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Reverse Dieting: What Is It & How Does It Work?

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Have you heard of “reverse dieting”? It’s a concept that’s become increasingly popular over the last few years in the nutrition world.

At WAG, we get questions all the time like, “why has my weight loss stalled?”, “how do I know if I need a reverse diet?” and “when should I start a reverse diet, anyway? Is it really possible to lose fat reverse dieting?”. 

Today, we’re answering those questions.

If the idea of eating more while staying lean sounds intriguing, you’re in the right place! At the end of this article, we’ll share a testimonial from a real WAG member who conducted a successful reverse diet with her coach!

As we explore the concept of reverse dieting, let’s start with an analogy. If you’ve ever owned a car, you know that it’s important to change the oil every few months. Even if it seems like your car is running smoothly, without oil changes, it’ll be slower and less efficient. This is also true for our metabolism [1].

Whether you are aiming to lose body fat or gain muscle, taking breaks from your nutrition plan gives your metabolism a chance to rebalance. We call these “diet breaks”. Reverse dieting is one form of “diet break”.

Metabolic Adaptations from Dieting

Many people want to know how to “fix” or “heal” metabolism after long periods of dieting. So, before diving deeper into reverse dieting, it’s important to understand what “metabolism” is and how it works.

Metabolism is the term given to all processes by which your body converts food into energy. Our metabolic rate is the rate at which our body burns calories [2].

Did you know that if you remain in a calorie deficit (i.e. diet) for a long time, it can slow down your metabolic rate?

Here’s how it works: when you restrict your caloric intake, your body becomes more energy-efficient and requires fewer calories to maintain your weight. The more you cut calories down, the more your metabolic rate will drop [2,6]. The body will even start sending signals encouraging you to eat more [3].

Fortunately, the reverse of this concept is true, too. If you restore your calories back to a normal range, your metabolic rate will increase.

And that’s where reverse dieting comes in!

The Theory Behind Reverse Dieting

Here’s the definition of reverse dieting: it’s a reversal of dieting where caloric intake is gradually increased in a stepwise fashion to maintenance levels (or sometimes even higher to support muscle growth) with the purpose of increasing metabolic rate [4].

In other words, a reverse diet could help you lose weight or maintain weight while eating more calories.

The idea is that providing a small caloric surplus could help to restore circulating hormone levels and energy expenditure toward pre-diet levels while closely matching energy intake to the recovering metabolic rate. The goal is to help minimize the amount of body fat gained during the process [4].

Put simply, if your body has stopped responding to a calorie deficit or you’re tired of consuming a low level of calories, but you worry about quickly gaining body fat if you start eating more — reverse dieting could be perfect for you! 

How to Reverse Diet

Here are some general rules you can use to begin your reverse diet. Keep in mind that everybody and every body is different. This is why a 1:1 coach can be a game-changer when it comes to learning what works best for your body and being patient enough to see results.

How often should you add calories while reverse dieting? 

Increasing daily caloric intake by 50-150 calories each week until you’ve reached your maintenance calorie level is a good place to start. This tends to be around 3% of total calories for women and 5% of total calories for men.

Which macros should be increased each week? 

Protein

The most important macro to consider is protein. Sufficient protein is important for muscle growth, which is often what we are looking for. 

Although the current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein in healthy adults is 0.4-0.5 grams per pound of body weight, that’s probably not enough for someone who works out regularly. [2,5]. Most athletes require additional protein to compensate for the increased breakdown of protein during and immediately after exercise and to help promote the repair and growth of muscles. An athlete may need somewhere between 0.7-1.3 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, depending on their sport [2]. 

Carbohydrates and Fats

Once you have enough protein, you can alternate back and forth between adding carbs and fats. 50-150 calories is about 15-35 grams of carbohydrates or about 5-16g grams of fat. 

For optimal success, you’ll need to raise carbs and fats at a rate that corresponds to your goals. If you’re doing high intensity training (HIIT, CrossFit etc…), you’ll likely need more carbohydrates for quick energy. If you’re doing more steady-state exercise (hiking, walking, jogging), fats can help with a more steady release of energy. 

What to Expect When Reverse Dieting

Will I gain weight while reverse dieting? 

Will I lose weight while reverse dieting? 

These are common questions so we’re glad you asked. Knowing what to expect is important before deciding if this is right for you.

While reverse dieting, you might experience weight loss or weight gain (or neither!). Different bodies respond differently to the process. It may reassure you to know that even if some weight is gained or lost, it’s usually a small amount.

A couple of things to keep in mind about weight loss or gain:

  • Sometimes when weight is lost, it’s due to a reduction in water weight as your hormones normalize [4]. 
  • If the scale increases, there’s a good chance it’s due to an increase in carb consumption (in other words, you haven’t gained body fat, just water!). A boost in carb intake will cause our body to retain a bit more water, but this will balance out over time.  

Making Adjustments

How do you know if the reverse diet is effective? 

The most important thing is to keep an eye on your average weekly scale weight during the process. There are many simple weight tracking apps available to download that will allow you to observe the trends over time. 

If your average weight increases more than an average of one pound per week, you may have increased calories too quickly and need to bring them back down. 

Alternatively, if your weight isn’t changing at all (or it’s decreasing), it’s probably safe to add more calories.

There can also be other signs of reverse dieting success beyond the scale. 

For example, take measurements of your waist, hips, and chest, which can help you see changes in body composition. Progress photos taken every 1-2 weeks can also illustrate changes in body composition.

You may also notice an improvement in your workout performance thanks to the additional calories. If you’re feeling stronger, faster or achieving personal bests in your workouts, those are great indicators that the reverse diet is boosting your energy levels and recovery.

A Reverse Dieting Success Story

Aly Frey is a real-life Working Against Gravity client who embarked upon a reverse diet with her coach. She began her reverse diet consuming around 1600 calories per day and eventually worked up to about 2000 calories.

Here is her description of the process:

“My reverse dieting experience was, if we’re being honest, terrifying at first. But I’m so happy with where I am, now!

After 8 months of eating in a deficit to lose my postpartum weight, the thought of adding calories back in, even though I knew I needed to get to maintenance caloric numbers, made me think I’d lose all the work I just spent so long working for.

Now that I’m on the other side, I’m so happy I trusted my coach to guide me through this process. Over time, I felt my hunger subside, my moods and energy improve, and my sugar cravings completely subside.

I would say I am the strongest mentally with regard to food, now, then I’ve ever been. And the best part, I’m still lean! And we’re still adding in food 💪🏼!” 

Here are Aly’s before and after photos:

Reverse dieting is a slow process. But for some people, that’s a very good thing because they feel nervous about the possibility of quickly gaining body fat as they shift out of a calorie deficit. From a psychological perspective, knowing that the calorie increases will be small and gradual is reassuring. And for someone who’s been consuming a low level of calories for a long time, even a 50-150 calorie increase each week can provide a mental reprieve.

Reverse dieting is still a relatively new concept in the world of health and fitness, so there isn’t a great deal of long-term research to support it. But there are many anecdotal reports of successful reverse dieting which has led to an increase in its popularity [4]. If you’d like to eat more while staying the same weight, reverse dieting could be perfect for you!

Are you curious about reverse dieting but would like some guidance with it? Our experienced coaches are ready to work with you to engineer a program that fits your lifestyle and produces lasting results. Join WAG and get your own personal Nutrition Coach!

Join Team WAG

Love what you learned but still want more guidance and support? Hire a 1:1 coach who will get to know you, your lifestyle and your unique needs and create results that you can sustain long-term. If you're not quite ready to go all-in on hiring a coach, check out our Macro Calculation Cheat Sheet & 18 Tracking Tips and Tricks for macro counting!

References:

  1. Helms, E., Valdez, A., & Morgan, A. (2015). The Muscle and Strength Pyramid Nutrition. Eric Helms.
  2. Bean, A. (2013). The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition (7th ed.). London: Bloomsbury.
  3. Dulloo AG, Jacquet J. Adaptive reduction in basal metabolic rate in response to food deprivation in humans: a role for feedback signals from fat stores. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998;68:599–606.
  4. Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-7.
  5. Haas, E. M., & Levin, B. (2006). Staying healthy with nutrition: The complete guide to diet and nutritional medicine. Berkeley: Celestial Arts.
  6. Muller MJ, Bosy-Westphal A. Adaptive thermogenesis with weight loss in humans. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2013;21:218–228.
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Posted by Adee Cazayoux
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Adee is the founder and CEO of WAG. She has her bachelor’s degree in Honors Psychology, a Master’s in Teaching, and a Master’s in Nutrition & Human Performance. She’s also an athlete, having competed in the National Pro Grid League and winning the Bronze Medal in the 2016 Canadian National Weightlifting Championships.

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