Diets, like clothes, should be tailored to you.
How do you take a break from your diet without losing progress?
Why would you even want to, if you haven’t reached your fat loss goal yet?
First of all, if you’re serious about dieting, it isn’t easy to do. Taking a one- or two-week break every six to 12 weeks of dieting, can give you some much needed respite to regain momentum and motivation to stick to the plan. (If you’re on a longer-term fat loss journey, lasting months or even years, you may want to consider maintenance phases in addition to diet breaks. Read this article to learn more.)
Moreover, life happens. You may go on holiday, move house, change job, or experience other life-changing circumstances, during which trying to diet is only going to backfire. This is a great time for a diet break.
Last but not least, you won’t be dieting forever (I hope). Once you reach your goals, you’ll need to maintain those results. This will be much easier to do if you practised maintenance in a previous diet break or two.
In this article, I’ll break down what to do, so you can enjoy your diet break without losing progress, by answering the following questions:
1. What can happen to your weight during a diet break?
It’s intuitive to assume that, if you’re going to eat at maintenance calories, your weight will stay the same as it was the week before the diet break.
In reality, the body’s response is more complex than that.
By definition, your “maintenance” calories are the calories you need to eat in order to maintain your current body composition, that is the amount of body fat and muscle mass you carry.
However, even if your body fat and muscle mass levels stay the same during a diet break, your weight on the scale may not.
In general, you can expect to gain 1 to 2% of your bodyweight when you increase your calories to maintenance levels. So, if you’re currently 150 lbs, you can expect to gain 1.5 to 3 lbs.
This isn’t fat.
Here’s what happens when you’re eating more:
So, for instance, if your lowest weekly average before the diet break was 150 lbs, you may hover around 151 to 153 lbs during the break.
With that said, this isn’t an exact science.
Although gaining weight is common, I’ve had clients who were able to maintain their weight almost exactly the same for the entirety of a one- or even two-week diet break; and clients who lost a little weight, usually because they dropped some water that they were retaining during the diet due to high stress levels.
So, during your first diet break, don’t worry about scale weight.
Even if you’d estimated your maintenance calories incorrectly (and you probably won’t if you read the next section of this blog post), it didn’t take you a week to gain the body fat you lost, so you won’t regain it in a week-long diet break, either.
(To learn more about the wide variety of factors that can affect scale weight fluctuations, check out this article series.)
2. How do you know how many calories to eat?
Depending on how much weight you’ve lost, your maintenance calories may not be the same as your pre-diet maintenance calories.
Brace yourself for some bad news: A smaller body requires less energy, so your new maintenance calories are probably lower than they were. (Sigh.)
To estimate them, you can use your rate of fat loss from the four weeks preceding the diet break, and follow this stepwise process:
3. What foods should you eat?
Your food selection during a diet break shouldn’t be too different from the active dieting phase. Keep up with the food choices that have been helping you nail your fat loss targets whilst staying fuller for longer, but increase the portion sizes to hit maintenance calories.
The reason for this approach is two-fold:
So, even though it’s tempting to eat a lot of higher-calorie foods, like pizza and ice-cream, because you have the caloric budget for them, you’d be better off exercising moderation, or you might end up in one of two unsavoury situations:
1. When it’s time to go back into a caloric deficit, you’ll already be looking forward to the next diet break, when you can have all these foods again. It’s a lot harder to be consistent with fat loss for long enough to make progress if you have this mindset on Day 1 after a diet break.
2. Knowing that you only get maintenance calories for a week or two, you can lose control, overeat, beat yourself up for it, and diet harder than necessary to “make up” for it. However, dieting harder usually means burning out sooner and developing a negative relationship with the overall experience.
At the same time, you don’t want to go too far in the opposite direction. If all you do during your diet break is double your portion sizes, it can be disheartening to have to cut them in half when you decrease your calories once again.
The key for a successful diet break is to strike a balance between increasing portions and including some of the higher-calorie foods you might have had to restrain during the diet.
In terms of macronutrients, your protein and fat targets can stay the same as when you were in a caloric deficit, so the majority of the extra calories will come from carbohydrates. You can put these extra carbs to good use during your training sessions!
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A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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