Reverse Dieting 101: Eat More to Lose Weight
At WAG Nutrition, we get questions 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 by reverse dieting?”.
We’re answering those questions starting with the big one: What is reverse dieting, anyway?
As 1:1 nutrition coaches, we’ve walked hundreds of clients through successful reverse diets based on their goals, activity and body composition. We’re giving a little Reverse Dieting 101 so you can decide if reverse dieting is right for you, when to start thinking about it and, best of all, how to reverse diet successfully.
Can I Eat More and Still Lose Weight?
If the idea of eating more while staying lean (or even getting leaner!) sounds intriguing, you’re in the right place! At the end of this article, we’ll share a reverse dieting before and after from a real WAG member who was able to make it happen 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 .
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”.
How to Fix Your Metabolism
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.
Your metabolism includes all processes by which your body converts food into energy. Your metabolic rate is the rate at which your body burns calories .
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 .
Fortunately, the reverse of this concept is true, too. If you restore your calories back to a normal range, your metabolic rate will increase. This is what people mean when they say “fix your metabolism”.
And that’s where reverse dieting comes in!
Reverse Dieting 101: What Is Reverse Dieting?
So, you’re on board with the whole “I may actually need to eat more to get or stay lean” thing. You want to give reverse dieting a shot. What comes next?
Reverse Dieting Definition
What is a reverse diet?
It is a reversal of dieting where caloric intake gradually increases in a stepwise fashion to maintenance levels (or sometimes even higher) with the purpose of increasing metabolic rate .
In other words, a reverse diet could help you lose weight or maintain weight while eating more calories. It also helps with muscle maintenance (or even muscle gain) if performance is one of your top priorities.
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 .
To simplify it even more: by eating more, you’ll move more, recover better, push harder in workouts, sleep better, stress less and all of this combined will lead to a higher metabolism and quicker, more efficient calorie burn.
Signs You Need to Reverse Diet
At WAG Nutrition, our clients often ask “how will I know when it is time to reverse diet?”.
There are many things that will cue your coach into knowing it’s about that time. Here are a few signs your body could give you that it’s time to reverse diet and add more calories into your routine:
- Weight loss stops or significantly slows
- Hunger spikes to unmanageable levels
- You see a huge dip in performance and/or recovery
- You’ve reached your weight loss goal and want to shift focus to increasing calories and improving performance
The last one is the moneymaker and where we aim to get our clients. After all, living on low calories forever is no fun (and no good for your long-term health)!
How to Reverse Diet to Lose Weight
Here are some general rules you can use to begin your reverse diet and lose body fat. Keep in mind that every body is different. This is why a 1:1 nutrition coach for fat loss is a game-changer when it comes to learning what works best for your body and being patient enough to see results.
How Often Should I Add Calories While Reverse Dieting?
Start by increasing daily caloric intake by 50-150 calories each week or two until you’ve reached your maintenance calorie level. This tends to be around 3% of total calories for women and 5% of total calories for men.
Your body may take time to show a true reflection of how increased calories impact body weight and composition. So, if you have the time and ability, we usually recommend taking two weeks before making calorie adjustments and macro changes on a reverse diet.
How Do I Know My Maintenance Calories?
The next question is, "what are my maintenance calories?"
Your body will give you the best and most accurate reflection of what is going on. You'll know you're at maintenance calorie levels when your average weight change stays steady from week to week.
How To Find Your Average Weight in a Reverse Diet
Accurately tracking your average weight is important for any weight loss, gain or reverse diet journey. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Take your weight every morning around the same time
- Make sure to take your weight before eating or drinking anything.
- Keep clothing minimal and consistent from day to day.
From there, average your daily weight at the end of each week then compare your weekly averages to find out if your weight is moving. At WAG Nutrition, coaches and clients use our special coaching software, Seismic, to keep all this data organized and it even does the math for us each week.
If your weight has shifted up or down, make sure to take factors into account like macro consistency, stress, travel, hydration, sleep and shifts in training. If all of those have remained consistent you can consider your average weight shift (or lack thereof) as reliable and make necessary changes.
Ex: If weight averaged up after travel and a few nights out with friends, keep things as-is until all those factors are consistent again. If you’ve been sleeping well, hitting your targets and going about your normal routine, you can rely on the weight shifts as an accurate reflection of the macros and make changes as necessary.
Reverse Dieting Macros
Having the correct reverse dieting macros is one of the keys to success for weight loss during a reverse diet. Protein, carbs and fats all play an important role in the reverse dieting process.
Here are a few considerations for each.
Protein when Reverse Dieting
The most important macro to consider is protein. Sufficient protein is important for muscle growth which is the bread and butter of a reverse diet.
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 usually 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 body weight, depending on their sport .
Carbohydrates and Fats when Reverse Dieting
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, yoga), 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?
Should my weight stay the same 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!). Everyone responds 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 .
- 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!) and more food volume in your system at any given time. A boost in carb intake will cause our body to retain a bit more water, but this will balance out over time.
No matter what, giving your body a few weeks to normalize is helpful and important. If you change things too often and quickly, you won’t get an accurate read of how a certain macro intake is truly impacting your body.
During a reverse diet, performance and body composition are often much more helpful metrics to keep tabs on than body weight.
How to Accurately Measure Body Composition
Body composition refers to your ratio of body fat to lean mass. You can measure body composition in many ways including but not limited to:
- Bioelectrical impedance analysis
- Air Displacement Plethysmograph (like a BODPOD)
- Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (a DEXA scan)
Read more about each HERE.
At WAG, many of our clients love using different assessments to get an idea of body composition but at the end of the day, the most consistent, easy and cost-effective way to measure body composition is to take progress pictures.
Much like taking weight, for weekly pictures to be a reliable measure of body composition change we recommend:
- Take your pictures once a week, on the same day of the week around the same time
- Make sure to take your pictures before eating or drinking anything
- Keep clothing minimal and consistent from week-to-week
- Keep lighting and location consistent from week-to-week
As you move through your reverse diet, comparing pictures will give you a good indication of leanness changes even if your weight stays relatively steady.
Making Adjustments to Your Diet
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 along with performance and body composition. There are many simple weight tracking apps available to download that will allow you to observe the trends over time or you can work with a WAG Online Nutrition Coach and let Seismic do the work for you!
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.
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.
Reverse Dieting Before & After
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 work up 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, than I’ve ever been. And the best part, I’m still lean! And we’re still adding in food 💪🏼!”
Aly's Before and After Reverse Dieting Photos
Reverse dieting is usually 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 . 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!
Get a Taste of WAG
The WAG Crash Course is OPEN for enrollment. This 30-day course will teach you the ins and outs of macro tracking, building healthy lifestyle habits and sustaining results without restricting the foods you love. Get personalized macros from a WAG Coach, join the members-only Facebook Group and participate in quarterly Live Q&A sessions with WAG Coaches.
- Helms, E., Valdez, A., & Morgan, A. (2015). The Muscle and Strength Pyramid Nutrition. Eric Helms.
- Bean, A. (2013). The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition (7th ed.). London: Bloomsbury.
- 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.
- 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.
- Haas, E. M., & Levin, B. (2006). Staying healthy with nutrition: The complete guide to diet and nutritional medicine. Berkeley: Celestial Arts.
- Muller MJ, Bosy-Westphal A. Adaptive thermogenesis with weight loss in humans. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2013;21:218–228.