The Essential Guide to Reverse Dieting

Millions of people attempt diets to lose weight and are successful, but only temporarily. Soon the weight comes back and sometimes it brings it’s friends along. If this sounds like you, it’s not just you – it’s everyone.

This is common in fad, yo-yo, and crash diets, but it’s also prevalent in diets based on evidence from current research. It makes a lot of people feel hopeless about controlling their weight.

The reason for the regain of fat after a diet is a lack of understanding about how metabolism adapts to dieting, and how it reacts post-diet. Reverse Dieting is a method used to counteract these maladaptations of our metabolism in order to fix our metabolisms and keep the weight off for good.

Essentially, Reverse Dieting is just dieting in reverse. Instead of gradually eliminating calories from your diet, you gradually add them back in. Don’t worry if that sounds overly-simplistic, we’ll dive into the nuances of reverse dieting in this article.

How is metabolism affected by dieting?=

Metabolism is defined as the sum of the chemical reactions that take place within an organism to sustain life. In simpler terms – it is the amount of energy our bodies use to operate.

Caloric restriction has a few effects on metabolism that result in our net energy output decreasing. The main effect our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) decreases.

This makes sense when you think about it – a diet is essentially a systematic starvation period in which you deprive your body of an outside energy source so that it starts to use an internal energy source (hopefully fat). Our bodies aren’t too willing to burn that saved energy so they also have methods of decreasing the amount of energy we use.

Let’s examine the components by which this happens:

Firstly, basal metabolic rate (BMR) decreases as a result of having a smaller body. BMR is heavily influenced by body mass, so it makes sense that losing some of that mass will result in a smaller BMR.

Second, activity dependent energy expenditure decreases. The most obvious form of this is a decrease in exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) – which translates to you’re not burning the same amount of calories during your training sessions. This is when you start to feel like your workouts suck. A less obvious form of this is the decrease in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) – you’re less likely to fidget your leg, or take the stairs. In general, you’re feeling somewhat lazier.

Lastly, the thermic effect of food (TEF) decreases as a result of intaking less overall food. Around 10% of normal TDEE can be attributed to TEF, however when the amount of food we’re eating decreases so does the TEF.

It’s important to remember that these changes in metabolism in response to dieting are adaptations, which means they do serve some sort of purpose and understanding that purpose can help mitigate the negative consequences of it. The purpose behind these adaptations is that they aid in survival in times when food is scarce.

Imagine a two prehistoric humans dealing with a sudden lack of food. After a few days the first human experiences a drastic decrease in his overall TDEE, which stretches out how long his body can feed off of his stored fat. Now he can survive for 10 days without food instead of 6-7. The second human has no such adaptations and continues to burn energy at his normal rate. Sure, he has abs and looks way more shredded than the other guy a lot faster but he also dies sooner.

Using the story above it’s easy to see how these metabolic adaptations to a decrease in food were useful to our ancestors. It’s also easy to continue this line of thought to imagine what would happen to the survivor if he suddenly came across a very large amount of food after 9 days of starving – he’d put on all the fat he had to burn and then some.

As an adaptation this makes perfect sense. He has experienced a terrible lack of food which took his body to it’s limit once. It would be advantageous to have even more fat in case this ever happens again.

Our bodies have the exact response to dieting, and unfortunately in our cases it’s rarely an advantage to have our metabolism adapt in such a way. Luckily, we can mitigate the post-diet fat gain by taking the approach of Reverse Dieting.

What is Reverse Dieting?

Dieting is the elimination of calories in order to cause meaningful changes in fat mass. Reverse dieting is the opposite:

Reverse Dieting is gradually increasing caloric intake in order to gradually increase overall metabolic rate.

Thanks to the metabolic adaptations that occur during dieting our bodies require significantly less calories when the diet is over. Additionally, our bodies are primed to store as much energy as possible, in the form of body fat, after the diet. By gradually increasing the calories we can minimize the amount of fat that is stored in the process of increasing our TDEE.

Why Reverse Diet?

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It’s impossible to live the rest of your life on heavily restricted calories. But many of us try, and when we eventually hit that wall it ends terribly – we crash and binge. That’s why nearly 65% of successful dieters return to the pre-diet weight within 3 years. Following periods of dieting with reverse dieting to bring calories back up to baseline can be the answer to the problem of fat loss rebounds.

Additionally, reverse dieting can be extremely useful for people that have repeatedly subjected themselves to fad or crash diets. If you’ve been doing lots of crash dieting for years then you likely are dealing with a maladapted metabolism. Reverse dieting can increase the metabolism back to baseline prior to beginning any other dieting efforts.

Lastly, the psychological and emotional benefits of reverse dieting may be the greatest reason to do it. Reverse dieting enables us to maintain a lean physique while being able to eat more, have more energy, and eliminate the guilt of post-diet rebound.

How to Reverse Diet

Reverse dieting is certainly easier said than done. It can take a tremendous amount of self-control to switch your mindset to increasing calories after a diet without giving into regular binging. To ensure success with reverse dieting it’s important to leave as little to ’willpower’ as possible and have a set plan in place.

The first part of a Reverse Diet Plan is a set date at which to end your diet and begin your reverse diet. I recommend a date instead of a goal weight because it can prevent dieting to the point of diminishing your willpower. Personally, I limit my dieting periods to 4 months at a time and plan on spending somewhere between 50-100% of the time I had spent dieting reverse dieting.

When you reach the point you are starting your reverse dieting period you need to consider your current caloric intake, the desired amount of calories you are going to be working up to, an estimate of how long you can spend reverse dieting, and a realistic expectation for how much fat mass you may put on.

Next, you need to have a rate of calorie increase you are comfortable with. The smaller the calorie increase over time, the less fat mass you’re likely to gain but the more difficult the reverse dieting process will be. Conversely, the larger you’re increase intervals are, the more fat mass you’re likely to gain but the reverse dieting process is likely to seem much easier. The rate at which you increase your calories is typically influenced by the amount of time you have to spend reverse dieting, the amount of fat mass you’re willing to gain, and your current level of burnout.

Determining your rate of increase is largely going to be due to personal preference. Personally I strive to add 80-110 calories per week, but will tend to have some increases as high as 200 calories per week. This isn’t ideal for keeping fat mass off entirely but my goal is to gradually increase my calories to prevent a large rebound effect, so 5 lbs of fat is quite small in the grand picture of things.

Lastly, you need to have a way to continually evaluate your progress and to be prepared to adjust your plan as needed. Typically this includes taking skin-fold measurements regularly throughout the process. If the measurement makes an unwanted jump then it may be wise to lower the rate of change in your calorie intake. Or if you’re happy with the skin-fold measurement but are getting extremely exhausted you may want to increase your rate of change to get it over faster.

Macronutrient composition

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Typically, a successful fat loss diet will have moderate to high protein content that remains constant. Fat and Carbohydrate intake are usually manipulated to decrease total calorie intake.

With reverse dieting we want to maintain a constant protein intake while modulating the other two types of macronutrients. It is smart to pick one to manipulate and keep the other constant. Personally, I do well with keeping my fat constant and gradually increasing my carbs but you might find that you are the opposite, or that you do well by gradually increasing both macronutrients.

There are going to be a lot of people that claim to know the ideal macronutrient breakdown for fat loss, muscle gain, etc… and they’re full of crap. Take their advice as a starting point and experiment to figure out what works best for you.

Training while Reverse Dieting

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Training while reverse dieting shouldn’t look too different from your normal training. Ideally, as you add calories back into your diet you should begin to see the amount of weights you are lifting increase again.

Additionally, you want to begin tapering off the amount of cardio you were doing at the end of your cut. This should be done in a similar manner to adding the calories back into your diet – noting that fast, big changes may result in unwanted fat gain, while slow, gradual changes will probably work better to keep fat mass off.

Example Plan

Let’s imagine I am a 6’2” man that has just finished dieting down to 190 lbs over the course of 4 months. I feel like I could push myself to lose more weight but because I set my diet end-date I am going to begin the process of reverse dieting.

My current calorie intake is 2100 calories/day and my estimated maintenance caloric intake is now at 2800 calories/day. So I need to reverse diet back up 700 calories.

Since I spent roughly 4 months (28 weeks) dieting I’ll plan to invest at least 14 weeks into my reverse diet. If I divide the amount of calories I want to add (700 calories) by the amount of weeks I am planning on (14 weeks) I get the amount of calories I should plan on adding back in every week (50 calories per week).

  • Weeks 1-5: Continually adding 50 calories per week. No significant change in caliper measurement. Starting to feel burnt out by week 5.
  • Weeks 6-11: Counter burn out by increasing rate of change to 75 calories per week. Small increase in caliper measurement but acceptable. Feeling more energized and better in general.
  • Week 12: Have already hit goal of increasing calories by 700, but have not seen any noticeable fat gain. Continue to increase calories by 50 calories per week.
  • Weeks 13-14: End of Reverse dieting. Small noticeable increase in fat mass (~6 lbs), well within acceptable range. New calorie intake 2950 calories per day.

What to expect from Reverse Dieting

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The first thing to expect with reverse dieting is what most people fear hearing – You’re probably going to gain a little weight back. But that’s okay, remember that the goal is to gradually bring your calories back up in such a way that you gain a minimal amount of weight instead of trying to stay on reduced calories indefinitely, eventually rebounding, and gaining a lot more weight. It’s all about being proactive.

Counterintuitively, some people actually see a small amount of weight loss when they begin reverse dieting. This is likely due to a reduction in water retention, however Layne Norton, PhD, has noted that some of his clients have indeed lost additional fat when beginning the reverse dieting process.

Emotionally, you will feel extremely accomplished throughout the process of reverse dieting. Especially at the end when you are still relatively lean while eating at your normal calories. This is the holy grail of weight loss – keeping it off and eating like normal again!

What to do after Reverse Dieting

What you do after you reverse diet really depends on your goals. You can break it down into what you want to do next.

If your goal was simply to lose the weight and you accomplished it, then you should enter a maintenance phase. During this phase your goal is to keep your caloric intake the same and maintain the look you have worked so hard to achieve.

Sometimes, reverse dieting phases are more of a diet break, in which we give our metabolisms a much needed break from the consistent restriction of dieting. Following a reverse dieting phase with another round of dieting can be a good tactic for those that have a large amount of weight to lose and have been dieting for an extended period of time. This method allows the user to attempt to diet on as many calories as possible, which is always the most enjoyable way to diet.

Lastly, you can continue to reverse diet past your maintenance point in an attempt to increase your TDEE. Ideally, this process will slowly add lean muscle mass while minimizing the amount of fat mass that can be put on. Colloquially, this is known as the Clean Bulk.

Reverse Dieting in a Nutshell

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Reverse dieting is the process of gradually increasing calories. The intended uses of reverse dieting are:

  • As a follow up to dieting to increase calorie intake without gaining back all of the lost weight.
  • As a method of increasing energy expenditure prior to dieting to ensure the effects of caloric restriction are maximized.
  • For “Clean Bulking” in which we try to gain quality muscle mass slowly while limiting the amount of fat mass put on.