What Is Reverse Dieting? And Does It Work?

What is Reverse Dieting

Want to lose weight, and fast? That means drastically dropping calories. Unfortunately, though, our bodies aren’t designed for severe calorie restrictions just to drop some pounds. And dropping calories too low or for too long can actually backfire—changing hormone levels and slowing metabolism as a way of helping our bodies cope with the stress of dieting. That’s where reverse dieting comes in. What is reverse dieting? And does it work? Let’s dive in to this interesting theory…

What is Reverse Dieting?

In case you aren’t following the latest diet “trends,” reverse dieting is where you increase your calorie intake strategically over weeks or months to boost metabolism. The goal is to help prevent rapid weight regain after dieting (or the voluntary restriction of calories).

The practice became popular originally with bodybuilders and other athletes who lose weight (i.e., get ripped) but want to avoid rapid weight regain. A situation that’s all too common after the strict dieting needed to get ultra-low body fat levels for competitions or photo shoots.

To get body fat as low as competitors reveal on stage, athletes are known to follow extreme, unsustainable diets. In response, the body naturally slows metabolism in a process known as “adaptive thermogenesis.” That is, during periods when calories are less available, our bodies work harder to hold onto the weight we have by lowering metabolism and decreasing NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). This helps the body decrease energy expenditure as a survival mechanism.

Unfortunately, once a “normal” diet is resumed, the metabolism is sluggish, so fat weight is more likely to pile on quickly. That’s why when bodybuilders aren’t competing, they can often look bulked up, smooth, and lose much of their muscle definition.

To help prevent this vicious cycle, which can mean having to diet even harder to get ripped for the next competition, some bodybuilders introduced reverse dieting, also known as Building Your Metabolism. This method is meant to minimize fat gain by slowly introducing more calories and keeping track of the body’s response. Theoretically, by giving the metabolism time to adjust to the increased calorie intake, you can prevent much of the unwanted fat gain.

The Starvation Response

One reason it can be difficult to keep losing weight over time (or quickly regain weight once a diet is over) is because of the starvation response.

The starvation response is a natural adaptation to ultra-low-calorie intake. Obviously, our ancestors didn’t have easy access to grocery stores, convenience stores, and fast-food joints on nearly every corner. When enough food wasn’t available to ensure survival, the body naturally slowed metabolism and protected fat stores until food sources were once again readily available.

This is one explanation for dieting plateaus. When you first start a diet, it’s pretty easy to drop pounds. The metabolism is going strong as it’s been getting plenty of calories. But after a few weeks or months of calorie restriction, progress can slow. So, in response, many dieters cut out more calories. Again, initially, you might see some success. But as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to lose weight because as you eat fewer calories:

  • The basal metabolic rate (BMR) drops, which means you burn fewer calories just to survive. Your body begins conserving energy and fat stores for survival.
  • Activity levels decline as you have less energy to work out, so you burn fewer calories during your exercise sessions.
  • NEAT drops as, again, you have less energy, so you naturally move less throughout the day. Fidgeting may slow, you may find yourself sitting more often than you did before, you may even blink less.
  • Digestion slows as your body seeks to pull more nutrients from the food you are eating.

To get off the diet, with reverse dieting, rather than keeping calories low (despite the weight-loss plateau) or jumping calories back up to previous levels (i.e., maintenance or even surplus calories if the goal is to weight gain) immediately, athletes slowly increase calorie intake by around two to three percent per week, typically from carbohydrates and fats.

Adaptive Thermogenesis

Depending on the person, the diet, how quickly the diet changes, and other aspects, adaptive thermogenesis can work both ways. Yes, it can slow metabolism when calories are too low for a prolonged period. But, it can also ramp up metabolism if you’re getting a caloric surplus.

When you’re getting a surplus of calories, your body can respond by:

  • Increasing BMR by pumping up heat and naturally burning more calories.
  • Improving exercise capacity, so you can work out harder and burn more calories when you’re active.
  • Promoting NEAT, so you have more energy to play with your kids, stand while working, and fidget.
  • Building more calorie-burning muscle mass when combined with weight training.
  • Promoting normal digestion rates, which also means the digestive system burns more calories to digest and absorb nutrients.

Of course, there are limits. You can’t just continue to eat and eat and eat and expect your body to keep up. To help prevent rapid weight gain, calories need to be added back more slowly and consistently. If it took six months of dieting to get down to your goal weight, you can’t just reverse it in a couple of weeks and expect your body to respond as expected.

With reverse dieting, the recommendation is often to take as long to regain weight as it took you to lose weight. So, for instance, if you lost 40 pounds over the last 6 months, as you increase calorie intake, it can take 6 months to return to a maintenance intake. In theory, this can help prevent you from regaining all of the weight you lost (and then some).

Remember, however, that your new maintenance intake will naturally be lower than it was originally.

So, for example, if you are a 55-year-old woman who is somewhat active, and you weigh 210 pounds, your maintenance calories are around 2,129 to maintain the current weight. To lose around one pound a week, you would decrease calories to about 1,629 per day.

In this example, let’s say after six months, you’ve dropped down to 170 pounds. Your new maintenance calories are now closer to 1,880 per day. If you wanted to continue to lose another 20 pounds, at about a pound a week, you’d need to drop your calories lower, down to closer to 1,380 per day. But if you’re practicing reverse dieting, you would slowly increase calories from about 1,629 to 1,880 to maintain weight.

If, on the other hand, you also became more physically active during this time and now exercise 3 or 4 days a week, your new maintenance calories would be ~2,119. To continue losing a pound a week, you’d want to drop down to 1,619 calories per day.

But, if you’re happy where you are and are done losing weight, with reverse dieting, you would want to increase calories from the deficit calories of 1,629 per day up to the maintenance calories of 2,119 over the next several months (remembering to stay active) rather than just increasing your food intake by 500 calories per day right away. That way, your metabolism has time to adjust to the increased calories without (hopefully) causing you to regain the lost weight.

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How to Reverse Diet

To set yourself up for success when reversing diet, experts recommend following several steps:

1. Determine Your Maintenance Calories

Remember, though, that even individuals who weigh the same vary enormously in how many calories they need and calories they burn. Age, gender, activity levels, previous dieting, muscle mass, and genetics can all make a difference. And calorie counting is imprecise. So, calorie counters only provide a starting point. You’ll have to look at your own calorie intake and calorie burning and adjust to find your personal maintenance levels. Leading us to step 2…

2. Weight in Daily

Weigh in daily, so you can keep track of trends. Yes, weight can vary daily and go up or down by a few pounds within the week. The goal is not to be concerned with daily fluctuations but rather to keep track of trends over several weeks. Is your weight trending in the preferred direction?

3. Track Your Calories

Choose a calorie tracker you like and will use consistently, such as MyNetDiary, MyFitnessPal, Lose It!, etc. and set your daily calorie limits. Reverse dieting is advanced because you do need to ensure you’re:

  • Eating roughly the same number of calories daily
  • Measuring food intake and activity levels
  • Adjusting food and activity levels up or down to reach your goals
  • Tracking all calories—even on weekends, holidays, and celebrations
  • Understanding if/when reverse diet isn’t working for you (for instance, if you start gaining body fat)

4. Ensure You Eat Enough Protein (20-30% of Calories

5. Add Calories Slowly

Increase calories slowly by adding around two to three percent (though some recommend up to 10% more calories per week). Stick at that level for up to two weeks while keeping an eye on your weight and body fat percentage.

6. Monitor and Adjust Your Calories

Don’t just rely on daily weigh-ins. Take body measurements, such as waist, hips, and thighs; use progress photos; record your workout performance (are you getting stronger, enjoying your workouts more?); check in with your energy levels (do you want to do more, are regular activities easier?); watch your hunger levels (are you feeling more satisfied after eating?)

7. Mind Your Lifestyle

Remember the rest of your lifestyle improvements—get plenty of rest, drink enough water, practice self-care, and invest in your relationships.

8. Know When to Stop

Reverse dieting should last no longer than the original diet. Once you find you’re starting to gain fat (or, if your bodyfat percentage is too low to be sustained, such as a bodybuilder, and you’ve gained as much fat as you want) and you’re feeling satiated with your diet again, then you can stop the reverse diet and just focus on your healthy eating and lifestyle habits.

Does Reverse Dieting Work?

At least in theory, reverse dieting allows athletes to slowly add on bulk (preferably muscle) while giving their metabolisms time to catch up to the calorie increase. It could, again in theory, also help some people break through a weight-loss plateau.

Unfortunately, there’s currently little research on how effective reverse dieting is. However, there are anecdotal reports that the practice may:

  • Allow greater freedom for dieters as they transition from more restrictive to more sustainable diets.
  • Increase muscle mass as very low-calorie plans cause you to lose weight (including muscle mass) quickly. When combined with weight training, reverse dieting may help you regain muscle mass you may have lost during the calorie-cutting phase.
  • Boost energy levels by gradually increasing calorie and nutrient intake.
  • Promote a stronger metabolism, especially when combined with more NEAT as you burn more calories due to increased energy levels and activity.

There are, however, drawbacks to reverse dieting as well. It can be difficult and is often recommended only with support from a qualified nutritionist, coach, or doctor. This is because reverse dieting:

  • Needs to be slowly implemented. You don’t want to increase calories too quickly, which can lead to fat gain.
  • Takes strict monitoring to avoid negative reactions, including weight and fat gain.
  • Can create a rebound effect, leading you to not just get back to your starting weight but surpass it.

Does reverse dieting work? Maybe. But it’s certainly not guaranteed, and it may work better for some folks and some situations than others. It can also be complicated to continually figure out the math, count calories, and make adjustments. It can also increase the risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with food.

Many coaches, doctors, and nutritionists recommend avoiding reverse dieting, even if you take it slowly. Instead, if you’re trying to push past a plateau, increase both calories and activity levels by taking a short-term break from dieting for a few days to a few weeks to allow your metabolism to rev up naturally. In other words, they recommend avoiding a surplus of calories (as often recommended with reverse dieting), especially if those calories are coming from junk food, which can lead to rapid weight regain.