Let’s talk about what’s usually happening when people say, “I’m dieting but not losing weight!” OR they end up gaining back all the weight, if not more. There’s one thing in particular that people tend to drop the ball on when they are dieting (besides lack of adherence) and that’s taking diet breaks, refeed days, and weight maintenance phases.
I’m going to explain to you today WHY you need to take breaks from calorie cutting, when to do it, and for how long to take that break.
This is going to be essential to your weight loss progress. If you’ve listened to any of my episodes on nutrition, you’ve probably heard me say that quick fix dieting does NOT work because you can’t keep that weight off OR you can’t live with a sustainable way of eating because you’re just eating the bare minimum.
That means that your body is not thriving, it’s not building muscle, it’s not supporting hormonal health, and it’s just not good for you overall. That’s the difference in my 1:1 coaching versus random programs or training challenges you may see. Those challenges are a great kick off to losing weight. It may be a decent way to start. However, when you’re done with that 8-week program, how should you eat afterward?… how do you train afterward?… there’s just this send-off like “Hey congratulations on losing 10lbs. Good luck keeping it off and getting more off if that’s your goal.”
There’s no more guidance and so you’re lost trying to figure out … should I be eating 1300 calories the rest of my days? What do I do when I want to gain muscle and get that toned look? What do I do for the holidays when an appetizer is 1300 calories in itself?
So, you see, that is where having a good coach who understands the ends and out of metabolic adaptation, diet breaks, refeed days, maintenance phases, hormonal health, and all that good stuff comes in handy. Dieting is hard ya’ll!
It’s not a one-time thing where you lose that 20,30,50 lbs in one full sweep. There’s got to be some diet breaks in between to let your body heal and recover so it feels safe enough to lose more weight over time.
But, before we get into all those details, I’m going to start off defining 3 ways I put clients in a calorie deficit depending on their goals. Then we’re going to talk about diet breaks for each.
3 Ways to safely cut calories for fat loss and diet breaks needed for each:
The Mini Cut
The first method is a short and very aggressive calorie cut of about 4-6 weeks. This is for someone who is maybe going into a body competition and you need to shed some quick weight. In this type of cut we cut calories significantly and do so in a short period of time to avoid any metabolic damage. The person doesn’t have a lot of fat to lose, but maybe needs a push for those last 5 pounds to make weight for competition. So, this is more for your athletes. They’re going to cut super fast and then move back to maintenance calories as quickly as possible after their competition or show or whatever they’re cutting for. This is not for the average people who just want some weight loss to feel better and change their body composition in general.
The Intermediate Cut
The second method is a little less aggressive, but still a significant calorie deficit with a time frame of anywhere from 8-16 weeks. This is for someone who has more weight to lose but doesn’t want to dedicate more than 6 months to have body re-composition. The calorie cutting is a bit uncomfortable, not as much as the aggressive cut mentioned before, but still enough to probably be hungry on some days. It’s a faster route than the last one I’ll mention and it’s fairly common for those who have 10-20lbs to lose.
The Longer-Term cut
Now, the last one is a slower, steady, and more sustainable method for those who have more than 20lbs to lose. This cut is around 16-24 weeks, a moderate calorie deficit that is livable and comfortable, more flexible, and avoids any kind of maladaptive relationships with food. This is the one I utilize the most with my clients because the majority of my clients come to me with fat loss goals of more than 20lbs. With this method, there’s an average of .5-2lbs of fat lost per week on average.
Diet Breaks, Refeed Days, and Maintenance Phases
So, with diets, we also need to think about diet breaks. You’ve probably heard me talk about this before, that you cannot diet consistently without taking a break because your body’s metabolic functioning will suffer. Your body will adapt to less energy and therefore, burn less energy. We want to avoid that so your body will be able to continually burn fuel. We want to keep your metabolism fired up.
So, with the small and aggressive cut, it’s not necessary because it’s a brief period of time.
With the more moderate approach of 8-16 weeks in a calorie deficit, it’s going to be necessary to take about a week of refeed days. Really a week break is necessary for 8-10 weeks of dieting and two weeks of refeeding may be necessary if you’re going upwards of 12-16 weeks. So, overall a week or two of refeed days is going to be necessary to avoid metabolic adaptation.
Refeed days simply imply that you are going back up to maintenance calories each day by increasing carbs. So let’s say you are eating 1500 calories in your cut and you’ve done that for 10 weeks straight. And your maintenance calories are 2000. After that 10th week, you’d want to go up to 2000 calories for a week straight.
Now, it’s going to feel scary. You’re going to get nervous to gain back any weight that you’ve lost. But remember that it takes about 3500 calories extra to gain just one pound of fat, ok?
You will gain some water weight from the extra carbs and maybe (MAYBE) 1 pound of fat. No big deal..but go ahead and account for that.
But, this diet break is 100% necessary if you want to keep dieting and keep shedding fat. Without it, your body will stall out. It will adapt to those 1500 calories and quit burning. If you take that refeed week, your body’s like oh ok, we’re not in trouble and we can continue burning. You’re essentially reassuring your body that it can continue burning calories. Once your refeed week is over, you can jump back into the cut and continue shedding fat.
If you’re in the 16-24 week camp, use the same method. Every 8-10 weeks take a week off. You can break that up differently by taking a weekend refeed every 4 weeks. However, you choose to do it is highly individual and based on how your body is responding to the diet. If you’re noticing problems with recovery, feeling fatigue, have an increase in cravings, low sex drive, poor sleep… these are signs that it’s time for a break. So if you’re 5 weeks in and noticing those signs, take a weekend off. If you’re feeling great up until 8 weeks, that’s awesome, but still take a break to avoid even getting to that point.
We want to protect the body and make sure it doesn’t freak out on us. We want to be proactive and avoid any damage before it occurs. So having a plan to implement these breaks is key.
Now, if you need more than 24 weeks to get to your goal weight, there needs to be planned maintenance phases of recovery, not just a short diet break. This is the place where most people don’t want to go because they feel that more is better… meaning more calorie deficits, more time spent cutting, the better. That’s not true. Calorie deficits are hard on the body. And your body needs maintenance calories just as long as the cut was to recover. So let’s say you’ve reach week #24 and you’re still 15lbs away from your goal… you’re going to have to exercise your patience muscle at this point because it’s time to reverse up to maintenance and stay there for 24 weeks to allow your body to recover, letting the metabolism reset, and taking care of your hormonal health.
Most people fail here. They don’t want to do it and I get it. It’s a psychological war going on in their head that they have to keep dieting because they are so close to their goal. But in reality, it’s probably going to take another 15 weeks to get there and this is time where your body needs to spend recovering. This phase, I’d say, is the most critical one to have a coach. Mainly because most people just can’t move past what their brain is telling them to do.
A coach is there to assure you that this is necessary, that it’s not an option NOT to give your body this much needed break, and they’ll help you understand the process and follow through with it instead of getting nervous and running back to a deficit. Reverse diets are not easy. It’s simple, but it’s not easy psychologically.
Basically what we’re doing in this reverse diet up to maintenance is adding in a small amount of calories every week. Maybe 100-150 calories more each day. We continue adding on until we hit your maintenance calories.
Now, sometimes, weight stays the same. Sometimes, people gain a little from water weight and maybe a little extra fat. I’ve had clients actually lose some weight which may seem like an odd thing… but it can happen usually due to the fact that they’re energy levels go up and they move throughout the day significantly more. It’s highly individual what happens during this process. But…
This process is where people get scared and run back to dieting. But we want to teach your body that this is where you’re meant to be. This is what you should be burning. Because we cannot (CANNOT) live on diet calories forever.
We’re training your body to burn what it should, burn what is comfortable and helps you thrive and build muscle. We’re helping the body return to homeostasis so that your stress levels, mood, fatigue levels, sleep, and cravings are all leveled out and restored to a healthy place. We want to find health in this phase. We need the body to feel safe, so it has an easier time letting go of the extra fat.
After your reverse and maintenance period, then you can go back to your cut and finish out losing those last 15lbs and now you’re in a healthy place to do it, so your body will likely oblige more readily!
So, this is the process of dieting, diet breaks, refeed days, and maintenance phases.
Most people think it’s an 8 week challenge and they’re done. But this isn’t sustainable. People who do this and do a major cut usually definitely see some incredible results. But they return back to their original weight if not more because it wasn’t a sustainable and doable way of life.
So, ultimately it depends on how you feel and how you’re progressing but, Every 3-4 weeks of dieting, just have a 2-3 day refeed. Every 8 weeks, have a 5-7 day refeed. Every 12-16 weeks, have a 7-14 day refeed.
If this process seems like a bit too much for you to handle on your own, that's what I'm here for!
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Until next time,