Fat loss is a difficult challenge for most of us, particularly if you have a big weight goal set, and the journey can be long and tedious.
Knowing how to lose fat and applying this knowledge to your lifestyle is hard enough on its own, but some of the more important factors are typically overlooked, which is often what causes fat loss plateaus and weight re-gain.
Examples of these more important factors include knowing how to make adjustments and knowing when it may be necessary to switch up your strategies to promote long-term weight loss and better dietary adherence.
Dieting is no easy feat, so knowing the strategies that can provide us with some respite from calorie restriction can lead to better results down the line.
This guide discusses two common strategies people implement when dieting—refeeds and diet breaks.
These are very similar strategies but have their minor differences which would determine which is the best approach for you.
Before we get into it, we must lay the foundations first. In other words, why would we need to have a refeed or diet break in the first place?
Metabolic Adaptation: A Quick Overview
Refeeds and diet breaks exist to address fat loss plateaus, or any other kind of progress stunt.
As our body weight decreases through calorie restriction (being in a calorie deficit for a prolonged period), hormonal changes occur and our body kick starts its natural adaptive mechanisms, also known as metabolic adaptation or adaptive thermogenesis.
Metabolic adaptation is a protective mechanism that alters our body’s metabolism which causes us to crave more food while retaining as much energy as possible.
It does this by signalling the release of hormones that increase hunger and cravings, which naturally encourage us to consume more food.
On top of this, our calorie burn (energy expenditure) can also alter. Our body is trying very hard to reserve our energy stores. As a result, this may make us feel less enthused about daily movement and exercise, the longer we diet.
When losing weight, our bodies will also alter our metabolism, as a lighter body requires less energy (calories).
In the context of hormonal changes, we would see a decline in leptin, the hormone produced by fat cells that tells our body that it has adequate fat stores, thus helping us regulate our appetite.
Low leptin levels tell our brain that we are potentially in danger of calorie deprivation for an unknown period, which then causes our body to go into some kind of survival mode which works hard to signal us to consume food.
Refeeds and diet breaks work to increase our food intake, which essentially sends signals to our body that we are good and that this process is intentional.
This would then reduce the effects of adaptive thermogenesis and also allow our body to get back to a balanced hormonal state, which has both psychological and physiological benefits.
Not only would these strategies help prevent fat loss plateaus, but would also help maximize long-term, sustainable fat loss and dietary adherence.
So, what’s the difference between these strategies, and which one is better?
A diet break is a planned period of 7-14 days where we increase calorie intake and loosen any caloric restrictions we have in place through dieting.
Diet breaks break up the monotony of dieting, thus making adherence easier. It can be difficult to stay motivated to lose a lot of weight over a long period of time, so diet breaks are a necessity to simply have a break, allow our bodies to return to baseline, and give us some respite from dieting.
It’s often recommended to think of diet breaks as periodization, much like the approach in training programs.
There’s a chance to be fairly savvy with taking diet breaks, for example, setting a two-week diet break every 3 or so months. This way, you always have a short-term end in sight which would also contribute to better dietary adherence.
Diet breaks may look different for everyone, though the general guidelines are as follows:
- Eat to hunger and don’t count calories or macros
- Avoid binge eating
- Keep to your regular mealtimes
- Continue training (you may even see some gains in this period due to increased calorie intake)
Diet breaks can be more controlled than this approach. This is a more relaxed method of a diet break, a more structured, controlled break would be more like a refeed.
Refeeds are essentially diet breaks, but a little more structured and well thought-out, and over a much shorter length of time—just a day!
Refeed days are simply days where you over-consume calories after a long period of calorie restriction.
The concept behind this strategy is to temporarily counteract the consequences of a calorie deficit, such as lowered hormone levels, poor appetite, fatigue, and plateaus.
Sounds similar to a diet break, right? Same concept too—to increase food intake over a period of time to allow your body to get back to baseline and give your mind and body a rest from the restriction.
Though, the main difference between a diet break and a refeed day is simply that a diet break is over a much longer length of time, whereas a refeed is just over one day. Refeed days can also be applied more frequently too, with once a week being a common recommendation.
Refeeds are often mistaken with “cheat days” though, which isn’t always the best approach for fat loss. This is an uncontrolled method which tends to be a free-for-all on food in unlimited quantities.
Refeed days a bit more strategic, rightly so, as it’s under such a short time. Refeeds often focus on increasing solely carbohydrate intake to boost leptin and energy levels, which helps us avoid metabolic adaptations and can promote better dietary adherence.
Diet Break Vs Refeed: Which is Better?
Which method you decide to go for largely depends on your personal goals and what you’re looking to achieve.
Refeeds are a more strategic option, which makes them a good choice for athletes and gym-goers looking for a short respite in their diet, thus boosting energy levels which may enhance performance and recovery as a result.
Refeeds are also a good option for short-term dieters with minimal weight to lose, as they may not require a long period of dieting, thus diet breaks being unnecessary.
Diet breaks are more suitable for those who are dieting long term who require longer breaks after long periods of calorie restriction.
This is also more of a relaxed approach, which may be suitable for those dieters who choose not to track calorie or macro intake.
Whichever approach you choose, ensure you’re tracking your progress and making adjustments as you go!
Overcoming a Fat Loss Plateau: Practical Tips
Fat loss plateaus are very common, though can be avoided if we think and plan ahead and have strategies in place ready for when we may see a weight loss stall.
If you see no physical changes in a while, it may be a good idea to address the following points:
- Consider a two-week diet break or refeed day!
- Address your sleep and stress—two variables which can lead to cravings, thus increasing your chances of over-eating
- Increase your physical activity through exercise or daily movement. As mentioned, when we diet, our body wants to reserve energy, so we naturally want to move less. The answer to this may be as simple as increasing your daily step count!
- Track and journal your food intake and activity. Planning ahead and structuring your days better may help you identify any potential downfalls and keep your daily habits in check. This also results in you holding yourself more accountable.
- It may be time to re-calculate your calories. If you have lost weight and are still consuming the number of calories you set yourself at the beginning, you’ll soon be in a surplus! Re-calculate, as a lighter body requires less energy.
- Practice patience. Fat loss is not a linear nor simple process, so identify positive trends overtime, be prepared to make adjustments, and be consistent with whatever approach you choose to take.
While there isn’t a whole host of differences between refeeds and diet breaks, they are both great strategies to adopt when dieting.
Whichever approach you choose to take, ensure its planned and well thought-out to avoid over-consuming calories and running the risk of taking two steps back after a hard dieting phase.
These approaches look different for every individual, so track and practice trial and error to determine what works best for you!