “healthy” food choices?

For the most part, though if there are certain foods that you have been avoiding then now is a time you can indulge.

6. I can pile in a huge amount of food, if I do the full break, are you telling me to binge eat?

No, or you will put on fat. I’m not questioning that you can eat a hell of a lot. Don’t think of this as a two week cheat just a break from counting, a time to relax. Listen to your body. Take your time when eating and eat to your hunger, nothing more.

1lb of fat ~= 3200kCal of stored energy. If your maintenance calorie intake is 2500kCal, even if we assume that any excess over regular calorie maintenance is stored perfectly as body fat, then that’s more than 5700kCal you’d have to consume on a single day to gain a pound of body fat.  Doable, yes, but not likely if you are eating sensibly.

7. Should I have a diet break when bulking? If I do, will there be fat gain?

While not technically necessary, a break can be beneficial mentally.

The human body works hard too maintain the status quo – homeostasis. This is true when in a calorie deficit as it is bulking – gaining or losing weight isn’t what our bodies want to do. When bulking we have to consciously eat beyond what hunger signals would usually dictate that we eat. A diet break will naturally bring your intake down to maintenance or slightly above, and there won’t be any significant fat gain.

*******

Thanks for reading.

Browse the other diet adjustment guides using the menu at the top, or get access to my full book on the topic of how I adjust the diets of my clients to take them to shreds and how you can do that too, here.

Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy. 

About the Author

Andy Morgan

I'm an online nutritional coach and trainer. After seeing one too many people get ripped off by supplement and training industry lies I decided to try and do something about it. The site you see here is the result of a lot of Starbucks-fuelled, two-fingered typing. It's had a lot of love poured into it, and I hope you find the guides to the diet and training methods I use on this site useful. When I'm not helping clients you'll likely find me crashing down a mountain on a snowboard, riding a motorbike, or staring at watches I can't afford.

240 Comments on “Do You Need To Take a Diet Break?”

  1. Jonathan

    My psychiatrist wants me to participate in a form of immersion therapy. A full WEEK diet break where I don’t count macros or calories or restrict food choices. Any thoughts on how to take the first steps for someone that ONLY eats veggies, fruits and unprocessed grains. Thank you so much in advance if you are able to offer any helpful advice/tips!

  2. Nick

    Hi Andy,
    I’m planning taking a diet break during my two weeks vacation in mid august. After all I’ll be cutting for a full 12 weeks by then. What would you recommend to be careful during the break since I won’t be training also during these two weeks, because you recommend even during the break to keep training.
    You ‘ve been changing my body to the better for three weeks now I’m 39y and haven’t seen my abs ever! Now the top two started to emerge !!!!
    Nick.

  3. Mac

    Hey Andy,

    When coming off of a diet break whether due to a plateau or another reason..when we go back to the diet should we resume from the calories we were dieting on before or adjust lower based on our lower body weight? I know we have to adjust as we lose fat and weight so just wondering if coming off a diet break would be an ideal time to do it.

    Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Mac, thanks for the question. I don’t have a single clear answer for you, but I’ll try to explain my decision making process when assessing this for clients.
      – If the client was progressing well before taking the diet break, I’d keep the macros as they were.
      – If the client’s progress slowed a little, I’d probably still keep them as they were (unless on a deadline, or motivation is wavering).
      – If progress slowed considerably or stalled, then I would consider making a decrease, unless the client was experiencing a lot of stress prior to the break. – Stress can cause water retention which masks fat loss. Diet breaks help relieve stress. So in this case I’d keep the macros as they were and wait to see if there was a whoosh of weight loss in the two weeks following the diet break, taking them to a weight lower than their previous level prior to starting it.

      Hope that helps Max. More of this stuff in my book:
      The Last Shred: How to adjust your diet like a pro to reach single digit body fat

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