You may have heard of the concept of reverse dieting, particularly in the fitness and bodybuilding world.
Reverse dieting is essentially a form of a “diet break”, which is a popular strategy when an individual has been dieting for a while and has reached a fat loss plateau.
So, if you think you can’t eat more while still maintaining your lean gains, you’d be wrong!
When we diet for a prolonged period, our body eventually clocks on and goes into a kind of survival mode. This is because our body never really wants us to lose weight, as it’s not part of our built-in survival mechanisms!
Our body then adapts to these changes, which then causes a stall in fat loss.
There are a number of ways to break this plateau, but a diet break, or reverse dieting, is one of the most popular methods.
This short guide will provide you with all the information you need to know about reverse dieting, the benefits of doing it, and how to do it.
First, let’s establish what goes on in our body when we are dieting!
Dieting: Metabolic Adaptations
Before we delve deeper into reverse dieting and diet breaks, you should familiarize yourself with metabolism and the metabolic adaptations that occur after long periods of dieting.
Metabolism is essentially the term given to all processes by which our body converts food into energy. You may have also heard of metabolic rate? This is the rate at which our body burns energy (calories).
When we diet, it can slow down our metabolism via a few means:
- Our basal metabolic rate (BMR) will decrease as we weigh less
This means that our resting metabolic rate, the energy we burn at rest, will decrease as we will weigh less, therefore require less energy to survive.
- Our thermic effect of food (TEF) will decrease
When dieting, we are typically eating less food, which will thus have a marginal decrease in our thermic effect of food (the energy we burn eating and digesting food).
- Our non-exercise activity thermogenesis decreases
When dieting, we usually have less energy spare, so our bodies naturally want to conserve this energy by limiting movement.
- Our exercise activity thermogenesis decreases
As we weigh less, we burn fewer calories during exercise sessions.
The above 4 factors are what make up our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), and all four decreases when we diet, thus having a slowing effect on our overall metabolism
In summary, our bodies become more energy-efficient and require fewer calories to maintain our weight. The more you cut your calories down, the lower our metabolism drops, thus sending our body signals which encourage you to eat more and move less.
So, how can we get our metabolism back on track after dieting? This is where reverse dieting comes in!
Reverse Dieting: What is it?
The definition of reverse dieting is a reversal of dieting where calorie intake is gradually increased to maintenance levels with the purpose of increasing metabolic rate.
Essentially, increasing our calories gradually until the point of maintenance or a slight surplus of calories could help the body get back to baseline.
This means restoring hormone levels and getting our energy expenditure back to pre-diet levels to the point it helps us recover our metabolic rate while minimizing body fat gain.
To summarize: if your fat loss progress has stalled and a calorie deficit is no longer effective, reverse dieting is a great approach if you want to increase the calories gradually to enable you to get your metabolic rate back to baseline levels while ensuring you don’t gain fat in the process.
So, how do we reverse diet!?
How to Reverse Diet
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all approach to reverse dieting, much like dieting!
Everyone is individual and requires a unique approach to dieting, so you must remember to be consistent, patient, and be prepared to adapt depending on how your body responds to this method.
Though, there are some general guidelines which may prove to be a good start.
It may be a good idea to begin by increasing your calories by 50-150 calories each week until you have reached your maintenance calorie intake (the number of calories you need to maintain your weight).
You should expect to possibly lose some weight due to a reduction in water weight as a result of hormonal changes. Additionally, you may experience slight weight gain as a result of increased carbohydrate consumption (water weight), though this should balance out overtime.
These changes may be minor, but it’s important to keep in mind when making these changes!
Reverse Dieting: Nutritional Recommendations
So, now you have established a caloric approach to reverse dieting, what about macronutrients?
Protein is likely the most important nutrient to consider when dieting in general, particularly reverse dieting. This macronutrient is key for muscle growth and repair and enables us to maintain our lean muscle gains when dieting.
When reverse dieting, your protein should remain largely unchanged as when you hit your protein target, additional protein will not really provide additional benefits.
When it comes to carbohydrates and fats, these are the two macronutrients you should consider increasing the calories from.
Your carbohydrate to fat ratio will be mostly dependant on what type of training you do. For example, if you regularly do high-intensity sessions such as CrossFit, increasing carbohydrates would support this method of training.
However, if you’re doing more steady-state training such as walking, running, and general low intensity sessions, it may be more beneficial to increase fats to help provide you with that steady release of energy.
As with the calories, it’s important to track any changes and make adjustments where necessary. Don’t be hesitant to change your calories and macros to better align with your goals, your training, and your overall dietary preferences.
Speaking of making adjustments…
Reverse Dieting: Making Adjustments and Tracking Progress
Knowing if your reverse diet is effective can be tricky, but there are some ways to track it closely. The most important thing to remember is that you can adjust, and that nothing is permanent!
Taking bodyweight measurements during the process would be a good idea. We recommend potentially weighing in every day so you can figure out your weekly average weight.
Not to worry if you’re not keen on weighing yourself, this would only be temporary to closely track changes when in a reverse dieting period (typically for a few weeks).
Observe the trends over time and assess your weekly results before making any adjustments.
As a general rule of thumb, if your weight increases by more than a pound on average each week, you may have increased your calories a little too fast. In this case, you’d simply bring them back down slightly and reassess the week after.
On the other hand, if you see no changes in your weight, or it continues to decrease week on week, it’s likely you will need to increase your calorie intake slightly more.
It may be useful to include some additional methods of tracking progress too, such as:
- Body measurements (waist, hips, chest, thighs) which can help you track changes in your body composition
- Progress photos, which give you a more visual view of any body composition changes
You may also notice changes in your training performance as a result of increased calorie intake, which is a good indicator your reverse diet is working.
When we diet, our bodies have natural mechanisms in place that kick in, causing our metabolic rate to drop.
This results in a fat loss plateau, essentially signalling us to take a break!
Reverse dieting is a popular method of having a “diet break”, which has been shown to be effective in getting your metabolic rate back to baseline levels.
Reverse dieting works by slowly and gradually increasing calories week by week until they are back to maintenance intake. This will slowly get your hormonal and metabolic levels back to normal while minimizing weight gain.
It’s recommended to closely track changes in body weight, measurements, and visual body composition changes every week to ensure your reverse diet is working for you.
Once you get back to baseline levels, you should see performance improvements, as well as minimal weight gain, and more energy.
From this point, you can choose to stay at maintenance for a while longer, increase calories into a surplus to maximize muscle gains, or get back into a calorie deficit if you haven’t yet reached your goal weight.
The most important thing to remember when choosing how to move forward is ensuring your body has had adequate rest from dieting before going back into a calorie deficit!