If you’re hoping to lose bodyweight, the first line of defense, unsurprisingly, is to begin dieting and using a sound exercise program. Unfortunately however, many of us take these measures too far, leaving us frustrated, tired and unable to actually achieve the results we desire.
Dieting can often be a double-edged sword. In order to effectively lose weight, you’ll need to reduce the amount of calories you’re consuming each day. Over time, however, this can lead to metabolic adaptation – a biological state where your metabolism slows to match calorie intake.
Essentially, you need to restrict calories to lose weight but doing so for too long can have a reverse effect. When someone is motivated to lose weight but doesn’t understand how the body adapts, it can be downright disastrous for body composition and, of course, health.
While you may be motivated and have an intense desire to lose weight, by continuing your restriction, you may actually be making your situation worse than if you weren’t dieting.
Since this issue is one I’ve experienced and see all too regularly, I decided to write this article to describe 4 distinct situations which indicate when a break from dieting is needed and, of course, how to go about it.
You’re Always Fatigued
One of the hallmarks of restricting calories for far too long is never-ending fatigue. This often occurs after months and months of restricting calories on top of exercise. Unfortunately, this often happens regardless of your sleeping status.
The human body is extremely resilient and built to survive. When calories are restricted for long periods of time, the body senses a reduction in energy availability and so shifts its focus onto survival.
In this case, the body’s main concern is ensuring adequate energy for essential organs like the brain and heart, rather than providing an energy supply for fitness and muscle strength.
Additionally, it’s quite possible this is simply due to a reduction in metabolic rate. In fact, multiple studies have revealed that chronic calorie and even carbohydrate restriction can lead to greater feelings of fatigue and reductions of metabolic rate (1, 2).
If you constantly feel fatigued and happen to be dieting, it may be time to rethink that decision.
You’re Moody & Depressed
One major issue that many raise when dieting is the feeling of having mood swings and even experiencing feelings of depression.
Current evidence suggests that chronic (long-term) calorie restriction may result in some deficiencies of nutrients, leading to changed mood. Further, it’s thought that foods like protein and carbohydrate may have an influence on how serotonin is absorbed into the brain (3, 4, 5).
If both macronutrients are restricted chronically, this could have a potential impact on feelings of happiness.
Further, it’s also possible that feelings of depression and sadness may also be due to chronic low blood sugar, a common side effect of calorie restriction. In fact, studies have indicated that low blood sugar can lead to reduced cognitive performance and poorer mood ratings.
You Can’t Lose Weight
Paradoxically, many of us have experienced the inability to lose weight, even though we’ve been restricting calories for months. If this describes you, it’s extremely likely that your metabolism has adapted to your restriction, rendering continued attempts almost pointless.
Prior to dieting, your body has all the nutrients and energy it needs. When this occurs, metabolism continues to rev high, but then, when you initially begin to diet, your metabolism goes into a sort of shock.
All of a sudden, you’re not eating the same amount of calories, which had previously been utilized for various processes and storage in the body. When this happens, the body turns toward energy stored in the body such as fat tissue, stored sugar and eventually, if needed, from muscle.
Unfortunately however, after a period of a few weeks, your metabolism begins to adapt, lowering the amount of calories needed for any given circumstance. When this occurs, weight loss will stop until more calories are restricted.
Over months and months, this can really cause a metabolic slowdown, making further restriction inadvisable and even dangerous. In this case, there’s almost no other choice than to take a break from dieting.
You’ve Lost Your Period
One of the more scary side effects of chronic calorie restriction is the potential loss of your menstrual cycle (amenorrhea).
As you probably already know, ovulation and menstruation are tightly regulated by a myriad of different hormones that are sensitive to energy status and survival.
The menstrual cycle is of course a natural process that initiates in order to conceive. When energy status is low, this causes a survival response in the body, indicating that the environment isn’t fit for growing and nourishing a developing child.
When this occurs, drastic fluctuation of hormonal levels can lead to missing regular monthly periods for months on end. Since hormones are tightly regulated, this can also lead to malfunctioning output of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone.
If you’ve found that your menstrual cycle has stopped or has been adversely affected, taking a break is strongly advised.
How To Take A Break From Dieting
If you find yourself in need of a diet break, it’s important to remember that doing so isn’t a free-for-all to binge eat. If you’ve been dieting for months on end and your metabolism has adapted, suddenly doubling your calorie intake can spell disaster for your physique.
To keep things simple, here is a brief list of steps you should take to effectively stop dieting for a while.
- Find your maintenance
In order to know how to stop dieting, you first need to find your maintenance. This means finding the amount of calories you can consume daily without having any fluctuation in body weight. To do this, simply weigh yourself in the morning and then track calories for a period of 5 days. At the end of the week, weigh yourself again.
If your weight has remained the same, then you’ve found your maintenance. If your weight has increased or decreased, this is a good indication that you ate more than normal or less than normal, respectively.
- Increase calories by 20%
A good starting point for increasing calories is around 20% each day. If you’re regularly consuming 1500 calories per day, this would mean increasing your daily calories to around 1800 calories.
Increasing slightly can easily help your metabolism get back on track, but it’s also not so many calories that you’ll gain fat quickly.
- Weigh yourself regularly
When taking a break, it’s important to carefully monitor your body weight so that you can make adjustments to your calorie intake on the fly rather than after it’s already too late.
It’s also important to know that you may gain weight when taking a break, but this is acceptable. Our goal is to minimize that risk as much as possible.
- Give yourself time
Taking a break from dieting can be difficult and feel never-ending, since you just want to get in shape.
Just remember that you’re taking a break to improve your health and to put yourself in a better position to lose weight in the future. I suggest taking a break from dieting that is at least of the same duration as your previous diet, before considering a diet again.
- Continue Exercising As Normal
Just because you’re taking a break from dieting doesn’t mean you need to stop exercising. In fact, doing so may be beneficial.
By exercising regularly, you ensure that these extra calories are shuttled towards muscle, rather than body fat. Not to mention, the extra calories may make your workouts more effective. Ultimately, you may find your body composition changes favorably, even with more calories.
How To Tell You Need A Break From Dieting (And How To Do It)
When attempting to lose weight, calorie restriction is almost always required. Unfortunately however, many people take that too seriously, chronically restricting calories for months or more.
Eventually the weight loss stops and you’re stuck with a slowed metabolism yet still having weight to lose. If you find yourself in this situation and experiencing any of the side effects mentioned, it’s probably time for a break.
Ensure that this break is well thought out and controlled as mentioned and you’ll be ready to get back on the dieting horse in no time, perhaps in a more effective manner.
- White, A. M., Johnston, C. S., Swan, P. D., Tjonn, S. L., & Sears, B. (2007). Blood ketones are directly related to fatigue and perceived effort during exercise in overweight adults adhering to low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss: a pilot study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107(10), 1792-1796.
- Yancy, W. S., Olsen, M. K., Guyton, J. R., Bakst, R. P., & Westman, E. C. (2004). A low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet versus a low-fat diet to treat obesity and hyperlipidemiaA randomized, controlled trial. Annals of internal medicine, 140(10), 769-777.
- Benton, D. (2002). Diet and Mood. In Diet—Brain Connections (pp. 15-30). Springer US.
- Polivy, J. (1996). Psychological consequences of food restriction. Journal of the American dietetic association, 96(6), 589-592.
- Benton, D. (2002). Carbohydrate ingestion, blood glucose and mood. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 26(3), 293-308.