Diet breaks for superior fat loss
written by Philip Stefanov | SEPTEMBER 7, 2021
Back in 2010, Manfred Müller and colleagues came up with an interesting paper:
Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight?
Loosely speaking, a set point would be our predisposition to a specific weight and body fat percentage. In other words, if you go about living like the average person, paying little attention to your training and nutritional habits, you would find yourself with a specific body. For some, this means a skinny frame with abs; for others - being overweight or skinny fat. It’s different for everyone.
The researchers from the above study speculate that, apart from genetic predisposition, external factors - such as the sheer availability of delicious and calorie-dense foods - play a huge role. In their words, “..this regulation is lost or camouflaged by Western diets, suggesting that the failure of biological control is due mainly to external factors. In this situation, the set point is replaced by various settling points that are influenced by energy and macronutrient intake in order for the body to reach a zero balance of energy and macronutrients and thus a new and possibly unhealthy steady state.”
In other words, we all come with our unique and natural tendencies toward food and movement. But our environment also plays a role in where we end up. Because of that, researchers have coined the term settling point, as opposed to set point.
The 2017 MATADOR Study
Back in 2017, researchers came out with an interesting study. They examined what results continuous and intermittent dieting would deliver. The study had 51 obese men who were randomly assigned to:
- 16 weeks of continuous dieting
- Eight 2-week dieting periods combined with seven 2-week periods of eating at maintenance (30 weeks in total)
- Group 1 - continuous dieting for 16 weeks
- Group 2 - 2 weeks (diet) ⇒ 2 weeks (maintenance) ⇒ 2 weeks (diet) ⇒ 2 weeks (maintenance), and so on
Despite spending 16 weeks in a calorie deficit, group 2 managed to lose nearly 50 percent more body fat, retain more muscle, and the subjects were less likely to regain the lost fat. These are some exciting results, which suggest that temporary breaks from dieting can help us make better progress and retain it more easily after the diet is over.
The only problem was, this approach had subjects deal with a diet for almosts twice the time - 30 weeks as opposed to 16.
What Are Diets Breaks And What Role Do They Play?
A diet break is simply a period - typically seven days - where we raise our calories back to maintenance. If you do it right, you won’t gain weight from fat, but you might end up weighing a bit more simply due to having more glycogen, water, and food in your system.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, diet breaks play an important role in how the body responds to dieting. First, the leaner we get, the more likely we become to lose muscle instead of fat. Second, dieting leads to lower leptin levels. This hormone plays numerous crucial roles, including that of appetite control and metabolic adaptation.
The idea is, having the occasional diet break allows us to feel satisfied, energized, and on course with our fat loss. The MATADOR study we looked at above displayed this brilliantly.
But beyond that, diet breaks serve an important psychological role. Dieting is stressful and difficult, especially for those trying to get quite lean. By taking the occasional break, we get to feel normal, enjoy a bit more food, and hopefully make it easier for ourselves to keep dieting. Plus, it’s one thing to know that you have to diet for the next twenty weeks and a whole other thing to know that you have a few more weeks before you can take a break.
Sure, diet breaks make the whole process longer, but they also make it more manageable and even enjoyable.
Does This Mean We Can Control Our Set Point And Stay Lean Year-Round?
Well, yes and no. Keep in mind that we need more research in the area before concluding. But studies so far paint the picture that we can influence our set point to some degree. This makes sense when you think about it:
There are more than a few examples of people who’ve been overweight for decades before finally achieving and sustaining weight loss. But this isn’t to say that we can change our set point significantly - there are some limitations.
Most notably, we can adopt better habits that make it easier for us to maintain a lower body fat percentage. For example, in one paper, researchers suggest the following, “Our paper suggests that various lifestyle factors can help attenuate the hormonal responses normally associated with appetite control and regulation.” They recommend habits such as:
- Having more frequent meals with some protein and little fat
- Getting eight hours of sleep per night
- Controlling stress
- Exercising regularly (both resistance training and cardio)
The issue is, we also have some evidence that weight loss suppresses leptin and other hormones, and these don’t seem to rebound even after a year of maintaining lower body weight.
In other words, losing weight and keeping our results afterward is an ongoing battle. Habits play a considerable role, and we certainly cannot expect to settle into a low body fat percentage unless we are ready to deal with adverse effects like:
- Lower libido
- Decreased ability to gain strength and muscle
Still, there probably is some adaptive mechanism that takes place. When coupled with better habits, it’s entirely possible for an overweight person to get (and stay) decently lean, which would be somewhere between 11 and 15 percent body fat.
Thank you for taking the time! Until next week,
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