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What Is Reverse Dieting?

nutrition Sep 20, 2021
It's safe to say that a majority of people looking to get in better shape want to lose weight.
 
This is usually done through dieting which ideally causes you to lose fat via calorie deficit. There is no shortage of methods to get you there. From Keto, to Paleo, to Whole30, or even the Carnivore diet.
 
Starting one of these diets is almost always an attempt to lose weight.
 
To be technical, a diet is the foods you eat.
 
A bear has a diet of berries and fish. That doesn't mean the bear is focused on losing weight, but for this blog post we can use dieting as an attempt at creating a calorie deficit so the body is put in an energy balance that will require it to burn stored calories as energy.
 
So why would someone want to reverse diet?
 
That is a great question!
 
Before I jump into reverse dieting, let me set the stage with a common problem that dieters face.
 

Less than 20% of people who lose at least 10% of their body weight are able to maintain it for a single year.

 
The marketing of diets to lose weight is embedded into society.
 
You can find diet advice on TV, in books, magazines, social media, blogs, and there's no doubt a friend or co-worker has tried to sell you on their diet.
 
There's a ton of money to be made selling diets because America is the 12th most obese country in the World. (https://obesity.procon.org/global-obesity-levels/) 
 
Naturally, with a big market, most of the marketing will be geared towards helping people with a common problem.
 
What's not common is marketing of restoring metabolic health and biofeedback. If you're dying to lose weight, the idea of not losing weight and focusing on sleep, energy levels, cravings, and training performance is definitely less sexy.
 
It's a longer route.
 
But it's a sustainable route.
 
Because what these diets don't tell you is what to do after the diet.
 
What do you do when your body adapts to 1,400 calories being maintenance calories? Dieting under that will wreak havoc on your health and make it nearly impossible to enjoy foods you like and events around food.
 
The reverse diet is the diet after the diet.
 
The reverse diet is like putting the car in reverse so you can get out of the ditch you've put yourself in.
 
It's the answer to your frustration of feeling like you're always dieting, but not seeing any results.
 
So let's get to it.
 

What is a reverse diet?

 
"A reverse diet is the strategy of increasing calories and energy expenditure while limiting unnecessary (or unwanted) fat gain." (1)
 
In more simple terms, you are making the body adapt to a higher calorie intake.
 
It's common in the fitness and body building worlds for people that get ready for a photo shoot or a physique competition.
 
When individuals get THAT lean, it's to a degree that's not sustainable.
 
As in, they don't look like that year around.
 
In order to get to that level of leanness, they need to diet down to a really low level of calories.
 
When losing weight, your are creating adaptation in the body that causes weight loss. As these individuals get leaner, their nervous system, hormones, and fat cells are adapting with them.
 
The metabolism wants homeostasis and the more the body gets pulled out of homeostasis, the more drastic (and harmful) the adaptations become.
 
Reverse diets are an attempt to undo the adaptations caused from attempts at weight loss.
 
Now you might be wondering if reverse diets are similar to bulking.
 
The difference is that a bulk is done to maximize muscle growth while minimizing fat. A bulk has expected weight gain, while a reverse diet is mitigating weight gain.
 
A reverse diet is a process of increasing calories to restore a healthier metabolism and increase total daily energy expenditure.
 
For those unfamiliar with TDEE, here's a quick rundown.
 

WHAT IS TDEE?

TDEE stands for Total Daily Energy Expenditure and it is broken into 4 categories.

 
BMR - At roughly 60% of your daily energy expenditure, your basal metabolic rate are the calories your body burns to run basic processes and keep you alive.
 
NEAT - At roughly 15% of your daily energy expenditure, Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is energy used doing anything outside of laying in a bed that isn't exercise. Think of talking, walking, blinking, doing your laundry, and so on.
 
TEF - Thermic Effect of Food accounts for roughly 10% of your calories burnt as it takes energy for the body to extract nutrients from the food you eat. Protein requires 20-30% more energy compared to carbs at 5-15% and fats at 0-3% (Diet Induced Thermogenesis)
 
EAT - The smallest part of TDEE, Exercise Activity Thermogenesis accounts for 5% of calories burnt and includes intentional workout activities like weight lifting, running, cycling, swimming, etc
 
 
BMR is impacted by the size of the human. Bigger humans require more energy to keep the engine running.
 
TEF is impacted based on the foods you eat and their macro profile.
 
NEAT slows down when calories are sparse and increases when calories are abundant. Think of this as being frugal with money when its tight and frivolous when money is rolling in.
 
EAT is impacted by the size of the human and the intensity. A 200lb man burns more calories doing the same workout than a 150lb man. But how hard you work increases energy expenditure as well.
 
With all that said, you might be noticing some similarities with yourself and the changes referred to about TDEE.
 
Maybe you've noticed your energy gets lower when you diet and you lay on the couch more.
 
Maybe you noticed a big change in body composition when you introduced a higher protein diet.
 
Here's how to know if you would benefit from a reverse diet.
 
Who Is It For?
 
There are several populations that are in different stages of their weight loss journey.
 
Depending on the group you're in, your approach to gaining will be different.
 
The priority of the reverse diet will also shift depending on your biofeedback, relationship to food, and your consistency with training and tracking accurately.
 
Conservative - Gaining <0.2% body weight/wk
Moderate - Gaining <0.5% body weight/wk
Aggressive - Gaining <0.8% body weight/wk
 
1. You lost the weight you wanted to, but your'e now currently at a level of calories that isn't sustainable. If you go back to eating how you were pre-diet, you will put all the weight you lost back on.
  • Conservative approach to gaining
  • Longer duration: The length of the diet phase or until you reach 80% of previous maintenance calories
  • Remain diligent with tracking & habits
  • Restore healthy relationship with food
2. You dieted down to an extreme level of leanness and you need to get your metabolism and hormones to recover by adding more body fat.
  • Aggressive approach to gaining
  • Shorter duration: 4-6 weeks
  • Can transition to a slower approach once biofeedback restores
  • Restore healthy relationship with food
3. Fat loss goal not achieved, but calories are not sustainable
  • Common with yo-yo dieters always trying to lose weight
  • They are frustrated they aren't losing weight on lower calories
  • Conservative approach knowing that this population will fear the idea of gaining weight
  • Longer duration: When you reach a level of calories you can sustainably create a deficit from AND you restore your relationship with food
  • Need to prioritize restoring sleep habits, stress, energy, & craving levels
  • Need to practice better tracking habits that might be disrupting
4. No fat loss goal, but they want to prep their metabolism for a future cut
  • Conservative to Moderate approach knowing that this population is at a better starting point
  • Moderate duration: Dictated when metabolic capacity reaches certain goals
  • This very closely ties in with doing a lean bulk and prioritizing training with hypertrophy or strength goals
5. Lost a good chunk of weight, but there is still more to lose
  • Conservative approach so the next fat loss phase isn't one step forward, two steps back
  • Moderate duration: Dictated when metabolism reaches a level that is ready to diet again
  • Great candidate to focus on training to build muscle to increase metabolic rate
 
This is where nutrition periodization and training periodization work well together. Spending times different phases (fat loss, maintenance, gaining, and reverse diet) allows for your nutrition and training to adapt to your life.
 
There are windows of the year when a fat loss phases becomes much harder (wedding season, holidays, busy travel/vacation schedule) and it would suit you better to focus on maintaining progress and focusing on training.
 
Dieting for 12 months is a recipe for disaster.
 
Athletes have seasons.
  • Off-Season
  • Pre-Season
  • Season
  • Post-Season
Farmers have seasons.
  • Planting
  • Growing
  • Harvesting
  • Resting
Health & Fitness has seasons.
  • Cutting
  • Maintaining
  • Gaining (reverse diet)
  • Resting
 
Although reverse dieting might not be the most fun part of the year. It's a crucial time to ensure the season is successful.
 
 
(1) Layne, Norton, PHD, Baxter Holly, MS. The Complete Guide To Reverse Dieting, Las Vegas, 17 May 2021.
 
 
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