We know that people tend to regain most of their weight after a diet. This happens for an array of reasons. That is why reverse dieting has been suggested as a way of preventing weight regain happening.
Advocates also state it helps increase metabolism and reduces the likelihood of bingeing. All whilst preventing rapid weight regain.
So do I recommend reverse dieting to those who have lost a lot of fat? I actually don’t. I don’t believe it is necessary.
But does it mean I think it’s a bad idea? Again I don’t. It depends on the person. For some people reverse dieting, can be a great psychological tool in helping people increase their food intake, without fear of crazy scale changes.
But in the grand scheme of things with regards to fat regain, it’s not something you need to do.
What is reverse dieting?
Reverse dieting is when someone has either ended their diet or lost a lot of weight. Instead of eating their maintenance calories, they slowly bring their calories up to maintenance. Usually, they’ll introduce an extra 50-100 calories each week until they hit maintenance.
Why do people reverse diet?
A lot of people’s ideas of dieting come from the bodybuilding world. Such as the horrific idea of having weekly cheat meals.
Reverse dieting is another one of those things.
When competitive bodybuilders go on stage to compete, they diet themselves down to stupidly lean levels of body fat. Unhealthily lean. They have to do excessive amounts of cardio and eat super low calories for a very long time.
What happens after their competition, is that they will literally eat everything in sight. Imagine a flimsy pipe bursting and all the water gushing out. This is what happens to their dietary restraint after the show. It’s not uncommon for them to gain 30lbs back in 2 weeks.
When this happens it becomes psychologically damaging. You’ve been lean for so long, now you feel fat.
Therefore getting these people to slowly reintroduce calories back into their diet, was a way to stop them from going off the rails.
But why I approach this method with scepticism, is that 99.99% of the population who want to lose weight are not competitive bodybuilders. This sort of thing isn’t necessary.
Why is reverse dieting not necessary?
Whether you reverse diet or go straight back to maintenance calories you will gain “weight”.
When you lose weight and go back to maintenance calories, you will without fail gain “weight”. In my experience and with clients, it’s usually around 5-8 pounds of weight.
The thing is, this weight which you gain is not fat.
This extra weight is:
- Water weight
- Extra food
- Excrement and gut material
Now you’re eating more calories, your body has more substance inside it. The scales don’t know the difference, between the extra body content and body fat.
If that is the case, why do bodybuilders gain over 30 pounds in less than a month after a competition?
When competing, they tend to go to super-low levels of body fat, which are not optimal for health. Therefore their hunger hormones are out of whack and their bodies just want to gain fat.
So in most likely scenarios, they are eating well over their maintenance calories.
I have never and would never be getting my clients down to 3-5% body fat for instance. For most men, for example, 8-15% is more than ideal, whilst also being sustainable.
So when you’re down at 3-5% you’re body is going to make you eat everything in sight. Unfortunately, the pendulum may swing a little too far the other way.
Difficulties with reverse dieting
When reverse dieting, the idea is you bring calories up by 50-100 a day, each week. There are a few issues with doing this.
The first being it’s nigh on impossible to know you’re actually adding 50 calories a day with any degree of accuracy.
Calorie labels on food are allowed a 20% give or take. This means on average when counting calories, your daily intake has the potential to be off by 20% and that’s if you’re tracking everything perfectly. Which let’s be honest nearly all of us aren’t.
Then the number of calories you burn every day is different depending on the activity you done. Adding an extra 50 calories per day to a moving target is really not doing much.
So if you’re adding an extra 50 calories to your intake each week, you’re probably not adding 50 calories. This means you’re most likely wasting your time. On top of that, you’re still tracking your diet neurotically, when you end your diet, ideally, you want to taper down the accuracy of how you track. Tracking so anally adds stress to your life, living at maintenance ideally should be stress-free. Don’t get me wrong practising some restraint and discipline is good, but you don’t want to be still tracking the last gram of rice, once you finished your diet.
If adding 100 calories you may be a little closer, but you will still be somewhere off.
The second issue is; you’re prolonging your diet. If you’ve reached your goal weight, then start revere dieting you are still going to be in a deficit.
This means you’re still going to be losing weight. If you’re already very lean, you might start losing muscle.
Finally, you’re prolonging the time, for your hunger hormones to go back to normal.
If your new maintenance calories are 2700, but you’ve ended your diet on 1700 calories per day. This means you may still be dieting for another 10-20 weeks after your diet is over. That’s time you could be using to better your workouts, enjoy more food and work on building muscle.
What to do after a diet instead?
Go to maintenance calories as soon as possible. Your new maintenance will be an estimate though. Once you’ve got an estimate, I’d assess where you are after 2 weeks. As I said earlier, you will gain some weight (not fat). After that initial bump, your weight should stay around that number, obviously with fluctuations here and there.
There are a few ways to estimate maintenance calories.
- Use my calorie calculator – Once you have an estimation. I advise you to choose the lower number and assess from there.
- Multiply your new body weight (in pounds) by 14 and play it from there
- Eat ad libitum. But don’t eat everything in sight. Eat until you feel human again. That means you’re not tired. You’re not lethargic. Your workouts should feel good again. Make sure the bulk of your diet is still low energy-dense foods. Just gauge with some common sense.
I didn’t want to make this a post bashing reverse dieting. I know of coaches who I have a lot of fo respect for who will use it with their bodybuilding clients. And I do think it has its benefits for those people. I only think it’s fair I highlight them.
Even if you know the weight gain after a diet is not fat, it can still hurt mentally. Therefore reverse dieting has been known to give people a psychological benefit.
Bodybuilders who compete are more likely to be more neurotic than the average person who wants to just get in better shape. Therefore they are more likely to need that reassurance that they will not be gaining fat. Therefore reverse dieting may help them readjust back to normality easier than just going straight in and seeing crazy changes on the scale.
The placebo effect is very powerful and shouldn’t be ruled out. For instance, we know cardio is next to useless for burning fat. (1)
But people who do cardio tend to burn more fat. Why is that? Well because they’re doing cardio, they are more likely to subconsciously make better food choices.
Do I think reverse dieting is the key to weight maintenance? No, I do not.
But I can’t deny that for some people who may have more neurotic tendencies, there may be a psychological benefit.
But for improving hunger hormones, improving metabolic rate and preventing fat regain, the evidence isn’t there to suggest that reverse dieting does any of that.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.