“Reverse dieting supercharges your metabolism – you can lose, maintain, and gain on super high calories.”
“If you (or one of your clients) can’t lose fat on low calories, you need to reverse diet.”
“You NEED to reverse diet after weight loss to prevent gaining the weight back.”
“My client increased their calories and got RIPPED reverse dieting!”
Lots of claims are thrown around about reverse dieting… but are they true?
If you haven’t reverse dieted, are you missing out on some serious metabolism boosting benefits, and dooming yourself to a life of under-eating?
You have questions, today’s blog has answers.
Reverse dieting is a common practice in the fitness and bodybuilding worlds
Generally, the reverse dieting process looks something like…
Post-diet, you very slowly increase calories (usually by 50-100 calories every 1-2 weeks).
Let’s say a coach was working with a client who had gotten unsustainably lean for a photoshoot.
This client’s current predicted maintenance calorie intake (the amount they can eat to maintain their current body fat) is 1800 calories, and the client is currently eating 1200.
Using the traditional reverse dieting model, rather than immediately returning the client to their current estimated maintenance, they would be given calorie increases of 50-100 calories every 1-2 weeks.
Thus, it would likely take 10-20 weeks to return the client to their estimated maintenance.
So the thinking behind this method is…
By slowly increasing calories, you give your metabolism time to speed up to match the small increases.
Not only does this keep fat gain to a minimum, but also builds up your metabolism, (sort of like gradually increasing weights in the gym makes you stronger) allowing you to both maintain and lose on more calories in the future.
While all of this sounds great… that’s unfortunately not how metabolism works.
Metabolism: The sum of all the stuff your body does to burn calories.
We can divide metabolism up into 4 pieces:
→ Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – The calories burned for basal processes to stay alive – like your heart pumping, breathing, etc. Even if you spent the whole day in bed, our BMR wouldn’t change.
BMR accounts for ~60-70% of daily calories burned.
→ Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) – It takes calories (energy) for your body to digest the food that you eat. TEF also varies depending on the food you eat. (Protein: 20-35%, Carbs: 5-15%, Fats: 0-5%.)
TEF accounts for ~10% of daily calories burned.
→ Thermic Effect of Exercise (TEE) – The calories you burn exercising.
TEE accounts for ~5% of daily calories burned.
→ Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) – Calories burned through movement outside of exercise. (Fidgeting, walking around the house, etc.)
NEAT accounts for ~15-25% of daily calories burned, but varies drastically person-to-person.
Now that you understand the basics of metabolism, let’s talk about how changes.
As you get leaner on a diet, your metabolism decreases because…
→ Your body is smaller, so BMR decreases.
→ You’re eating less food, so TEF decreases.
→ TEE decreases, because it takes fewer calories to move your smaller body.
→ NEAT generally decreases, as you feel lethargic due to lack of calories.
→ Levels of the hormone Leptin decrease. This leads to an increase in hunger (increasing the odds you’ll overeat), and a subconscious decrease in energy expenditure.
This is known as adaptive thermogenesis. As you eat more and gain more fat, the opposite happens – metabolism increases, hunger decreases.
Your metabolism isn’t some invisible force screwing over your fat loss efforts.
It’s also not something we can just “ramp up” indefinitely with reverse dieting. It’s mostly just a product…
1. Your current body size
2. Your current food intake
3. Your daily movement
Now that you have a solid understanding of metabolism and how we burn calories. Let’s separate fact from fiction by working through some common claims about reverse dieting.
→ REVERSE DIETING MISCONCEPTION #1: Reverse dieting “supercharges your metabolism”, allowing you to diet and maintain on higher calories in the future.
To eat more calories than you could before and maintain your weight, you must be burning more calories than before.
You now know the 4 ways our body can burn calories (metabolism)…
So being able to eat more and maintain, requires an increase in one or more of these factors.
→ Basal Metabolic Rate: Typically higher the larger you are. We can really only increase this by gaining weight, which means either…
a.) Adding fat
b.) Adding muscle
Adding fat WILL speed up your metabolism… but the goal of most reverse diets is to avoid fat gain.
Adding muscle mass is part of why people’s metabolisms can increase slightly over time.
Muscle is metabolically active tissue, meaning that adding extra muscle increases the calories you burn at rest. But, it’s not a huge difference. (Daily, you’ll burn ~6 calories more with each additional pound of muscle you gain.)
Most of the metabolism boosting benefits of adding muscle come from the fact that moving a heavier body burns more calories.
→ Thermic Effect Of Food: Calories burned during digestion increases as you eat more.
But since a relatively small percentage of the total calories you eat in a meal are burned through TEF, eating more calories strictly to increase TEF doesn’t make sense – you’re now taking in more calories not burned during digestion as well.
Increasing the % of calories consumed from protein is a smart strategy to increase TEF, and it does seem that protein is harder for your body to store as fat.
But to avoid digestion issues, eat enough fat to stay healthy, and (for most of us) eat some delicious carbs… a diet of strictly protein isn’t realistic. Most people tap out eating more than 1.2-1.5g protein/lb.
→ Thermic Effect Of Exercise: When you eat more, you can…
a.) Train more. Eating more calories (to an extent) means better recovery, and therefore the ability to train more frequently with overdoing it.
b.) Train more intensely. More energy (calories) in also typically increases our ability to output energy (again, to a certain extent).
Both of the factors mean that eating more usually leads to more calories burned through training. That said, the increase in calories burned here won’t be massive enough to skyrocket your metabolism. (And you have to remember, you’re eating more calories to create these effects in the first place.)
→ Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: People’s NEAT varies a lot with how it responds to increases and decreases in calories (more on this later).
A large part of NEAT (how much you tend to fidget, pace, and blink) is genetic. We can get clients focused on moving more (i.e. hitting a step goal)… but again, this requires the client actually physically moving more to burn more calories.
So unfortunately, there’s nothing here we can “supercharge” by reverse dieting. If you want to be able to eat more and maintain your weight, you can…
a.) Move more
b.) Increase your body size
→ REVERSE DIETING MISCONCEPTION #2: Lots of people get super lean on reverse diets.
You’ve probably seen many posts on social media about someone who seemingly got shredded while reverse dieting.
Let’s use a hypothetical coach and client example to illustrate why things might not be quite as they seem:
Is this reverse dieting vodoo magic?
Let’s consider what it takes to lose weight:
The most foundational principle of fat loss is calories.
Calories in (calories consumed) must be less than calories out (a.k.a. calories burned through metabolism) to lose fat.
This is the law of thermodynamics, and something we can’t ignore.
So to go from maintaining on 1,400 calories per day, to losing on 1,700 calories per day…
To ensure this is still making sense:…
So to go from maintaining at 1,400 to losing at 1,700, the clients calories out/metabolism would have increased by an extra 1,300 calories per day or 9,100 calories more burned per week.
As a refresher, the sum of calories out/metabolism is:
In a scenario where we’re assuming the client isn’t training and/or walking for hours more per week… there’s no possible mechanism by which the client is suddenly burning an extra 9,100 calories per week.
What’s often happening here, is simply the effect of being coached.
These people likely aren’t eating more calories than they were before when you look at an entire week (rather than a single low calorie day)… but rather have improved their measurement accuracy, food quality, and are eating macro ratios align with their goals now.
Plus, they’re now likely following smart, well-structured training programs.
This is something we see all the time with new clients (re: the above example), but it is NOT actually caused by the fact that people are eating way more calories.
So really, instead of saying…
“Thanks to the reverse diet, this client is now eating 500 calories MORE per day and is RIPPED.”
It should be…
“Hey, I got this client to measure her food super accurately, and she realized she was eating more than she thought. She’s also following a smart training program now, and is more consistent – with both training and nutrition. All of this added up to a pretty big body composition change.”
So, can you lose fat reverse dieting?
If you’re increasing calories, but still eating fewer calories than you’re burning, you’ll keep losing fat. But again, it’s not magic.
Sometimes over a reverse diet, people will initially see quicker weight loss, despite being in a smaller calorie deficit.
This is because dieting can lead to higher cortisol levels, and water retention. A lot of times weight can be stuck for weeks, even though we know a client is in a calorie deficit, due to the amount of water they’re retaining.
More calories often will reduce stress levels, in turn reducing cortisol and water retention.
→ REVERSE DIETING MISCONCEPTION #3: Your metabolism is extremely slow after a diet, and reverse dieting is the only way to prevent regaining the fat.
You hear horror stories about people getting super lean… and then regaining the fat overnight.
Reverse dieting is usually pitched at the solution to this.
Now, there is truth to the idea that after a long fat loss phase, your body is primed for fat gain…
Basically, the fact that you’re really damn hungry, moving less, and burning fewer calories with your now smaller body creates a situation where rapid regain is likely if you don’t have a plan post-diet.
Having a plan post-diet is incredibly important, and a huge part of why our clients get such sustainable results. (It just doesn’t have to follow that traditional reverse dieting model.)
*IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND*
The above description sounds terrifying, and makes it seem like regaining body fat would be inevitable post-diet…
But realize that this is your body’s protective mechanism that kicks in when your body fat percentage has dipped below what your body deems as healthy.
For most individuals, this means getting extremely lean for a photoshoot or bodybuilding show (what we’d consider “unsustainably lean”).
You can get to a sustainably lean physique without having to fight your body as hard as described above.
So yes, while your metabolism does “adapt” and down-regulate to match your smaller body size, it is not broken or “damaged”.
→ REVERSE DIETING MISCONCEPTION #4: Many overweight individuals are eating <1,000 calories per day, and need to reverse diet before being able to lose.
You’ll also often hear people say something like…
“But I’m only eating 900 calories, and still can’t lose fat!”
This is a big driver of the popularity behind reverse dieting, actually.
I know I struggled with this at the start of my coaching career, both with myself and with clients. We were both seemingly eating low calories, but not losing.
We’re usually just not good at tracking calories accurately.
I always use the example of a client who started coaching in 2019.
She couldn’t seem to lose any fat, despite tracking her food, and only eating 800 calories per day.
We immediately increased her calories drastically, and she lost 15 lbs in the span of a few months.
Now, was it the actual calorie increase that caused her to lose?
This client also happened to have a job where she worked around food all day, and was forgetting to track the little bites and nibbles she took – which turned out to be well over 500 calories per day.
Plus, a higher calorie plan was easier for her to stick to – she got more consistent. (Another reason why a more moderate approach to dieting generally works better.)
This is the crux of why so many people that “Can’t lose on ____ low calories” suddenly seem to be able to lose on when eating more food.
Eating super low calories tends to drive people towards “falling off” for 1-2 days per week (and effectively negating any calorie deficit they’d created with the low calorie days). These individuals always feel like they’re dieting hard, but never actually see any progress.
Most (not all) will find a more flexible approach is easier to be consistent with, and thus will yield quicker fat loss after just a few weeks.
I’ve been on hundreds of calls with new online clients over the last few years, and at least 3/4ths of the time, said client (often a coach themselves) will report that they’re eating a surprisingly low amount of calories, and not able to achieve the physique they want.
Even with advanced clients, we’ll discover large gaps in their tracking (often not tracking at all or largely guesstimating the weekends).
We could easily claim…
“This client started coaching eating ___ low calories (but really they just weren’t tracking everything they were eating), but now they’re losing eating much higher calories (but really they’re eating less than before, just tracking accurately).”
The other side of this equation is NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
As you’ll remember from above, NEAT does make up a big chunk of your metabolism.
Research seems to show that the biggest difference between the metabolisms of lean and obese individuals is the amount of calories they burn through NEAT.
As shown above, NEAT has been shown to vary up to 2,000 calories per day between the lean and obese.
A large part of how many calories you burn through N.E.A.T. is genetic – some people naturally fidget and pace more.
But we can somewhat make up for this by setting daily movement goals (exactly what we do with all of our online clients focused on fat loss).
Most people who are tracking food accurately but still aren’t losing aren’t tracking the other end of the equation: daily movement.
If calories in (food intake) are constant, but calories out (calories burned through movement) is constantly fluctuating or unaccounted for, it makes complete sense why someone wouldn’t see the results expected from eating a specific calorie intake.
They’re only accounting for half of the calories in – calories out equation.
If you’re working with an obese individual who’s seemingly eating very low calories and not losing weight, it would be wise to:
Again, dieting is hard on the body when individuals push to get very lean (i.e. prepping for a bodybuilding show), and full hormonal recovery can take 6 months or more.
But that’s a completely different context than an individual who has seemingly been dieting for a decent period of time, but is still in an unhealthy body fat range.
In cases like this, it will seem like the client is eating more and losing (due to more accurate tracking and more movement)… but actually stopping fat loss reverse diet simply because the client has been “dieting” for an arbitrary amount of time is likely detrimental to the client.
→ REVERSE DIETING MISCONCEPTION #5: Individuals that have previously dieted on low calories but reverse dieted up to super high calories will have it “easier” next time they diet.
From my experience as a nutrition coach, most client’s metabolisms fall into one of two categories:
→ Adaptive Metabolisms: For these people, when you eat more, your body automatically increases NEAT to compensate. (Think: subconscious fidgeting, blinking, pacing, etc.)
Their body adapts to higher calorie intake by increasing calories burned through movement – so weight stays the same, even with calorie increases.
People like this can typically maintain at a relatively high calorie intake, but the reduction in NEAT when they decrease also means they have to drop calories lower than expected to lose fat.
→ Rigid Metabolisms: These people see very little or no increase in NEAT as a response to overeating. Thus fat gain is a bit easier.
But on the bright side, these people usually don’t have to decrease calories as much to lose fat (because calories burned through NEAT doesn’t decrease as much as it would for an adaptive metabolism).
To prove this idea, A 1999 study fed 16 people 1,000 calories over their maintenance intake per day.
Basically, the 16 people in the study had crazy different responses to eating the same calorie surplus. There’s a huge variance in how people’s energy expenditure (via NEAT) will respond to overfeeding or underfeeding.
This is another reason why we see so many stories about people who were previously dieting on very low calories, but now can maintain on so many more, thanks to reverse dieting.
They’re simply people with more adaptive metabolisms…
So those with adaptive metabolisms almost always seem like “hyper-responders” to reverse diets, because they usually have to diet on lower calories, but ramp NEAT way up when eating more (and thus can maintain on higher calories).
This creates a large gap between the calorie floor they must drop below to lose fat, and the calorie ceiling they can increase to without gaining fat – the disparity in total calorie intake will usually be quite impressive.
Thing is, even though the clients’ reverse diet calories will seem very impressive, they’ll still have to take calories low the next time they diet.
Now, if the client built a decent amount of muscle between diets, is more mindful of their step goal, and/or is eating much more protein than before, they will be able to lose on higher calories than before.
But if the client had been doing things in a mostly “smart” manner before, their calorie intake needed to get to the same level of leanness will likely be very similar to last time.
[*COACHES NOTE: with clients you know have more adaptive metabolisms, it makes sense to be more aggressive out of the gate in a fat loss phase, rather than wasting time with small calorie adjustments.]
The mistake a lot of people make is trying to reverse way too slowly, and often trying to stay at an unhealthy level of leanness.
What ends up happening is, you spend months extra in a deficit (which usually correlates to feeling & training terrible). This leads to months of wasted time that could have been productive training and making progress in the gym.
The reality is, we all have a certain body fat percentage we need to be at to feel good, train hard, and actually allow our body to prioritize building muscle.
No amount of reverse dieting can make up for the fact that if you’re sitting below this point, you won’t build muscle, feel good, or have healthy hormones.
Basically, being a bit more aggressive coming out of a diet (to a degree) makes sense.
When reverse dieting we need to consider the desired outcome – which is to get your hormones & training back to a good place, right?
Problem is, if you’re just reversing you out of a diet extremely slowly, you’re still in a deficit for another 10-20 weeks.
That means another 10-20 weeks where hormones & training suck, until we eventually reach maintenance, and then your body can start to recover.
This begs the question…
“If the goal of the reverse diet IS to recover, why not just take you to your (new & lower with your smaller body) maintenance quicker?”
Unless your goal is simply to maintain, the sooner you can get back to productive training, the sooner we can get back to building the physique you want long-term.
Spending actual time eating more food and building muscle is the best way to increase your metabolism, and make getting lean easier in the future.
Next time you get lean, you’ll have more muscle mass (even if you don’t lose fat, INCREASE muscle mass decreases your body fat – which will make looking lean easier).
Ready for a plot twist?
Our online clients still (usually) follow a reverse diet protocol post-diet.
But rather than slowly backing out of a deficit to maintenance (which seems to be pretty pointless), reverse dieting is simply our way of finding how high we can push a clients calories post diet without them gaining excess fat.
Understanding where this ceiling is:
So as you’ll remember, across the course of the diet, your metabolism is going to down-regulate due to adaptive thermogenesis.
When we start feeding you more and your body senses more energy coming in post-diet, your metabolism will start to speed back up again.
So, what we’re doing in the reverse dieting process is trying to match these gradual increases in metabolism with your calorie intake.
Let’s dive in to a general outline of the reverse dieting process we use with most clients:
When you’ve achieved your fat loss goal, we’ll start by bumping your calories to 80-90% of your new estimated maintenance intake.
Let’s say you started the diet 30 pounds heavier than you are now. 30 lbs ago, you maintained your weight on 3000 calories… but again, your metabolism slows across the diet.
This means your new maintenance intake will be lower than your starting maintenance intake was… so don’t jump back to where your maintenance calories at the start of the diet were.
To make calculating your new maintenance easy, let’s say you’ve been losing one pound per week for the last four weeks.
So to start the reverse diet, we’re going to bump you up to 80-90% of this estimated maintenance, just to make sure you don’t overshoot that and actually gain fat.
We prefer this large initial jump with clients, because being in a calorie deficit is very taxing both physically and psychologically. It’s very stressful, and not something you want to spend unnecessary time doing.
So we’re going to bump you up close to your new estimate and maintenance as quickly as possible.
Gauge how your body responds to the initial jump in calories.
We’re watching clients body weight changes, measurements change and biofeedback closely.
Here’s what we’re looking at:
→ Body weight: The first week of the reverse diet, most women will gain about 2-4 lbs of weight. Most men will gain about 3-5lbs.
You’re taking in more carbs, and eating more total food.
Glycogen stores are being refilled – basically, your muscles are going to take in more carbohydrates, which are also going to soak up more water. This will help training performance & recovery.
Plus, you literally just have more food weight (gut content) in your belly.
The thing to realize is, this isn’t fat gain. It’s glycogen, water, and gut content.
→ Measurements: As always with our online clients, we’re assessing how measurements are changing – NOT just looking at weight.
These are the measurements our online clients take…
We’re looking for these to more or less stay the same, except for the 2″ below the navel – this is the measurement that’s most reactive to gut content, so it’s was normal for this to be up a bit.
It’s also normal week to week to see +/- .25″-.5″ measurement increase or decreases, but they’ll bring themselves back to baseline over the next 1-2 weeks if you’re truly at maintenance – so avoid overcorrecting here.
→ Biofeedback: We want to see hunger and cravings decreasing, motivation, energy levels, training performance, and recovery (all things we have our online clients track) improving.
→ Mindset: It’s super important to stay just as focused, and pay just as much attention to detail during the reverse diet as during the fat loss phase (this is a big part of why being coached through this process yields such good results).
This is how we get you to the point where you can maintain you current body composition at a higher calorie intake in the future, but you have to absolutely attack this process.
Again, after achieving your initial fat loss goal, it’s very easy to lose focus and regress.
This is why you always want to have a target that we’re working towards 3-6 months down the road.
With clients, we’re always establishing… “where are we headed in the next 3 months? What are we working towards?”
This is how we help you as a client keep your results long-term. You’re always focused on the next target.
After week one of the reverse diet, we’ll gauge how your body reacted to the jump in calories, and adjust accordingly.
Typically, the first two weeks of the reverse, macros will stay the same. After the first week of initial increases, we’re looking for measurements and weight to essentially stay stable during week two.
Given weight and measurements stayed stable OR biofeedback is still poor, we’re going to add another 50-150 calories (depending on the size of the individual), and see how your body does with this.
Through this entire process, we’re constantly assessing your weight, body measurements, and biofeedback…
How’s your training performance? is hunger decreasing? How’s your mood? How’s your motivation?
… All things that should be improving as we’re feeding you more and more.
For some online clients, this process can continue for quite some time. but most typically, it’ll last 4-8 weeks.
→ Macros: No matter the nutrition phase, clients are going to be somewhere from 0.8 – 1.2g protein per lb body weight
.8g/lb is the consensus “threshold” we want to hit for protein, but we prefer to have most clients closer to 1-1.2g/lb.
Looking at protein quality (especially in a building phase), most will start to implement more grains, and other plant-based sources that contain trace protein.
Problem is, the amino acid profile for plant-based sources of protein isn’t as good for building/maintaining muscle, so it makes sense to set protein slightly higher than the 0.8g/lb target.
For fat intake, is that client below .3g/lb?
We know that below this intake, hormone production is going to be less than optimal, and you’re more likely to develop fatty acid deficiencies. Think of .3g/lb as the “fat threshold”.
So if you’re below this mark, bumping fat up to .3g/lb+ will be the first priority when increasing macros.
If you’re already consuming .3 – .4 grams of fat/lb, we’re going to start the reverse dieting process primarily by increasing carbs.
As long as you can check these “threshold” boxes for protein and fat, increasing carb will produce the quickest improvements in how you feel as a client.
Typically, we’ll increase carbs to 1.2 – 1.5g/lb as the first priority (assuming you’re at the protein and fat thresholds).
What we do from there is very much where the individualization aspect of online coaching comes in.
Two things to look for here:
→ Trunk measurements and weight are staying relatively stable: Again, fluctuations of +/- .25″-.5″ are normal, but larger increases for multiple weeks here indicate you’ve likely passed maintenance.
That said, realize that most clients will also be capable of building some lean muscle at maintenance.
This is especially true for newer online client that have never spent an extended period of time eating more and following a smart training program like our online clients do.
So sometimes we’ll see an increase in weight across the course of weeks. This is why it’s important that we’re also tracking body measurements.
Most online clients will have a “trouble spot” they really wanted to focus on losing fat from during the diet. This seems to be the last place that said client loses fat from their body.
This means that in a case where your client is gaining a bit of weight, but you think it could be lean muscle not fat, it makes sense to look at measurement increases at the client’s “trouble spot” as a sign that they’re potentially gaining fat (for 90% of clients it will be navel measurements, but occasionally hips).
If we start to see consecutive weeks of measurement increases at the trouble spot, it’s a good sign that body fat is being gained.
→ Biofeedback is normal: We all have a certain body fat percentage “floor”… below this body fat percentage, you’ll struggle with hunger, being food focused, low energy, poor hormones, & building muscle is very unlikely.
As we’ve discussed, many of your hormones are a product of the amount of body fat you’re carrying, so no matter how much food you’re eating, you’ll still feel shitty below your “body fat floor”.
While you can dip below this “floor” for short periods of time (e.g. for a photoshoot), living below it is not healthy or sustainable. So the reality is, occasionally clients will have to add back a bit of body fat in order to return biofeedback to healthy levels and quit feeling like a zombie.
If a clients’ biofeedback (weekly measures my clients submit for things like sleep, stress, motivation, mood, training performance, etc.) is still poor, they likely need to continue the reverse diet.
Two great example of this are online clients Jeff and Dave, both who recently got very lean for photoshoots:
As you can see, both clients were very lean. In their specific cases, this was lean to a point that wasn’t sustainable, becuase biofeedback was poor.
They weren’t going to be able to build muscle/continue to improve their physiques long-term in this state.
This is a great example of where adding body fat is needed.
On the flipside, normalized biofeedback is a good sign you can end the reverse diet process.
Whether you’re a coach or coaching yourself, I hope this article helped clear up some confusion around reverse dieting.
If you’re ready to fully commit to a customized training & nutrition protocol, and finally take your physique to the next level, click here now to apply for online coaching with us.