Understanding Reverse Dieting

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Written by Stefan Ianev (Clean Health Research & Development Specialist)

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.

When should reverse diets be used?

Reverse dieting is a hot topic these days, and for the most part, this is not just another fad but an important topic that warrants all the hype.

With so many people going on crazy 8-week challenges and jumping from one diet to another, most end up gaining back all the weight they lost and sometimes even more. Others hit a plateau before they even reach their goal and end up getting stuck on 1100-1400 calories with nowhere to go.

This is where reverse dieting comes into play and it can be a very useful tool if used properly!

Metabolic compensation

There is no doubt that caloric restriction causes metabolic compensation. The degree of compensation depends on the magnitude and duration of the deficit as well as a person’s metabolic type.

The longer and harder someone has dieted and the more efficient someone’s metabolism is, the greater the metabolic compensation will be (1). Metabolic efficiency is at least in part genetically inherited but may also be affected by a person’s diet history.

For example, many people with a history of chronic dieting struggle to maintain their weight at a caloric intake well below their predicted maintenance. With repeated bouts of ‘yoyo-dieting’, their metabolism has adapted to a much lower set point.

When you are operating at a lower setpoint, it becomes much harder to lose weight and much easier to put on weight. In fact, some studies have shown that resting metabolic rate can be reduced by almost 50% from 6 months of competition preparation, and that adaptation persisted for more than 13 weeks post-competition after the competitor had gained all the weight back. (2)

Other studies in very overweight individuals have shown that the metabolic adaptations in response to very severe caloric restriction can persist for years after they had gained all the weight back or sometimes even more. (3)

Reverse dieting isn’t easy

For that reason and before we proceed, I want to caution that reverse dieting is not a ‘get-out-of-jail-free-card’. Many people falsely believe that they can crash diet to their goal then they can just reverse diet their way out if it.

In reality, reverse dieting can be a long and tedious endeavour and is oftentimes much harder to adhere to than the diet itself. That’s because it’s easy to be motivated when you have your eyes on the prize and you need to buckle down hard only for a short period.

But once a person reaches their goal and that ‘carrot’ is no longer dangling in-front of them, and they are tired, hungry and miserable, its very easy to slip back into old eating habits and gain all the weight back because they never developed sensible and sustainable eating habits in the first place.

Even some of the most dedicated individuals that I’ve coached have struggled with reverse dieting after a long period of dieting.

In fact, reverse dieting is generally much more successful for those people that have not yet reached their goal but have plateaued on very few calories. These individuals are generally motivated enough to sustain their reverse diet, so they can go back to dieting and drop the remaining weight.

Are you looking to learn trialled, tested and evidence-based nutrition and training methodologies to coach comp prep for both male and female physique athletes in bikini, fitness, physique, figure, and bodybuilding? Click here to enrol into Dr Layne Norton’s Training the Physique Athlete online course now & SAVE!

References

  1. Schwartz A and Doucet E. (2010) Relative changes in resting energy expenditure during weight loss: a systematic review. Obesity Reviews 11(7): 531-547.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. Schwartz A and Doucet E. (2010) Relative changes in resting energy expenditure during weight loss: a systematic review. Obesity Reviews 11(7): 531-547.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

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