Reverse Dieting Is the Diet for When You’re Done Dieting

IF YOU’RE A normal human being, you probably don’t enjoy being on a diet.

All diets are different, and some are more sustainable than others. But it’s impossible to always be in a calorie deficit, or else we would (quite literally) waste away. So, how do we come out of a diet?

“Reverse dieting is more the dessert than the diet,” says Leslie Bonci, R.D.N., M.P.H., and sports dietician for the Kansas City Chiefs. “It is what one does after losing weight—not during weight loss.”

To lose weight, we have to be in a caloric deficit, meaning, we’re eating less calories than we burn. Reverse dieting is as it sounds—the opposite. The concept allows you to add in more calories to your daily intake once you’ve decided the diet is over, without gaining weight.

This concept is commonly used by bodybuilders, and those who participate in sports with weight classes, such as wrestling. Let’s dive into the details.

What is reverse dieting?

Let’s back it up for a second.

Reversing dieting implies the existence of regular dieting—which, at its most basic, is the state of being in a calorie deficit, or taking in less calories than your body is burning. This is what causes fat loss. When dieting is over, the reverse diet is the idea that you can add in more calories to your daily intake without fat gain.

To do that, you have to increase in tiny increments—typically adding anywhere from 30 to 100 calories a week for a few weeks until you get back to your newfound baseline. For those not used to counting, this is a very tiny amount of calories. A spoonful of yogurt, a half an apple, or one to two bites of chicken, are all roughly 30 calories, says Bonci.

Why reverse diet?

There’s two main reasons people reverse diet.

The first, is to attempt to combat a weight loss plateau.

Our bodies will adapt to how many calories we consume and how much energy we are burning as a protective mechanism (to prepare for starvation, or whatever else could happen next). They act as guardrails to our weight in either direction—to make sure you don’t gain too much weight, but also so you don’t lose too much weight.

Think about it: Your body doesn’t want to waste away, so it adapts its energy expenditure to be lower, since it’s getting less energy from food. So, your deficit becomes less of a deficit since you’re not burning as much, causing you to stop losing weight.

“I don't have enough energy in my body right now, so I have to figure out a way to survive with less energy,” says Don Saladino, Men's Health advisor and celebrity trainer. Our bodies do this, in part, by stopping our non-exercise activity thermogenesis. These are the tiny movements we do throughout the day, such as fidgeting and shaking our legs when we’re nervous.

When you eat very little, your body will stop this kind of movement, so that it doesn’t expend too many calories in an effort to conserve energy. By adding more calories, in small doses, your body will increase its activity, and thus calorie burn, because it feels safe as it gets more energy.

“Gradually and slowly increasing calories after weight loss rather than a rapid increase in calories can help to prevent the decrease in resting energy expenditure which would allow those who have lost weight to eat more without the consequence of weight regain,” says Bonci.

While many people struggle to combat weight loss plateaus, Bonci says these struggles are completely normal, and there’s no scientific evidence that reverse dieting will work when it comes to getting to the other side of the plateau.

“Body fat loss is a series of steps, not a slide,” Bonci says. She recommends focusing on the quality of your diet rather than the caloric number to ensure body fat goals. This means monitoring fluid, fiber, and protein intake, she says, as calorie intake can be too arbitrary for most.

The other reason reverse dieting is used is to slowly come off a big calorie deficit. This is common in the world of bodybuilding, and weight class athletes. Often, per the nature of their professions, these athletes are required to hold themselves into a super strict deficit. When their competition is over, if they dive right back into an XL order of cheeseburgers and fries, their body is in for quite a shock.

“[Their diet] is going to affect recovery. It's going to affect sleep quality. It's going to affect mood,” says Saladino. “[It will affect] the way you move, and your energy throughout a workout.”

It’s like getting into a cold pool one step at a time. If you spend some time at each step, your body will adapt to the cold. If you dive in head first, your body is going to start shivering and your extremities will ache almost immediately.

Adding in food one step at a time will help prevent any shock to the system.

How do you reverse diet?

There’s a few schools of thought as to what the best way to go about reverse dieting is. It’s mostly dependent on what your diet looked like before you planned to exit.

Bodybuilders and athletes typically track macronutrients rather than calorie intake, because they need to ensure proper protein intake to build muscle for their sport. Saladino recommends adding in foods by increasing your macros allowance a little bit at a time. So, when reverse dieting, someone may add in maybe 10 grams of carbs, 10 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fat each week to your diet. This adds about 107 calories to your daily allowance.

If you’re not a macro tracker, and you prefer to diet in reference to calories, it’s typical to add in about 30 to 50 calories a week on a reverse diet. Again, calorie intake can be difficult to envision and is too arbitrary for most, so Bonci recommends adding food that “fill up, not out”.

This means aiming for volume in your added calories. Veggies such as celery, tomatoes, and broccoli all have high water content that will help keep you full throughout the day. Bonci recommends foods like salads, vegetable soups, and veggies with salsa to fill up.

Does reverse dieting work?

Everybody is different, and needs different things.

If you’re in training for a bodybuilding competition, or are aiming to make a certain weight class in boxing or wrestling, reverse dieting may be an option if you're strictly controlling your intake.

But, if you’re an average person just looking to lose some body fat and gain some confidence, Bonci recommends more positive metrics for determining diet. That means keeping full with healthy, whole foods, ensuring proper protein intake, and hydration.

“Think progress rather than suppress, with awareness, quality, quantity and consistency as a way of optimizing body composition through lean mass preservation,” she says.

Whoever you are, and whatever you’re training for, speaking with a nutritionist or physician before coming out of any diet is always the way to go.

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