If you've ever tried to lose weight through dieting and then tried to keep it off, you know how difficult it can be.
One reason for this is that after weeks or months of counting calories, exercising more frequently, and tracking what you eat, it's easy to want to indulge. You revert to your pre-diet eating habits, and you regain your weight. You then go on another diet to lose weight, but this time you may need to eat even fewer calories to see any weight loss. This sets in motion a frustrating cycle of weight loss and weight gain known as yo-yo dieting. In fact, the majority of people who lose weight gain it back.
One approach that some people are using to try and avoid this common pattern is reverse dieting, or what's also called "the diet after the diet." In the fitness industry, reverse dieting is a common approach to maintaining results after a hard cut. Is it, however, the answer after dieting?
Here's what the research says, as well as how to tell if reverse dieting is right for you and how to get started.
Where ‘Reverse Dieting’ got its start
While it is difficult to say how long reverse dieting has been around, many athletes who compete in extreme, physique-based sports such as bodybuilding, wrestling, and gymnastics have used reverse dieting as part of their training. This is due to the fact that these athletes prioritize weight loss in order to have the highest strength-to-mass ratio possible.
Athletes frequently take a break from long-term dieting to increase circulating leptin (the hormone that regulates energy and hunger) and stimulate their metabolic rate. By implementing this strategy once or twice a week, they maintain energy levels and continue to lose weight, despite eating more than usual.
What exactly is ‘Reverse Dieting’
Reverse dieting is a deliberate, consistent, and gradual increase in caloric intake. In some ways, reverse dieting is similar to gradually overloading your meals with calories and nutrients, as opposed to abrupt increases in energy intake.
Although it may appear to be a simple concept, reverse dieting entails more than just "eat more, do less." You must be strategic and patient if you want to maximize metabolic rate gains without storing a lot of body fats. This entails giving your metabolism time to adjust by making small, gradual changes rather than bingeing on junk food and quitting cardio all at once.
So, why would you need to perform a ‘Reverse Diet’
There is, however, a catch... kind of! A couple of factors can influence calorie requirements following fat loss:
Many calorie-reduced diets or cuts allow you to restrict calories lower than what is actually required to maintain a lower weight - this allows you to continue losing weight and seeing results. And eating very few calories (less than 20% of your maintenance calories) for an extended period of time can potentially slow your metabolism... temporarily!
Your body can compensate for decreased calories by slowing your metabolism by up to 30% through a process known as metabolic adaption. However, the effects of this phenomenon are typically short-lived, do not result in a significant decrease for everyone, and do not indicate a damaged metabolism.
In any case, a slowed metabolism can make it difficult for some people to adjust to a maintenance diet if they need to increase their calories to feel satisfied and thus stop the weight loss process. In some cases, rapidly increasing calories can result in weight gain.
Muscle mass is another factor to consider. If you build muscle, you can lose body fat and weight while still increasing your daily energy needs. This is because muscle weight, more than overall weight, has a significant impact on your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Yes, you read that correctly: more muscle mass means a higher resting metabolic rate and the ability to eat more food without gaining weight.
Although difficult, some people can gain muscle mass while on a calorie deficit, especially if they start strength training and eat a higher protein diet.
What Are the Benefits of Reverse Dieting?
There hasn't been much research into reverse diets and their potential benefits, but there are a few things we can assume based on what we know about calorie control and weight loss in general. Low-calorie diets are associated with a slowed metabolism, and increasing your intake to more sustainable levels can help reduce some of the effects of adaptive thermogenesis. Among these advantages are:
- You Get to Eat More - More calories usually equates to more food! Reverse dieting can mean eating more food for some as long as you maintain long-term calorie control and stay at or below your maintenance needs. This can be a huge benefit for those who enjoy eating, which is nearly everyone!
- Reduced Hunger and Fatigue - Calorie restriction can disrupt hunger-regulating hormones, causing you to crave sweets, feel hungry all the time, or just be cranky. Feeding your body correctly can help improve overall energy levels and control your appetite. Proper nutrition is also linked to fewer unhealthy food cravings, improved mood, and overall well-being.
What are the Drawbacks of Reverse Dieting?
Of course, it is entirely possible to approach reverse dieting incorrectly and end up doing more harm than good to your progress. There is no set procedure for increasing calories, and for many people, the process may not even be necessary. Furthermore, focusing solely on calorie control has limitations in terms of long-term success. The following are some of the potential drawbacks of reverse dieting:
- Can Still Lead to Fat Gain - It is entirely possible to gain weight if you use reverse dieting to try to increase your calories without first determining your maintenance calorie needs.
There are also changes in body water weight to consider, which can be difficult for the average person to distinguish. For example, if you eliminate the majority of carbohydrates from your diet and then reintroduce them later, you are likely to gain some water weight. This is not the same as fat gain, and it can be unsettling for those who don't understand the distinction.
- Only Focuses on Calories - While calorie control is the be-all and end-all of weight management, it is not the only factor to consider when living a long, healthy life. It is also critical to understand how proper nutrition and "treat" foods fit into a long-term strategy. A true maintenance diet is a well-balanced approach that includes nutritious foods as well as the occasional splurge. Furthermore, simply counting calories does not allow you to be in tune with your body and what it requires. Learning to eat more mindfully, fuel your body for daily performance, and discover what makes you feel good from the inside out is critical for long-term adherence and happiness on any diet.
- Limited Research - In the end, there isn't much research on reverse dieting. As a result, we don't know if it's a truly effective approach, or if it's even necessary.
Reverse Dieting Tips
- If your macros had been properly planned at the start of your reverse, you would have already been on a sufficient protein target. As a result, like your calorie intake increases, it should be primarily from carbs and fats!
- Even if you've applied a slight increase while remaining in a calorie deficit, you may notice some weight gain during the process. Don't worry — you're not going to be fat! Extra food causes a small amount of fluid retention, which is temporary, normal, and will resolve on its own over time.
- Assess your progress on a regular basis (photos are ideal!). and try to stick to your nutritional goals as much as possible. This removes unnecessary variables from the equation and allows you to monitor changes with far greater precision.
- Don't unnecessarily prolong the reverse when exiting a deficit — if your incremental increases are too small, you risk remaining in a deficit for longer than necessary, slowing your progress.
For chronic low-calorie dieters or athletes, reverse dieting may be an unexpected weight loss option. However, as with any diet, there are some caveats and it may not be suitable for everyone.
It's not magic, but it does provide a simple, helpful framework for adjusting your intake while remaining in complete control of your progress.