Reverse dieting gained massive traction some time almost a decade ago. It looked like this almost too good to be true strategy that could be useful for speeding up your metabolism and allowing you to eat more food without gaining weight.
It could help to build better relationships with food, allow you to eat more food and manage your appetite better, while also allowing you more calories to use as fuel for your training.
It is NOT a weight loss tool. Increasing the number of calories, you maintain your weight on could set you up for future weight loss. But reverse dieting itself is not designed for weight loss.
The definition I use for reverse dieting is that it involves slowly and systematically increasing calories at the end of a diet.
I am aware that there are multiple different thoughts on what it is and how it should be implemented. But this is the concept that I will be referring to when I am discussing it in this post.
What Is Reverse Dieting?
Using the definition, I am going with, it would typically look like increasing calories 50-100kcal per day, each week. So that could look like:
Week 0: 1600kcal per day (end of diet)
Week 1: 1700kcal per day
Week 2: 1800kcal per day
Week 3: 1900kcal per day
Week 4: 2000kcal per day
And so on and so forth until you choose to stop the reverse diet.
Since protein needs do not really increase when switching from a deficit to maintenance/surplus calories, it makes sense that most of the calories added will come in the form of fats or carbohydrates.
Theoretically, fat needs do not really increase either unless somebody was on a particularly low fat intake at the end of their diet. So arguably most of the increase will come in the form of carbs, although it really is a personal preference thing.
The other thing to be clear on is that you really need to have an accurate gauge of your calorie intake both before and during the reverse dieting process.
It is not really possible to slowly and systematically increase your calorie intake if your current intake is not consistent.
How Long to Reverse Diet For?
You basically do it for as long as you want. There is no right or wrong.
If you have just finished a diet and want to maintain your weight, you would just slowly increase your calorie intake and adjust until you find the number of calories required to maintain your weight.
The alternative option if you want to go into a calorie surplus could be to increase your calorie intake until you are gaining weight at the rate you desire.
Why Do People Do It?
The main reason it gained popularity back in the day, from my perspective, is that it looks like an appealing tool to increase metabolic rate. Or to be more specific, increase total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and allowing people to eat more calories without gaining weight.
And part of this is true. It does increase TDEE (and therefore maintenance calories). It also does this by more than you would predict with a formula.
I will explain how this happens in a later section. But for now, I wanted to delve deeper into why it gained popularity.
One big reason it gained popularity was due to marketing from coaches who utilised it with their clients.
Appealing Results in Practice
A lot of clients would reportedly be on low calories. So, say <1400kcal. And often it would be reported that either their weight loss had stalled, or they were not losing weight at the rate they would like.
And then the coach would have them systematically add in calories and they would end up on surprisingly high calories.
That alone is appealing.
Beyond that though, although the numbers are not super accurate, it is commonly accepted that a 500kcal deficit per day typically results in roughly a 1/2kg loss per week. And double the deficit to double the loss e.g. 1000kcal deficit results in 1kg per week.
Please do not try to overthink these numbers, I am just using them to make this point as easily as possible.
If somebody was reportedly on 1200kcal losing weight at 0.5kg per week, you would expect based on that maths that their maintenance calories would be ~1700kcal. But in practice, the number is typically much higher at the end of a reverse diet. Somebody in that scenario might get to something like 2500kcal (as an example) before their weight starts increasing.
Heck, I’ve even got a great example of one of these case studies here that is worth a read. Reading through this post, you can see why it looks appealing.
Are the Results Too Good to Be True?
To cut to the chase, most of the results that I have seen coaches preaching are likely too good to be true. There definitely are benefits to reverse dieting, but the results are often overstated.
The main reason I say that is because people are notorious for underreporting their calorie intake.
A study I frequently reference on this topic highlighted that on average, people in this study underreported their calorie intake by 47% and overreported exercise by 50%. Somebody in this study underreported their intake by as much as 80%.
This study is not representative of every single situation. But the whole body of research on the topic highlights that we should expect underreporting of at least 20%. This even includes people who track their intake consistently too.
Beyond that, in some examples coaches have used, the clients likely were not tracking their intake meticulously before starting the coaching. And simply just being consistent with tracking and eating their targeted number of calories while training consistently led to outstanding results.
I would make the wager that a large percentage of the outstanding results are from people who were actually eating significantly more calories and/or training less than reported at the start of the process of working with a coach.
Even the case study I linked to above mentioned that the client was binge-eating frequently before they started reverse dieting.
Binge eating typically involves well over 2000kcal in a single occasion. Sometimes it is over 5000kcal.
Regardless, it is a bit hard to pinpoint reverse dieting as this tool that dramatically allowed this individual to increase their calorie intake without weight gain. If you averaged their intake out across the week, including the binges and unreported calories, their starting caloric intake on average would likely be far higher than it was made out to be.
Metabolic Damage vs Metabolic Adaptation
Partly doubling down on the “why do people do it” question, the concept of metabolic damage used to be more accepted than it is now.
Layne Norton, who in my opinion is the biggest reason for the popularisation of reverse dieting, used to frequently talk about metabolic damage. An example of this is the video below.
The concept of metabolic damage proposes that long term dieting can have a lasting impact on our TDEE. This theoretically would mean that even while maintaining weight for an extended period of time post-diet, maintenance calories would still be lower than expected.
Luckily, the current consensus is that metabolic damage is not particularly relevant, but instead, metabolic adaptation (or adaptive thermogenesis as it is called in the literature) is the phenomenon we should focus on.
Metabolic adaptation is basically where the body’s TDEE drops by more than a formula would predict while dieting. This is due to some of the body’s processes being downregulated in a bid to conserve energy.
The beauty of metabolic adaptation is that it goes both ways. Being on low calories typically reduces energy expenditure, but being on higher calories reverses it.
At this stage, the only research I am aware of supporting the concept of metabolic damage is The Biggest Loser study. The rest of the research is pointing more in the direction of metabolic adaptation.
This study highlighted that even 5 years after The Biggest Loser, participants had Basal Metabolic Rates (BMR) that was significantly slower than would have been predicted by a formula.
To wrap up this topic though, I want to highlight that this is not a dig at Layne Norton. I am just trying to go through the background on reverse dieting in a way that seems the most logical to me.
That video from Layne above is around a decade old. At that time, I also based some of my thinking on the topic on that Biggest Loser Study. I recall even speaking to clients about it and highlighting it as yet another reason why we want to avoid yo-yo dieting if possible.
Over time, Layne has changed his views, like all good practitioners should when necessary. At the time I learned a lot from him and to this day I still learn a lot from him. He is now one of the biggest people popularise education around metabolic adaptation.
How Does Reverse Dieting Work?
When I first learned about metabolic adaptation, it looked magical. It looked too good to be true.
One of my biggest thoughts was “if this strategy is so good, why doesn’t somebody study it to prove it works?”
Like using Layne as an example, he has a coaching business. His practitioners have reverse dieting as a tool in their toolkit. I used to wonder why they did not just create a study to prove that it works, which in turn would potentially lead to more clients for them.
But the more I learned about metabolic adaptation, the more it started to make sense to me.
Slowly increasing your calorie intake would allow for the reversing of metabolic adaptation to take place, therefore increasing TDEE.
Say somebody was 500kcal per day below their predicted maintenance calories based on their rate of weight loss. And let’s pretend that maths was 100% accurate.
Adding calories would mean they would likely burn more calories through NEAT (incidental movement) because their body would not be trying to conserve as much energy.
BMR would likely increase even through simple things like heart rate starting to increase. Or for some females, their period might return, which would involve calories burned through ovulation. Core temperature could change too.
Calories burned through exercise might increase due to having more energy available. This is probably the least likely to make much difference and is a bit of a stretch of logic. But it is a possibility.
And the thermic effect of food would increase. In my opinion, this is the easiest one to understand. Eating more calories means your body is also probably burning more calories in the process of digesting and absorbing that food. This is a small addition, but it is still relevant.
Therefore, through the addition of these increases in energy expenditure, it would take more calories than predicted to reach maintenance calories.
This explains why it increases maintenance calories. The other aspects of how it “works” depending on what your definition of works is, and it could turn into an endless list trying to address all of those aspects.
And based on this understanding, it is clear we really do not need a study to back it up. By understanding metabolic adaptation, we also can conclude that increasing calorie intake slowly over time will result in increased TDEE unless other variable changes like a significant reduction in exercise.
All a study would do would mainly just highlight the magnitude of change in BMR and TDEE to expect.
It makes sense to not want to do that in a research setting as a coach since:
1) It would take a lot of time and money to design a study
2) It would also highlight that a lot of the case studies that are used by coaches are either outliers and/or people who were initially underreporting calorie intake or overreporting exercise.
Do You Need to Do It?
You do not need to reverse diet. In fact, it is incredibly rare for me to use it with clients.
I have seen some other people in the nutrition world criticising reverse dieting. These criticisms can be logical, and I will mention some of them in the next section.
Personally, I think it is a useful tool. I just think there are often quicker and more efficient ways to achieve the same goals.
Downsides of Reverse Dieting?
With the understanding that you do not need to reverse diet, it is worth highlighting why you might not want to do.
A first point that is pretty underappreciated amongst coaches who prescribe calorie/macro targets is that you need an accurate gauge of your calorie intake at the beginning and throughout the process.
Often people in the fitness community can live in a bubble and be surrounded by people who track macros daily for years on end.
But to be honest, most people outside of the fitness community do not track consistently, would not enjoy tracking their food, and probably would not track their food consistently even if that was what their plan called for.
Plus, there is also the risk of disordered eating being contributed to by tracking macros meticulously. This is not relevant for everybody. But obviously, it is relevant to consider if you think of reverse dieting as an appropriate “across the board” kind of approach.
This is not a criticism of coaches who consistently get clients who want to track their macros and are well suited to it. That is different. It is more relevant to just be aware that the average person probably is not well suited to this strategy to start off with.
The other main issue I see with reverse dieting is that it extends how long somebody is in a deficit.
Say somebody was in a deficit for 12 weeks and lost 8kg and was happy with that and now wanted to move onto their next phase and just maintain that progress.
If they lost 8kg in 12 weeks, they were likely in a >500kcal deficit throughout the process. And probably still in at least that size of a deficit at the end.
If they jumped to maintenance calories straight away, they would be done after this 12-week phase.
But reverse dieting would likely call for a ~100kcal increase each week. Since they were in at least 500kcal deficit, this would take at LEAST 5 more weeks of being in a deficit.
If it worked super well and increased their TDEE significantly it would take many more weeks.
So, a 12-week deficit would actually up being 17-24 weeks (or more).
They would also continue losing weight for at least a few more weeks when they started the reverse diet because they would still be in a decent sized deficit. Either they would get leaner than their goal, or it would make sense to have started reverse dieting while still a little bit higher bodyweight than the end goal.
There is an endless list of other options. That is the beauty of this industry. So many aspects to think about.
Personally, I think it makes sense to jump straight to maintenance calories. Or potentially straight to a small calorie surplus if that was the goal. But it depends on the situation.
Although you do not know exactly where maintenance calories are, you likely still would have a rough idea if you guessed. And then you can adjust from there as needed over the following weeks.
My thoughts are that if the goal is to reverse metabolic adaptation, why would it make sense to spend MORE time in a deficit? Going straight to maintenance calories would likely reverse metabolic adaptation quicker.
To add more thoughts though – at the end of a diet, people typically have a higher desire to eat and a larger appetite.
This can be attenuated through diet breaks to a certain degree throughout the process of getting leaner. But that comes back to the key point of spending time at higher calories (maintenance if it is a diet break) helping to reduce impact of dieting.
But something I wanted to touch on is that if after being on low calories for an extended period of time, you decide that you are going to increase your calories, it might be hard to implement it in a way that does not involved you overeating significantly.
You could argue reverse dieting helps to prevent that by allowing you to systematically increase your calorie intake and re-introduce foods in amounts you like while reversing this impact of low calories on hunger and appetite. By the time you finish reverse dieting, it would probably be less of an issue.
It also makes it easier for people to slowly increase calories if they struggle with feeling “lost” post-diet. Or also if they are super hesitant about the thought of gaining weight in the process, even if it is just water/glycogen.
That logic makes sense to me. But I also think it makes sense to use another option like going straight to maintenance calories, but aiming to retain a decent amount of structure in your eating for say a month while these issues slowly resolve. And then from there move onto the next phase which might have more flexibility.
Caveat Regarding Reverse Dieting as a Bodybuilder Post-Competition
While the popularity reverse dieting really stemmed from the bodybuilding world, I see it as a tool that is NOT relevant for directly after a competition.
Keep in mind this logic is based on the specifically the definition I have used for what reverse dieting is.
If you ended a contest prep on X calories per day on average, it does not make sense to slowly and systematically increase from there.
Being stage lean comes with a LOT of downsides from a mental and physical perspective. It has negative implications for hormones, performance, and a bunch of other factors.
You basically are just trying to be that lean for competition day when it actually matters and then should be focusing on addressing these issues. It actually makes sense to gain a little bit of body fat in the process, although you obviously want to avoid taking that too far.
Instead of doing a reverse diet and prolonging how long you are that lean for by staying in a deficit, it makes sense to do what is known as a “recovery diet.”
I believe that term was popularised by Eric Helms – but feel free to correct me if I am miscrediting that.
It makes sense to jump straight to a calorie surplus but try to control weight gain at an appropriate rate.
Post-show, due to hunger hormones being so out of wack due to having been ignored for so long at the end of a prep, desire to eat is through the roof.
And both appetite and desire to eat typically stay dramatically elevated for weeks. In most cases, it really takes more than a couple of months before things really get back to normal. Recovery from a natural bodybuilding show in terms of markers like hormones seems to take >6 months.
But the hunger specifically should lessen over time if a bit of body fat is gained.
Therefore, it makes sense to initially enter a moderate calorie surplus, gain some fat, but still resisting the urge to eat excessively, and then eventually slow down the rate of weight gain to a more ideal rate over time.
Some people classify that as a form of reverse dieting, which is fine. But personally, I prefer to separate it into categories of reverse dieting and recovery diets.
While there is genuinely no research on reverse dieting, it is a valid tool that can be used in practice. I am not opposed to its use and I can see a place for it in the right situation. Personally though, I see a lot of clients and it is incredibly rare for me to use it. I prefer other options such as jumping straight to maintenance calories.