Those finding it hard to stick to the diet they resolved to go on to start the year may feel encouraged by results from a recent study.
Taking a brief break from eating less does not affect weight loss. In fact, it could help cut the kilos, the research published in the journal PLOS One on Wednesday found.
Researchers from the University of Sydney’s Boden Institute for Nutrition fed two groups of fattened mice restricted diets for 12 weeks. They kept one group on a constant diet and allowed the other to intermittently eat all they wanted for periods of one to three days.
“We found that despite these break periods, the mice in the intermittent group ended up losing the same amount of weight and fat as the constantly-dieting group over the same period of time,” the study’s lead author, Associate Professor Amanda Salis, said.
“We’re doing human clinical trials at the moment, but at this stage, from these findings it seems there’s no need to follow a diet religiously in order to get results.”
The ‘famine reaction’
Previous studies suggested that dieting to lose weight causes changes in the brain that led to people building up hunger over time.
“After a couple of weeks dieting, you can eat a full day’s worth of food and still be hungry, which is part of what I call a ‘famine reaction’,” Assoc Prof Salis said.
“A lot of people will eat more in response to that very strong urge, and afterwards they might feel bad and think ‘I broke the diet, I might as well just give up’. But these findings suggest you’re not doing your weight loss goals harm in taking the occasional break from restricting food intake.”
Associate Professor Tim Crowe, an exercise and nutrition expert at Deakin University, endorsed these findings, noting they were not exclusive to any particular diet.
“It’s hard to know for sure how to apply this knowledge to humans at this point, but it looks as though taking a break works for any type of weight-loss diet.”
What a ‘diet holiday’ looks like
Assoc Prof Salis said two weeks was a good average break from a diet, and that people should wait until they were actually losing weight and starting to feel insatiably hungry before taking this “holiday”.
“We know that that famine reaction comes into effect after two to four weeks on a weight loss diet. Once you’re hungry, your energy starts dropping and weight loss starts plateauing. That might be a good time to start considering a break.”
The academic said the emphasis during this break is on maintaining the amount of weight lost up to that point. That means you should eat the same healthy food you were while dieting during these two or so weeks.
“You can eat more, but the focus still needs to on eating healthier,” she said.
“So something like this really presents an opportunity for people to learn to enjoy to eat healthier food, beyond just eating it as a means to an end to lose weight.”
While activity levels were not tested in the study, Assoc Prof Salis said maintaining exercise routines was just as crucial to maintaining weight loss during the diet holiday. She also said it was important to not overindulge too frequently or for too long.
“If there’s too many splurges, then the weight loss will slow down and it won’t continue, but people can also experiment with what works for them. You might find you can splurge once a week and it doesn’t affect weight loss, but twice a week it does.
“Ultimately, the message is that occasionally eating more won’t set your weight loss program back.”