Since I found myself having this conversation a bit more frequently with my fat loss clients, I wanted to write this week’s article specifically about maintenance breaks.
For many dieters, they tend to fall into one of two camps: dieting to lose weight (at whatever degree of deficit they choose) or overeating (eating in a surplus).
And if you’ve never intentionally taken a maintenance break, you may not have known that it was a viable (and sometimes necessary) option as well.
Keep in mind that when you’re dieting to lose weight, the ultimate goal is to not only achieve your desired weight but to reach a place in your life where you live “at maintenance”.
For instance, my body has floated between the same 4-6 pounds for years now. Between the amount of movement I get in a day (having an active job, plus strength training, and cardiovascular activity) and my untracked caloric intake, my body weight really doesn’t change much beyond those same handful of pounds referenced above.
This means, that by and large, on a daily/weekly/monthly basis, what I expend is about equal to what I take in.
For many dieters, they can fall into a rather unwanted rhythm of cycling between the same few pounds despite legitimately trying to eat in a deficit and getting fed up after doing so only to end up overeating when opportunity strikes (not to mention, the shame cycle that invariably occurs as well). As a result, they bounce from one diet (or exercise program) to the next, never really committing anywhere long enough for change that sticks.
Another interesting thing that can happen when you give yourself a maintenance break is that you might actually drop pounds by doing so. Part of the reason this can happen is that, when you increase your intake, the quality of your workouts can improve (meaning you might burn more when you train) and your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) can increase as well. This means that you might fidget more, do more chores, walk more, etc. even if you’re not totally conscious this is happening.
If you’ve ever read or seen someone say something to the effect of: I’m eating more than I used to AND I’m losing weight, this is essentially the reality they’re talking about.
Let me give you some very loose and arbitrary numbers to highlight my point.
I know that my maintenance calories are around 3000 right now (I only know this because I was recently tracking for some other reasons). Anything below 3000, done consistently should result in fat loss.
Let’s assume that I really want to lose some weight and I make an aggressive cut to get the pounds off fast, we’ll say 2000 calories. I can do that for a period of days before I get so stressed out that I spike up to 3700, 3900, etc., get mad at myself for eating so much and then try to drop back to 2000 only to go through the same cycle over and over again.
I decide to take a break on the dieting and push my calories back to 3000. Weight should stay mostly stable (give or take a few pounds). In doing so, I should add back in some of the foods that I felt I was depriving myself of. There’s a slight caveat here that if there are foods you don’t moderate well, you may need to still keep those out of the mix. For me, I don’t moderate cookies well, but if I was offered a cupcake, I would be okay.
How long I stay at maintenance is really based on my mental state. If I feel as if my stress levels are lower, I’m sleeping better, my workouts are going better and my libido is in a good place, then I can determine to do another fat loss phase. For some people, a maintenance break might last a week or potentially a month or two.
Remember: this is a skill. If all you know is “aggressive dieting” or “eating too much”, a maintenance break helps teach your body to maintain the status quo.
Then I can choose to make a modest cut to my maintenance calories again. Perhaps, I cut my calories back to 2700 from 3000 (a 10% deficit) and see how I do. There’s really no wrong answer here. You do what feels right, you listen to your body, and journal your feelings/reactions (if need be) so you have some data to support the actions, and plot the course.
If you had, say, 100 pounds to lose, it’s not unreasonable to have several maintenance breaks along the way. You could “schedule” a maintenance break every 10, 20, 25 pounds down so that you have strategic times to diet and strategic times to take a pause. This can not only help you on a hormonal level but it can keep you from completely abandoning a social life, too.
An easy way to determine what your maintenance is would be to use a calorie calculator or food app to plug in your age, gender, weight, height, and level of daily activity (be honest on this one). Many food apps will ask you to pick a weight loss goal but all you want to select is your maintenance intake.
Remember that calorie goals are estimates and the numbers could be slightly off but start there and keep an eye on the scale to make sure things are roughly where they need to be (3-5 pounds in either direction is normal and you can fluctuate that much in a 24 hour period).
So, if you’ve never taken a maintenance break before, you’re not seeing much progress right now and you’re ready to throw in the towel on fat loss, you may need the break.
Pictured below: pizza and canoli. Which would you add back in when you go to maintenance?