To loose fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit over a long period of time. However, our bodies are engineered to make it difficult.
Your body will adapt and slow fat loss in response to your self-imposed “famine”. That adaptation can be a simple as unconsciously moving less from a lack of energy.
But our hormones also adjust to slow fat loss. Leptin, the hormone that signals the brain that we are full, will decrease to keep the “eat more” switch flipped on.
Ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger, will increase – as does cortisol. Increased cortisol can disrupt sleep and signal additional fat storage.
If you feel like your diet isn’t working anymore, that you’re always “hangry” – well, that ghrelin/cortisol combo could be why.
Dieting is stressful. The psychological stress of dieting can make it hard to stick to the plan. Especially if you are following a plan that is highly restrictive with food choices. But even flexible dieters will experience the stress.
The stress isn’t just psychological. Being in a caloric deficit creates a physical stress on the body.
You are using that caloric deficit to create a physical adaptation – you want your body to burn off its own tissue – stored fat.
Your ability to handle stress is a physical ability and it uses glycogen from food for energy because the brain uses about 20% of your calories. When you’re eating less, you’re not only increasing the physical stress at the cellular level, but you have less available energy to handle life.
Uh huh. You’re going to feel it some days.
And your progress will slow down.
What can you do to keep that ghrelin/cortisol combo from slowing everything down?
Eat. Simple, right? This is the point where people who don’t have a planned strategy about how to move out of their calorie deficit can fall off track.
But that doesn’t have to happen.
There are strategies you can use to stay in control. You’ve probably heard of them.
Cheat meals, cheat days, refeeds, diet breaks…
What’s the difference? Which work best?
First I want to reassure you that making breaks part of your fat-loss plan actually puts you in control and it does not interfere with weight loss.
People have had sustainable success by using periodic increases in food to keep fat-burning running at an optimal level.
Let’s look at each type of break…
Cheat Meals/Cheat Days
The common understanding of a cheat meal or a cheat day is that you won’t track food.
You’ll simply eat what you want to eat.
It’s a great psychological break, and that may be just what you need. Tracking is hard, so a day off, with extra food, can feel great.
But it can backfire.
If you aren’t in control of portion sizes, the caloric surplus can be so large so that you wipe out your progress for the week.
For some people, that cheat day will turn into a cheat weekend. The weight gain will likely be water weight from the extra food, not fat, but it’s discouraging.
But NOT taking a break when you need one doesn’t work.
A refeed is a controlled increased in food, preferably in carbs.
Refeed = maintenance calories.
Bring your calories up to your maintenance number for a day. There are physical benefits, such as resetting your hunger hormones. You also get an emotional boost from the extra calories.
And you’re staying on track. It’s controlled.
You still weigh, measure and record your food. You’re not going to let your intake go too far over your estimated maintenance calorie number.
How often should you do a refeed?
The frequency will vary from person to person. Here are some very general guidlines:
If your body fat percentage is a little higher (for women over 40, I’d suggest over 25%) and you are handling the tracking and caloric deficit well, every 10 days to 2 weeks might be enough.
After that, if you’ve been consistent with maintaining your deficit and have been losing fat, when you get under 25%, do a refeed weekly.
If you have been at this for a while and are leaner (under 20%), do a 2-day refeed instead of a one day refeed. You may decide to go a bit longer than a week before you do a 2-day refeed. As in all things, this varies from person to person.
Remember that the body will adapt to your deficit, so you’re using your refeeds to prevent the adaptation. It’s not uncommon for people to see a scale drop during a refeed!
Two-day refeeds are important for women who are under 20% body fat and are still menstruating. Two day refeeds have been shown to effectively reverse hormonal changes due to being in a caloric deficit long term.
Refeeds will only work for so long. Eventually, there will be a natural metabolic adaption to the lower calorie intake – the body just slows down.
The physical and emotional stress of the diet takes a toll and fat loss will stop. That’s when you should implement a full diet break.
A diet break can be as short as a week or much longer. You’ll bring your calories up to maintenance for that period of time.
I’ve spoken of this before when I talked about phases of fat loss. My suggestion is that a fat loss phase last no longer than 6 months with regular refeeds.
The next phase could be a long diet break where the goal is to maintain the weight loss while, if you can, gradually increase the amount of food you can eat at that body weight.
A good plan for general fat loss would be 6 months in a calorie deficit using refeeds and a week-long diet break when weight loss stalls somewhere in the 3rd or 4th month. The next 6 months could be a maintenance phase.
Use your life-calendar and plan diet breaks for vacations or when you’re traveling for work.
Your actual plan needs to be customized for you and adjusted over time based on how your body is responding, what’s going on in your life, and your goals.
There are a lot of options in creating fat loss programs using refeeds and diet breaks and I encourage you to use them to create a plan that optimizes your results.
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Hi! I'm Tammy! I was a busy, stressed, and unhealthy teacher until I decided to take control of my health. I did not become an athlete until I was in my 50's!
I earned personal training and fitness nutrition certifications, then retired from teaching to dedicate my work life to fitness education for other busy women over 40.
My results are obviously not typical because most people don't train to compete as a bodybuilder.
But I believe everyone can make positive changes with healthy habits! Each of us has a unique combination of strengths and challenges that need to be considered to customize a program that will work for us. Science-based principles, flexibility, and consistency make all the difference.