Are You Ready For A Diet Break?

Jason Helmes

By Jason Helmes

Jason Helmes is an online fitness consultant from Michigan, USA, who is passionate about helping average men and women integrate fitness into their hectic schedules. Read more.

If you are a habitual dieter and watch your intake religiously all year long, you may already utilise "breaks" of some sort. Breaks from dieting take the form of "cheat meals,” "cheat days,” or "diet breaks.”

No matter what your break looks like, taking time off of diligently planning your meals and watching your food consumption is an excellent strategy for long term results.

In practice, diet breaks are very advantageous. During prolonged bouts of dieting, hormonal profiles can take a hit due to the lowered carbohydrate intake as well as the chronic stress that being in a calorie deficit puts on the body.

Let’s Talk Hormones…

Leptin is known as the "starvation hormone.” It sends a signal to the body that it has excess body fat to burn - and as long as a certain amount of leptin is present in the body, the body will tap into its fat when faced with an energy deficit.

But once leptin falls below a certain level, the body begins to resist the fat burning - as the lowered leptin amounts send a signal to the body that it will need to survive on less food.

Cortisol is known as the "stress hormone.” Our bodies are primed for stress. However, we are primed for acute stress, not chronic stress.

If someone pinches your girl's backside at a bar, our hearts start thumping, our eyes dilate, our head starts to spin a bit, and a surge of adrenaline begins to take over. This is what's known as "fight or flight.” We have two options - pummel the b*****d or leave the room. Our bodies are well designed and adapted for this type of stress.

However, chronic stress has become a staple of our society. The constant, nagging, looming stress of work deadlines, traffic, inadequate sleep, and sub-par nutrition have added up to a slight, never-ending stress that we aren't physiologically adapted to handle.

These stresses can cause cortisol levels to rise, which in turn causes our bodies to become less efficient at its fat burning processes.

Prolonged dieting can cause both leptin levels to fall and cortisol levels to rise simultaneously. This combination can prove troublesome for even the most skilled dieters. The double whammy of falling leptin and rising cortisol can easily cause an incredibly frustrating dietary landmark - the "stall.”

The Big Picture

Dieting is a cumulative venture. Everything must be seen as the "big picture.” Our success when dieting isn't determined by one, instantaneous decision. Our success is determined by the grand scope of what we do. Your calorie deficit for one day matters much less than your deficit for one week - or better yet, your deficit for one month.

It's best to view your dietary work as a "cheque book.” With your finances, you might be +£300 for the month, which would put you at roughly +£3 per day, on average. But that doesn't mean you "made £3 each day.”

Some days, you likely spent £200, other days, you likely made £2,000. Those instantaneous moments don't determine the overall trend of your wealth - your monthly statement from your bank determines if you will spend your golden years on a yacht, or working for £8 per hour as a Walmart greeter.

Since dieting needs to be viewed as a cumulative venture, the cumulative effect of maintaining a calorie deficit for an extended period of time can eventually cause issues.

When this happens, and we "stall" on our fat loss, we have a few choices to make.

  • The most obvious choice would be to cut calories.

    This can be done rather easily with some simple math and application. A slight downwards shift is all that's needed to right the ship and continue on your way.

    This wouldn't be detrimental unless taken to an extreme. The hormonal changes caused by dieting simply create an environment where your metabolic rate becomes lowered - and your intake will need to be lowered as a function of this.


  • Reset your hormones
    Looking at the “big picture,” one might find a different route to be beneficial. Taking a short "break" from the rigors of dieting can be advantageous to "reset" those hormones, raise your leptin to previous levels, take the edge off of the elevated cortisol levels, and clear your head for

Here are a few items we express to clients when these situations present themselves:

  • Diet breaks are not physiologically necessary until a stall happens.
    You don't "need" to take a break every few weeks - it's only physiologically needed when the fat loss levels off.
  • Diet breaks are not "binges.”
    If you take time off of your diet to fulfil every hedonistic desire you have (food wise), you will gain fat.
  • Diet breaks are unnecessary unless you are maintaining a calorie deficit.
    If you are "kinda, sorta, wishy-washy" with your calories, and your fat loss is stalling, it's much more likely to be stalling as a function of being an ineffective dieter.
  • Get on point first, don't use a "diet break" as a crutch or an excuse. Tighten up first, and you're likely to see a nice drop as a result and realize that a diet break isn't needed.
  • Diet breaks should only be used when your scale loss AND your measurements have stalled.
    You need to be taking body measurements. Your scale weight can be an important metric, but the leaner you get, the more water weight will have an effect on your scale weight. If your body measurements are improving, you are not stalling.
  • Diet breaks can be used strategically before they are necessary.
    Most don't need a diet break until around 14-16 weeks into their diet. Some can even make it 20-24 weeks before the fat loss begins to level off.
However, if the dieter waits that long, once the stall is noticed, they may feel "rushed" to cut calories and "get to the end.” This is a poor way to view dieting. We always need to be invested in the process, not the end result. And the effects of long-term dieting can wreak havoc on your mental state.

After the initial 12 weeks dieting stint, a 2-week diet break is advisable. If there's a good chance you will need one in an additional 4 weeks anyway, you might as well get it out of the way.

This allows not only for a physiological reset, but also for some psychological freedom from the constant counting and obsessing as well. Once the diet is resumed, the fat loss almost always takes off as a result.

Is Your Weekly “Cheat” Meal Making You Fat?

In this case the math above isn’t going to work very well.

  • If you are training more than 4 days a week, see the next part in the box.
  • If you are training just once or twice a week it’s probably not worth bothering with calorie and macro cycling just yet. The most impactful thing you could do for your physique is to add another day of training into your schedule, when you have time to do so. Skip the next part for now.

Training More Than 4 Days A Week?

When it's time for a "diet break,” there are a few parameters you should utilise….

  • A full, two-week break generally works better than a "cheat meal,” a "cheat day,” or a "cheat weekend.”

    We all have lives, and if you have a vacation, a weekend away, or a social event with friends/family, you should enjoy the time with loved ones and eating responsibly rather than deeming it a "cheating event.”

    Long term, you should want to live fruitful, healthy, and lean lives without being tied to a kitchen scale and a measuring cup. These moments are excellent opportunities to practice mindful eating.
  • You should keep in mind that you are taking a "diet break,” you are not having a "cheat" - anything.

    Just the pejorative connotation behind the word "cheat" is enough to psychologically trigger a binge. When you need a break, it isn't an opportunity to allow your emotions and anxieties get the best of you.

    You are still in control and "on plan" - you are simply utilising a diet break as a part of your plans. It's important to understand and see this clear distinction in the mental framework for your break.

The actionable parameters for your diet break are straightforward.

1. Keep your meal frequency constant
If you would like to mix in an extra meal here and there, no worries. But in general, continue to eat with the same frequency.

This keeps the hormonal advantages to eating with a consistent frequency intact and will make life much easier to resume once our break is complete.

2. Keep your meal choices similar
The foods which you consumed during your first period of dieting should be very close to the foods you consume during your dietary break. Introducing lots of new food items have a tendency to trigger psychological changes, and possible binges.

If you'd like to have a treat here or there, that’s fine - but your diet shouldn't go from steak and potatoes to ice cream and cereal. Still stay hydrated, still eat your veggies, still emphasize your protein - just have some more of the foods you've been eating.

3. Do not count macros or calories.
This is as much of a mental break as it is a physical break. You can still eat the same foods, but keep your scale in your pantry. No "mental math,” either. Just eat and enjoy.

4. Eat to your hunger - eat until you are full and satisfied, but do not binge.
This is easily the most difficult part. After all, eating past the point of satisfaction is what has caused us to need to diet in the first place. In order for a diet break to work effectively, once you are full and satisfied, you will need to stop eating.

Remain calm and mindful of the food you're putting into your mouth. And before you eat something, ask yourself, "Am I really hungry, or do I want to eat for another reason?"

What Should I Eat On A Diet Break?

A very simple application of how to properly take a diet break is to continue eating the same meals you always have, but just have a few "extras.”

For example, let’s pretend you are a fan of Mexican food. Who isn’t, right?

Let’s say that when you’re dieting, your meal consists of beef, onions, salsa, white rice, and seasoning. You skip a few items that you admittedly love - sour cream, cheese, guacamole, burrito shells - because they don't fit very nicely into your macro numbers.

You need to strategically eat in order to maximise fullness. And the rice maximises fullness much more effectively than the burrito shell. The sour cream, cheese, and guacamole are simply too high in fat in order to maintain your deficit.

When you’re on a diet break, however, you eat those extras. You sprinkle a light layer of shredded cheese on your tacos, perhaps a dab of guacamole and sour cream, and you enjoy a few burrito shells.

But you shouldn’t drastically change your diet. Don't head for the ice cream pint after your meal. Don't call up the pizza guy instead of partaking in "Mexican Monday.”

Just enjoy your food, disregard the exact calorie intake, and savour the few, delicious bites you generally restrict when you’re actively attempting to lose fat.

If you find yourself dieting for a prolonged period of time and find your fat loss to be grinding to a halt, you may want to consider taking a diet break yourself.

Even if you haven't slowed yet, if you are finding yourself struggling a bit psychologically with your diet, a small break may be just what you need to continue to lose fat, lean out, and improve your body composition.

Jason Helmes

About Jason

Jason Helmes is an online fitness consultant from Michigan, USA, who is passionate about helping average men and women integrate fitness into their hectic schedules.  His firm, Anyman Fitness, LLC , was founded in 2013 and has had over 650 clients to date.

He specialises in application - how to take the optimal, evidence-based recommendations - and make them work in your daily lives.

When he's not helping out his clients, Jason spends his free time lifting, barbecuing, and relaxing with his wife Kate, and his daughters, Brooklyn (4), and Ava (2).

You can check out Jason's blog (to learn about coaching opportunities), or connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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