If you follow anyone on social media (including us!) in the health and wellness realm, you have most likely heard of the term “reverse dieting”. Although this term is brought up often, it often isn’t unpacked enough so that you actually understand what reverse dieting truly is.
Therefore in this months blog, we are doing a deep dive into reverse dieting so that you understand what it is, when it is used, what the benefits are, and how a reverse diet is implemented.
What is Reverse Dieting?
Reverse dieting is exactly what it sounds like- it is the reverse of a diet. Specifically, it is the process of slowly increasing calories based on how a person’s body responds (weight, measurements, photos and biofeedback) until calories are at the person’s projected maintenance (based on activity, age, body statistics). By doing this process slowly, we can work with our bodies to reduce unwanted fat regain and increase the success of maintaining a leaner body composition after dieting.
When do we do a reverse diet?
There are two main occasions when we would recommend a reverse diet
- After a Fat Loss Phase
- If you have been Undereating for a long period of time
Below we explain the two scenarios and why reverse dieting is so important
- Reverse Diet After a Fat Loss Phase:
When we begin a fat loss phase, calories are decreased from maintenance calories to create a calorie deficit (this is how we lose fat). So for example, if your maintenance is 2100 calories, we may start with a drop to 1600-1700 calories. Over time, the calories that allowed you to lose fat no longer work as you eventually plateau because your body adapts to the new calorie intake (1600-1700). This is called metabolic adaptation.
When metabolic adaptation occurs, your body sees the calories that you were once losing fat on as your new maintenance calories. When we are at maintenance, we are not in a calorie deficit as energy in is the same as energy out, therefore we no longer lose weight. Metabolic adaptation is your body’s way of protecting itself- it is NOT a bad thing! Remember, our bodies do not know that there is a McDonalds across the street and a superstore downtown, your body only sees that calorie intake is lower, food supply may be scarce, and therefore it adapts your metabolism to KEEP YOU SAFE!
Checkout this image to see what metabolic adaptation entails:
As you can see, when our metabolism adapts, we have two options:
- We can lower calories to create a calorie deficit. This should only be done if biofeedback (how your body FEELS – stress, sleep, hunger, cravings, training) is in a good place!
- we can Reverse diet to new maintenance.
Eventually in a dieting phase, the following can/will occur:
- calories will get too low and become unsustainable,
- biofeedback will decrease (its pretty tough to feel good on 1,000 calories/day) ,
- you will hit your fat loss goal.
When any of these options happens, the next phase MUST be a reverse diet!
After the fat loss phase is over, the goal is to maintain your body composition while optimizing hormone and metabolic health! As we mentioned, this is done through Reverse Dieting – gradually adding calories back in until you reach your NEW maintenance levels (note – your NEW maintenance calorie range is DIFFERENT than your maintenance calories before your fat loss phase!). If this is not done, and metabolic down regulation continues, we start to experience signs of undereating which has negative implications for our health and well-being.
2. Reverse Dieting After a History of Chronic Undereating
Sometimes, clients come to us wanting to do a fat loss phase but their biofeedback is poor, their calories are low for their activity level, and they are experiencing some of the above symptoms of under-eating. For this individual, they must do a reverse diet FIRST before pursuing fat loss. When calories are low due to chronic under-eating or at the end of a fat loss phase, our body perceives these low calories to be maintenance calories, again because of metabolic adaptation. Therefore, the individual will put ON body fat if more calories are consumed without a proper reverse diet, thus posing an issue in maintaining body composition long-term.
There are 3 potential outcomes with a reverse diet after a history of long-term undereating, and we feel it is very important to be aware of these outcomes before starting.
- Gain Weight – this is a possibility when you are reverse dieting after a history of chronic undereating – continue to remind yourself this is a part of the process and an important step for improving how you feel and getting your body to a place that is feels safe to lose body fat. Attempts to minimize this weight gain is made by the gradual nature of the reverse diet.
- Weight stays the same – due to the gradual increases in calories, some individual’s body weight stays stable (within a few pounds) during the reverse diet.
- Weight loss – this is due to a reduction in your body’s level of perceived stress – these individuals are called “hyper-responders”. This can occur when your body is FINALLY getting the fuel it needs! Dieting/under-eating is a stress, so when that stress is removed, you may see your body respond by losing weight.
Remember, if you have been chronically under-eating, there truly is no other option but to increase your calories if you want to improve your health and body composition – this is the first necessary step to your goal of FEELING better and losing body fat. ***you must earn the right to diet***
The benefits of a reverse diet are:
- Improved hormonal status and metabolic health -we undo some of the metabolic adaptations that occur with dieting, for example, we can decrease cortisol levels (stress hormone) through a reverse diet
- Improved biofeedback -due to better hormone status, less diet fatigue, and increased flexibility
- Increased strength – food is fuel! More food, more fuel, better lifts!
- Maintenance of lean body composition long-term post dieting
- More flexibility with food choices -more calories, more flexibility
So, now that we understand what a reverse diet is, when it is used, and what the benefits are, let’s look at exactly HOW we do a reverse diet.
How to Reverse Diet
First off, we do want to caveat by saying reverse dieting can be quite nuanced, so if at all possible we do recommend you hire a coach to guide you in this process. However, here is some guidance about how to implement a reverse diet:
When thinking of a diet, think of it like an upside down triangle. However long you dieted for, plan for about HALF the amount of time post fat loss to be spent reversing to maintenance.
So, for example, you dieted for 12 weeks? Plan to be reversing up to maintenance over the next 6 weeks. Again, there are no hard and fast rules here, but this is a general guide. To begin reverse dieting, increase calories by 50-100 every 1-3 weeks based on how your body responds. The closer you get to your predicted maintenance, the smaller the jumps should be.
Let’s look at an example!
Say you end your dieting phase on 1400 calories and your predicted maintenance is 1950 calories – this new maintenance calculation is based off of your NEW body weight. Did you notice how in the upside down triangle the calories after the diet are slightly lower than the original maintenance before the diet phase? This is because we want to reverse diet to your NEW maintenance calories. This new maintenance is often lower than our pre-diet calories.
When you lose a significant amount of body weight (anything greater than 5-10 lbs) you require less energy to exist. The largest part of our daily energy expenditure comes from our basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is influenced by our age, gender, WEIGHT, and body composition. If your weight changes, your BMR changes, and therefore your new maintenance will likely be lower than your original calories pre-diet. To learn more about energy balance and BMR, checkout our blog on it here: ENERGY BALANCE BLOG
In order to calculate your estimated maintenance, use a TDEE calculator, input your information and look at the number for weight maintenance that aligns with your current activity level. Note: it is important to keep your activity level relatively consistent during the reverse diet process so as not to affect your maintenance calorie goal.
Here is an example of how you would implement a reverse diet
Starting calories: (calorie deficit)
Initial increase 15-20%
Week 2 – increase 100 calories
Week 4 – increase 100 calories
Week 6 – increase 100 calories
And so on ….
As you get closer to maintenance calories – increase your calories by 50
Here are some things to focus on when assessing progress during a reverse diet:
We want to focus primarily on how we FEEL, how our clothes fit, how measurements are, how our performance is, and generally how life is. Are you feeling better day to day? PERFECT, then the reverse diet is working!!
NOTE: during a reverse diet after a fat loss phase It is very normal to gain a bit of weight, but if executed properly this will not be fat and body composition should remain relatively stable. Weight increase can occurs for a few reasons:
- More food, more food volume, food has weight, scale goes up
- More carbs, more water retention (carbs bring water into body cells), scale goes up (again, not fat!)
This is why we do NOT want to be only scale focused during a reverse, but rather, looking at all signs of progress outlined above. For the scale, we are expecting to see potentially a bit of a jump up with calories increased, but then stabilization over the next week(s).
You would continue this process every 1-3 weeks with increases of 50-100 calories happening when the scale stabilizes and based on biofeedback until you reach your estimated maintenance. Once you reach this, hang out for 2-4 weeks and assess your biofeedback and your body weight. Is your weight still fluctuating? Is scale weight decreasing? Is biofeedback good?
If you reach your estimated maintenance and biofeedback is still not in a good place (high hunger and cravings as an example), then continue making 50-100 calorie bumps every 2-3 weeks and see how you feel. Note – the closer you are to maintenance calories, the less aggressive your adjustments can be as you want to give your body time to respond to your adjustments to find that maintenance “sweet spot”
You will know when you have reached your true maintenance because the scale will stabilize (there are still going to be normal fluctuations, but it is more stable) AND biofeedback is in a good place!
As we said, reverse dieting is very nuanced and this is why we do recommend having a coach. But if this is not an option for you, we do encourage you to do a reverse diet post fat loss or if you think you are under-eating because it is SO important that you spend the majority of the year eating at true maintenance. Remember, maintenance is our home base!
If you think having a coach would help you in your journey, we do encourage you to book a free consultation call to discuss your goals and your unique lifestyle.
All the love,
Your YQL Coaching Team