We use diet breaks for anyone trying to lose body fat.
Dieting for a long period of time is mentally taxing. In addition, there are adaptations that happen to your metabolism that reduce your total daily energy expenditure or TDEE.
This is what people mean when they say their metabolism is 'slowing down.'
It makes it hard to consistently make progress beyond short periods of time. Think of all those 3, 6, or 8 week challenges and crash diets that pull all your calories and promise massive weight loss. They work acutely but fail chronically. Every time.
To avoid gaining all your fat back, and maybe some extra, a diet break helps. This is where you eat at your maintenance calories for a certain period of time, generally 1-2 weeks, but it could be even longer.
The MATADOR study
In 2017 researches completed The MATADOR Study. It involved two week diet breaks that were implemented once per month. For example, diet at deficit calories for 2 weeks, diet break at maintenance calories for 2 weeks.
MATADOR stands for Minimizing Adaptive Thermogenesis and Deactivating Obesity Rebound. Pretty wordy, I know. But it sums up what the whole method is about well. Basically, it's an approach designed to negate some of the impacts of metabolic adaptation while also increasing the likelihood of sustaining fat loss down the line.
It involves eating at a 30% calorie deficit for the diet weeks followed by eating at maintenance calories during the diet break weeks.
Diet break weeks are not weeks taken completely off but rather involve controlling your eating so you stay at your maintenance levels rather than climbing into surplus territory.
The authors of the study concluded: "Greater fat loss was achieved with intermittent calorie restriction versus continuous. Interrupting deficit dieting with calorie maintenance 'rest periods' can reduce compensating metabolic responses and improve weight loss efficiency."
It makes the fat lost more likely to stay lost. Which is a far cry from the experience most dieters have of not only finding their fat loss back on their frame but adding more to it.
The downside? It takes more time. We have been using this method at Pillar Coaching Services since the MATADOR study was published in the fall of 2017 and one of the biggest hurdles I have to overcome with clients is getting them to lengthen their time frames. No more quick or instant fixes. This is going to take some time. But almost all of them are willing once they learn that in doing so it can be their last time dieting.
In the study researchers compared continuous dieters to those who took a diet break every couple weeks. They found that the diet break group lost more body fat and maintained their TDEE at higher levels (meaning they could eat more calories) than the continues group. Both had their dieters in a deficit for 16 weeks. Therefore those who took diet breaks were observed for 30 weeks compared to just 16.
But will you gain weight during a diet break?
Not really. You might gain some weight water being that every gram of carbs you consume you also store 3-4 grams of water, but that is not real fat or muscle tissue. This can is to be expected when you eat at maintenance because it will include many more carbs than you deficit weeks. It's important to remember that maintenance calories are literally the number of calories required to maintain your body weight. That body weight is the lean and fat tissue, not the water and bloating that comes naturally with more food.
Sodium intake is also likely to go up when moving from deficit calories to maintenance. This further increases your body weight by way of water storage.
The weight gained from carbs and sodium won't produce a massive difference. It's usually in the range of a few pounds depending on your overall weight. You need to know that the weight increase isn't related to body fat so that you don't stress out when the scale goes up.
What is a re-feed?
A common diet strategy that has been used for a long time is that of a re-feed. Some call it a 'cheat meal' but I've found that eliminating the suggestion to cheat once a week or label a food as a cheat food does more harm than good. The idea was that similar to a diet break but it happens on a short term scale - a single meal or day compared to the multiple week diet break.
It was thought for a while that by having a re-feed or cheat day you would drive a similar effect to the longer diet breaks by increasing one of your hunger hormones called leptin. When leptin is high you feel full and when it's low you feel hungry. Unfortunately the increase in calories for just a single meal or day isn't enough to match the adaption curving effect that longer diet breaks do.
In comparison a diet break is more advantageous than a re-feed or cheat meal/day.
Sustaining a higher metabolic rate while dieting is a good goal because it allows you to eat more calories. Diet breaks help achieve this goal.
In practice I've found success with both single and two week diet breaks as the study was laid out. After some practice we have found dieters can even enjoy 2-6 day diet breaks with similar results.
While it does take longer to reach fat loss goals by taking diet breaks the sustainability of fat lost is much greater than if you try to lose it all in one continuous effort.
Another benefit of taking a diet break is that it gives you take a mental break from being in a deficit. Restricting your food is bound to cause some discomfort and feelings that can be alleviated with breaks.
When you eat at maintenance you get to practice the mindset and lifestyle that you can lead when you finally reach your body composition goal. This is both reassuring and literally gives you practice reps at what your 'normal' will be when you finish deficit dieting.
Diet breaks between deficit weeks are our preferred way to structure fat loss plans here at Pillar Coaching Services. Success with this strategy is built on the dieter tracking their food with an app like My Fitness Pal or the Fit Bit app.
There are numerous ways you can implement a diet break but I recommend something similar to the MATADOR study to start: 2 weeks deficit followed by 2 weeks at maintenance.
Sustaining fat loss long term is hard. This makes it easier and can be the path for you to finish dieting forever.
*Blog Photo from Treadawaytraining.com