Reverse dieting is an extremely effective way to make weight loss and weight maintenance as easy and painless as possible. Here’s how it works.
Here’s something most people wanting to lose weight don’t know:
Losing it is only half the battle. What happens next is just as important, if not more so.
Here’s an all-too-common scenario:
After several months of very low-calorie and heavily restrictive dieting, Jimmy finally achieves his weight loss goal. Oh glorious day! It’s finally over! No more suffering! Life can finally be lived again!
Little does he know, though, Jimmy is skipping on thin ice. He’s both psychologically and physically prepped to rapidly regain all the fat he lost, so what he does next is absolutely critical.
Unaware of this, he charges forward recklessly and, a month later, looks at the scale and wonders what the hell happened. How can months of weight loss possibly be undone so quickly? And what the hell should he do next? Who’s to say another round of grueling dieting won’t end just as catastrophically?
Or maybe he’ll make the other common mistake: fearful of weight gain, he continues his restrictive eating regimen and eventually finds himself physically and mentally frayed. He can’t eat a normal amount of food without getting fatter. His restrictive diet weighs on him like a full-body cast that gets a little tighter and itchier every day.
Well, this is where reverse dieting comes in to save the day. It’s the “diet after dieting” and it’s extremely important to get right.
I’d even go as far as saying that skilfully navigating this “post-weight-loss period” is the real “secret” to ending your weight struggles once and for all.
And in this article, you’re going to learn everything you need to know to achieve just that. By the end, you’re going to know what not to do after losing weight and why, and how to use reverse dieting to save you from the deepest, darkest pits of dietary hell.
So let’s get to it.
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- What Is Reverse Dieting?
- How Losing Weight Affects Your Metabolism
- The Benefits of Reverse Dieting
- How to Reverse Diet
- Use Flexible Dieting When Creating Reverse Dieting Meal Plans
- Will You Gain Weight When You Reverse Diet?
- Does Reverse Dieting Have Any Other Uses?
- The Bottom Line on Reverse Dieting
Table of Contents
If “dieting” involves restricting your food intake, what do you think “reverse dieting” is?
“Eating more?” you say? Kind of. Reverse dieting does involve eating more food but it’s a bit more scientific than that.
Reverse dieting involves a controlled, gradual increase in total daily calorie intake with the purpose of increasing metabolic rate and health.
Reverse dieting is mainly known as a way to bring your metabolism back to normal after a period of calorie restriction (weight loss) but it also has usefulness outside of weight loss, which we’ll talk more about in this article.
Now, before we talk about the benefits of reverse dieting and how to actually do it, let’s learn a bit more about how and why it works.
When you set out to truly understand the science of fat loss, you first learn about the principles of energy balance and how your calorie intake and expenditure dictate weight gain and loss.
From there you quickly learn that meaningful weight loss requires that you maintain a state of “negative energy balance” over time. This means watching your food intake to ensure that you’re eating less energy than you burn.
For many people, the lessons stop here. They were looking for weight loss answers and found the “secret:” eat fewer calories than you expend and voila, your weight goes down.
What they don’t know, however, is that restricting calorie intake does more than just reduce your total fat mass. It affects your metabolism in various ways as well and people’s ignorance of these “side effects” is one of the big reasons they struggle so much with “dieting.”
The first thing you need to know is that when you place your body in a calorie deficit, it sets out to decrease energy output and increase intake. That is, it wants to erase the calorie deficit and achieve a state of metabolic homeostasis.
The reality is losing weight requires that you force your body to do something it doesn’t want to do. That’s why it can lead to complications and that’s why you want to go about it intelligently, with the goal of improving body composition and preserving metabolic health, not simply “losing weight” any which way, no matter the consequences.
Here are the major factors you’re up against when you’re working to lose fat:
Your basal metabolic rate slows down.
Basal means “forming a base; fundamental,” and your basal metabolic rate is the amount of energy your body burns while at rest. The biggest energy hogs in your body are your organs and muscles (these are the prime determinants of your basal metabolic rate).
When you place your body in a calorie deficit, hormonal adaptations occur that cause your body to burn less energy while at rest.
The “thermic effect of food” decreases.
The thermic effect of food, or TEF, is the amount of energy required to eat, digest, absorb, and store food.
While restricting calories doesn’t appear to directly reduce TEF, the reduction in overall food intake naturally results in a reduction of total energy expenditure.
You burn less energy through “spontaneous” physical activity.
Every day you engage in varying amounts of spontaneous activity like walking around while on the phone, hopping to the bathroom, drumming our fingers when you read, or bobbing your legs when you think.
The energy burned by these activities is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, and it plays a much larger role in total daily energy expenditure than most people realize.
Research shows that NEAT can vary by up to 2,000 calories per day among individuals. The same research indicates that people could burn an additional 350 calories per day by taking simple actions to increase movement every day like taking the stairs when possible, walking relatively short distances instead of driving, doing some chores instead of watching TV, etc.
Here’s the catch, though: when in a calorie deficit, your body naturally decreases its spontaneous activity levels.
Furthermore, research shows that this adaptation can remain for quite some time after regular eating has resumed (which is one of the reasons why weight gain after dieting is so common).
You burn less energy through exercise.
It stands to reason that you reduce your body weight, you also reduce the amount of energy expended during exercise (it costs more energy to move a heavier body). Research shows that this is the case.
There’s more to this than meets the eye, however, because studies have shown that even when body weight is artificially increased during weight loss dieting, energy expenditure during exercise is less than normal.
Think Metabolic Adaptation, Not “Damage”
As you can see, maintaining a calorie deficit without outright starving yourself is trickier than most people think.
Total daily energy expenditure is a moving target and part of the process is learning how your body responds to a calorie deficit and how to keep it in a negative energy balance without causing more and greater problems.
These alterations in basal metabolic rate, NEAT, TEF, and so forth are collectively known as “adaptive thermogenesis,” and they can be seen as your body’s weight loss “countermeasures.”
They’re pretty damn effective too–research shows that 80 to 90% of people that diet to lose weight return to their previous, pre-diet weights.
Fortunately, these adaptations aren’t dangerous or permanent and can be managed and reversed.
Reducing calorie intake, even for long periods of time, and even if repeatedly, doesn’t “damage” your metabolism. In a scientific sense, metabolic “damage” simply doesn’t exist. Only metabolic adaptation.
Fortunately, just as you can cause unfavorable adaptations, you can cause favorable ones as well. The best way I know to do this is reverse dieting.
When you’ve been in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time, you’re psychologically inclined to overeat and your body is metabolically primed for weight regain.
To make matters worse, research shows your body will gain fat at an accelerated rate during this period, which is a phenomenon known as “post-starvation obesity.”
Thus, the worst thing you can do following a period of weight loss is exactly what you want to do: dramatically increase your calorie intake.
That said, you also don’t want to just keep your food intake at its current, low level, as this will simply perpetuate the metabolic impairments.
What you need is a strategy for raising your food intake back to normal levels without gaining fat, and that strategy is reverse dieting.
Here are the major benefits of reverse dieting:
You get to eat more.
Not as much as you might want to eat as quickly as you want to shovel it in, but hey, even small, gradual increases can be quite a relief.
Life is better when you get to eat more. 🙂
You have more energy.
There’s no getting around the reduction in energy levels that comes with being, and training, in a calorie deficit. And it feels damn good when it finally comes to an end.
As physical energy levels rise so do mental function and mood. Life is better when you’re energized.
You get to come out of the “dieting” mindset.
After you’ve been dieting for a while, you inevitably become a little fearful of changing anything and gaining fat.
This is why many people don’t change much in terms of food intake and exercise after reaching their weight loss goals–they don’t want to lose their hard-won gains.
Reverse dieting not only gives you a break from this mental straitjacket, it shows you that you can have the best of both worlds: you can relax and eat more without gaining fat.
You get to enjoy your workouts again.
Even if you do everything right and preserve as much muscle as possible while losing fat, training while in a calorie deficit eventually sucks.
You lose strength. You battle mental and physical fatigue. You just don’t want to be in the gym.
All that changes when you start eating more. Your pre-diet strength returns. You regain your mental edge. You look forward to your workouts again.
Alright, now that you know how reverse dieting works and why it’s so beneficial, let’s look at how to actually do it.
1. Engage in heavy resistance training (weightlifting, ideally) 3 to 5 times per week.
This has two big benefits for your metabolic rate:
- it speeds it up in the short term, burning a significant amount of post-workout calories, and
- it builds muscle, which speeds up your metabolic rate in the long term.
2. Eat plenty of protein.
A high-protein diet is important because it will promote muscle growth, which is what we want to achieve with step #1.
I recommend that you eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight when you’re reverse dieting.
3. Slowly increase your calories each week until you’ve reached your total daily energy intake.
Start your reverse diet by increasing your daily caloric intake by 150 and then increase it by 150 calories every 7 days.
For example, I end my cuts around 2,000 calories per day, and I start my reverse diets with about 2,150 calories per day. Then, a week later, I increase my daily intake to 2,300 calories, and so forth.
I continue this way until I reach my TDEE.
In terms of macronutrients, alternate between raising fats and carbs until you reach 0.3 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight, and then raise just your carbs.
Remember that you don’t need more than 0.3 to 0.4 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight to maintain health. Carbs, on the other hand, can continue to benefit you at higher and higher intakes.
So, going with the example above, I’ve ended my cut at 2,000 calories, which means I’m eating somewhere between 40 and 50 grams of fat per day.
I would first increase my daily carb intake by about 40 grams (~160 calories) and then, a week later, increase my fat intake by about 15 grams (~135 calories).
I would then do another round of increasing both carb and fat intake, which would put my fats around 0.3 grams per pound of bodyweight. Thus, all further increases in caloric intake will come from carbs.
Don’t fall for the dogmas of “clean eating.”
Yes, you should eat plenty of nutritious foods every day, but this can include many foods deemed as “unworthy” by various health “gurus,” such as grains, fruit, dairy, and read meat.
That advice applies regardless of your diet goals–losing weight, building muscle, or maintaining body composition–and applies to reverse dieting as well. Life is better when you get to eat foods you actually like.
If you want to learn more about flexible dieting, check out this article.
Want a workout program and flexible diet plan that will help you build muscle and get strong? Download my free no-BS “crash course” now and learn exactly how to build the body of your dreams.
Maybe. You may gain a little weight but you may lose some as well.
If you lose weight, it will be mainly due to a reduction in water retention, which is to be expected as your hormones normalize.
I experienced this during one of my preps for a photo shoot. Here is an unedited picture of me on the day of the photoshoot:
I weighed 184 pounds here and was eating about 2,100 calories per day.
Here is an unedited picture of me taken several weeks later:
By this picture I had increased my daily calorie intake to about 2,500 and lost 2 pounds in the process, putting me at 182 pounds.
If you gain weight, don’t freak out.
As you increase your carbohydrate intake, your muscles are going to hold more water and glycogen. You can easily gain a few pounds this way with little to no change in body fat levels.
If, however, you’re gaining weight fairly rapidly while reverse dieting–1 pound per week or more–you may be eating too much. Check out this article for some tips on analyzing your energy intake versus output to ensure you’re not making any obvious mistakes.
The majority of people searching for information on reverse dieting have weight loss on their minds, which is why this article focuses on that context.
Reverse dieting has another use worth mentioning, though, and that’s for continuing to increase your energy expenditure well beyond what would be your normal TDEE.
The procedure is simple: continue raising your daily calorie intake every 7 to 10 days for as long you’d like. In terms of macronutrients, you can continue to raise your carb intake but eventually you just can’t feasibly eat more carbs, at which point you start increasing your fat intake instead.
(Most people find that anything over 2.5 to 3 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight is just too much and thus I recommend you cut it off there.)
This is also known as “clean bulking” and it’s an effective way to maximize muscle growth and minimize fat storage. Notice I said minimize and not prevent. This is because you do gain fat while reverse dieting beyond your normal TDEE but you gain as little as possible while reaping maximum muscle-building benefits.
Millions of people desperately want to know how to lose weight but very few give much thought to what happens next.
This is unfortunate because the real goal is to lose fat, not muscle, and maintain a new and improved body composition for the rest of your life. And the only way to do that is to break free from the maelstrom of fad dieting, starvation “cleansing,” and the rest of the mainstream diet nonsense and learn the truth about how your metabolism functions and how you can work with and not against it.
Reverse dieting is a big ol’ Swiss Knife of a tool that everyone needs to understand and use. It’s currently an obscure dietary strategy known mainly to bodybuilders and other competitive athletes but I hope more and more mainstream authors and experts bring it to the forefront of the ongoing diet discussion.
I wrote this article to do my part. If you found it helpful, share it around with friends and family to help spread the word and save them from the agonies of yo-yo dieting.