Diet Deloading / Diet Breaks
Deloading. Most likely you are at least somewhat familiar with the term albeit probably from a training perspective. A training deload is defined as a short, planned period of recovery typically after a hard training block. A deload is a planned break. A break that is part of the overall plan to ensure your continued success. One step back for two steps forward so to speak.
A diet deload is almost the same thing. Diet deloading is a period of time during a fat loss phase where you take a break from being in a caloric deficit. In other words, in the middle of a diet you actually stop dieting. Does it seem counterintuitive? Read on…
How its done
A diet deload or as it’s also commonly called a “diet break”, can be done many different ways. There are a wide range of possibilities within the framework of the main principles.
The first main point I want to make is a diet deload is used most commonly and with the greatest benefit during a fat loss phase. Theoretically it could be used during a period where you are eating at maintenance or surplus but the need for it would be exclusively psychological (more on that later).
A diet deload traditionally lasts only a week or two but can last up to a couple months depending on the individual and the situation.
There are two main ways to go about this from a caloric stand point.
If you are going with the traditional length (1–2 weeks) you should go directly from your dieting macros to calculated maintenance. The reason I say “calculated maintenance” is because I feel like most people use the phrase “maintenance calories” incorrectly. By definition true maintenance calories would be the amount of calories where you actually maintain your weight. I know crazy right? But all too often I hear people say things like “I am going to cut on maintenance” or “I am lean bulking on maintenance”. That is impossible. I’m not saying you can’t improve body composition on maintenance calories but that’s a topic for another article. Basically what I am saying is calculate your maintenance calorie intake as best you can and use that. Be sure to take into account metabolic rate lowers the longer you diet and the more weight you lose.
Great article on calculating macros: How to Start Flexible Dieting (IIFYM)
If you are in a situation where it makes sense to take a longer diet break, you can choose to add calories back incrementally in a reverse dieting fashion. However, since you are only going to be off your diet for a few weeks I recommend adding calories back more aggressively than a typical reverse diet. Get to calculated maintenance within a 2–3 weeks so you are able to spend the majority of time during the diet break at maintenance because at the end of the day that is the point.
Great article on reverse dieting: Reverse Dieting: How to Build Muscle and Stay Lean
When to Deload
In order to benefit from a diet deload I recommend being in a deficit for at least 4 weeks but I tend to prefer clients have been at a deficit a little longer. In most circumstances I won’t suggest a diet deload until a client has been in a deficit for at least 8 weeks. In my opinion there really is no need to take a break from dieting until you have actually made progress. The fact of the matter is you need to earn a diet deload just like you need to earn a training deload. If you have been training three days a week for thirty minutes each session with no intensity you are NOT going to see any benefit from a training deload. Likewise, if you have not lost any fat or weight during your diet, taking a break and raising calories is NOT going to suddenly cause you to start making progress.
The question is sure to arise as to how many weeks you should diet deload. The short answer is as long as you account for it you can take as many weeks as you want or feel you need. In my opinion, most people will only need one to two weeks to achieve the desired response. However, if you have plenty of time to reach your goal there is no reason why you can’t deload for longer.
The case for a longer diet break can be made for a couple different circumstances. The most common extended diet deload is for physique competitors. Since competing in bodybuilding, Men/Women’s Physique, Figure, etc. typically requires a longer more stressful dieting process a diet deload in the middle can be beneficial.
This would essentially cut a pre contest diet in half. Most natural competitors diet for a very long time, upwards of six months in some cases in order to maintain the most amount of muscle while simultaneously getting shredded in the process. This process wrecks havoc on the body and a deload in the middle can make things easier.
If a diet deload was going to be utilized one could diet for 8–12 weeks, lose a good amount of body fat and put themselves within striking distance to their stage weight. At this point, take a 4 week diet deload then return to maintenance calories. This would create a psychological boost as well as restore hormonal output. Then the client will proceed to finish the prep with another hard 16 weeks or so. So instead of one long grueling prep, you would have two more manageable shorter periods of dieting.
Another group of clients who would get a longer diet deload are the ones who are in need of a drastic change. Typically these clients have been in a caloric deficit for a long time and progress has either stopped or calories got to a point where you don’t want to lower them any further, or both. The options at this point become thin. This situation typically occurs when people start a diet with low metabolic function from years of dieting on low calories. This situation happens all the time. The worst possible situation to be in is overweight with a poor metabolism. This happens from years of yo yo dieting and jumping on every new dieting fad.
The all too common situation:
Start: Overweight –>(Strict Diet) –>Lose Weight–>(Binge) –> Gain Weight = End: Fatter than before
Unfortunately in this situation people end up fatter than before with a lower metabolic capacity. As these people start to diet it becomes clear this is not going to be fixed in one dieting cycle. To fix a situation like this you will need to diet and then back off and add calories back in (diet deload) and then try again. If this doesn’t work then the next step would be to do a full on reverse diet. Most people in this situation end up reverse dieting anyway but a diet deload is a great way to continue to make progress without fully committing to a reverse diet.
What are the benefits?
There are a couple of benefits to doing a diet deload. The biggest in my opinion is psychological.
Making progress takes time and dieting is hard. I am convinced anyone can get motivated and suffer through dieting and being hungry for a certain period of time. If you truly look at America you will see we do not have a weight loss problem, we have a weight regain problem. A lot of people make progress for two, three or even four months at a time and then the wheels fall off. Someone can only be miserable for so long. The fact of the matter is most people quit before they ever reach their ultimate goal.
Diet deloading breaks dieting up into short manageable periods of time. Diet hard for a few weeks and then you get a break for a week or two. The mental aspect of dieting is huge.
The question often comes up whether or not you should track calories/macros during a diet deload. In my opinion yes, calories/macros should be tracked during a diet break. The reason in simple. The goal is to use the deload in your favor. In order to do that fully it is important to maintain control. There is no sense in going crazy for a week and gaining all kinds of weight. It will just be extra fat that will need to be dieted off.
Another benefit of course is physiological. Taking a diet deload is great way to allow your body to recoup the negative side effects of dieting. As you know, dieting causes your metabolic rate to down regulate. On top of that a testosterone, leptin, thyroid hormones, etc. down regulate as well. Most people prefer to just have a “cheat meal” or Re-Feed as I recommend but neither of those strategies change much from a hormone standpoint. It takes more than one day of increased calories/carbs to make a real difference. This is not to downplay the benefits of re-feeds but just to mention the limitations.
How to eat during a training deload?
I know a few of you came to this article thinking it was about how to eat during a training deload lol. Since I didn’t want to disappoint (and I get this question A LOT) I figured I would touch on the subject.
Generally I advise my clients to not change anything during a training deload. It’s important to remember what the goal of a deload is, which is to recover. The natural tendency is to want to lower calories due to the lack of training volume and/or intensity but, in my opinion, that’s not the best option.
In regard to this article I will point out that it would not be a good idea to do a training deload and a diet deload in the same week. What would be the point? If you are dieting you will want to use the extra calories you get from a diet deload during a period of hard training. Trust me on this one.