As we know, to lose fat you need to be in a calorie deficit (eating less calories than you burn). When you are in a calorie deficit for long periods of time, it can cause your metabolism to down-regulate. This is a process known as metabolic adaptation.
This is when the metabolism slows down as an adaptive response to a lower calorie intake and reduced body weight, causing a plateau in weight loss. It is part of the body’s way of conserving energy and is essentially a survival mechanism in response to weight loss. The longer you are in a calorie deficit, the more your metabolism will adapt and the lower your total energy expenditure will become, which will make it increasingly difficult to continue to make progress.
Reverse dieting is a strategy that we can use to help “reverse” these adaptations.
What is reverse dieting?
Reverse dieting is simply the process of increasing your calorie intake from a caloric deficit back up to your maintenance level or to a surplus. The primary goal of a reverse diet is to reverse the effects of metabolic adaption and increase your caloric intake while minimising body fat gain.
Reverse dieting helps you “restore” your metabolism to a much higher level so that you have a better “base” to cut calories from. Starting your fat loss at 2200 calories for example is going to leave you a lot more room to reduce calories when you reach a plateau compared to if you started dieting at 1500 calories. From our own personal experience and the experience of our clients, reverse dieting provides many other immediate benefits, including:
- Improved energy levels
- A boost in motivation and looking forward to your workouts again.
- Decreased hunger
- Improved sleep quality
- Improved mental acuity and the ability to handle stress (and life) better
Some even find that their weight starts to slowly decrease again (although it is important to note that this is not the goal).
Who should consider a reverse diet?
You may benefit from reverse dieting if you:
- have been in a caloric deficit for a prolonged period of time
- are on a low caloric intake and not achieving any weight loss (<1500 calories per day)
- are experiencing hormonal problems associated with severe caloric restriction
- want to increase your caloric intake as high as possible before dieting
- just want a break from dieting!
How does it work?
We would suggest starting by increasing your calories to 10% below your predicted maintenance intake and then increasing from there. If you don’t know how to work that out then just add 200-300 calories to what you have been eating and go from there. Generally, you will aim to increase calories by 50-200 per day every 1-2 weeks. If your weight remains stable or you lose weight, you add more calories. If your weight increases significantly then you keep your calorie intake the same to give your body more time to adjust.
The goal is to continue with this process until you start seeing a consistent increase in weight. When you finally get to that point, you will have found your true maintenance calories. From there, you have three options – build, enter into a deficit or simply maintain your weight at this higher calorie intake.
How long do you need to reverse diet for?
Unfortunately there is no one size fits all answer here. We generally recommend reverse dieting for a minimum of 12 weeks. If you are experiencing significant metabolic adaptation, you may need to reverse diet for a longer period.
Will you gain weight?
Consistently adding in extra calories can result in some weight gain, but it is not likely that you will gain fat eating under your maintenance calories. The weight gain is usually from intracellular water retention and muscle glycogen (carbs stored in the muscles). Your muscles need this as fuel and it will make them feel fuller. It can improve your performance in the gym and help to increase your strength. Increases in weight usually happen in the first couple of days after increasing your calories and starts decreasing again towards the end of the week.
In some cases, women find that their weight starts to slowly decrease again due to the fact that their energy levels increase which makes them more active and burn more calories as a result. It is very important to note that this isn’t the goal of reverse dieting and there will come a point where you start to gain weight as you exceed your maintenance calories.
Reverse dieting can be a scary concept for a lot of women, especially those who want to lose fat, but if you have been dieting for a really long time and you’re no longer seeing results then it’s a great strategy to try. The ONLY way to increase your metabolic rate is by increasing your calories.