What To Expect When Reverse Dieting
Reverse dieting is exactly what it sounds like. It's the reverse of a diet. Calories are increased rather than taken away.
Alan Aragon defines reverse dieting as “a gradual, incremental re-introduction of calories (mostly from carbohydrate) into the diet for a prolonged period after the dieting phase. There is no universal of official set of reverse dieting rules, but the general incarnation in coaching circles is to increase carbohydrate (and to a lesser degree, fat and protein) on a weekly basis, to the order of roughly 5-10g carbs/week (I’ve also heard of figures like 20g thrown around) until maintenance levels are hit, at which point a decision is made to either hold steady or continue bulking or surplus phase.”
Most people that come to me are severely under-eating, yet they want to lose weight. These people are technically in a caloric deficit yet they can't lose weight... hmmmm. Weird right? Your body is SO resilient and will adapt to nearly anything, therefore the constant yo-yo dieting or under-eating and working out way too much will cause some metabolic adaptation which is keeping you from losing weight despite being in a deficit.
When dieting, people will go into it expecting to lose weight on the scale, lose inches, and looking leaner in the mirror. When reverse dieting, these expectations aren't so black and white. There are three different things that could happen during a reverse diet and I'll go over those below.
A hyper-responder during a reverse diet will lose weight on the scale as calories are being increased. This is the best case scenario because everyone wants to be able to eat more, lose weight, increase gym performance and quality of life.
This is the person that maintains (fluctuating between 1-2lbs) weight while increasing calories and may also have some improvements in body composition. You could call this a "body recomposition" because even though the weight on the scale isn't going down, maybe you're looking/feeling leaner and noticing clothes are fitting looser. You'll also experience some more positive biofeedback measures like..
- improved sleep
- improved performance
- more energy
- better digestion
- better immune function
- regulated hormones
- increased recovery
- increased mood
This is the worst case scenario during a reverse diet and it requires some actual weight gain. Someone's metabolism can be so adapted to low calories that it actually becomes their "new" maintenance in a sense, therefore increasing calories even if it's technically STILL a deficit, is now a surplus according to their body.
It is so necessary to go through this process because the damage that was done from yo-yo diets, under-eating, and overexercising needs to be fixed. This will ultimately set you up for success in the future when you go through a fat loss phase with a healthier metabolism and a higher caloric set point.
The person above's choices at this point are to either:
1) keep under-eating and not losing any weight
2) lower calories even more at an attempt to lose weight and still not lose weight
3) reverse diet for several months to get calories up to a healthier level and to have a better functioning metabolism, potentially gain 5-10lbs BUT you are now in a position to have a successful fat loss phase.
How long does reverse dieting take?
Just like everything else in life, it is different for everyone! It's not a quick fix or a 6 week challenge. There's no way I (or any coach) can tell you up front how many weeks it will take for you to get up to estimated maintenance calories. It took a long time for your metabolism to get all janky from previous diets, so it will take a good bit of time to heal all of that. The macro-adjustments and how frequently they are adjusted is up to the coach you are working with. Be in constant communication with your coach and give all of the biofeedback that you can because biofeedback is the most important part of this process.
- sleep quality
- body comp
- body temp
- sex drive
- regular bowel movements
When should the reverse diet stop?
A client in any of the three reverse diet responder scenarios is going to hit a surplus in calories at some point and will start to see an increase in body weight. This is a sign of biofeedback that lets me know I need to slow up on the calorie increases, chill out a bit for a maintenance phase, and then maybe start a fat loss phase.
There are some things to look for when determining the potential end of a reverse diet:
1) you've hit your goal
- calories up super high end with little to no weight gain aka you crushed it
*Start a short maintenance phase, then enter a fat loss phase
2) no hunger/force feeding constantly
- might be having some GI issues
- feeling puffy or bloated from the food volume
- clothes fitting tighter despite no real weight gain
*Keep macros the same for another week or two to see if client adjusts. If not, enter into a maintenance phase a little lower in calories and then start a fat loss phase.
3) mental health
- increased scale number causing some emotional stress
*Put macros around maintenance for a few weeks to halt the weight gain. A huge drop is not necessary - it's important to be able to drop weight on as much food as possible.
After the reverse diet
A diet break should probably be implemented after the reverse diet. 5-7 days of no tracking food, no weighing anything, and no logging anything. Don't weigh yourself and don't take measurements. You need a mental break from tracking especially before starting a fat loss phase. The fat loss phase will not only need to require changes nutritionally, but with training, sleep, and life stressors.
Congrats, now you will be able to "diet" on a higher amount of calories allowing you to fit in higher calorie things (like pizza, donut, ice cream, etc) occasionally in a flexible and balanced approach. A diet without restrictions is a successful and sustainable one!