Sometimes referred to as a diet ‘after your diet,’ reverse dieting is the process of increasing your food intake to a “normal” level again or a diet reverse. It is most prevalent among bodybuilders and athletes. These folks reverse diet in order to increase energy while maintaining their weight loss and body composition.1 Some claim it works and others suggest it is a waste of time. Let’s look at what we know.
Reverse Dieting 101
The name sort of gives away the notion of following a reverse diet is doing the opposite of dieting. You decreased your calorie intake to lose weight, but now you slowly increase it over time. This theoretically boosts your metabolism, providing more energy and the ability to actually burn more fat. Bodybuilders for example, often do it following a calorie-restricted diet to get back into a normal eating pattern, but without gaining extra weight. Many claim that it increases their energy levels, stifles hunger and can even help them overcome weight loss ‘plateaus.’
Reverse Dieting Without Gaining Weight
Usually, dieting involves cutting calories, sometimes dramatically. This forces your body to burn more fat, but also slows your metabolism. It’s a natural response as your body tries to hold on to more energy.2,3 But that’s a problem when you are ready to return to a ‘normal’ diet.
Imagine, you are eating 1200 calories per day and have now lost the 50lbs. you were shooting for. Suddenly you increase your intake to 2000 calories per day (more than a 50% jump), but your body is in ‘storage mode’ from dieting. Yep, now you start gaining it back and in short order!
Instead, you could do a reverse diet. This typically means upping your calories by 50-100 grams per week. So, if your diet had you eating 1200 calories daily, you increase to 1300, then 1400 and so on each week. This triggers your metabolism to pick up again because of more calories, but not so much that you it triggers a bunch of new fat storage. This might last for anywhere from 4-10 weeks.
As your metabolism increases, just doing everyday activities ends up burning more calories.4 So although you are now eating more, you’re still not using those calories for fat storage. You consume more but don’t gain weight. In fact, you might even lose more.
Plus, research suggests that a reverse diet can stabilize hormone levels in your blood. For instance, leptin controls your weight and appetite and increases with a higher metabolism.1,5 In fact, it has been shown that when you restrict calories, leptin levels drop. This increases your appetite while reducing calorie burning.6,7
Is There a Reverse Dieting – Weight Loss Connection?
While there isn’t any research I can point to in order to ‘prove’ that a reverse diet will help with weight loss, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence. In other words, lots of people have claimed that it worked for them. And really, with what we do know, it should. Increasing calories does increase your metabolism and maximize hormone levels and ‘normal’ leptin levels tends to result in easier weight loss.8,9,10
Many reverse dieters claim it also lowers their likelihood to binge eat. This can be a big problem for those on really low calorie diets. Can you blame them?
Thus, the whole idea of reverse dieting is to slowly get your body on a ‘regular’ diet, but without adding weight.11,12 Of course, there needs to be more scientific investigation into reverse dieting before we’ll know if it really works like people think it does.
More Positive Reverse Dieting Results
Like I mentioned, there isn’t a lot of research on the subject, but here’s what people are saying about their reverse dieting results :
You Get to Eat More
Obviously, if you are increasing your calories by the week, even just 50-100, that means more food. Think about restricting your calories for weeks or months. Then, you get to eat a little more each week without gaining weight. Is that a great reward or what? Plus, it allows you a larger variety of meals to choose from. After all, 100 calories is an extra 25 grams of carbs or protein or 12 grams of fat. That’s significant after a diet.
When you cut down your calories significantly, it can promote problems with your mood, concentration and energy level13 You might even have a nutritional deficiency from your diet as you are eating so much less than before.14 But by increasing your calories, slowly, you can better manage these problems. Soon, you’ll be back to the former, full calorie you.
It’s probably clear by now that hormones, like leptin, affect hunger. And of course, cutting calories affects hormones. On a reduced calorie diet, leptin goes down and leptin helps you feel full. On the other hand, ghrelin increases and it causes you to feel hungry.15 In fact, one study found that bodybuilders on an extreme diet prior to competition increased their ghrelin by more than 26%. At the same time, their leptin levels fell by about the same amount.16
By slowly adding calories over weeks, rather than instantly going back to a ‘normal’ calorie level, these hormones can balance more easily. This means you don’t gorge yourself while your body is in fat storage mode.
The Not-So-Good About Reverse Dieting
While reverse dieting may sound good, it is by no means a perfect system. Here are some reasons why:
It’s Just Plain Hard
It is difficult enough to diet for a long time although possible. You have to track your intake and worse, limit it. And even then, it can be a challenge to even track it correctly. To add to the challenge is trying to increase your calories each week, but by as little as 50 calories. That’s tough to do when tracking it in the first place is hard. People typically overestimate the calories in meals by as much as 259 calories.17
Doing a reverse diet means focusing on calories. But the truth is, losing weight involves many factors. Of course, calories is a big one, but by no means the only one. The food you eat, your metabolism, hunger and your appetite are obvious ones. But what about your sleep schedule, hormone levels, exercise, etc.? These play a part too.18,19,20 Of course, the upside is that the idea of following a reverse dieting plan is pretty simple, but it certainly does not take all factors into account.
Lack of Research
There was a time when there was no research to back up claims that omega 3’s were good for your heart. And yet, they were, even though no one knew it yet. Starting a reverse dieting plan, while not researched, could actually be effective, we just don’t know for certain yet. However, it may turn out to be just a good idea that doesn’t actually do what we though it would. Until there is more research, we can’t be sure. Nonetheless, there are lots of folks who claim they have seen great reverse dieting results.