Reverse dieting is often referred to as the “after-diet diet,” as it is neither a weight loss diet nor a weight gain diet.
It is a transition strategy from weight loss to weight maintenance with the achieved body composition (ratio of fat-free mass, muscle mass, and fat mass).
What is reverse dieting?
As its expression indicates, the reverse diet is like an upside-down diet.
Instead of reducing food quantity to lose body fat, it follows the “reverse” path to slightly and progressively increase daily calories with the purpose of restoring adequate hormone levels, reaching a somewhat higher and more bearable metabolic rate in your new diet that reintroduces more food and nutrients to recover energy.
In other words, it is a nutritional plan that increases calorie intake and energy expenditure progressively while limiting body fat gain.
Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? However, before deciding whether to go ahead with a reverse diet or not, you may want to understand or ask yourself the following 3 key questions:
1. What happens when you lose weight?
In simple terms, when you enter a caloric deficit phase, the body slows down its metabolic rate. This “slowdown” occurs mainly because of the changes in your body.
That is, if your body mass is lower, it is logical that your energy expenditure is also lower.
In turn, the body is in a situation of alarm since it receives fewer calories than it spends, which leads it to make metabolic adaptations more energy-efficient and thus further reduce energy expenditure.
Some of the metabolic adaptations that occur are:
- Increase in ghrelin (the hunger hormone)
- Decreased leptin (satiety hormone)
- Increased insulin sensitivity in adipocytes (which predisposes to fat storage)
Therefore, one of the reverse diet goals is to bring all the metabolic adaptations that have occurred to a new sustainable standard.
2. What is your concept of diet and level of demand?
A lot of the results will greatly vary depending on your personal goals.
For example, in the case of bodybuilders or when training for a competition with a low weight cut, the capacity for rigidity or demand of a caloric deﬁcit process will probably be much greater.
Meanwhile, if you want to change for health reasons, improve body composition, increase sports performance, self-esteem, or whatever, the process’s focus will be very different.
If you are eager to finish the “diet” to free yourself and return to your previous habits, something has gone wrong since the main objective to achieve results will be to generate adherence and good eating habits.
In other words, it is not about eating less, but about eating better.
3. How have you managed to lower your fat percentage?
The key to not gaining fat abruptly again after the deﬁcit is to have lost good amounts of fat. The longer you lengthen the deﬁnition phase and the more ﬂexible you make it, the better it will be.
This is because it will reduce or control some negative effects, such as loss of muscle mass, increased anxiety, decreased performance, or slowed metabolism.
In other words: the faster and more strictly you lose fat, the faster and more uncontrollably you will gain it again.
Reverse dieting: Pros and cons
Reduces the risk of rebound effects. During the deﬁcit, the organism is very susceptible to store fat in case of energy excess. This is why the purpose of this diet is to get out of the deﬁcit by minimizing fat gain as much as possible and reducing compensation situations based on binge eating.
It helps to control each change to enhance results. It can be good to know how the body reacts and know what it needs according to the objectives. At the same time, you can take advantage of this moment to create healthy habits that can be maintained in the long term.
Allows for progressive readaptation. Increase hunger levels, increase metabolic capacity and expenditure, correct hormonal balance, etc.
It is somewhat complicated to follow without being aware of what you eat. The reverse diet requires strict control of calories and macronutrients. And not only when adjusting quantities but also before starting the process.
It is a bit difficult to predict the results in the medium and long term. In reverse dieting, there is a lot of trial and error. You can probably try to adjust and predict the next week or two, but to determine how the body responds, you have to reassess each step constantly.
It is a slow process. It will take a few weeks to reach maintenance calories and for a surplus even longer. Therefore, it can produce psychological wear and tear that does not sit well with everyone.
How to reverse diet properly?
There are three steps to implement and follow reverse dieting:
Know the initial situation and the maintenance calories you want to reach. To calculate the maintenance calories, it is important not to use the ones you estimated before starting the deﬁcit, since as weight decreases, the basal metabolic expenditure also drops.
For this reason, you will need to recalculate it through different resources, such as: trial-error by controlling dietary intake and body weight evolution, use of formulas (such as Harris-Benedict), factor calculation for physical activity, etc.
Keep in mind that unless you have a lot of muscle mass, maintenance calories are usually overestimated by about 10%.
Estimate the weekly caloric expenditure to be added and adjust it to the nutritional requirements.
Reverse dieting is usually framed in a period of time between 4 and 10 weeks with an increase of between 50 and 100 calories per week. However, there is no established protocol based on scientific evidence.
It is best to tailor both the weekly calorie increase and the total duration. Ideally, start by ensuring your protein intake through a personalized calculation that considers your muscle pounds and body weight pounds.
Protein should be at least 1.2 g/kg body weight/day. Subsequently, the rest of the calories you need should be supplemented with carbohydrates and healthy fats.
As for the rest of the macronutrients, an important aspect is that you reach the carbohydrate amount of at least 120-150 grams total per day. This has to do with effects on leptin and thyroid hormone levels.
Taking carbohydrates to deficient levels will not allow for proper recovery in converting T4 to T3 in the liver. How much to increase fat intake will depend on the total amount of calories and how high you have set the carbohydrate intake levels.
Considering the body’s tendency to increase body fat after a deﬁnition phase, decreasing fat levels slightly (20-25% of total calories) may be a good idea. As long as you are not gaining fat during this phase, you may increase them a bit.
As you can see, the story gets slightly more complicated as the next step is to convert all these calculations into quality foods that fit into your day-to-day life. The idea is that the increase in calories goes hand in hand with the increase in metabolism.
You must keep in mind that you will continue to be in deficit until you reach your maintenance calories. Therefore, if the scale continues to drop even if you increase your calories, do not panic; no miracle is happening. It is simply that you are extending your deﬁnition stage.
Readapt and adjust according to progress. Not everyone reacts in the same way to the same strategy. Therefore, it is essential to assess the sensations and changes that are occurring in the medium term.
For example, the increase doesn’t need to be 50-100 calories per week, but you could increase 200-300 kcal per week to reach maintenance in 3-4 weeks.
While these may seem like simple steps, they are really not that straightforward. Besides, you have to consider many variables (macronutrients, hunger, physical exercise, body evolution, practicality, tastes, etc.)
Now, the support of a professional is key. Of course, none of these steps would make sense if you fail to consider the rest of your habits. All health indicators go hand in hand. They all go together.
What to eat?
In the first few days that you are increasing your calorie intake, the idea is to boost the percentage of proteins, as this will be good both for satiety and for maintaining muscle mass.
Foods rich in protein are serrano ham, cured pork loin, red meat, turkey, chicken, salmon, tuna, trout, cod, eggs, or dairy products, among many others.
Next, you must increase carbohydrates. The best foods to increase them are potatoes, brown rice, and pasta.
Lastly, increase the dose of fat, although gradually. There are several types of fats, but the idea is to consume those known as “good fats.”
These are unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and monounsaturated fats. You can find them in fish, vegetable seeds, nuts, avocado, and greens.
Here is a practical example with exact figures
Let’s imagine you’ve weighed 82 kg. You have done a good job and lost 4.5 kg of fat. You are now at 77.5 kg with 69 kg of fat-free mass and almost 8 kg of fat.
Maintenance calories will be 77.5 kg x 33 kcal/kg = 2550 kcal; 2300 kcal if you consider that 10% overestimate (this is a simple and quick general formula for calculating maintenance calories, but others could be used).
Protein intake will be at least 77.5 kg x 1.2 g/kg = 93g/day, about 372 kcal (4 kcal / gram of protein). Preferably, place protein at 1.6 g/kg (which would be 124 g/day, about 500 kcal per day).
A recommendation for fats is to place them no lower than 0.8 g/kg body weight. That is to say, to reach 62 grams per day (1 gram of dietary fat has 9 kcal, so that would be 558 kcal).
The remaining calories would come from carbohydrates. If you subtract to the initial calculation of 2300 kcal -those you have obtained from proteins (372) and fats (558)-, you obtain: 2300 – 372 – 558 = 1370 kcal at the rate of 4 kcal for each gram of carbohydrates are 342.5 grams.
In summary, the diet will be about 2300 kcal, at least 93 grams of protein, 62 grams of fat, and 342.5 grams of carbohydrates per day. This should be maintained for 1 or 2 weeks, see results and sensations, and readjust if necessary (which possibly will be).
Is reverse dieting useful for everyone?
Deﬁnitively, no. For example, it would not be a good strategy if you have reached a meager percentage of fat, since reverse dieting would keep the body under stress for a longer period of time, with all the negative effects that this situation may entail.
It is also not recommended for sedentary people or those who will drastically change their workouts, as it would add an extra complication when calculating both the current energy expenditure and optimal extra energy.
A healthy diet and physical activity
On the other hand, it might be useful for those who prefer to maintain their weight over a longer period of time or those coming out of a competition who need to follow up afterward to avoid uncontrolled weight gain.
Also, for those who are stuck in their deficit and need a stimulus to help them move forward and for people who are willing to endure demanding challenges (as long as they have not reached too low of a fat percentage).
If this planiﬁcation doesn’t fit with you or your goals, don’t worry; you can switch to your maintenance calories cold turkey by following a “recovery” diet.
Reverse dieting: Conclusions
The reverse diet is no magic bullet, although it can help maximize results. It allows us to adjust training and nutrition when we want to leap from a deﬁnition phase to a volume phase (most common) and from a volume to deﬁnition phase (volume = weight gain and muscle mass; deﬁnition = weight loss and fat mass).
When performing this nutritional strategy, make sure to cover both your nutritional requirements and make a good estimate of your current basal metabolism and total energy expenditure.
You must not make the mistake of relying on the estimates you had calculated before the weight change occurred, as the starting point will be incorrect.
In deﬁnitive, reverse dieting is a recommended strategy for many people, but not for everyone. Whether it is useful for you or not will depend on your context, how you have previously gained or lost weight, and the goals you want to pursue.