What is reverse dieting and is it the right fit for you?

Plates of of healthy food

Losing weight is easy. Keeping it off is where most people struggle. This is where reverse dieting might come in handy.

But why?

Most people get uber restrictive with their diet. They deny themselves of foods they enjoy because a Netflix documentary, Instagram model, or clickbait blog post told them they had to.

They already understand that in order to lose weight they need to create a calorie deficit. Which is correct, but they approach it too aggressively. They think the lower the better. Not enough food is coming in and by the weekend they’re binge eating Peanut Butter and cookies. #beentheredonethat

Peanut butter jar, spoon, and drooling

They treat their diet like a 5-day, 7-day, 30-day, or some other challenge. I actually love challenges like this and I think they can be really awesome and helpful when done correctly. But for most people when the challenge is up they go right back to old habits. They don’t take time to reflect on the challenge, what they liked, did not like, what they plan to keep, and remove as they move forward.

Reverse dieting may offer some a chance to get back to eating normally without putting back on the weight they have lost. While also learning healthy habits and creating a stronger relationship with food. However, there are some misconceptions regarding reverse dieting and I want to cover those as well.


Reverse Dieting: What the heck is it?

Well, it’s a really clever and catchy name for eating more calories after a diet (or eating in a calorie deficit).

Reverse dieting is slowly adding more calories back into your diet after a period of calorie restriction. 

Early claims of reverse dieting are that it can boost energy levels, reduce hunger and binge eating, improve mood, and help you bust through weight loss plateaus.

During reverse dieting, you may lose or maintain weight but that isn’t the goal. Instead, it’s to increase energy levels while improving or maintaining body composition after a diet. This is done by gradually increasing calories over a few weeks to get you back to maintenance calories.

This also may help bring you out of metabolic adaptation (more on this in a second).

Reverse Dieting: How it works (metabolic adaptation)

As we know, a consistent calorie deficit over an extended period of time is needed to reduce body weight and body fat. Over time, the body begins to adapt to the lower calorie consumption. It does this by preparing for famine. This is known as metabolic adaptation.

Now let’s be clear, this is NOT starvation mode. Starvation mode is a pile of manure that has unfortunately made its way around the internet. 

To sum it up, as you lose weight you require less energy (calories) to keep it running efficiently. 

Some other things that occur during metabolic adaptation:

  • Your basal metabolic rate declines as your body require less energy
  • Exercise can become more challenging due to lower energy intake (calories)
  • You expend less energy during exercise (less calorie burn)
  • NEAT is reduced 
  • Digestion can slow

When you reduce calories and the body loses weight you require fewer calories to maintain your new weight. Thus, to keep losing weight you would need to keep reducing calories. Not ideal if you like food.

This is why some people struggle with Yo-Yo dieting. They restrict calories, lose weight, plateau, don’t know why, get frustrated, quit the diet, gain weight, and the cycle repeats.

Reverse Dieting: How to do it effectively

Turtle eating a leaf slowly

Reverse dieters do it slowly 😉. Insert, bow-chica-wow-wow right here.

But seriously, that’s the key. To slowly increase calories every week to two weeks by around 50 to 100 calories over maintenance until you reach your pre-diet intake. Some will argue that the reason you add back calories slowly is to minimize fat gain. 

However, the speed at which you add calories back to your diet won’t make a huge difference. The only real benefit to adding calories back slowly is so you don’t experience rapid weight gain from water, gut content, and glycogen. While dieting these things have been depleted. As you add back calorie they will restore and you will gain weight.

But don’t mistake this for fat. Most people freak out when they see the scale move up and assume it’s fat gain. The scale measures hydration, muscle, fat, and gut content.

To show this, hop on the scale right when you wake up and again right before bed. You’ll probably be 3 to 5 pounds heavier. You don’t but on 3 to 5 pounds of fat in a day. It’s a combination of the things above. 

Do you have to do it slowly? No, you don’t. Bringing up your calories to maintenance over a 2-3 week period is totally fine. But taking a slower approach can be helpful for someone that may struggle mentally with eating more right after a diet and seeing the scale go up. 

Weigh yourself every morning

As you increase calories expect an initial bump in weight. This is nothing to be concerned about. It’s most likely due to water retention from the increased calories or carbohydrates you add back in.

It could also be from the extra volume in the food you’re consuming, poop, or increased salt intake from meals. After a few weeks, this should stabilize. I also recommend taking girth measurements bi-weekly, photos monthly, and tracking non-scale victories (NSV) like mood, sleep, and performance inside and outside of the gym (if ya know what I’m saying… bazinga!)

Bazinga

Get an idea of calorie needs

If you’ve been dieting successfully for a few weeks or months you probably have a good idea of your calorie needs to lose, maintain, or gain weight.

If not, there are a few ways to go about this.

The simplest way is to weigh food portions and track calories for two weeks. Then divide the total number of calories you consumed by 14.

  • Example: 28,000 calories / 14 days = Avg. 2,000 calorie per day

This will give you your average intake per day. If you lost weight you know you were in a deficit. If you stayed the same you know your maintenance calorie needs. If you gained you’ll know you were in a surplus. From there you can add 50 to 100 calories to each day every week as needed.

If you prefer not to track like this you can estimate using the NIH body weight planner. This is a fairly accurate assessment that takes into account your sex, age, height, and activity levels.

Lastly, you could use your hands to get an idea of how much you consume on average each week. To do this you can download my hand-sized portion tracker and enter your results at each meal.

Oh, and tell your friends where you got it – k?

portion tracker

Choose a tracking method

Protein will mostly remain the same. The bump in calories will usually come from carbohydrates and or healthy fats.

You’ll want to measure progress, adherence, and adjustments. Whatever method of tracking is up to you.

  • Hand sized portions
  • Weighing and measuring portions and tracking macros in an app

The most important part is sticking to the method and doing it consistently. This will give you valuable feedback and allow you to adjust accordingly.

To start, if you’re using hand-sized portions an extra 1 cupped handful of carbs per day or 1 thumb of fat per day. Every week to 2-weeks adjust up based on the feedback you’re getting.

hand portion estimates portion sizes

If you prefer being more precise and like numbers, weighing portions and tracking in an app is extremely helpful. It’s a little more time consuming and tedious but also very eye-opening and effective. For most, this leads to fast results and more immediate feedback.

When tracking, a 50 to 100 calorie bump every week or two weeks from carbs or fats.

  • This is about a ¼ cup of rice, 1 medium fruit, 1 to 2 slices of bread.
  • For fats, this is around ¼ – ½ avocado, ½ – 1 tablespoon of olive oil, or an ounce of cheese.

Reverse dieting: Who this might be a good fit for

chopsticks and plates of food

Reverse dieting isn’t for everyone. But for some, it might be a helpful tool to add to your arsenal of health and fitness weapons

  • If you want to eat more without gaining weight and enjoy social meals this could be a helpful option.
  • Chronic dieters
  • Those looking to increase nutrient consumption
  • If you feel like you’ve been eating low calories for a while and not losing
  • Men with lower testosterone. Studies show that undereating and lack of nutrients may influence this.

Keep in mind that reverse dieting is only another tool for you to use. Just like Intermittent fasting, Keto, or other diets. It’s an opportunity to learn what works well for you, what doesn’t, and what you feel comfortable applying moving forward. 

Reverse dieting: Who this might NOT be a good fit for

Research on reverse dieting is fairly limited right now so most claims are going to be anecdotal or circumstantial.

If you’ve been trying to lose weight and feel like you’re creating a calorie deficit, first double-check that before trying reverse dieting. The odds are that you have not been in one.

Also, If you’re obese or have a lot of weight to lose reverse dieting may not be the right fit. Consuming more calories just wouldn’t make much sense – unless of course when you diet you tend to severely restrict, leading to binge eating. In that case, a bump in calories when your diet could be helpful.

Reverse dieting: Are there any benefits?

Again, research on reverse dieting is limited but we may be able to assume a few things. For example, the slight increase in calories could help normalize hormones like leptin which regulates appetite.

We know that when we reduce calories leptin goes down, appetite goes up, and calorie burning is reduced. Reverse dieting could help to decrease appetite and increase calorie burning through exercise and NEAT.

Reverse dieting is also a nice way to ease back into a normal diet of MOSTLY whole foods. I love the idea of ice cream and burgers but jumping right back into those things after dieting may not be the best idea.

A slight increase in calories could help reduce binge eating. As mentioned early, most people get overly restrictive or reduce their calorie intake too low. This can lead to “workweek dieting.” Monday through Friday diets on point. Weekends and approach and you’re eating your face off #yolo

work week dieting

Hashtag mood. Drinking kale smoothies and eating dry chicken breast and broccoli all the time? Let me know how your mood is.

Being hungry while dieting is normal and can actually be a good sign. However, if you’re always hungry it could be time to give yourself a diet break. The subtle bump in calories could be a way to reduce hunger.

Low energy is usually due to a jacked-up sleep routine but can also be a sign of not eating enough. Reverse dieting and the bump in calories, specifically from smart carbs could help reduce some feelings of fatigue.

Finally, if you’ve had some blood work done and are finding some nutritional deficiencies the increase in calories and whole foods may help to fix that.

Reverse dieting: Are there any downsides?

Determining calorie needs and tracking portions or calories is not an exact science. However, it also doesn’t need to be. I always tell coaching clients that when tracking hand-sized portions or calories to think of it as a target. Without one it’s really hard to know where to aim. But with one, it makes it a lot easier even if you miss a little. What you’re doing is reducing the margin of error.

Increasing by small amounts like this (50-100 calories) can be tough. Unless you’re eating one hundred extra calories of veggie that is not a lot of food.

100 calorie servings of foods
Photo credit: blog.freshdirect.com

Reverse dieting focuses on calories and neglects other important aspects of deep health like sleep, stress management, training, and appetite awareness. All of which factor into weight loss, well-being, and overall health and fitness.

And finally, it’s a more advanced method. A personal hangup of mine is too many people who don’t know their nutritional age.

Nutritional age is a combination of what you know, what you do, and how good you are at doing both on a regular basis. Most people take on advanced nutrition techniques when it may be best to get better at the basics first. See below.

The bottom line to all this.

Get good, like really really good at the basics first.

  • Calorie awareness
  • Eat mostly whole foods and limit processed ones (80/20)
  • Include protein and veggies with most meals
  • Gain appetite and hunger awareness
  • Move your body consistently in ways you enjoy
  • Go to sleep and practice de-stressing regularly

If you’ve got those down and have been dieting for a very long time, reverse dieting might be the break you need. 

Justin


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Resources and references

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Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11(1):7. Published 2014 Feb 27. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-7

Pardue A, Trexler ET, Sprod LK. Case Study: Unfavorable But Transient Physiological Changes During Contest Preparation in a Drug-Free Male Bodybuilder. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2017;27(6):550-559. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0064

Howell S, Kones R. “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2017;313(5):E608-E612. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00156.2017

Knuth ND, Johannsen DL, Tamboli RA, et al. Metabolic adaptation following massive weight loss is related to the degree of energy imbalance and changes in circulating leptin [published correction appears in Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016 Oct;24(10):2248]. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2014;22(12):2563-2569. doi:10.1002/oby.20900

Thomas DM, Martin CK, Lettieri S, et al. Can a weight loss of one pound a week be achieved with a 3500-kcal deficit? Commentary on a commonly accepted rule. Int J Obes (Lond). 2013;37(12):1611-1613. doi:10.1038/ijo.2013.51

Klok MD, Jakobsdottir S, Drent ML. The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review. Obes Rev. 2007;8(1):21-34. doi:10.1111/j.1467-789X.2006.00270.x

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