If you are a A normal human being, you probably don’t enjoy dieting.
Diets are all different, and some are more sustainable than others. But it’s impossible to always be in a caloric deficit, or else we’re (quite literally) wasted. So, how do we get out of a diet?
“Reverse dieting is more dessert than diet,” says Leslie Bonci, RDN, MPH, and sports nutritionist for the Kansas City Chiefs. “It’s what one does after losing weight — not while losing weight.”
To lose weight, we must be in a calorie deficit, which means we eat fewer calories than we burn. Reverse dieting as it sounds – the opposite. This concept allows you to add more calories to your daily intake once you decide to end the diet, without gaining weight.
This concept is commonly used by bodybuilders, and those who participate in sports with weight classes, such as wrestling. Let’s dive into the details.
What is the reverse diet?
Let’s back it up for a second.
The opposite of diet refers to having a regular diet—which, at its simplest, is a state of caloric deficit, or eating fewer calories than your body burns. This is what causes fat loss. When dieting ends, the reverse diet is the idea that you can add more calories to your daily intake without gaining fat.
To do this, you have to increase in small increments—typically adding anywhere from 30 to 100 calories a week for a few weeks until you’re back to your new baseline. For those who are not used to counting, this is a very low calorie intake. A spoonful of yogurt, half an apple, or a bite or two of chicken are all about 30 calories, Bonci says.
Why reverse dieting?
There are two main reasons people reverse diet.
The first, is to try to combat a weight loss plateau.
Our bodies will adjust to how many calories we consume and how much energy we burn as a protective mechanism (to prepare for starvation, or whatever else could happen next). They act as guardrails for our weight either way — to make sure you don’t gain too much, but also so you don’t lose too much.
Think about it: Your body doesn’t want to go to waste, so it adjusts its energy expenditure to be lower, because it’s getting less energy from food. Therefore, your deficit becomes less of a deficit because you are not burning as much, causing you to stop losing weight.
“I don’t have enough energy in my body right now, so I have to find a way to survive with less energy,” says Don Saladino, Men’s Health Celebrity Consultant and Coach. Our bodies do this, in part, by stopping the generation of heat not related to sporting activities. These are the little movements we do throughout the day, like fidgeting and shaking our legs when we’re feeling stressed.
When you eat too little, your body will stop this type of movement, so it doesn’t expend as many calories trying to conserve energy. By adding more calories, in small doses, your body will increase its activity, thus burning calories, because it feels safer because it is getting more energy.
“Gradually and slowly increasing calories after weight loss rather than a rapid increase in calories can help prevent a decrease in resting energy intake allowing those who have lost weight to eat more without the consequences of regaining weight,” says Bonci.
While many people struggle with plateauing weight loss, Bonci says these struggles are completely normal, and there’s no scientific evidence that reverse dieting will work when it comes to getting to the other side of a plateau.
“Losing body fat is a series of steps, not a slide,” says Bonci. She recommends focusing on the quality of your diet rather than the number of calories to ensure your body fat goals. That means watching your fluid, fiber and protein intake, she says, as calorie intake can be very arbitrary for most people.
Another reason to use the reverse diet is to slowly eliminate a large caloric deficit. This is common in the world of bodybuilders and weight class athletes. Often, by the nature of their occupations, these athletes are required to hold themselves in very strict incapacities. When their competition is over, if they plunge back into a huge order of cheeseburgers and fries, their bodies will be in for a huge shock.
“[Their diet] will affect recovery. It will affect sleep quality. “It will affect mood,” says Saladino. “[It will affect] The way you move and your energy throughout your workout.”
It’s like stepping into a cold pool. If you spend some time on each step, your body will adjust to the cold. If you dive head first, your body will start to shiver and your limbs will ache almost immediately.
Adding food step by step helps prevent any shock to the system.
How do you reflect the diet?
There are a few schools of thought about the best way to reverse diet. It mostly depends on what your diet looked like before you planned to go out.
Bodybuilders and athletes usually track macronutrients rather than calories, because they need to ensure proper muscle-building protein intake for their sport. Saladino recommends adding foods by increasing your macro allotments a little at a time. So, on a reverse diet, someone would add maybe 10 grams of carbohydrates, 10 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fat each week to your diet. This adds about 107 calories to your daily ration.
If you are not a macro tracker, and prefer to diet in terms of calories, it is typical for you to add about 30 to 50 calories per week on a reverse diet. Again, caloric intake can be difficult to visualize and very arbitrary for most people, so Bonci recommends adding food that is “fulling, not filling.”
This means aiming to increase the amount of calories you add. Vegetables like celery, tomatoes, and broccoli have a high water content that helps keep you full throughout the day. Bonci recommends foods like salads, vegetable and vegetable soups, and veggies with salsa to fill you up.
Do you do the reverse diet?
Everyone is different and needs different things.
If you’re training for a bodybuilding competition, or you’re aiming for a specific weight class for boxing or wrestling, reverse dieting may be an option if you strictly control your intake.
But, if you’re a regular person just looking to lose some body fat and gain some confidence, Bonci recommends more positive metrics for diet selection. This means keeping full with healthy, whole foods, ensuring proper protein intake, and hydrating.
“Think about progression rather than suppression, with awareness of quality, quantity, and consistency as a way to improve body composition through lean mass preservation,” she says.
Whoever you are and whatever you’re training for, speaking with a dietitian or doctor before exiting any diet is always the way to go.
Corey Ritchie, NASM-CPT is an associate health and fitness editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work at HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and more.
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