Just about anyone who’s stepped foot into the world of fitness is familiar with dieting -- the purposeful reduction of calorie intake to facilitate fat burning and promote weight loss.
Basically, with dieting, you strategically and methodically decrease how much food you eat each day so that you lose weight.
But, what happens when you’re ready to stop dieting? Do you just resume your normal way of eating, or is there a more methodical approach that you should take, something akin to dieting, but in reverse.
Today, we discuss exactly that -- the reverse diet, what it is, how it works, and who should do it.
But, before we get into the reverse diet, let’s understand how regular dieting works and its effects on the body.
How does dieting work?
Well, each of us has a certain amount of calories that we need to eat each day in order to maintain our bodyweight. This number is referred to as our maintenance calories.
You may have also referred to it as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is comprised of four factors:
- Basal metabolic rate (BMR) -- the number of calories your body burns in a day just to sustain basic functioning (basically the number of calories your body needs to keep you alive if all you did was lay in bed all day)
- Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) -- the number of calories burned digesting, processing, and absorbing the food you eat
- Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA) -- number of calories burned during structured physical activity (i.e. exercise)
- Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) -- amount of calories burned during non-structured physical activity (taking out the trash, tapping your toes, blinking your eyes, etc.
When you diet, you create a calorie deficit. This is typically accomplished through a combination of decreasing calorie intake (eat less) and increasing energy expenditure (move more).
As a result of this calorie deficit, the body still needs energy to keep running and since it isn’t getting it from food or dietary supplements, it has to turn to its energy reserves (i.e. stored body fat) to make up the difference.
If your body is in a prolonged deficit, it must continually tap into these energy reserves which leads to a reduction in both body fat and overall body weight.
OK, So What Is Reverse Dieting?
When you diet for a considerable amount of time, you lose weight. However, the body doesn’t really like being in a chronic state of energy deprivation, and to help bring everything back into homeostasis it counters by downregulating your metabolic rate[1,2], which means your body is burning less calories per day than it was when you initially started dieting. In order to continue losing weight, you’ll have to either increase energy expenditure and/or reduce calorie intake further.
Now, let’s say that your dieting phase has ended and you’re ready to return to maintenance, or perhaps even begin a lean bulk.
Since you’ve been dieting for a while, chances are really good that you’re eating well below your maintenance calories.
If you were to immediately jump back up to eating your regular maintenance level of calories (the amount you were eating before you initially started dieting) from your current reduced calorie intake, chances are really good that you’ll gain some unwanted body fat.
This is because your body got used to eating at a reduced level of calories and if you suddenly increase your daily calorie intake by a significant amount, your body won’t be ready to use all of those calories right away. As such, it will store them for use later (as body fat).
Reverse dieting was developed to help dieters and physique competitors reverse out of prolonged calorie deficit to help them get back to eating at their normal maintenance calorie level while at the same time avoiding excess fat gain and spillover.
How Do I Reverse Diet?
Much like conventional dieting, reverse dieting requires a bit of tracking, math, and willpower.
Figure Out Present Calorie Intake
To begin reverse dieting, you need to know how many calories you’re presently eating, which, if you’ve been dieting for the past couple of weeks, you already have a good idea of what this number is.
If you don’t know how many calories you’re currently eating, track your nutrition for a few days using a food tracker app (such as FitDay or MyFitnessPal) to get a rough idea of how much you’re eating.
Next, you need to decide what’s more important -- getting back up to maintenance calories as quickly as possible or minimizing fat gain as much as possible.
Most likely, you chose the second option -- minimizing fat gain.
So, in order to accomplish this, while at the same time working our way back up to true maintenance, we need to adopt a small calorie surplus. Typically, this surplus comes from a mixture of carbohydrates and fats as these are the two macronutrients that are cut when dieting.
To start your reverse diet, aim to increase your carb and fat intake between 2-5% percent per week depending on how quickly you are gaining weight and how comfortable you are with gaining that weight.
Keep in mind that the faster and more aggressively you increase your calories per week, the more likely it is that you will gain some body fat during your reverse diet. If you’re ok with that, then feel free to be a touch more assertive with upping your calories over the coming weeks.
Track, Weigh and Modify
In order to track how your reverse diet is going, you’re going to need to weigh yourself a couple of times per week.
Choose 2-3 days per week, and weigh yourself first thing in the morning. Assessing your average weight change over the course of the week will help you evaluate your macro manipulations and decide on your next increase (if necessary).
If you notice a drastic increase in bodyweight over the course of a week or two, you may want to reduce how quickly you’re increasing your calorie intake or the amount of calories you’re adding back into your diet each week.
However, if you haven’t gained a significant amount of weight over the course of a week or two, feel free to increase your calories by bumping up both carbohydrates and fat.
Scale Back Cardio & Increase Weight Training
Chances are pretty good that you spent a considerable amount of time doing cardio while dieting to help keep your body in an energy deficit. And, while that extra physical activity was great for dieting, that amount of cardio likely isn’t sustainable over the long term.
As such, part of reverse dieting also entails a return to “normal” levels of physical activity where you perform a more reasonable volume of cardio (1-3 sessions per week), while at the same time incorporating more heavy lifting sessions.
The reason we want to scale back cardio and increase weight lifting is that steady-state cardio does little to build muscle, and performing too much of it can actually interfere with muscle-building and recovery.
Stop Reverse Dieting
Once you've returned to eating at maintenance, it’s time to decide on your next course of action.
Do you want to focus on lean bulking and continuing to build muscle, which necessitates eating above maintenance calories?
Or, if you’re satisfied with your current body composition, you can choose to keep your food intake as is and simply maintain.
Who Should Reverse Diet?
Reverse dieting is for individuals who have been on restricted calories for prolonged periods of time (such as a physique competitor who has been dieting for 8-12 weeks consistently leading up to a show).
It’s also beneficial for those who are trying to lose weight but slashed their calories too low to begin with and can’t stick to that deficit any longer. In this case, the reverse diet also serves as a diet break, which provides mental and physical relief to the body, setting you up for a successful run at dieting in the near future.
Much like dieting, reverse dieting requires discipline, dedication, and a bit of patience. If you are ok with gaining a little extra body fat so that you can begin eating “normally” sooner, then you can use a more aggressive reverse diet. If you’re a bit worried about gaining body fat, then take this a bit slower with your weekly calorie increases.
- Rosenbaum, M., & Leibel, R. L. (2010). Adaptive thermogenesis in humans. International Journal of Obesity, 34, S47-S55.
- Levine, J. A. (2002). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 16(4), 679-702.
- Deriaz, O., Tremblay, A., & Bouchard, C. (1993). Non linear weight gain with long term overfeeding in man.Obesity Research, 1(3), 179-185.
- Norton L., and Lee, S. Reverse Dieting. 2014