Five Questions About Reverse Dieting

Q: What, in layman’s terms, is reverse dieting and how does it work?

A: The easiest way to explain reverse dieting is it’s the opposite of fat loss dieting. Reverse dieting is slowly adding calories back in after a period of fat loss. Most diets fail because they produce results, but they do not teach a client or end user how to sustain the results.

They will take someone down to 1200 kcals (calories) per day and help them lose weight, but then the program ends and the user can’t sustain eating 1200 calories for the rest of their life. So what happens? They end up over consuming on calories, binging, and gaining weight back very rapidly. Reverse dieting allows for a gradual increase in calories to achieve a healthy level of maintenance calories so a client can sustain their results in the long run.

Q: Have their been any scientific studies to reinforce and support reverse dieting?

A: Reverse dieting is not something the medical community is concerned with so there isn’t much funding behind studying it. There are definitely studies that show the negative effects of long term calorie deficits, but as the research publication here shows, reverse dieting is more anecdotal than 100% proven factual at this time. It needs to be studied more in a controlled setting. Will that ever happen? Who knows. But for those of us who live in the real world application of nutrition coaching, we know of the benefits of reverse dieting and we have proven it time and time again with real world case studies for our clients.

Q: How damaging can calorie restrictive diets be?

A: An acute (short term) calorie deficit is fine and very beneficial for fat loss. Where most people get into trouble is they pursue these very low calorie diets (1000 kcals or less per day) and they do this for months or even years without ever coming out of the calorie deficit.

Our bodies are built for survival. When you place your body in a stressful state of being constantly undernourished, and most people combine it with intense frequent exercise, it will fight back. How? By creating metabolic adaptations. What are metabolic adaptations? A collective group of symptoms such as a decrease in basal metabolism (the amount of calories it takes for you to sustain life), suppression in your fat burning hormones such as leptin, decreased sex hormone production such as testosterone, and an increase in stress hormones like cortisol.

Not to mention all the negative psychological implications a long term restrictive diet has such as exhaustion, feelings of deprivation, guilt, restriction, etc.

Q: Have you or your clients experienced success with reverse dieting?

A:  Yes! I personally have gone through this cycle multiple times after competing in men’s physique competitions or after a general fat loss phase. Also, I have document several cases of my coaching clients (https://tonystephandietitian.com) where a reverse diet has helped a client achieve their fat loss and aesthetic goals after a calorie deficit stopped producing results. If you have spent several months in a calorie deficit and your body is not responding, that is an ideal time to consider a reverse diet.

One of my favorite examples is my client BK. She is a strength and power lifting athlete who came to me eating around 1000 kcals per day and could not lose weight. She was training hard, and eating healthy foods, but beyond frustrated with trying to figure out why here body wasn’t responding. So, we slowly and methodically increased her calories over the next nine months.

She got stronger, slept better, and felt more energized during the day. Then, after we built her intake up to a healthy level of maintenance and the results were phenomenal. She was 174# on the left eating around 1000 kcals per day. We ended up at 162# on the right with significantly less body fat, and she was eating around 1940 kcals per day. Beyond the aesthetic changes she continued to feel more energized and stronger than ever before.

Q: Who would you recommend reverse dieting to?

A: That’s a great question. It’s a very case by case basis but I would say the universal sign would be someone who has spent an extended period of time doing low calorie dieting, and your body has stopped responding.

Another example is someone who has yo-yo dieted a lot in their past. For example someone who has a history of going on low calorie diets, losing weight, and then gaining it back very rapidly after the diet concludes. This can have negative implications on your metabolism and may warrant a reverse diet to help you produce fat loss again.

Also, someone who has gone through a successful fat loss protocol and now wants to increase their calories to a healthy maintenance level would benefit from a reverse diet.

There isn’t a text book answer that exist here. So, working with a qualified nutrition professional to assess your current need state and have them review and assess your past metabolic history to prescribe an effective protocol designed for you is a must!