How many times have you gone on a diet just to gain all the weight back as soon as you go off of it? There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’ve destroyed all of your hard work once you resume normal eating habits. Reverse dieting is used in the fitness industry as a common approach to maintaining results after a hard cut. But is it the answer after dieting?
Here is what the research says, how to tell if reverse dieting is right for you, and how to go about it.
What is Reverse Dieting?
Reverse dieting is the act of slowly increasing your food intake after a calorie-restricted diet to promote long-term weight maintenance. In other words, it is the act of resuming more of your normal eating habits after a cut, without gaining all the weight back.
Why Do People Regain Weight After a Diet?
The thing is, you can't just resume old eating habits after a diet and understanding why requires you to understand how weight loss works.
In order to maintain a certain weight, you must eat the exact amount of calories needed to fuel that body size each day. To lose weight, you need to eat less, and to gain weight you need to eat more.
Based on this basic science, in order to maintain a lower body weight, you will just need to eat fewer calories forever. Yes, this is the deal you signed up for.
So, Why Would You Need to Do a Reverse Diet?
Well, there's a catch... sort of! There are a couple of factors that can impact calorie needs after fat loss.
- How drastic was your calorie deficit while dieting?
- How much muscle mass did you gain or maintain while dieting?
Many calorie-reduced diets or cuts can enable you to restrict calories lower than what is actually needed to maintain a lower weight - this is so that you keep losing weight and get results. And cutting calories very low (more than a 20% decrease from your maintenance calories) for long periods of time can potentially slow your metabolism... temporarily!
Through a process referred to as metabolic adaption, your body can compensate for decreased calories by slowing your metabolism down as much as 30% (1,2,3,4,5). But the effects of this phenomenon are typically short term, are not a drastic decrease for everyone, and does not indicate a damaged metabolism (6).
Regardless, a slowed metabolism can make it a challenge for some people to adjust to a maintenance diet if they need to increase their calories to feel satisfied and stop the weight loss process. And in some cases, adding calories too quickly can cause weight regain.
The other factor to consider is muscle mass. It is possible to lose body fat and weight overall, and still increase your daily energy needs if you build muscle. This is because, muscle weight, in particular, has a significant impact on your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), more so than overall weight. Yes, you heard that correctly: having more muscle mass means you have a higher resting metabolic rate and can eat more food without gaining weight.
Although hard to achieve, gaining muscle mass in a calorie deficit is possible for some people, especially if they begin strength training and eat a higher protein diet (7).
In both of the scenarios mentioned above, reverse dieting may be warranted. But for those who have lost weight slowly, or through a long cut, it might not be.
What Are the Benefits of Reverse Dieting?
There isn't much research looking at reverse diets and their potential benefits, but there are a few things we can assume based on what we know about calorie control and weight loss in general. Low-calorie diets are associated with a slowed-metabolism, and increasing your intake to more sustainable levels can help reduce some of the effects associated with adaptive thermogenesis. Some of these benefits include:
You Get to Eat More
More calories typically means more food! As long as you maintain calorie control long-term and stay at or below your maintenance needs, reverse dieting can mean eating more food for some. This can be a major positive for those who enjoy eating - which is almost everyone!
Reduced Hunger and Fatigue
Restricting calories to low levels can mess with hunger-regulating hormones, causing you to crave sweets, feel hungry all the time, or feel just plain cranky. Feeding your body properly can help improve overall energy levels and keep your appetite in check. Proper nutrition is also associated with reduced unhealthy food cravings, improved mood, and better well-being overall (8,9,10).
What are the Drawbacks of Reverse Dieting?
Of course, it is entirely possible to go about reverse dieting the wrong way and end up doing more harm to your progress than you intended. There isn't really a standard procedure for increasing calories, and for many, the process might not even be necessary. In addition, focusing solely on calorie control has limitations for long-term success. Here are the possible disadvantages of reverse dieting:
Can Still Lead to Fat Gain
If you are using reverse dieting to try and increase your calories without knowing your maintenance calorie needs, it is entirely possible to scale your calories too high and gain weight.
There are also changes in body water weight to consider that can be hard to distinguish for the average person. For example, if you cut a majority of carbohydrates during your diet, and then add them back in later, you are likely going to start storing some additional water weight. This is not the same as fat gain and can be unsettling for those that don't know the difference.
Only Focuses on Calories
While calorie control is the end-all-be-all for maintaining weight, it's not the only thing to consider when living a long, healthy life. It is also important to learn how proper nutrition and “treat” foods fit into a long-term approach. A balanced approach that includes nutritious foods with the occasional splurge is a true maintenance diet.
Moreover, just counting calories doesn't allow you to be in tune with your body and what it needs. Learning to eat more mindfully, fuel your body for daily performance, and get to know what makes you feel good from the inside out is key to long-term adherence and happiness on any diet.
Bottom line, there really isn't any research on reverse dieting. So we don't know much about whether or not it is truly an effective approach, or if it is necessary at all.
Do You Need to Do a Reverse Diet After Weight Loss?
Still not sure if reverse dieting is a good fit for you?
You might want to consider reverse dieting if:
- You have been restricting calories to less than 80% of your current TDEE (based on your new weight).
- You have gained muscle mass and train regularly.
- You do best with a structured approach to healthy eating.
Even if you fall into one or all of these categories, there is no outstanding reason why it is necessary. In the end, it depends on personal preference and what you feel comfortable with.
After being on a regimen for some time, a continued plan or goal to work towards can help keep some people on track, versus jumping back into a “normal” style of eating for them. If you feel like you have a hard time sticking to a diet in the first place, adding treat foods and calories back in slowly might make more sense for you.
But if you understand your new calorie needs and feel like you’ve mastered a sustainable approach to maintenance already, go for it!
How to Do a Successful Reverse Diet
If you're thinking you want to take a stab at reverse dieting, here is where to focus your energy to help you be more successful with maintaining your results for good this time!
Step 1 - Figure Out How Many Calories You need a Day
You can easily estimate the number of calories you need to maintain based on your new weight and activity level, but the most accurate way to capture this information is through a body composition test. If you are able to identify exactly how much muscle mass you have, you can get a better understanding of your resting metabolic rate (RMR) and daily calorie needs moving forward.
Consider getting a body composition test done. Or use a simple TDEE calculator to estimate how many calories you need.
Step 2 - Increase Your Calories in Small Increments
Once you know how much you can potentially eat and still maintain your weight, you can start increasing your intake over time to match it. For example, if you are currently eating 1500 calories a day but can actually eat 2000 calories a day and maintain your new weight, you can add ~100 calories or so at a time.
Start by increasing your intake by 5 to 10% and stick to this amount for two to three weeks. Then continue to increase your intake and repeat the process until you reach your maintenance amount.
- 1500 + 10% increase (150 calories) = 1650 calories a day
Step 3 - Track Your Daily Intake
Use a food tracking app to estimate how many calories you consume each day from food and beverages. This will help you get a handle on how well you are sticking to your new daily calorie needs. And since reverse dieting typically involves small incremental increases in intake, 100 to 200 calories at a time, it is crucial that you are as accurate as possible in your tracking. Use a food scale or measuring cups and be as precise as you can.
Step 4 - Stick to Your Maintenance Calorie Needs
The final step is weight maintenance. In order to keep your results, you have to commit to keeping some or all of the healthy habits you built over the course of your diet. Continue to choose healthier food options, exercise regularly, and pay attention to how much you consume on a consistent basis.
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