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Reverse Dieting - When and How To 'Heal the Metabolism'

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In the previous article, we discussed metabolic adaptation - or in other words, what happens to our body when we are in large calorie deficits for prolonged periods of time.  Why it gets harder to lose weight over time, and what physiologically is going on in the body. 

If you haven’t read that one yet, go back and read it!  Because this article is going to discuss how you can heal your body, your metabolism, and your hormones to eventually reach a place where your body WILL respond to a diet or calorie deficit properly.  

This process is known as REVERSE DIETING.  

Alan Aragon, a nutritional researcher phrased it well by describing it in the following way (1): 

“The broad definition of reverse dieting is a gradual, incremental re-introduction of calories (mostly from carbohydrate) into the diet for a prolonged period after the dieting phase. There is no universal of official set of reverse dieting rules, but the general incarnation in coaching circles is to increase carbohydrate (and to a lesser degree, fat and protein) on a weekly basis, to the order of roughly 5-10g carbs/week (I’ve also heard of figures like 20g thrown around) until maintenance levels are hit, at which point a decision is made to either hold steady or continue bulking or surplus phase.”

Benefits of a Reverse Diet

I know that after a prolonged calorie deficit, the number one thing we are fearful of when adding food back in is weight gain, but we want to cover all of the benefits of adding calories back in because there are a TON of them.  And just for peace of mind, when doing a reverse diet properly, weight gain rarely is more than a couple of pounds of weight fluctuation.  

These benefits also serve as ways to help burn more calories in the long-term!  

 

  • Increased calories and carbohydrates assist gym/workout performance (2) - By consuming more calories, and carbs in particular, we are able to have more energy to push harder, lift heavier, and ultimately burn more calories during AND after our workouts.  One study saw a 22.6% increase in post-workout period (24 hours) caloric burn when heavy weights were taken to failure vs. lighter weights at high reps without failure-type training. 
  • Increases in NEAT (Non-exercise activity thermogenesis) and TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) - When we consume more calories, our body often subconsciously moves more through blinking, fidgeting, and you may even find yourself getting in more steps/daily movement.  This is because the body now has extra calories to up-regulate these movements. Also, one way our body burns calories is by breaking down food (about 10% of total daily calorie burn), and by consuming additional calories, we are also burning more calories breaking that food down (3). 
  • Metabolic and Thyroid Support Are Restored - Our body is always trying to find homeostasis and close the gap between calories consumed and calories burned.  During extreme calorie deficits, our thyroid is not supported well either, which in turn impacts metabolism negatively.  When we start to increase our calories slowly, our thyroid becomes more supported, and our metabolism also will start to increase to keep closing the gap of higher calories. 
  • Not Gaining Weight Back Rapidly - There is no scientific evidence around this, but from our extensive experience, when most people come out of a crash diet, or 21-day fix, or Whole30, or any other restrictive diet, they tend to reintroduce high calorie foods and fall back into old habits.  This, in turn, leads them quickly down a road of weight regain. By reintroducing calories slowly back in, it helps the body adapt along the way and see less impact on the scale from additional calories.  

 

Note: Not everyone has the genetic make-up to reverse diet and maintain extreme leanness, or not see any weight fluctuations.  Everyone will respond differently to a reverse diet, and the ultimate goal during this time-period is to restore health, restore proper hormone function, increase metabolic function, and be able to diet successfully again in the future.  

How To Set Yourself Up For a Reverse Diet 

Before you begin adding in calories, you must first know how many calories you are currently eating.  So these are the steps we would recommend for those looking to begin a reverse diet**.  

  1. Track your intake for a minimum of 7 days using a calorie-tracking app like MyFitnessPal.  Make sure this intake represents the previous 4-8 weeks minimum of your daily intake and then take the average calorie intake of those 7 days. 
  2. Use a reliable online calculator like tdeecalculator.net to determine your daily caloric needs.  We suggest using the light or moderate workout setting and go off of the maintenance intake recommendations. 
  3. Once you have your current average intake and your suggested maintenance intake, slowly bring calories up each week from your current intake until you reach your maintenance level.  We suggest increasing by 5-10% of calories each week, or whatever you are comfortable with.
  4. Once you reach your maintenance level intake, we recommend staying there for, at a minimum, the amount of time that you were in the calorie deficit and until the biofeedback markers have returned to a healthy standard (see below).  The longer you are in a calorie deficit, the longer you will need to be out of that deficit to let the body ‘heal’ before attempting another calorie cut. Most of our time of the year should be spent in maintenance.  

We also suggest to keep macronutrient breakdown balanced at 35% of calories from protein, 35% of calories from carbohydrates, and 30% of calories from fats. 

You may see small fluctuations of the scale, but we recommend focusing on as many bio-feedback markers as possible OTHER than the scale including:

 

  • Energy levels
  • Regular bowel movements
  • Better quality sleep
  • Better workout performance 
  • Ability to focus better 
  • Regular menstrual cycles 
  • Sex drive is increasing 

 

Remember: weight loss is not a prime marker of health. 

Reverse Diet Example 

We’ve done a number of successful reverse diets with clients, and we wanted to provide an example of what this may look like for someone to reverse diet. 

Female/36 years old/187 lbs/5’6

Exercises 4 days a week for 30-60 minutes, but sedentary otherwise 

Average Intake has been 1180 calories

Goal Maintenance = 2100 calories 

We will increase by 10% weekly until hitting maintenance 

Week 1 - 1180*0.1 = 118 calorie increase = 1298 calorie goal 

Week 2 - 1298*0.1 = 130 calorie increase = 1430 calorie goal 

Week 3 - 1430*0.1 = 143 calorie increase = 1573 calorie goal 

Week 4 - 1573*0.1 = 157 calorie increase = 1730 calorie goal 

Week 5 - 1730*0.1 = 173 calorie increase = 1903 calorie goal 

Week 6 - 1903*0.1 = 190 calorie increase = 2093 calorie goal 

So it took 6 weeks to reach maintenance level intake and we would stay at that intake for a minimum of 4-6 weeks. 

 

**Disclaimer: This is NOT a prescription.  This is a general recommendation and will vary based on each individual.  Before you make any changes to your diet, we always recommend speaking with your physician first.


SOURCES: 

[1] - Aragon, Alan. AARR February/March 2014 Issue. http://alanaragonblog.com/aarr

[2] - Paoli et al. High Intensity Interval Resistance Training Influences Resting Energy Expenditure and Resting Ratio in Non-Dieting Individuals. 2012

[3] Mifflin et al. A New Predictive Equation for Resting Energy Expenditure in Healthy Individuals. 1990

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