Reverse dieting is probably one of the most misunderstood and also one of the most feared concepts in the fitness industry. Nearly every time I begin a client on a reverse diet, they ask me “does this mean I’m going to start gaining weight now?” Its a common fear and misconception that eating more, means you will gain weight. This is NOT the case when you successfully reverse diet!
The idea of a reverse diet is that you slowly increase your calories in order to SUSTAIN your current body composition. The reason for doing this is because our bodies are highly adaptive machines – they are designed to survive! So if you finish a cut on 1400 calories and try and leave it there, eventually your body will decide its not getting enough food and so it’s going to hold onto as much body fat as possible in case of starvation. Its really bloody hard to outsmart our physiological adaption mechanisms!
SO, instead of leaving our calories low forever, we reverse diet and increase cals slowly so your body has a chance to get used to them. We build calories up to a sustainable level where you can maintain your body composition and minimise stress on your body. This is pivotal to creating a long term, sustainable result. Plus, life is a lot more fun when you have more calories to play with!
The reason why everyone associates reverse dieting with gaining weight…
I think the reason we associate reverse dieting with gaining weight is because social media is FLOODED with bikini competitors nowadays. And as I’m sure many of you have seen, once a bikini competitor finishes their show they will commence their “reverse diet” and start the process of re-gaining some healthy weight post show.
The thing is, bikini competitions are a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT scenario to the everyday weight-loss client. Firstly, the level of body fat you reach for a competition is actually below healthy levels; and is therefore unsustainable long term. These women NEED to gain weight back, for health reasons. So yes, the idea of reverse dieting for them IS to gain (some much needed) weight.
Now, because bikini competitions are becoming ever-increasingly popular and some of the people who participate in these are probably not in the mental state to partake in such an extreme level of dieting and fitness. we also have people who “rebound” out of these competitions and gain a whole lot of weight post show. This is NOT because of their reverse diet. In fact, this is because they DIDN’T stick to their reverse diet. Coming out of a bikini competition and an extreme diet is hard; temptation is everywhere and some people don’t have the mental strength to say no (perhaps their coach should have told them that competition was not a good idea for them in the first place if they have a poor relationship with food). But make no mistake, that weight gain is most likely from the failure to reverse diet, not from the reverse diet itself.
Contrast that to a regular person who just lost some weight by dieting and exercising and now they want to KEEP IT OFF. We can make small changes to their food, increasing ever so slowly each week or so and allow their body to get used to higher amounts of food with each change. Most of the time, the person will stay the same weight or even keep losing weight! This is the amazing science that is reverse dieting.
Over time, eating more calories means our potential to build lean muscle is greater. Increasing lean muscle mass increases your metabolic rate, therefore enabling your body to consume more food. Muscle does weigh more than fat, so you will see a very slow trend over time of the scale going up but its important to remember that WEIGHT gain is not equivalent to FAT gain. We can use methods such as dexa scans, in body scans, or skin fold measurements as a better measure of progress when there is no longer a large amount of body fat to be lost.
How long should I reverse diet for?
The number of calories you work up to will be very different for every individual, depending on activity levels, muscle mass, metabolism, etc. But the goal of reverse dieting is to build to that individuals ‘maintenance’ level calories, aka the amount that they burn per day and the amount where they neither gain nor lose weight. This could be anywhere from 1700-2400 calories a day for a standard female. How a person responds to the changes will help you gauge when they have hit their true maintenance level, but you should be able to gauge an estimate of where they need to be from factors such as their weight, muscle mass, height, and daily activity levels.
How quickly should I make changes to my food on a reverse diet?
How quickly you should work up someones calories will also depend on the duration they have been dieting for, how aggressive their diet was, their propensity for weight re-gain, and the state of their health.
The regularity of changes should depend on how a person responds to each change, e.g. do they gain weight, lose weight, stay the same? How do they feel? How does their digestion cope with the change? How consistent were they? Etc.
As with anything nutrition or training related, the approach should be tailored to the individual situation and close attention paid to how they respond to determine the speed of the reverse diet.
Generally I would make an increase of between 50-150 calories each time and make a change every one to four weeks depending on the individual and the factors mentioned above. It really needs to be assessed on a week to week basis taking into account all of those factors.
When should you reverse diet?
WHEN you should start a reverse diet will also be very dependent on the individual. Most of the time, you start a reverse diet once you’re at a point you’re relatively happy to sustain. However, for some people who may have been chronic dieters, sometimes they will need a reverse diet a bit earlier to actually help them get leaner. This is because again, if your body is under too much stress from long term dieting it can cause your body to want to hold onto fat in case of starvation. In such a case, sometimes the key to losing more weight is actually eating MORE.
So yes, thats right, you can actually get LEANER on a reverse diet.
What if I still have some fat to lose?
As mentioned, in some cases the key to losing that final bit of weight is actually eating MORE. But this doesn’t mean everyone should commence a reverse diet straight away. We can also use strategies such as refeeds (high carb days) and diet breaks (short periods at maintenance calories) to help take the stress off the body temporarily and continue making progress. This is also great for minimising negative hormonal adaptions that occur during dieting.
This really depends on how much more weight you have to lose and how your body is coping with the stress of dieting. If you have 5+ kg left to lose; it might be worth implementing diet breaks and refeeds to stimulate further progress rather than jumping into a reverse diet.
But if you’ve been dieting for 6 months and have hit a bit of a plateau, maybe only have another 2kg that you could lose then it might be a good time to start your reverse.
It’s impossible to give blanket answers to exactly when you should commence your reverse diet and so it should be looked at in light of the whole situation and the individual you are working with.
So where should you begin?
If you’ve reached the point where you’re pretty happy with your body and/or you’ve finished an 8 or 12 week challenge and aren’t confident reverse dieting yourself or knowing whether you should just be using diet breaks instead, I would highly recommend working with a knowledgable coach who can help support you through the process. It’s an important thing to get right to avoid weight re-gain and sustain your result, and it can be helpful to have some accountability and support post a diet phase where temptation is high and you no longer have a time-bound goal.
I hope this article has given you an insight into reverse dieting and why eating more doesn’t mean gaining weight! Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any other questions or want to get started on your own reverse dieting journey.