Is chronic dieting halting your progress?
By 'diet' here I mean any style of eating that seeks to restrict the amount of calories you are consuming on a daily/weekly basis. So this would include: -
Calorie counting/macro tracking
Cutting out food groups
Placing the body in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time places a great deal of stress on the body, both physiologically & psychologically.
Let's look at what happens physiologically when you place the body in a calorie deficit for extended periods of time: -
You move less (NEAT goes down)
Your energy takes a nosedive
Your metabolism slows
Your appetite increases
Reduction in Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) - the amount of energy required to break down, digest and absorb food.
Remember, your body can only react to an internal state; it doesn't know you are eating fewer calories to lose some stubborn body fat. All it senses is a scarcity of energy and that body fat levels are dropping. So the body seeks to prevent starvation with those adaptations listed above.
So what to do?
This is where 'Diet Breaks' come in. A 'Diet Break' can be considered a period of time when you aren't following a rigid diet and have far greater autonomy and freedom with regard to food choices and eating patterns. Diet breaks can be both planned (i.e. dieting for a set period of time with a diet break planned after a period of time to offset the adaptations listed above) or unplanned (you have to travel for work for several weeks making the maintenance of your current diet almost impossible).
Diet breaks fulfil both the physiological and psychological needs of the dieter.
"Psychologically by breaking your dieting efforts up into smaller chunks, while maintaining control over your eating in the long-term, you are less likely to lose control or go off of your diet completely." (McDonald, 2005)
"Many people won’t even classify what they have been doing as dieting since they are no longer losing weight. They consider the restriction “eating healthy”. The truth is, eating healthy for your body and sanity involves some breaks, indulgences, treats, and balance. Restriction should be restricted (see what I did there?) to brief periods of weight change followed again by periods of balance.
Even when weight loss is no longer happening, the mere attempt at caloric restriction results in accumulated fatigue (psychological and physiological) and compensation mechanisms. Your body adjusts to prevent weight loss when you diet by lowering your metabolism and down-regulating hormone production. These mechanisms were helpful for our ancestors’ survival when food was scarce, but make dieting a little more complicated in this age of plenty. Thus when you reduce calories across a diet, at the completion of the diet calories need to be added back in slowly to allow a return to baseline. Once you are back at baseline, another diet phase can be attempted with more success since your daily caloric burn will have ramped back up and other compensation mechanisms will have been greatly reduced. In addition, you will feel mentally relaxed from having been able to indulge a bit occasionally and ready to be strict on another brief phase of restriction." (Renaissance Periodisation)
So when should you go on a diet break?
The frequency of diet breaks should relate to your level of body fat. As a general rule of thumb, the leaner you are, the more regularly you should schedule diet breaks.
Guys Under 10%/Females Under 15% - every 4-6 weeks
Guys 10-15%/Females 20-15% - every 6-8 weeks
Guys 15-20%/Females 25-20% - every 10-12 weeks
How Should I Approach a Diet Break?
In my opinion you have 2 options when it comes to the implementation of a diet break: -
1) Eat Ad Libitum: This is more of an intuitive approach to dieting. To eat ad libitum means to eat 'at liberty'. The amount of calories you consume on an ad libitum diet is largely the result of your appetite and how satiating the food you eat is (Henselmans). Foods that score well from a satiety perspective tend to be high in protein, high in fibre, and high in volume.
2) Eat to Maintenance: This approach involves eating enough to maintain body weight within a relatively narrow weight range (1-2kgs). If your fat loss diet involved a low carbohydrate approach then you can expect an initial spike in weight which will come largely from increased glycogen (stored carbohydrate in muscles and the liver) and water storage (you store approximately 3g of water for every 1g of carbohydrate you ingest). You could eat to maintenance by tracking weight and adjusting intake accordingly. Or you could calculate what your approximate calorie intake should be at maintenance and stick to that. The latter method is likely to be more accurate. However, this method still requires you to track calorie intake, so can still feel like dieting.
The following article from the guys at Renaissance Periodisation is a great read and accompaniment to my attempt at explaining what a Diet Break is and how to implement one.
Take home message:
"Sometimes the longer road is the road to sustainable results.... Breaks are needed between bouts of hard work and change in almost every instance of life and diet is no exception."