"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?
Should YOU be reverse dieting?
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 every 1-2 weeks).
The thinking here is - by slowing 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 maintain and lose on more calories in the future.
All of this sounds great… but unfortunately, that’s not really how metabolism works.
Metabolism - The sum of all the stuff your body does to burn calories.
More specifically, 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%.) Accounts for ~10% of daily calories burned.
→ Thermic effect of exercise (TEE) - The calories you burn exercising. 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.) 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...
This is know 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 of your current body size, food intake, and daily movement.
You have a solid understanding of metabolism, and how we burn calories. Time to separate fact from fiction by working through some common claims about reverse dieting.
→ Misconception #1: Reverse dieting “supercharges your metabolism”, allowing your to diet & 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 with 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 % 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 the 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.
Last week, we talked about how we can usually split people’s metabolisms up into two categories:
a.) 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.
b.) 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).
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
→ Misconception #2: Your metabolism is hella slow after a diet, reversing 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.
What's going on here?
The reality is, after a long fat loss phase, your body is primed for fat gain.
a.) As we lose weight, our fat cells shrink - Smaller fat cells produce less leptin, which leads to an increased appetite (as leptin decreases, ghrelin - the hunger hormone - increases) and decreased energy expenditure.
b.) Post-weight loss, your body wants to restore it's previous weight - You experience this "want" as excessive hunger signals and low energy. This combo makes eating excess calories hard to avoid - IF you enter the post-diet phase without a plan. The weight regained is preferentially stored as body fat.
Basically, the fact that you're really damn hungry, moving less, AND burning fewer calories with your now smaller body create a situation where rapid regain is likely if you DON'T have a plan post-diet.
Having a plan post-diet IS incredibly important - it's a HUGE part of why my clients get such sustainable results. (It just doesn't have to follow that traditional reverse dieting model.)
So yes, while your metabolism does "adapt" and down-regulate to match your smaller body size, it is NOT broken or "damaged".
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've been at the start of my coaching career, both with myself AND with clients. We we're both seemingly eating low calories, but not losing.
We're usually just not good at tracking calories accurately.
In some coaching anectdote, I had a client start recently who couldn't get her body to budge, despite only eating 800 calories per day.
We immediately increased her calories drastically, and she's lost over 10lbs in the last few months.
Was it the actual calorie increase that caused her to lose?
Nah. She works around food all day, and was forgetting to track the little bites and nibbles she took - which turned out to be more that 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.)
Once I started teaching my clients how to increase measurement accuracy, I've stopped running into these cases where people "can't lose" on low calories.
Finally, eating low calories increases your cortisol levels, which often causes water retention. This can cause stalls on the scale. Adding in more calories can cause this water to drop.
→ Misconception #3: Lots of people get super lean on reverse diets.
You’ve probably seen a nutrition coach on Instagram, bragging about how their client got "shredded" while INCREASING calories.
What’s often happening here, is simply the effect of actually having a coach for the first time.
These people likely aren’t eating MORE calories than they we’re before, but rather have improved their measurement accuracy, food quality, and are eating macro ratios align with their goals now. Plus, they’re now following smart, we’ll structured training programs.
This is something I 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."
On top of this, one of our major focuses when you start nutrition coaching with me is on choosing foods that keep you full, longer. This reduces cravings, and really makes eating fewer calories feel like more than before.
Now, 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 see quicker weight loss, despite being in a smaller calorie deficit.
This is because - like we talked about, dieting leads 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.
To get the water to release, we know we need to eliminate stress. Sometimes, I'll just prescribe a client a 1 day refeed where we increase carbs.The extra carbs and calories basically get your body to "relax", and woosh - you drop water weight. This almost always happens in the first week of a diet break as well.
The mistake a lot of people make is trying to reverse WAY too slow and stay super lean after a cut.
What ends up happening is, you spend MONTHS extra in a deficit (which usually correlates to feeling & training like shit). 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 we're just reversing you out of a diet SUPER slowly, you're still in a deficit for another 6-12 weeks.
That means another 6-12 weeks where hormones & training are shit, until we eventually reach maintenance, and then your body can start to recover. Which 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).
Here's my general strategy for clients post-diet:
As I've talked about, I've found clients seem to be that people are better served to return to a new maintenance and more productive training quicker.
Really, reverse dieting is more a mechanism to get client buy-in and prevent binging - we know that left to their own devices, your body and brain WILL push you to eat A LOT over maintenance, which also isn't ideal.
So for most clients, our goal is to get you to your new maintenance as quickly as possible, without overshooting and gaining excess fat.
Generally, I like to increase clients to 90% of their estimated new maintenance calorie intake for their smaller body. From here, we watch body measurements, biofeedback, and adherence, and keep adding in calories in smaller increments until we find the intake said client maintains at (this is a moving target thanks to adaptive thermogenesis, which is why the smaller increases are necessary after an initial large jump).
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Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. His Instagram is noticeably missing any calf pictures.
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