Reverse dieting — the latest thing the fitness kids have decided to flex their orthorexia about.
I thought this shit had died a few years ago, but alas, I’m getting a fair few questions about recently, so let me put this one to bed before explaining how to finish a diet phase in a swifter, more painless fashion, while mostly achieving the same thing.
‘Reverse dieting’ commonly refers to the process of very slowly upping your caloric intake after finishing dieting, typically by 50–100 calories each week.
There are two key reasons people recommend it:
- The belief that it minimizes fat regain.
- The belief that it helps to ‘build up’ the metabolism, making it possible to eventually eat more while maintaining weight.
Both of these beliefs are false, born from a misunderstanding of what happens when you diet and what happens when you increase your caloric intake again. Allow me to explain.
Reverse dieting does not minimize fat regain
People confuse scale weight increases after dieting for fat regain. This is where this myth is born.
The number on the scale captures not only muscle and fat mass changes, but also hydration status, gut content, and muscle glycogen changes. The first two are slow to change over time; it’s the latter three which are the cause of the day-to-day fluctuations you have doubtlessly seen when dieting or when you took a planned diet break.
After you finish your diet, the scale weight goes up because of an increase in gut content (which makes sense, you are eating more food after all), and due to an overall increase in water levels in the body, which largely comes from the increase in muscle glycogen levels from the bump in carbohydrate intake.
The problem is that people freak out and think that any weight gain = fat gain.
So, in an effort to avoid this, instead of making a single large increase to caloric intake after dieting as I recommend (I’ll come back to this), people creep up their caloric intake in tiny increments, thinking this is allowing them to eat more while staying lean after dieting.
Negative, captain. — The only reason the scale weight shows such little movement is that you’re still in a caloric deficit and thus losing fat mass (and possibly muscle mass) while gaining a little gut content, water, and glycogen.
You’ll only regain fat if you eat over your caloric maintenance.
If you track your stomach measurements as I suggest in my progress tracking guide, you’ll see that the gain isn’t on your stomach (lower measurement excluded as this catches the gut increase). This will save you from the mental torture and is something I use every day to stop online coaching clients from losing their minds.
I’ve covered ‘maximum expected leanness’ in a section on my guide to finding caloric maintenance.
Slowly reverse dieting does not build up metabolic capacity
There’s some metabolic downregulation that happens when we diet. We have to eat less and less to keep losing weight at the same rate. When we increase calories, the reverse happens as hormonal function comes back to normal.
This is where the idea that making 50–100 kcal weekly increases after dieting, ‘builds up’ the number of calories we can eat and maintain weight on comes from.
However, doing this so slowly unnecessarily lengthens the time taken for your metabolism to return to normal after dieting which makes adherence much harder.
You know how after you’ve been dieting for a while you’re hungry all the time, have little energy, a lower sex drive, and hate life? Yeah, that’s these adaptations and it’s best to get to the point of reversing them as fast as possible.
There are a range of caloric intakes we can maintain weight on. This range is captured below in the dotted ‘diet condition maintenance’ (DCM) line and the top ‘normal condition maintenance’ (NCM) line.
The difference is that at the DCM line we still feel like shit, but at the NCM line, we feel human again.
When people bump their caloric intake up by just 50–100 kcal each week, they’re spending an unnecessarily long time moving from the ‘dieting’ line to the ‘post-diet maintenance’ line, when this could simply have been done in one step.
How long? Well, let’s say you’ve been losing 1 lb per week. This means you’ve been in a 500 kcal deficit. If you decide to increase by 50–100 kcal each week, you’ll spend 5–10 weeks coming back to diet condition maintenance. You may as well do this in one step.
How to Come Back to Maintenance Caloric Intake
Take your average rate of weight loss in pounds per week. Multiply that by 500, add those calories in. You’ll gain weight but this will not be fat and this will bring you around the DCM line and will take care of that initial deficit.
The next job is to get you feeling human again and eating as much as possible without regaining fat. But we don’t have a way of calculating how much the metabolic adaptation to dieting was (the DCM to NCM line difference), so our best path is to make incremental bumps to caloric intake and track the stomach measurement changes.
I’d suggest making ~200 kcal bumps every couple of weeks and stop when you start getting visually and measurably less lean.
Click here for my more detailed guide on finding maintenance with macro examples.
Reverse Dieting FAQ
Roughly, how long does it take for hormone balance to return to normal after going back to maintenance calories?
It will be different for different hormones. A more relevant question is: How long does it take to feel normal again (in terms of hunger, libido, energy levels)?
This will depend on how severe the deficit was, how long you dieted for, and whether you’re trying to stay too lean for what your body can handle (see next point).
From the feedback of coaching clients as I’ve taken them out of diet phases into maintenance and/or bulking), typically 4–8 weeks. Energy levels come back first, libido second, and it can take a while for hunger to come under control for some people if the amount of weight loss is great, which is why I put this third.
What is the maximum level of leanness I can reasonably expect to maintain?
There is a genetic, environment and willpower component to this. If you try to stay leaner than your body can handle you’re in for a potentially rough ride.
The exact level depends on the balance of happiness between the satisfaction you derive from your low body-fat percentage, with the drawback of having to control your urges in restaurants, bars, and social occasions. But nobody walks around at competition levels of leanness year-round.
Typically, the 8-13% body fat range. But I can only speak for the clients I work with, who are all male and as they’ve sought out coaching online, this clearly puts them in a bracket of people who are particularly committed.
More on this at the end of my more detailed guide to finding caloric maintenance, where you’ll also see photo examples of a client’s changes as we transitioned from a diet into a bulking phase.
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments, as always.