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Health & Wellness Nutrition Resources

Do I Need A Diet Break

Do I need a diet break? Some might ask “what the hell is a diet break.” Continue reading to find out more and see if this weight management strategy may benefit your personal goals

What Is A Diet Break

A diet break is a structured approach designed to offer both physiological and psychological relief from the rigours of calorie restriction and continuous dieting. Contrary to popular belief, a diet break isn’t an open invitation to throw caution to the wind and binge on unhealthy foods. Instead, it serves a specific purpose and has tangible benefits when executed properly. Let’s delve deeper into what a diet break is, why you might need one, and how to do it effectively.

Dieting Effects

The term “diet” has been somewhat misrepresented in modern parlance. When many people say they’re “on a diet,” what they usually mean is that they’re actively trying to lose weight by eating fewer calories than they burn. However, everyone is essentially “on a diet” because the term simply refers to what one eats, irrespective of the goal.

Now, let’s delve deeper into the complexities of long-term calorie restriction, often referred to as dieting, and how our bodies adapt to it in what we colloquially call “survival mode.”

It’s essential to recognise that weight loss is not a linear process, especially when dieting over the medium or long term. Initially, the body might respond well to calorie restriction, leading to fairly consistent weight loss. However, the longer you maintain a calorie deficit, the more adaptive mechanisms kick in to conserve energy. This is often referred to as “adaptive thermogenesis.”

Adaptive thermogenesis is the body’s automatic response to long-term calorie restriction. Your body down-regulates its energy expenditure by reducing your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is the rate at which you burn calories at rest. This adaptation is incredibly efficient from an evolutionary standpoint. In the past, it helped humans survive periods of food scarcity. However, in the modern context, it’s a double-edged sword, making sustained weight loss increasingly challenging.

Adaptive thermogenesis is closely linked to hormonal changes that occur when dieting. Leptin, the hormone responsible for signalling satiety, decreases in levels, leading to increased feelings of hunger. Meanwhile, ghrelin, often dubbed the ‘hunger hormone,’ increases, also promoting hunger. Cortisol, the stress hormone, can also rise, further complicating efforts for fat loss. This study underpins the notion of adaptive thermogenesis.

The mental aspect of prolonged dieting cannot be overlooked. Reduced calorie intake often leads to feelings of deprivation, which can result in decreased willpower, making it easier to give in to temptations. This can result in a vicious cycle where each “failure” makes it harder to maintain discipline, leading to further setbacks in weight loss efforts.

This is where the concept of a diet break becomes particularly useful. By reverting to maintenance calories for a short period, you can alleviate some of the hormonal imbalances and psychological pressures associated with long-term calorie restriction. As discussed earlier, this can refresh your mental state, restore hormonal balance, and help reinvigorate a stalled metabolism. It’s like hitting the reset button on your body’s energy-conservation mechanisms, making it easier to return to effective weight loss once the break is over.

When Might I Be In “Survival Mode”

Understanding these three hormones—ghrelin, leptin, and cortisol—is crucial for anyone embarking on a weight loss journey. They not only govern your appetite and stress levels but also play a pivotal role in energy regulation and metabolic adaptations. Let’s delve into each hormone to better comprehend their functions and their implications when you’re aiming to shed some pounds.

Ghrelin: The Hunger Hormone

Ghrelin is primarily produced in the stomach and acts as an appetite stimulator. When your stomach is empty, or when you are in a calorie-deficit, ghrelin levels rise, signalling to your brain that it’s time to seek out food. Elevated levels of this hormone can make weight loss challenging, as it instigates the feeling of hunger, making you more likely to consume more calories.

Implications in “Survival Mode”

When you’ve been dieting for an extended period, your body’s ghrelin production may increase as a part of its adaptive mechanism to conserve energy. In what can be considered a ‘survival mode,’ this heightened ghrelin level works against your weight loss efforts, promoting calorie consumption and, consequently, weight maintenance or gain.

Leptin: The Satiety Hormone

Leptin is produced by your fat cells and acts as the counterbalance to ghrelin. It signals to your brain that you’re full and should stop eating. When you have more fat, you have more leptin, which typically helps control your appetite.

Implications in “Survival Mode”

As you lose fat through dieting, leptin levels decrease. Reduced leptin not only amplifies the feelings of hunger but can also lower your metabolic rate. Essentially, your body becomes more efficient at conserving energy, making it more challenging to lose additional weight. This is another component of the body’s ‘survival mode,’ aimed at preventing further weight loss.

Cortisol: The Stress Hormone

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by your adrenal glands. While it has various functions, including regulation of metabolism and immune response, it’s perhaps most known for its role in the body’s stress response.

Implications in “Survival Mode”

Prolonged calorie restriction and the physical stress of consistent workouts can lead to increased cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol may contribute to a host of negative outcomes, including increased abdominal fat storage and reduced testosterone production, making it more difficult to maintain lean muscle mass. Moreover, high cortisol can result in a slowed metabolic rate, yet another example of the body entering a ‘survival mode’ to conserve energy.

When dieting, particularly over an extended period, it’s crucial to be aware of these hormonal changes and their implications. Ghrelin and leptin work in tandem to regulate hunger and satiety, and both can adapt to prolonged calorie restriction in ways that make further weight loss challenging. Meanwhile, cortisol, if elevated due to stress or prolonged dieting, can further complicate matters by slowing your metabolism and negatively affecting your body composition.

Being aware of these hormonal shifts allows you to strategise more effectively. Whether it’s through periodic diet breaks, stress management techniques, or balanced macronutrient distribution, understanding these hormones offers you the tools to navigate the complexities of ‘survival mode’ during your weight loss journey.

How Do Diet Breaks Work 

Diet breaks offer a fascinating alternative to the traditional approach of continuous calorie restriction for weight loss. While it’s true that the end result in terms of weight lost is often similar between those who take diet breaks and those who don’t, the journey and the physiological responses can differ significantly.

Traditional Dieting vs. Diet Breaks: The Timeline

When you’re dieting continuously, the goal is to maintain a consistent calorie deficit over time. However, as we’ve discussed, this can result in adaptive thermogenesis, where the body becomes more efficient at using calories, effectively reducing your metabolic rate and making further weight loss challenging.

On the other hand, diet breaks intersperse periods of maintenance calories amid the calorie-restrictive phases. This means you might be in a calorie deficit for three weeks, followed by a one-week diet break at maintenance calories, and then back to calorie restriction.

Is Slower Always Bad?

One point that stands out when considering diet breaks is that the total timeline for achieving your target weight might be longer. While this might initially seem counterproductive, it can offer some advantages:

Psychological Relief: Being on a continuous diet can mentally wear you down. Diet breaks can relieve the mental strain, making the dieting phase more sustainable.

Hormonal Reset: As discussed earlier, leptin and ghrelin levels can get out of balance during prolonged dieting. A diet break allows these hormones to stabilise, which could make subsequent dieting more effective.

Metabolic Benefits: Adaptive thermogenesis is less likely to kick in or will be significantly reduced during the diet break, potentially making it easier to lose weight when you return to a calorie deficit.

Improved Adherence: Given the mental and physical relief, you’re more likely to stick with your diet in the long run, potentially leading to better results.

Trust and Energy Replenishment

The idea of the body “trusting you again” during a diet break is an interesting way to conceptualise the hormonal and metabolic adjustments that take place. It’s as if your body recognises that it’s not in a state of emergency and therefore doesn’t need to implement drastic energy-saving measures.

Here’s what happens during a diet break:

Increased Energy Levels: Consuming maintenance calories refuels your glycogen stores, which directly impacts your energy levels, making you more inclined to be physically active.

Reduced Fatigue: As you consume more calories, especially from carbohydrates, you may find that you’re less tired and that exercise performance improves.

Hormonal Rebalancing: With increased caloric intake, leptin levels can stabilise, reducing excessive hunger and making it easier to return to a calorie deficit after the break.

The Biological Rationale

From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies are programmed for survival. Prolonged calorie restriction is perceived as a threat, and adaptive thermogenesis is the body’s way of prolonging survival under this perceived threat. By taking a diet break, you’re effectively signalling to your body that there’s no immediate danger, which allows your metabolic rate and hormonal levels to return closer to baseline.

Diet breaks are not a magical solution but rather a strategic tool that can be particularly useful for overcoming the physiological and psychological barriers encountered during prolonged periods of calorie restriction. By incorporating diet breaks, you may find that your overall weight loss journey, although possibly longer, is more manageable, effective, and aligned with both your physical and mental well-being.

Diet break and traditional diet example chart


Other Studies – The IceCap Trial – 2021

A team of researchers, lead by Jackson Peos conducted another diet break study. There findings were that similar to the MATADOR study. This study found a positive correlation between diet breaks and reduced hunger, as well as also concluding that weight loss was not superior on a diet break compared to continued dieting. However Peos did state via social mead that, “These hunger and adherence benefits must be weighed up against the greater time commitment of weight loss when incorporating diet breaks into your regimen.” – Simply put diet breaks may also increase long term weight loss as people may find the strategy more sustainable over a longer period.

Why & Who Might Use Diet Breaks

  • People experiencing slowed or stalled weight loss despite not changing the amount they eat or move following successful efforts to weight.
  • People who may benefit from restricted eating breaks. It might be that eating at maintenance gives you a psychological rest from restrictive eating. allowing you to feel motivated.
  • People taking actual breaks. Eg, going on holiday. You can use a diet break to relax from eating in calorie deficit. remember though its a diet break is maintenance eating. Which means you’ll still need to track your intake to ensure you don’t gain weight during this time.
  • People who have been dieting for some time. Around 12 weeks may be a good time to introduce a diet break, but everybody is different. Diet breaks shouldn’t be used as an excuse, but as a tool to kick start weight loss.
  • People who may have some degree of metabolic damage. This can be encountered by individuals who have limited their caloric intake for long periods of time, or who have a history of fluctuating weight issues. More research needs to be conducted to increase our understanding more about metabolic adaptations, but logically increasing your calories to a neutral consumption shouldn’t hinder repair.

Diet Break Limitations

We’ve discovered that diet breaks can have a whole host of positive benefits on your weight management goals. Like with most strategies however, what are the drawbacks from implementing this strategy?

The most obvious is time. Incorporating a diet break will likely mean it’ll take you longer to loose the planned weight. This may not be something your willing to compromise on. Particularly if you loosing weight for a specific date / event and haven’t pre organised your approach to weight loss. Say for instance your going on holiday in 10 weeks and want to drop your fat percentage. Incorporating a diet break will likely mean your be less lean by you planned trip away. You need to consider your personal goals and timeframes before you consider using a diet break. Understand that using this strategy correctly will maintain your current weight, in turn stalling progress momentarily, but potentially for the greater good of long term sustained weight loss!



Diet breaks are almost impossible to successfully navigate if you aren’t tracking your calories. However, in a less from ideal scenario you could try increasing your portion sizes and meal frequencies to start.

You can use this strategy in a self regulated manner or by working with your coach who can help you plan and execute this approach with greater affect. A diet break can be incorporated at any stage but should be used to benefit the overall outcome of your health and happiness.

Long term weight loss can be difficult to sustain. Diet breaks can give you and you’re body the respite needed to continue making health related progress. The strategy requires you to remain mindful about what you are consuming, its not an opportunity to neglect yourself by gorging on vast amounts of food. Rather its a chance to replenish your energy levels though nutrient dense sustenance.

Diet breaks seem to promote successful long term sustained weight loss, beneficial for long term health and happiness. Metabolic rates seem to be higher in people who use diet breaks, which is effective for weight management. This is because being able to maintain lean body mass (muscle) helps burn. ore calories at rest. Aggressive calorie restriction can result in hard earned muscle being used as fuel, which makes weight loss harder and harder. Drastic calorie restriction used by people for rapid weight loss, arguably drives the obesity epidemic we see in the UK.

My Ultimate Advice Is

Use a diet break in conjunction with a experienced professional who can help you organise and execute effectively. Use this strategy to enhance long term weight management and increase optimal nutrition adherence. Should your goals be shorter or you have less weight to loose then using a diet break may not be needed. Again discussing this with a coach will help you understand if this option may be of benefit. The ultimate goal is a safer, more effective and sustainable approach to staying lean and healthy. If this sounds similar to your aims, then a diet break may benefit at some point in your health improvement journey.

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