Our bodies are incredibly smart vessels – much to our advantage, and sometimes, as in the case of dieting, to our detriment. Dieting schemes and programs run rife in today’s times as obesity is on the rise, but the statistics attached to long term dieting success are grim, and they simply can’t be ignored. It has been proven that up to 95% of all those who attempt to rigidly diet will gain all the weight back, and more, over time. To solve this enigma, the dieting process needs to be analyzed. There exist a plethora of adverse side effects in the dieting process, many of which most people aren’t aware of. In the bodybuilding world reverse dieting is a well-known concept used for physique competitors after low calorie prep diets to rehabilitate sluggish metabolisms. However, as a result of numerous fad diets and chronic caloric restriction attempts by the average public to achieve quick weight loss, it has become a phenomenon learned nutritional advisors employ in their dieting strategies. I would even go as far as saying that intelligently navigating this “post weight loss” period after a diet is the secret to ending all your weight struggles once and for all.
Let’s take a few steps back, and simplify the argument using a common scenario I see day in and day out. After a few months of low calorie and heavily restricted dieting, Susan achieves her weight loss goal. Susan is extremely proud of herself, for all the sacrifices she has made, and posts her transformation pictures over her social media. She thinks it’s all over, that her goal has been achieved, and that happy days lie ahead. Little does she know her battle has just begun – her metabolism is hanging in the balance. Susan has become wired psychologically and biologically to gain all that weight back, and more. What she does next is critical. However Susan is blissfully unaware of this, and becomes slightly reckless with her diet, letting a few food items slip through here and there. Give it a few months, she looks at the scale and gets quite a shock! How can months of weight loss suddenly be undone so quickly? So what does she do? She’ll make the most common mistake of all – she will try to diet AGAIN. The restrictive, low calorie eating begins again. This process will repeat itself until Susan finds she can’t eat a normal amount of food without getting progressively fatter. It becomes impossible to maintain her weight, no matter how hard she trains or diets.
To understand why the above scenario occurs it is important to understand the science behind weight loss. To initiate weight loss, your body needs to be in a state of “negative energy balance”, or in other words, you need to eat less energy than you burn. Many are able to successfully calorie restrict in this way to lose weight, but unfortunately not many understand what happens next. Caloric restriction affects your metabolism in a number of ways. As mentioned, the human body is an intelligent mechanism, and when a starvation signal is heard, a number of metabolic responses manifest. The metabolism is designed to “adapt” on a number of levels to caloric restriction in an attempt to maintain metabolic homeostasis. In essence, the body begins to slow itself down to cope with the energy gap diets create. How does it do this? Firstly, your vital internal organs begin to consume less energy, thereby reducing your overall basal metabolic rate. In other words, you begin to burn less energy whilst at rest. And it doesn’t end here. Sympathetic nervous activity begins to decline, causing your heart to beat slower. Furthermore, your body attempts to initiate a hunger response with the down regulation of vital thyroid hormones, testosterone, leptin and ghrelin. This hormonal down-regulation serves to stimulate hunger pangs and induce fatigue – a warning sign that your body needs more energy and rest. The thermic effect of food is also reduced, meaning the energy used in the digestion process by the body falls. Your muscles become more efficient and require less fuel for work, and less energy is burnt during non-exercise fidget movements such as walking or doing chores. All of these metabolic adaptations result in the body burning fewer calories, whether it is at rest or engaging in intensive training. This is dark hole to fall into on your dieting journey, as all efforts to further calorie restrict or excessively train are in vain as your body fights off your attempt to diet it down yet again. Understanding these metabolic adaptations provide the necessary links between dieting and reverse dieting. Metabolic down-regulation (or slow down) in the post-dieting period is not permanent, and can be rectified with patience, if reverse dieting is employed.
Reverse dieting is a means of restoring the metabolic rate that has been “lost” in the dieting process, by gradually adding calories back in over time, whilst maintaining or very slightly increasing body fat levels. It is not an over night process and calories cannot be exponentially increased otherwise body fat levels can go up significantly. By adding calories back in methodically over time, weight loss stays off, as the body is able to maintain on a higher caloric input, thus warding off any potential metabolic slow down and weight regain. Quite simply put, human beings are not biologically geared to “diet forever”. Our bodies do fight back in an attempt to survive long periods of caloric deprivation.
It is important to understand that not everyone needs to reverse diet. The concept should not cause undue panic. However, if you fall into one (or more) of the following categories, reverse dieting should be something you should consider.
1. You’ve been dieting (or crash dieting) on very low calories for a long time, and fat loss results are now stalling despite your best efforts.
2. No amount of further calorie cutting initiates a response from your body.
3. You train extremely hard, but your body fat levels remain unchanged or slightly increase, and you experience fatigue during the day.
4. You cannot eat at your maintenance calories without rapid weight gain.
5. You find your diet to be a constant mental battle, your motivation is low and your workouts feel like torture.
6. Bikini competitors or physique athletes in their off season, who battle with further muscle gain or fatigue.
To identify whether you fall into one of the above categories, there is a constant link that flows throughout: You have to understand where you are operating calorically. Macronutrient tracking becomes an essential key in helping to determine if you are in a perpetual state of negative energy balance (or simply put, you’ve been eating too little long term), and will enable the strategic execution of a successful reverse diet as calories are added back in according to a specific structure. It is extremely important to figure out if you have been eating below your maintenance calories or basal metabolic rate. In most of the cases I have dealt with, women in particular are more prone to under eat, well-below their basal metabolic rates, and whilst this may initially obtain impressive weight loss, weight regain is 95% guaranteed. The surprising frequency at which I find women operating on 1000-calorie meal plans is also of concern, which is why macronutrient tracking is so important. Any diet lower than 1200 calories for a female, and 1500 calories for a male, will inevitably initiate adverse side effects related to metabolic slow down, whether it be now, or in the future if the diet is followed long term.
Any dieting or weight loss professional who is aware of metabolic adaptation and reverse dieting will also be aware that the dieting process is not linear. To keep metabolic rate safe, active fat loss phases should be interlinked with brief periods of reverse dieting (metabolic up-regulation) to ensure the metabolism is preserved as far as possible (often termed the Zig-Zag method). Constantly operating in a caloric deficit unfortunately will wreak havoc hormonally and turn the body into a ticking time bomb for weight regain.
Reverse dieting has numerous benefits, apart from the obvious of getting to eat more. If you have been following a restrictive and rigid dietary scheme, a few extra calories could be that very relief you need that will allow the freedom of eating abundantly without fear of weight regain. Training in a deficit long term can and will wear you down, and allowing the psychological break of increased calories will help you obsess far less about food and minimize cravings as hormones begin to function optimally. Many who reverse diet begin to adopt a flexible nutrition approach, where specific macronutrient targets are met throughout the day according to personal preference, further adding to the “psychological break” needed from rigid eating structures. However, the approach taken is largely preferential, with the main objective being to increase calories. Getting out of an energy crisis also allows you to focus more energy on other areas of your life, as you’re no longer distracted by hunger pangs or fatigue. Suddenly, you’re able to have more energy to devote to your family, friends, dogs! Reverse dieting also enables one to escape from the obsessive “dieting” mindset, allowing you to stop waiting for the number on the scale to move with bated breath. The relief of being able to easily maintain your weight despite eating more is immense! And lastly, your performance with regard to training EXPLODES. You begin to train not just for fat loss, but for performance and the enjoyment of being active, with the welcomed side effect of muscle gain!
A Quick Guide on How to Reverse Diet:
When this is done correctly, reverse dieting could help “reset” your body, allow you to eat normally and live again without fear of weight regain. It is preferable to engage in resistance training throughout the reverse dieting process, as this makes the body more metabolically active.
Step One: Establish a starting point
Calculate your current caloric intake and establish starting macronutrient targets. To avoid increasing calories too fast, you need to know how many you are currently consuming to maintain your body weight. Track everything you eat for a period of 2 – 3 days, without changing your habits. For example, let’s say you’re able to maintain your weight on 1300 calories per day, so this will be your starting point to which you will add a small amount of calories to. I usually start with between 50-80 calorie increases, depending on client response.
Set your protein target for your level of activity, or in the case of a weight training female, at a minimum of 2.2 times your body weight in kilograms. Take your remaining calories and split them between carbohydrates and fat, with either a 40-60 or 60-40 ratio.
These form your starting macronutrient intakes i.e. calories, protein, carbohydrates and fat.
Step Two: How fast do I increase calories?
For this step, you have to ask yourself some questions. If you’re more concerned with increasing calories than gaining some body fat, or are trying to overcome binge-eating tendencies or are trying to gain muscle during the reverse diet, you most probably will increase your carbohydrate and fat intake fairly aggressively. However fast or slow you reverse diet is largely dependent on your goals and state of mind. Many clients I work with are more concerned with keeping their body fat levels as low as possible, which is why in most cases I personally initiate slow caloric increments. But each person is different. In the case of an active training female eating far below her total daily expended energy (TDEE), I would always suggest eating at those maintenance calories as fast as possible.
Step Three: How should I increase my carbohydrates & fat?
Your overall carbohydrate and fat intake should be increased according to your goals. Are you a bodybuilder or a power lifter, or are you an endurance runner? Different sporting endeavors have differing macronutrient ideals. In the example of a bodybuilder versus a marathon runner, bodybuilders will need slightly less carbohydrates and fat compared to marathon runners. Select your macronutrient splits according to your level of activity and exertion.
Step Four: Weigh yourself multiple times per week
I personally weigh myself between 2 – 4 times per week. It’s generally best to do so first thing in the morning before eating to prevent weight fluctuations. If you see a large jump on the scale over a one-week period, then cut back at the rate at that you’re adding calories. If you find you are maintaining your weight continue to increase both carbohydrates and fat. Some people may respond extremely well and find that they begin dropping weight in the process! I myself can now drop weight on a whopping 2000 calories!
Step Five: Reduce cardio and increase weight lifting
Lifting heavy weights is a good way to build muscle and increase your metabolism over the long run. Long sessions of steady state cardio should be avoided as this may actually interfere with anabolism (muscle gain).
Step 6: When you reach your caloric goal, stop and re-evaluate
Once you feel satisfied with the amount you’re eating, and don’t battle cravings or binge tendencies, stop there and re-evaluate. Ideally, maintain this higher caloric intake for a while. If you’re feeling good, stay here. If you’d like to begin losing weight again, your metabolism is in the ideal place to respond better, and you should be able to lose weight on a higher amount of calories compared to your previous failed attempts. This is where reverse dieting in application to physique athletes holds it’s merit – they are able to stay lean on a higher amount of calories if they wisely reverse diet in the off season and expand on their “metabolic capacity”. There are reported cases of athletes reverse dieting themselves so aggressively, that they are able to maintain their weight on up to a 40% surplus of their actual maintenance calories! I myself was able to maintain my weight comfortably on a whopping 2700 calories per day (which at 59kgs is quite a feat). But be smart about slashing calories, go extremely slow and ensure you lose weight on the maximal amount of calories as possible. I usually recommend starting at a 10% deficit or your “new maintenance” level.
Reverse dieting is a smart application and those who prioritize long-term results will definitely make use of this amazing tool. Take care of your metabolism, as there are numerous mechanistic responses it will initiate to try fight off aggressive long-term dieting approaches. Our bodies are intelligently designed, and it is always in your best interest to ensure you diet down wisely, as your metabolic health quite literally depends on it.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chennel Jagesur holds an honors degree in Applied Mathematics (cum laude), has a background in research (ERSA), and is qualified through the International Sports Science Association in Sports Nutrition. She battled obesity since the age of 8, until becoming a competitive road cyclist, runner, power lifter and competed in her first bodybuilding show in 2015. She now runs an online flexible nutrition consultancy called Fit Guru Consulting, and is a proud ambassador for Pure Nutrition.