Podcast Episode 22 Transcript – Thoughts On Reverse Dieting

The Ideal Nutrition Podcast

Leah

00:00:08 – 00:00:37

Welcome to the Ideal Nutrition podcast, this is episode 22, I am Leah Higl, and I am here with my co-host, Aidan Muir. Today, we are tackling the topic of reverse dieting. So, this is definitely a rabbit hole that we’ve both gone down and something that is very much a part of the bodybuilding prep world but just, like, the online fitness community in general. So, do you want to kick us off with your thoughts? 

Aidan

00:00:37 – 00:01:16

Yeah, yeah, so let’s start with, like, what is reverse dieting? So basically, the concept of—I don’t want to steal the thunder of, like, how to do it and everything like that but it’s, like, slowly—at the end of a diet slowly increasing your calories, and there’s a lot of reasons why people do that in terms of like—maybe they’re thinking about it increasing their metabolism. It is a lot of things. That’s how it used to be sold on, um, Bodybuilding.com. A lot of people were talking about, like, you reverse diet, and say you were in a 500-calorie deficit at the end of your diet, and theoretically you add 500 calories, you’re at maintenance calories based on that mathematics, but they’d find that they could add, like, slowly over time 1000 calories and people would still be at maintenance. 

Aidan

00:01:16 – 00:01:45

And even in terms of, like, a lot of coaches would do that being like this person was tracking calories before they saw me, and they were on 1100 and not losing any weight, and then we slowly reversed dieted, and now they’re on 2200 and, like, all those kinds of things. So, it’s like—there’s a lot of hype around it has actually died down quite a lot recently, but it’s still around mostly in the bodybuilding world. And touching on one thing before we take it any further is I want to highlight that there’s a difference between a reverse diet and what is called a recovery diet. So, I think the term recovery diet has only been coined in the last five years or so. I could be wrong on that, 

Aidan

00:01:46 – 00:02:24

But, like, they used to be kind of under the same umbrella but a recovery diet is what people do post-bodybuilding show. We know when you’re that lean you probably don’t want to be that lean long term for health reasons. There are heaps of negative health associations alongside that. Plus, there’s a lot of obsessions with food, all these kinds of things, due to that physiological state where the body wants more calories. Um, so a recovery diet would involve jumping at least to maintenance but ideally higher intentionally gaining body fat but doing it in a bit of a controlled way, whereas, like, reverse dieting, depending on how you look at it, could involve—you’re in a deficit all the way up to show day apart from, like, peaking and all those kinds of things. 

Aidan

00:02:25 – 00:02:44

And then you’re still on a deficit and then you add 100 calories and then you add—or so on and do that, like, week after week. You slowly add calories but you still want—it wouldn’t make sense to do that post bodybuilding show. So different concepts there but for the average person who is just getting kind of lean or just trying to get leaner reverse dieting, where you slowly introduce calories, could be a more viable kind of option. 

Leah

00:02:44 – 00:03:17

Yes, so reverse dieting, it really is—realistically is when you are putting, you know, your calories up 50 to 100 calories per week on top of your deficit until you hit maintenance calories and your weight is maintained. Um, I guess the argument comes with the fact that some people would say that by reverse dieting, you can get to a higher level of maintenance calories than jumping straight to maintenance or they’d be, uh, you know, you would put on less body fat in that in doing so, um, and we’ll definitely go over all of that.  

Leah

00:03:17 – 00:03:34

But it’s—it’s those magical results that are kind of discussed online in terms of like, oh you’ve got to do your reverse diet because, you know, you won’t gain any fat and you’ll be able to be on 3000 calories a day and that would be your maintenance. Um, what are your thoughts on those kinds of claims? 

Aidan

00:03:34 – 00:04:12

Yeah. So, with a few things, like, the metabolic adaptation and stuff like that, we can talk about that in a second but, like, in terms of the claims, I find really interesting because, like, I used to see these things and be like why doesn’t somebody put a study together and just show that this works? And, like, I’d never understand the mechanisms and stuff like that. Well, we don’t need a study to show it but, like, in terms of the claims, the claims are always going to be better than what a study would show for a few reasons. Something that we’re aware of is that—it sucks—but people under report calorie intake on average. So, there is one study that I often point to in terms of 24-hour recall people are saying what they ate yesterday, 

Aidan

00:04:12 – 00:04:35

47% under-reported in terms of calories on average and that’s in people who were self-identified as diet resistance as in they struggled to lose weight on 1200 calories was what the criteria was to be included. 47% under reporting is a lot, and the researchers who asked were very well trained they did all the right things in asking. Um, the furthest under—can you guess what the furthest under somebody was in their reporting? 

Leah

00:04:36 – 00:04:37

Like under reporting? 

Aidan

00:04:37 – 00:04:38

Yeah, what would you guess? 

Leah

00:04:38 – 00:04:40

In terms of calories?

Aidan

00:04:40 – 00:04:41

Yeah, what percentage under? 

Leah

00:04:41 – 00:04:43

Oh percentage, I don’t know, 50%? 

Aidan

00:04:43 – 00:04:45

80%. 

Leah

00:04:45 – 00:04:45

That’s insane. 

Aidan

00:04:45 – 00:05:05

Somebody was 80% under in that one study and obviously this is replicated in other research, but, like, 80% that—that really stands out to me because it’s like—whenever you’re speaking to a friend and they’re like, I’m 1800 calories, I’m not losing weight. We—we probably should—I don’t want to say make an assumption but, like, at least factor in the possibility—

Leah

00:05:06 – 00:05:06

That they’re under reporting. 

Aidan

00:05:06 – 00:05:51

That they’re under-reporting particularly considering the average of that was 47% under somebody was 80% under, and the number that stands out to me most, which is the most relevant for this conversation, is that nobody was within 20%. Every single person in that one study which wasn’t massive had 67 people in it, um, everybody was 20% or more under. Every single person which therefore means any conversation you have with a friend who’s struggling with weight loss or whatever; you probably should make the assumption there that there’s some level of under reporting. That doesn’t make people liars. Some people lie, not everybody. There’s a lot of honest people in this world. What it does mean, though, is people struggle communicating with what they do. There’s another study that was done on dietitians in America who had to self-report their intake from the day before, 

Aidan

00:05:51 – 00:06:18

And on average they were significantly under as well. They care about nutrition. There’s knowledge and whatever. They’re probably trying to be honest because they understand the process but we struggle to communicate, and one of the things I want to use as an example in terms of conversations that I would have with clients. If I’m asking somebody what they eat, the conversation’s probably not going to lead to oh I have a slice of cake once a month at a birthday party, like, that’s not going to be included because we’ll be there all day. You forget those things. All those kinds of things. But their calories, like— 

Leah

00:06:18 – 00:06:19


They’re there. 

Aidan

00:06:19 – 00:06:28

Yeah, they’re there, um, so that’s something to think about with all these—all these case studies, because it’s, like—and it also makes the assumption that somebody was tracking their calories well before. 

Leah

00:06:28 – 00:06:29

Definitely. 

Aidan

00:06:29 – 00:06:52

In a lot of cases, they aren’t. There’s one case study—if you Google reverse dieting on the first page there’s one case that comes up, um, where somebody was a binge eater, and they were reporting to their coach that they’re on 1200 calories and in the—in the article it says that they’re a binge eater and then they talk about how they get the calories up to, like, over 2000 while getting leaner or something like that, but it’s like—that 1200, or whatever it was at the start, didn’t include the binge eating. 

Leah

00:06:52 – 00:06:54

It’s not reflective of their actual intake. 

Aidan

00:06:54 – 00:07:09

Yeah, it’s just reflective of their—what they were aiming for, all those kinds of things, and with the lack of accuracy on tracking because MyFitnessPal data shows people under report by 20% on average as well, like, on their own that only they see. 

Leah

00:07:09 – 00:07:18

Yeah, like, even myself, like, I know when I’m in a calorie deficit and I’m tracking by, like, MyFitnessPal, I give myself slightly less calories in the fact that I know I’m probably going to miss things.

Aidan

00:07:18 – 00:07:19

Yeah. 

Leah

00:07:19 – 00:07:26

That’s me as a dietician who thinks—I think I’m pretty good at tracking calories but I’d still even assume that I under report. 

Aidan

00:07:26 – 00:07:56

Yeah, yeah, exactly and, like, it’s not a lack of effort thing. It’s just—it’s just what happens. So, I find that really, really interesting in terms of like—if we’re looking at these magical case studies, we probably need to factor that in, um, it’s something to think about, and, like, I still see coaches and stuff like that talking about this very regularly with all of their clients. It’s a really good marketing tool and—I’m not even anti reverse dieting, like, I actually—we’re gonna talk about that later, like—but it’s, like, the way it is often marketed it’s too good to be true basically.

Leah

00:07:56 – 00:08:06

It’s too good to be true and it definitely is. There are definitely no magical results that happen from a reverse dieting as opposed to jumping to maintenance post diet. 

Aidan

00:08:07 – 00:08:17

Yeah. So, let’s talk about what are benefits for it? Why—why would—we—we actually spoke of this off air. Leah doesn’t—you haven’t done this with anyone, have you? 

Leah

00:08:17 – 00:08:20

I’ve never found a situation where I’m like this—this could be a good thing yeah.

Aidan

00:08:20 – 00:08:29

Yeah, so I have done it with some people before—before I say my piece, like, what situation could you envision it being a useful tool? 

Leah

00:08:29 – 00:08:58

The only time I would use this is probably if someone is really worried about changes in body fat whilst—or, like, body weight in general, in returning from a diet phase to maintenance. Um, if that person has a lot of anxiety around gaining body fat about it suddenly increasing their calorie intake. I think for them, you know, a reverse diet could make more sense as opposed to jumping straight to maintenance or a surplus or whatever it might be. 

Aidan

00:08:58 – 00:09:34

Yeah, and that’s exactly the situation I’ve used it with my clients. Um, on a different topic but I saw somebody on Instagram ripping on reverse dieting and being like, you don’t have to reverse diet if your coach is making you do this you need a new coach because you can just jump straight to maintenance calories, and, like, I—I disagree with that because I’m like there is—there is situations where it can be beneficial or, like, even if it’s not the most optimal route it’s still an okay route, and there’s still—there’s different tools in the toolkit so to speak. But, like, the situation you point out, that’s actually when I use it. I do have clients in that position particularly because I do diet breaks with a lot of clients so we see this problem on the way down, 

Aidan 

00:09:34 – 00:10:14

In terms of, if I work with somebody on a relatively long journey and we do multiple diet breaks on the way down and every single time they do a diet break they start stressing about their weight going up. Outside of that, it actually does undo metabolic adaptation, so we know that if you’re on low calories for an extended period of time some form of metabolic adaptation, in terms of your total daily energy expenditure, decreasing over time, is likely to occur. So, if you slowly raise your calories back, it will undo metabolic adaptation. The disadvantaged so to speak is could just go to maintenance calories. There’s no reason to slow down the process. You could just go back, and we’ll talk about that later but, like, you can just go to maintenance calories there’s no reason not to. 

Aidan

00:10:15 – 00:10:56

From a positive perspective, though, it provides a way to transition back to higher calories in a controlled fashion, like, it is a struggle to go from dieting to not dieting. It is a struggle to go from thinking about foods in a way of like I need to restrict my calories to I need to add more calories to get back up to maintenance without taking it too far, and I also often talk about hunger and stuff like that, being like if you’re in a calorie deficit for a long period of time your hunger is typically increasing, and if you went straight to maintenance calories, you’re at this time where you are your most hungriest, you feel your most restricted, 

Aidan

00:10:56 – 00:11:23

And now you’ve got free reign to eat more calories to a certain degree, and obviously, there are way better ways to do it but, like, that’s something to think about that reverse dieting can solve that problem because you’re slowly and systematically increasing your calories over time slowly unravelling all of that restriction and hunger and all those things. Although, you could make the argument at the other end of the spectrum that prolongs all of those things too, because you’re still in a deficit. You’re still in a deficit at the start of it, and that’s probably making you hungry. It’s probably making you more restricted and all these kinds of things. 

Aidan

00:11:24 – 00:12:00

And yeah, I—I don’t wanna go too much into the disadvantages but it also goes against one of my time frames where it’s like—well I don’t like people being in a deficit for more than, say, 12 weeks out of certain exceptions. Reverse dieting could turn a 12-week diet into a 17-week diet so that’s another thing. It’s like—that’s a longer time to feel that level of restriction, um, and once again not necessarily a benefit but something that is also relevant is, because you’re still in a deficit you actually get a little bit leaner for the first couple of weeks of reverse dieting. You’re still in the process of getting leaner which can be a good thing for some people which also ties back into the people who freak out about their weight spiking and stuff like that. 

Aidan

00:12:00 – 00:12:27

Like, they’re still getting leaner for the first couple of weeks before they end up on higher calories, and—interesting—like, we don’t really like arbitrary goals, but, like, what if somebody had an arbitrary goal of below 80 kg, as an example, and you ended the diet at 80 or 79.5 or something like that. The moment you add calories you go above that whereas that person who’s really caring about the arbitrary goal, if they—if they reverse diet they probably wouldn’t go back above that number. So that’s—those are some potential benefits. 

Leah

00:12:28 – 00:13:12

That’s a good point because I tend to always—if people do have that kind of arbitrary goal and, like, oh you know, we could always just aim for a kilo or two less than that because you are going to gain, you know, an initial amount of, like, um, body weight from going back to maintenance. So that could solve it but, you know, doing it in this controlled way if it makes sense for you, and, um, it could be a way of transitioning back to a normal maintenance calorie intake. I think where it really shines is the fact that, you know, if you have someone that struggles with transitioning from a diet mentality to, uh, I’m going to eat everything in front of me mentality, it can make sense for those people just slowly move away from that, um, dieting phase rather than going, like, straight to it.

Aidan

00:13:12 – 00:13:18

Yeah, for sure. We’ve touched on a bit, like, disadvantages. Why—why—why don’t you use it? 

Leah

00:13:19 – 00:13:32

Just a lot of the time it just doesn’t seem necessary for a lot of my clients, like, they’ve reached their goal. It’s not an arbitrary thing. They don’t care if they put on an extra kilo or two of, kind of, carb weight or water weight—stuff that doesn’t matter.

Aidan

00:13:30 – 00:13:32

Yeah, stuff that doesn’t matter.

Leah

00:13:32 – 00:13:53

Yeah, um, and look, they’re just ready to get back to their normal lives after hitting their goal. That’s what I find is most common with my clients. Sure, if there’s an occasional person that’s like either I want to get a little bit leaner or, you know, I’m scared about increasing my intake makes sense to those people. I just—disadvantage wise it just prolongs that process that’s the main thing. 

Aidan

00:13:53 – 00:14:39

Yeah, and another disadvantage I just thought of is I don’t have all my clients track macros. I don’t actually—I actually—only, like, 10%—10% of them, like, I do have structured plans and stuff like that but, like, I don’t have them track macros. Reverse dieting—particularly when you’re talking about that level of precision of adding, like, 50 calories per day which is not how I’d actually approach it, like, 50 to 100 calories per day or each week or whatever, um, that’s very precise, and it requires tracking macros. By definition, this actually leaves it to the more kind of niche community of people who not only track macros but track it almost every day, if not every day, for weeks on end which is something interesting to think about, and for, like, what I’d call gen pop people, like, that I work with in those circumstances as well. 

Aidan

00:14:40 – 00:15:06

That would once again turn it into a long process of tracking macros which is fine, and I’m pretty pro-tracking macros to the right people and stuff like that, but eventually if you are tracking macros, I think for the general population, like, you probably don’t want to be tracking macros all the time. Heck, even athletes, like, I ask this question a lot and there is exceptions to this but, like, just as a question for you, Leah, like, can you name any athletes? Can you think of any athletes, top level athletes, who track calories and macros? 

Leah

00:15:07 – 00:15:09

I don’t know of any. 

Aidan

00:15:09 – 00:15:45

Yeah, the fact that like—and they do exist, like, I want to get that out there and I’ve seen a few, like, I saw a few using Carbon Diet Coach, for example, like, the app for that. So, like, I know that they exist but the fact that it’s so hard to even answer that question. It’s like—even elite athletes don’t do it, so, like, do we really want somebody tracking calories and macros for 20 weeks if they don’t even necessarily care about performance or optimising and all those kinds of things? Like, once again I’m okay with that. I’m good for it for reaching a goal and stuff like that, but if you’re using that approach you probably should transition away from it at some stage, because if you’re just a general person you probably don’t want to have to track macros while maintaining your weight,

Aidan

00:15:45 – 00:16:25

Which ideally you would want to do very long term. You don’t wanna be tracking macros forever for most people, yeah, and, like, another way I think about it is, like, I obviously care about nutrition more than my clients, and, like, when I first got into nutrition, I probably tracked my macros most days for about eight months and ever since then I’ve never tracked it for more than a couple of months maximum, and it’s more during, like, phases of body composition change and stuff like that, and there is people who I have worked with who have tracked calories every day for a year, and that’s always an interesting thing for me particularly when they’re not making great progress or anything like that, and they’re not in a phase of trying to make great progress. 

Leah

00:16:25 – 00:16:27

If they’re just maintaining their weight and tracking. 

Aidan

00:16:28 – 00:16:38

Yeah. So, like, that’s another—like that’s a—that’s a whole separate topic, like, we could have an entire podcast on that but, like, that’s a disadvantage I see with reverse dieting because it actually requires you to track for it to be effective. 

Aidan

00:16:38 – 00:17:01

Because I rarely—I rarely have clients tracking their calories and macros to such a precise amount where reverse dieting could be used anyway. So, that’s probably another reason why I don’t use it in practise, um, because there’s only a small handful of clients who I actually do macro calorie tracking with, otherwise their nutrition plans are—like, they’re outcome focused but they’re not super focused on specific numbers. 

Aidan

00:17:02 – 00:17:25

Yeah, so basic summary the way I view it is it is a tool that can actually be useful, and I see a lot of nutrition coaches and stuff like that who actually use it really well as a lot of their clients get great results and stuff like that. It can be a way to facilitate moving from a deficit back if used well and everything like that. It’s just—I don’t use it often. You never—never use it because, like, you don’t need to use it. There are so many other options you have that are available.

Leah

00:17:25 – 00:17:35

Totally. This has been episode 22 of the Ideal Nutrition podcast. Thank you so much for listening and talk to you next time.