Reverse Dieting… What a buzz word! Am I right?! But that’s ok, it’s actually something we should be discussing and learning about. Exactly why we’ve created plenty content on this topic of Reverse Dieting.
Check out the Reverse Dieting Podcast below, if you’d rather listen than read:
What is Reverse Dieting?
Reverse Dieting is literally exactly what it sounds like, much like supplementation. Supplements are designed to supplement a diet, hence “supplementation”. Reverse Dieting is reversing the process of dieting, hence “Reverse Dieting”.
It’s the act of flipping your diet process and periodization around, so that you go in the reverse. Instead of slowly pulling calories down until you reach your goal weight… It’s slowly pushing calories up until you reach your maintenance weight.
There are a few ways to go about doing this, as well as a few different scenarios where you may actually want to do this. Both which we’ll discuss shortly, but for now – let’s continue to define what reverse dieting actually is and why you may want to do it.
Why would you Reverse Diet?
85% of people who are overweight or obese, will in fact lose weight [successfully] in their lifetime. This is a documented fact, which tells us one thing… As a society, we are actually really good at dieting and losing weight. 85% of people who are overweight! Dieting is not our problem… it’s actually maintaining that weight loss after it’s accomplished.
95% of those people, who successfully lost weight [or will lose weight], will gain the weight they lost back within 3 years. Let’s do the math here… 5% of people who lose weight will keep it off. Just 5%! But wait… the horrendous statistics aren’t done yet.
30-65% of these individuals who lose weight AND gain it back, will actually gain more weight than they lost – putting them at a heavier weight than where they started at.
So let’s revisit the problem, here. It’s not losing weight or getting in shape, it’s sustaining that weight loss. And this is due to a big list of things, such as:
⇨ Dieting too aggressively or low in calories.
⇨ Following a diet that doesn’t allow flexibility or consistency.
⇨ Overly restricting food groups and social activities.
⇨ Physiological stress on the body (hormones; diet fatigue).
⇨ Rushing the process (lack of patience).
⇨ Zero education around the human body or proper nutrition.
⇨ Short term diet programs without long term commitment or personalized accountability.
I could honestly keep going on and on… but I won’t, because that’s not the point here. The point we’re currently discussing is reverse dieting and just why you’d even do that.
Well, based on the statistics above and the bullet list below them, our dieting strategies work. We know how to create a deficit and we know how to shed the weight off. Problem, once again, is understanding how to sustain that. Now, we could dive into strategies on how to sustain the weight loss and diet smarter, but we’ve done that countless times – for example, read our Nutritional Periodization Blog or listen to the Nutrition Periodization Podcast 1 or Podcast 2.
So once these strategies work, how do we get out of the caloric pit we’ve drug ourselves into? How do we start eating more food, because we’re HANGRY?! But most importantly, how do we do it without falling into the weight regain statistics? We implement reverse dieting.
Reverse Dieting comes into play after a diet is finished and the weight or fat loss goal has been accomplished. At this point in time, we’re leaner and healthier for it – yet we’re likely eating far less calories than we enjoy and what’s needed to maintain that health, which means that “healthier” you is short lived unless you can bring your calories back up to what would be your maintenance.
Maintenance calories are the setpoint at which your body maintains weight and keeps all physiological processes in check. This is our northstar – where we want to look and go to, after a diet is completely done. Problem is that after a diet, we’re likely nowhere near that because what it takes to diet down to a lower weight, is a calorie deficit. So by reversing our calories up, we may be able to sustain the result that we achieved during dieting WHILE restoring our physiology (health, metabolism, hormones, muscle, etc.).
One thing to note here is that there is practically zero hard evidence or research proving that reverse dieting works, at least not with that terminology or by using the exact strategies we’re going to discuss today. However there is plenty of evidence that suggests dieting causes physiological fatigue and metabolic adaptation. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that taking diet breaks, periods of time at maintenance level calories, can help reverse and restore those physiological stressors and adaptations. So what we can allude to is that reverse dieting is a strategy that will work to restore health and sustain the weight loss you achieved; given that you do it properly and don’t overshoot (or undershoot, for that matter).
What is Metabolic Adaptation?
The double edged sword of weight loss is that our body adapts to weight loss, allowing us to survive under famine. So for our ancestors, this was life-saving to say the least. When we had no food, but had to keep going… our metabolism would adapt and allow that process to continue, while avoiding more weight loss – because with great bouts of weight loss, comes drops in performance and other hormonal processes we may need for survival.
Now, it’s double edged because in today’s society we do not have to worry about survival for food. Rather, we need to worry about being lean enough, liking what we see in the mirror, Instagram likes, etc…. So metabolic adaptation bites us in the ass, since it does make our weight loss aspirations harder and harder to achieve.
So, what is it? What is this adaptive process, anyway?
Metabolic Adaptation is the adaptive process of your body down regulating it’s metabolism (amongst other processes) so that your body can conserve energy (stored energy, specifically) to increase the likelihood of survival.
A more simple way to look at it is like a game of fetch… you throw the ball, the dog eventually catches up with the ball. Well, you’re playing fetch with your metabolism (via calories) in a way. You drop calories in order to create a deficit and promote weight/fat loss, but as you go about this deficit your metabolism slowly catches up. So that deficit eventually becomes maintenance again and then you’re left with 1 option, create a bigger deficit. This is why many people get to a point of eating low calories and saying, “I can’t lose weight”… well, you could – but your metabolism has adapted to the chronic low calorie dieting you’ve been throwing at it and now it’s set at a much lower point than what you’re comfortable with, meaning that if you wanted to lose weight you’d have to drop calories significantly lower than what’s adherable.
In fact, your genes play a big role in this (genetics play a role in basically everything when it comes to our body composition and ability to transform our physiques). But there’s even a hypothesis on this, that may not fully describe the actuality of what’s going on – but it at leasts paints a picture.
This is called the Thrifty Gene Hypothesis and it claims that we have a genetic favorability that allows us to more effectively store body fat (or survive). Ancestrally, these were the prime genes! Because if food was scarce and you couldn’t hunt for the kill, you were the most likely to survive through it anyway – because you had a gene that allowed you to store more and survive longer off those energy stores. Problem with this now is that we’re not struggling to survive, we have a very high food availability. This means we’re storing body fat, still, because of our genes and our body’s ability to survive, yet we just want abs.
But within metabolic adaptation, there are a few things that occur which help us actually define metabolic adaptation (it’s an group of things occurring, which create this effect – shown below):
|N.E.A.T.||This may be the biggest thing within metabolic adaptation that stops us from losing. It’s the simple act of NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) and the fact that it lowers as we lose weight. This is a simple and easy one to understand… the less energy we take in (because of the deficit we’ve created) the less energy we put out via movement. We simply do not have the fuel to move as much or often as we once did, therefore our body down regulates it’s movement naturally and that causes less energy expenditure per day. So the result of a deficit is a lower NEAT and we know, based on new research, that NEAT is one of the greatest contributors to daily energy expenditure. (1)(2)(3)|
|Less Mass||Another one that may seem obvious, yet many people neglect. As you lose weight, you’re physically lighter – your total mass (weight) drops. This is the goal! So it’s not a bad thing. But what comes along with being lighter? Needing less calories to survive, function, and move. As mass lowers and processes work less hard to function and survive, the need for energy (calories) lowers. Because of this, we need less food as we drop weight and that is another major contributor of metabolic adaptation.|
|Indirect Hormone Reduction||This should come to no surprise but as we lower calories, lose weight, and continue to diet (stress the body), our hormonal production lowers and slows down. This means that Thyroid (TH)(4), Testosterone, and Leptin lower (5), while both Cortisol and Ghrelin increase (6). When this cascade of hormonal consequences occurs, the metabolism is impacted and “slows down” for lack of better terms (better to say it adapts, really). This is our body working to lower reproduction (because we’re not suited for it), increase stress hormones (so we can fight or flight), boost hunger hormones (telling us to eat, dammit!), and delay processes that actually control the metabolism directly (TH).|
|Power Output||This is obvious after we discussed NEAT, but it’s worth reminding you. Your performance in the gym lowers due to less energy availability, meaning that your workouts burn less calories (this includes cardio, no matter what your fitbit says – as it can’t track metabolic adaptation). But this also means we have less muscle glycogen to stay pumped, push through grinding sets, or move heavy loads. May not seem like metabolic adaptation, but metabolic adaptation isn’t one singular thing – it’s a combination of direct and indirect outcomes that causes the metabolism (energy) to down regulate.|
|T.E.F.||The Thermic Effect of Feeding lowers, too. But that’s obvious – you’re eating less, which means less food is going in your mouth and being digested. Well, TEF is a representation of the calories burned via digestion. So now we’re even burning less, by eating less – literally (7)(8).|
Is Metabolic Adaptation Avoidable?
That’s the million dollar question… isn’t it? I mean, why do all these fancy things (reverse diet, periodization, diet breaks, etc.) if we can just simply AVOID this metabolic adaptation in the first place?!
Well, we do these fancy things because you really can’t avoid metabolic adaptation – at least not completely. However we may be able to blunt or dampen it’s negative effects on our body, as we go through the dieting phases.
See, metabolic adaptation is a survival mechanism our body takes when it fears famine. In other words, when food is scarce, or so our body thinks – since it doesn’t completely realize we’re in the year 2020 and food is pretty much readily available at all times, the body decides to put pause on some expensive processes so that we can survive longer without starving to death or being eaten alive (since we can’t defend ourselves well in a diet).
But because this is programmed in our physiology, there’s really no way to avoid it. The only things we can do is try to work against it, to help with continued fat loss, or implement methods that allow this impact to be lessened – aka we don’t take such a hard hit from it.
This is the one that comes to mind first, because it’s somewhat controllable. It’s one of the hardest hitters when it comes to metabolic adaptation, too. Meaning, when we diet and our body’s start negatively adapting to the diet – our NEAT drops significantly. It’s one of the biggest impacts your body takes in regards to burning less calories as the diet carries on; or in other words, the biggest metabolic adaptation/slowdown that occurs when in a prolonged deficit.
So how do we combat this? Simple. Track your steps and maintain them throughout the diet.
Now, you’re not going to completely solve the issue because there’s no way for us to track how much we talk or blink or fidget. But since we can track steps and we know that drops off quite a lot during a deficit, we can track them before starting the diet and simply try to maintain them going into the diet. Potentially even increase them, to burn more calories as the deficit goes on.
→ Hormonal Response
As mentioned earlier in the article, there are some hormonal adaptations that occur. A big one being thyroid production slowing down, which has a big impact on our metabolism. But we also know that testosterone and leptin lower, while cortisol and ghrelin increase (4)(5)(6).
Because of this, stress is higher and metabolism is slower. But remember, most of these hormones are influenced by all the same exact things – calories and fat cells. Which means, we can play with our intake and potentially dampen the adaptations that are occurring. Not completely removed, but dampened.
By incorporating diet breaks, which is defined as a prolonged period of time (typically 48 hours or more) eating at maintenance (preferably via a carbohydrate increase), we can defend ourselves a bit during the deficit. This is because our body is being taken out of the deficit, which gives our body the sign that it’s ok, essentially.
48 hours is a minimum (2-day refeed), however this is likely only going to push the pause button on the metabolic adaptations occurring. It will also be a psychological break and great for glycogen replenishment, since we’re increasing carbs for this (less likely to store as fat, which is why we go with carbs vs. fat).
72 hours is a better bet (3-day diet break), because past the 48 hour mark we can feel much more confident in pausing the adaptations while potentially beginning to reverse them. Still, it’s such a short period of time before returning to the deficit that we can only hope to slow things down.
4-10 days is the best bet (week+ diet break), because it’s longer – really. The longer we’re at maintenance, the more confident we can be about helping our body fight against the deficit’s impact on our physiological health.
This is why Nutritional Periodization is so key.
But still, we have to throw out the caveat and remind us that at the end of your 12, 16, or 20 week even, diet/fat loss phase… you’re still in a deficit for the majority of time, losing body weight – both which will lead to metabolic adaptation. So this is not a cure or a tool that will remove or avoid it, but rather just help your body better handle it and bounce back from it. Because once you return to maintenance, your body has been better trained to maintain lower weights at higher intakes.
If you want a periodized coaching approach, click here and apply for Tailored Nutrition Coaching.
How do we Reverse Diet, now?
Ok so now you’re probably wondering… how exactly do we “reverse diet”?
We’ve gone over what it is, why you’d do it, and the downsides of dieting, which is why you’re going to reverse diet after the diet – to remove any of those negative adaptations that are occurring while hopefully maintaining the new body weight and levels of leanness you’ve achieved.
To help describe how this needs to work, I created an infographic for this:
The biggest keys to look at inside this infographic are in red.
When looking at this, know that the red text (new maintenance) is subject to change; not only based on the individual but based on how the diet went. This means that your “new maintenance” will fluctuate a.) because maintenance calories are more like a range than a set in stone number, b.) because your diet timeline and level of aggressiveness determines how far that may drop, and c.) because the more weight you lose (i.e. obese → lean) the more likely it is to create a bigger gap between previous maintenance and your new maintenance.
If we answered the question in one over simplified way, we’d say that how to reverse diet is literally reversing the diet – like we talked about at the very beginning. It’s reversing the adjustments you made downward and making them upwards, bringing you from your ending caloric intake all the way up to your maintenance.
Here’s the problem with that scenario… METABOLIC ADAPTATION, like we have been discussing most of this article. When metabolic adaptation occurs during the deficit and fat loss period, our body lowers its maintenance intake. That’s essentially what metabolic adaptation is – it’s the physiological process of lowering our metabolic rate, in a sense.
So when people jump into a reverse diet and either a.) bring their calories right back up to old maintenance or b.) slowly bring calories up, but don’t stop until reaching their old maintenance, they gain excess weight and are confused as to why.
“I thought this reverse dieting thing was supposed to get me even more ripped?!”
Now, when you bring calories up quickly like that – you will FEEL better without a doubt. Your body is getting more food and that will directly influence your body’s ability to recover and reboot some of the processes that had slowed down or stalled out during the diet. But you won’t look how you want to look, unless you do things properly.
Before we dive into the 3 options I have laid out for you on how to do this properly… just a note for you to take in and remember: you will gain some weight. But also remember that every 1g of carb holds 3-4g of water, more food means more sodium (most likely), the muscle store carbs and water (this is good), and when we increase calories you have more food volume inside your gut. All of these things weigh down the scale and none of them are body fat.
Now… application of the reverse diet:
[If you’d like to see and read exactly how we took a client through a 13 month reverse diet, completely transforming her body – click here now]
First option is the linear approach, where we have one set intake across all 7 days in the week and slowly bring our calories up for this reverse diet. But the proper route to take with this is to actually bring calories up, immediately, to your new maintenance. This means, sometimes, making a significant jump in calories, not a 50-100 calorie bump – because that will not help your metabolism or hormones improve. We want to take you OUT of physiological stress, right away. If we drag this process on and baby step it too much… you just spend more time in a deficit, really.
So you’re going to bring calories up a solid amount (it varies by individual) to what you predict or calculate your NEW maintenance to be at. Wait there for 2-3 weeks and then if able, continue to bump up calories in a slow classic reverse diet style (10-20g of carbs, every 1-3 weeks). Example would be if your old maintenance was 2,350 calories, but you dieted down and ended up eating between 1,500-1,700 on a daily basis. Not only have you dropped calories, but you’ve lost weight. As covered above in the metabolic adaptation section, this means your new maintenance is more than likely lower than before. So you may actually only bring calories up too 1,900 or 2,000 calories to start – then from there, inch up week by week via carbohydrates (because initial bump provided fats, if fats were lowered in the process of dieting).
This option is only doable if you had plenty of diet breaks on the way down, in the diet phase.
If you did, then your first adjustment is to bring calories right back up to your diet break intake – which is your predicted maintenance. During the deficit and fat loss phase, you may have (should have*) lowered your diet break or maintenance intake slightly AS you dropped calories and bodyweight during the deficit. The reason for this is because once again, your maintenance lowers during a diet.
The other reason you’d do this would be if you noticed big fluctuations on your diet breaks, which is another sign that you’re overshooting those refeed or diet break calories a bit. This often happens when someone sets their refeed calories on week 1, but doesn’t want to change them throughout the entire 12-20 week diet phase process. When someone does this, they are going into a surplus on those diet breaks and it usually slows progress down. If you’re doing it correctly, you should be right about at maintenance, maybe slightly above, and not seeing huge fluctuations in your weight after implementing those refeeds or diet breaks.
Again, for those who implemented diet breaks. This option is a way of using MORE diet breaks, to start the reverse dieting process.
For example; you’re following a diet plan that has you in a deficit for 3 weeks, followed by a 1 week diet break. When you start the reverse diet process, you’ll extend that 1 week diet break to 2 weeks. Then 2.5 weeks… eventually you will allow that diet break to become your daily intake, as you’re changing the ratio of deficit/maintenance until your deficit period is non-existent.
This is a way of training your body to maintain weight, on higher calories – which is why in my experience, using frequent diet breaks can be pretty helpful during the diet period.
When Do I Stop Reverse Dieting?
Never! Keep eating, and eating, and eating until you can no longer eat anymore!
Ok, totally kidding. But I get this question quite often, because many people do not know when to actually stop the reverse dieting process. Like, how much is enough? How much is too much?
There’s no real answer here, but one thing I can tell you is that once you get to maintenance or slightly above – you’re going to be getting the majority of the benefits you need and you’ll feel that in your training, recovery, sleep, and general health and biofeedback. So there’s no use in turning this into a competition, which unfortunately some coaches do – when taking a 115lb bikini competitor up to 600g of carbs “just because they can”.
Yeah, that’s awesome… lots of carbs and they’re probably building muscle because of it. But the human body can only put so much muscle on at a time anyway, so would the same benefit happen at 400g of carbs? Maybe so and likely without digestive stress, turning food into a chore, and having to meal prep abnormal amounts. Not too mention when carbs go that high and you don’t increase protein with it, a lot of your protein is coming from poor and un-bioavailable sources. But if you do program properly and increase protein with it slightly, well guess what? MORE FOOD!
So the point here is simple. If you’ve reached maintenance, which you’ll know because a.) you feel like a normal human again after dieting and b.) because your weight is no longer fluctuating up or down, then you can stop the reverse there. If you’re climbing calories up and you still don’t feel truly well, as in your biofeedback isn’t improving, then you’re not done reverse dieting yet and you need to continue bringing calories up – even if your weight stops fluctuating, because sometimes people just get too lean and they do in fact need to put on a little bit more weight/fat in order to improve health. Now, lastly, if you reach maintenance but you want to gain some muscle mass, then you’d slightly pass that maintenance level intake and begin eating in a surplus with the goals of adding new muscle tissue [Watch the Nutrition for Hypertrophy Video, Here].
What about Hyper-Responders?
We all know those people who eat MORE food during a reverse and lose MORE body fat… My biggest problem with these transformations is that they’re FAR less common than the opposites, i.e. gaining weight or maintaining weight during a reverse. Yet they’re impressive and when they happen, we share before/after pics (I’m guilty) and it can be misleading to the public regarding what a reverse diet actually does for you.
That being said, let me break down very simply what’s going on here as this is another question I get quite often.
A hyper-responder is someone who responds very well to a reverse diet and it can be from 3 main things.
- They’re genetically gifted with an adaptive and responsive metabolism. Sometimes this bites people in the ass because they adapt so well to calories coming in, but the same applies to calories being taken away – meaning that they may not gain much weight, if any, on a reverse but they may not LOSE any on a cut when it’s time to go into a deficit. So pulling more and more calories is still required for them. The lucky side of this is that their metabolism adapts quickly to the increases and they tend to not gain weight as you add calories into the diet.
- NEAT increases, which is technically a byproduct of the gifted metabolism as well. When they eat more calories, subconsciously they move more as well. Even small fidgeting or talking increases dramatically, but their daily steps and hours of standing do especially. So what’s going on here? Simple. They eat more calories and daily energy expenditure increases with it.
- Muscle and Performance! This is ideal and often happens when someone is really smart with their training during a reverse, i.e. increases volume linearly with calories. Not everyone can do this, however, because if you’re trying to recover and adding more volume that taxes you… well, do I need to say why that may not be beneficial? But what’s happening here is pretty simple too. Their energy expenditure goes up in the gym, they burn more calories because their performance goes up higher, and they’re putting on more muscle tissue.
To wrap this up, I’ll just say that I created this article to teach you what, why and a little bit of the how – but the how was NOT my focus here, because it’s so individual.
I’ve reverse dieted hundreds of people at this point and each time, I’ve used a slightly different strategy. I usually stay within those 3 options, but they are tweaked and adjusted depending on the person’s diet period, rate of loss, timeline, long-term goals, lifestyle, mindset, and more.
The big take home messages of this article are:
→ Metabolic adaptation doesn’t need to be feared, just prepared for.
→ Reverse dieting is a process that should be used, but you cannot baby that process or you’re just dragging your body through the mud (or in the deficit longer).
→ An aggressive initial bump up after the diet is needed for restoration to happen immediately.
→ The increase in calories should bring you to your predicted NEW maintenance, not your old maintenance that you started with.
→ After hitting this new maintenance, you can slowly reverse diet like most of us once thought was best – so that you can avoid gaining excess body fat.
→ You will not gain body fat if you jump calories up to your new maintenance, because that is maintenance – aka NOT a surplus, which is needed for weight gain.
→ Your initial weight gain will likely just be stored glycogen, water, sodium, and general food volume in your body.
If you’re anything like me, you want more. You want to learn what, why and how on a much deeper level… there are two options to suite you, if that’s the case.
1.) Apply for coaching. Nothing is more educating than having a one-on-one coach (this option is at the link below).
2.) Dive into more content! Here’s a very small list of items I’d check out:
- [BLOG] Stronger By Science: The Metabolic Adaptation Manual
- [BOOK] Fat Loss Forever
- [RESEARCH REVIEW] MASS: Monthly Applications in Strength Sport
- [BLOG/RESEARCH REVIEW]: Weightology with James Krieger
- [SEARCH] Google… Seriously, type in “Metabolic Adaptation Research” and actually pay attention to what comes up (don’t just read titles and abstracts).
- Thrifty Gene Hypothesis – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4057799/