By Stefan Ianev
What exactly is reverse dieting?
Reverse dieting is basically when you have a slow and gradual increase in calories to ensure that you do not overwhelm your impaired metabolic capacity and gain back a lot of weight.
When the body experiences a slow and gradual increase in calories over time it gives the metabolism a chance to adapt to the increased caloric intake.
Just like it takes time for the metabolism to adapt downward, it also takes time to adapt upward. In fact, for most people, it takes longer for the metabolism to adapt upwards unless they have a very inefficient metabolism.
If you increase calories too drastically, the body will more likely store those extra calories as body fat, to defend against another bout of famine, because it doesn’t know when ample food will be available again.
If the increase in calories is more prolonged and gradual the body is less likely to experience a “rebound” or “slingshot” effect.
How does reverse dieting work?
Typically, the longer someone has been in a deficit and the more aggressive the deficit, the more conservative they need to be when reverse dieting. Generally, you wouldn’t increase more than 10% of total calories at a time. Many coaches also prefer increasing calories fortnightly as opposed to weekly, as it gives the metabolism a bit of extra time to adapt to the increased caloric intake.
Depending on how low a person’s caloric intake has been will determine roughly how long it will take to bring them within their predicted maintenance. On average it takes about 6-8 weeks. Generally, you wouldn’t push someone too far beyond their predicted maintenance, even if they are not gaining any body fat.
If someone is not gaining body fat whilst above their predicted maintenance, that usually corresponds to a transient increase in metabolic rate from acute overfeeding. Most of it is just excess energy being dissipated as heat. It has no long-term effect on increasing their metabolic set point.
The next steps:
Once you have someone at their predicted maintenance, ideally you want to keep them there for a couple of weeks at least, for the metabolic reset to take place. Unfortunately, there are some people, usually those with a history of chronic dieting where a couple of weeks at maintenance may not be enough to prevent them from having to diet on very low calories in the future.
I’ve worked with plenty of clients where we successfully reverse dieted them, then had to drop them almost to their starting point to get them losing again because the metabolic reset didn’t hold. They had been on such low calories for so long that the required caloric threshold for weight loss was still very low.
That’s may have something to do with activating the body’s ‘self-defence system’ in response to repeated bouts of dieting, which can make you more resistant to weight loss in the future. That’s why I mentioned earlier that reverse dieting is not a ‘get-out-of-jail-free-card’.
Reverse dieting is a useful exit strategy for combating the metabolic adaptations in response to dieting and preventing unwanted weight regain. However, the more calories you can effectively diet on, and the more sustainable dietary habits you are able to develop in the process, the less likely you are to experience severe and prolonged metabolic adaptations, and the more likely you are to maintain the weight loss.
Read PART 1 of this blog series HERE!
Yours in health,
Clean Health Fitness Institute
- Schwartz A and Doucet E. (2010) Relative changes in resting energy expenditure during weight loss: a systematic review. Obesity Reviews 11(7): 531-547.
- Rossow, Lindy & Fukuda, David & Fahs, Chris & P Loenneke, Jeremy & Stout, Jeffrey. (2013). Natural Bodybuilding Competition Preparation and Recovery: A 12-Month Case Study. International journal of sports physiology and performance. 8. 582-92. 10.1123/ijspp.8.5.582.
- Fothergill E, Guo J, Howard L, et al. Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016;24(8):1612–1619. doi:10.1002/oby.21538