Reverse dieting is a way of gradually increasing your food intake and maintaining your fat loss results. Bodybuilders and elite athletes initially used it, but as it promises that you can eat more food and stay slim, it rapidly became popular among dieters nowhere near sports. Check out how this “diet after diet” works, its pros and cons, and what results you can expect.
You understand how easy it was to lose weight when the time comes to finish your diet and maintain your new weight. It turns out that your hunger hormone has increased and that by going back to your previous eating habits, you start to gain pounds you’ve suffered to drop. This situation inevitably happens if you’ve opted for a highly restrictive diet instead of healthy eating in a slight calorie deficit.
People may cut calories drastically if they want to achieve fast results no matter what or if their slender physique is part of their life and job. Reverse dieting first appeared as a “smart way” for bodybuilders to maintain their fitness and low fat percentage during the off-season.
Sometimes, this eating pattern is referred to as the Layne Norton reverse diet, as it was first presented to the fitness community by this natural bodybuilder. Being a Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences, Lyane Norton tried to provide a scientific basis(1) to his theory though it is still actively criticized by the scientific community.
Today reverse dieting is popular not only among bodybuilders but also among “average” dieters, who’ve achieved their weight goals and suffer to maintain their results.
The reverse diet offers a gradual increase of calorie intake to boost metabolism and reverse the metabolic adaptation(2) that most dieters who’ve restricted their caloric intake face. It promises to increase energy level while maintaining the svelte physique and body composition of bodybuilders and all those who’ve ever tried to lose weight.
Metabolic adaptation(3) is our body’s response to severe cutting on calories. It is a kind of “starvation response,” the way how your body adapts to lower calorie intake and keeps you alive.
The thing is, food abundance is the blessing of only several decades, and the obesity epidemy is a problem of less than a century while fasting and hunger were real threats for thousands of years. The generations of fear of starvation have learned our bodies to adapt and preserve energy and fat whenever they can.
The most significant and noticeable effects of metabolic adaptation are constant tiredness when you’re on a calorie deficit and unwillingness to perform any kind of activity. This means that you find it harder to go to the gym and try to minimize your everyday physical activity.
Bodybuilders with the minimal body fat percentage often complain that they feel so tired that they don’t want to walk or talk several days or hours before the competition. They even blink less frequently as their bodies try to decrease their energy expenditures for the sake of survival.
Their non-exercise activity thermogenesis(4) drops significantly, which leads to lower levels of “calories out” in the calories in – calories out equation. What does it mean in vivo? That their bodies need less energy(5) to function and don’t use all the energy these people consume with food, trying to store something even if they’re on a 1,000 calories a day diet.
Another part of our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is food thermogenesis. Even though it takes only a small part of our daily calorie needs, some studies show that the thermic effect of food (TEF) also decreases when you consume less food. On the other hand, other surveys(6) state no significant difference in the TEF in pre-dieting and post-dieting subjects. In any case, when you follow a strict diet, you have slower digestion so that your body can get maximum calories from every bite you take.
Add here that your body needs less energy to keep going when you lose fat and become lighter. Your basal metabolic rate drops, and you burn fewer calories on everyday needs: your body temperature drops (that’s why you’re constantly cold), and you’re always tired. Of course, in this state of malnutrition, you’re also less likely to fulfill a whole high-intensity workout.
Unfortunately, this is only a mathematical part of what’s going on in your body when you’re on a massive calorie deficit. Your hormones(7) are also altered; namely, the level of your hunger hormone, ghrelin, increases, and the level of the satiety hormone, leptin(8), decreases. This leads to poststarvation hyperphagia(9), an unprecedented craving for food, and enormous hunger, and the question is not if it will happen but when.
One of the most frustrating things about all these changes is that they might stay with you even years after your drastic weight loss. Scientists have proven this phenomenon on the example(10) of the Biggest Loser competitors, who showed the traits of metabolic adaptation even six years after the show.
So, is there a way to reverse these changes and recover your pre-diet metabolic rate? The reverse diet successors claim that this is precisely what reverse dieting was designed for.
Fortunately, adaptive thermogenesis is also a thing. Studies(11) have shown that people gain less weight than expected according to the CICO equation because of adaptive thermogenesis. This means that when our body gets more energy than it needs, it tries to increase its TDEE.
You can see this effect on yourself. When you eat more food, you keep heat better, you sweat more during the night, and you’re more likely to perform intense or enduring exercises. You also have more chances to increase your NEAT by fidgeting when watching TV series or strolling during phone calls.
Layne Norton and other reverse dieting followers’ idea was that by gradually increasing your calorie intake, you could boost your metabolism while gaining minimum weight in the process. Unfortunately, no reliable scientific evidence proves that slow adding calories is better for metabolic rate and hormone level restoration than a simple, immediate reversion to your calorie maintenance level. With this disclaimer being made, let’s get deeper into the practical part of reverse dieting.
Some superficial popularizers of reverse dieting state that it is a kind of diet when you can eat more food and still lose weight. This might happen; however, there are numerous ”ifs.” Reverse dieting apologists state that only several groups of people will benefit from this eating system.
If you’ve been dieting for years or decades and can’t handle it anymore, if you start gaining weight rapidly when going back to your presumable maintenance level, or if you want to break the losing-binging-gaining cycle, reverse dieting might work for you.
Gradual increasing of calories week after week will help you maintain control over your eating and avoid binge-eating(12) episodes.
People who’ve been on a restrictive diet, have achieved their weight goal, and now want to introduce more food to their diets but maintain a lean physique will also find reverse dieting helpful.
Reverse dieting might work for those who want to lose weight but are already on a highly restrictive diet and can’t cut calories anymore.
Case studies provided by fitness trainers who apply reverse dieting techniques for their clients are probably the only documented type of results we can use. Some subjects state that they got from eating 1,200 to almost 3,000 calories and gaining no more than six pounds. Some state that they’ve doubled their calorie intake and have lost several percent of body fat. This is what most of us want, right?
However, their reverse dieting is always accompanied by lifting weights and physical exercises. We can presume that the extra calories those individuals consumed went on building new muscles. As lean mass requires more energy than fat tissue, it’s logical that the metabolic rate of these people has increased.
Some reverse diet followers state that this system can normalize hunger-satiety hormone levels. However, there is no scientific evidence that this normalization happens faster than in those who simply got back to their maintenance level all at once.
Case studies on reverse dieting show that sometimes people still lose weight during the first weeks of their reverse dieting. This happens if individuals were in a too-large calorie deficit and haven’t approximated their maintenance level yet. Losing weight on a reverse diet usually happens among bodybuilders and arouses criticism among nutritionists. After a strict diet, scientists state that individuals should be re-feed to optimize(13) their body functions as fast as possible rather than stay in a calorie deficit for another week or two.
Reverse dieting is all about calculating calories, gathering data, and analyzing information. Most followers would make a spreadsheet to keep all data about their diet in one place.
Before you start adding calories, it would be great to find out your new maintenance level. Online TDEE calculators might not be of great help here as they can’t know your personal metabolic adaptation level. To find out your new maintenance level, it’s helpful to track your food intake for a week or two to figure out how much food you can eat without losing or gaining weight.
When you know your new maintenance level, set a goal stating how many calories you want to eat at the end of your reverse diet.
Set a plan to see how long your journey will take you. For example, if at the moment you’re eating 1,500 calories and you want to raise this number by 2,500, you will need about two months by adding 100 calories every week to your initial maintenance level.
Keep in mind that the reverse diet process is as nonlinear as losing weight. Reverse dieting might take as much time as dieting itself, and what’s more, you will have to analyze your data all the time to make adjustments to your diet plan when needed.
As 100 calories is a small amount of food (a large boiled egg or a large apple), counting calories with the help of reliable calorie trackers is the best way you can control your portions. Use apps like the Unimeal app, which now has an integrated calorie tracker with an extensive database of foods.
Track your macros too. Even though reverse dieting is only about adding calories, remember that higher dietary protein intake is associated(14) with a lower body fat percentage. It helps preserve muscle(15), keeps you satiated for longer, and requires more energy to digest than carbs or fats.
To make sure that if you gain weight on reverse dieting, you gain lean muscle mass, opt for increased protein consumption. Studies(16) show that 2.4 to 3.4 g of protein per one kg of body weight is optimal for maintaining and building muscle. Remember that one gram of protein equals four calories; add them to your diet in the first place, and fill in the rest with fats and carbs according to your preferences.
Remember that photos show changes in your body composition better than scale. Track your energy level, hunger level, mood, sleep, etc., to consider all factors when analyzing your data.
Adjust your diet plan according to changes in your body. To do so, you have to weigh in regularly to see your average weekly weight and analyze changes to it. Also, if you’re a woman, remember that your weight is strongly linked to your menstrual cycle, and don’t let fluid storage on specific periods of the month demotivate you.
If you still lose weight on the first weeks of reverse dieting, add more calories to your meals, and if you start rapidly gaining weight on +200 calories per week, decrease them by 100 calories. Adjust your plan depending on how your body reacts to changes.
The main counterargument against reverse dieting is that there are no randomized controlled trials or other scientific evidence that reverse dieting is as efficient as less time-consuming options to get off the restrictive diet, normalize hormone levels, and boost metabolism.
Another huge downfall is that tracking calories and staying on low-calorie diets increases cortisol(17) levels, making you more anxious and sometimes fixed on counting calories. Unfortunately, meticulous control of your portions is the main principle of reverse dieting, and you won’t be able to follow it by eyeballing your food or using other methods like “the plate rule” or “the hand rule.”
If you want to increase your calorie intake drastically, chances are you will still gain some weight. Even though the body mass increase is much lower than the growth of metabolic rate and calorie intake, gaining back even a small amount of body weight might be frustrating for some people.
Even experts state that reverse dieting is not for everyone and might be challenging to follow.
If you manage to get through this diet, you might end up with a higher maintenance level, faster metabolism, eating more food, and staying lean. What’s more, there are more chances to maintain this weight and be content with your life when you’re eating 2,500 calories a day instead of 1,200.
Reverse dieting is a disputable topic with no reliable scientific evidence of its efficiency. However, many personal trainers provide case studies of their clients as a prove of reverse diet efficiency.
Reverse dieting is hard to follow, it takes a lot of time and might lead to fixation on calories, but it can also boost your metabolism and help you maintain a slender physique. The choice is yours!