The WAG Guide to Reverse Dieting
Have you heard of “reverse dieting”? It’s a concept that’s become increasingly popular over the last few years in the nutrition world.
If the idea of eating more while staying lean sounds intriguing, you’re in the right place! (At the end of this article, we’ve even got 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 .
Whether we are aiming to lose body fat or gain muscle, taking breaks from our nutrition plan gives our metabolism a chance to rebalance. We call these “diet breaks”. Reverse dieting is one form of “diet break”.
Giving Your Metabolism a Break
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 .
Did you know that if we remain in a calorie deficit (i.e. diet) for a long time, it can slow down our metabolic rate?
Here’s how it works: when we restrict our caloric intake, our body becomes more energy-efficient and requires fewer calories to maintain our weight. The more we cut our calories down, the more our metabolic rate will drop [2,6]. Our body will even start sending signals encouraging us to eat more .
But don’t worry, it’s not all bad news! Fortunately, the reverse of this concept is true, too. If we restore our calories back to a normal range, our 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 .
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 the dieter minimize the amount of body fat gained during the process .
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 Implement A Reverse Diet
Starting a reverse diet is pretty simple: it involves increasing daily caloric intake by 50-150 calories each week until you’ve reached your maintenance calorie level (that’s the point where you’re neither gaining nor losing weight).
Which macros should be increased each week? The most important macro to consider is protein. Sufficient protein is important for muscle growth, which is often what we are looking for.
How much protein? 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 .
Once you have enough protein, you can alternate back and forth between adding carbs and fats.
What Should You Expect When Reverse Dieting?
While reverse dieting, you might experience weight loss or weight gain (or neither!). Different bodies respond differently to the process. And 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!). A boost in carb intake will cause our body to retain a bit more water, but this will balance out over time.
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 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.
Real Life Reverse Dieting Testimonial
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:
In conclusion, 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 . 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!
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- 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.
- 12. 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.