Reverse dieting to increase metabolism after a fat loss phase is a controversial subject. Some swear by it, while others claim it’s unnecessary and a money-making scam of diet coaches.
Having followed my own fat loss efforts both with and without reverse dieting, I’m convinced it’s a powerful tool with huge benefits.
However, that’s not to say it’s for everyone, or that it should be used in every circumstance.
Post Fat Loss Transition
Reverse dieting is a good way to avoid fat rebound during the transition from a fat loss diet back to normal eating.
After a diet the body is primed to regain fat. Energy expenditure is lower through metabolic adaptation, reductions in conscious and subconscious movement, and loss of body mass (which in itself burns energy at rest).
This is what makes fat storage much more likely, even on an intake that wouldn’t have caused it before the diet.
In what appears to be a catch 22, energy expenditure and metabolism can be returned to normal with a greater caloric intake, but a rebound is almost guaranteed if pre-diet eating is immediately resumed.
The claim of reverse dieting is that fat gain can be kept under control through manipulation of the rate of increase.
Therefore, reverse dieting is a gradual increase of calories over time. The addition of food reverses the negative adaptations to energy expenditure, but is slow enough to avoid fat deposition.
In other words, it provides extra food at a rate that recovers metabolism in general, while not overwhelming energy requirements.
And it works incredibly well. I’ve gone from an intake of 1900 Calories at the end of a fat loss diet all the way up to 3000 with no fat gain using a reverse dieting approach. (I wrote about the exact protocol I used here.)
It’s elegant in its simplicity, and one of those concepts that seems so obvious in hindsight.
What Reverse Dieting Won’t Do
Reverse dieting isn’t a method of supercharging your metabolism so that you can eat endless amounts of food with no fat gain. It’s also not a way to supersede your genetically determined metabolic rate.
So Why the Controversy?
There are a few reasons for the doubt about reverse dieting.
There is no direct scientific literature supporting it. We basically have the personal anecdotes of people who’ve experimented with it, so naturally—and rightly—that leads to skepticism about whether it even works at all.
The best we can do is consider the claim critically against our current knowledge and give it a try if it stands scrutiny. In that vein, we know energy expenditure is reduced in people who diet. We also know that this can be remedied with increased energy intake.
(With the caveat that full recovery from a diet can also depend on regaining some body fat, depending on the level of leanness achieved. For instance, most stage-ready bodybuilders will need to regain body fat for full metabolic health.)
We also know that immediately returning to pre-diet levels of intake (and of course uncontrolled binging) leads to fat rebound.
The claim of reverse dieting is that fat gain during recovery from a fat loss phase can be mitigated through slowing the rate we add calories back to the diet.
It’s a plausible idea not requiring any major leaps in our understanding of physiology, and it’s not unsafe. That’s why to me it made sense to try—in my estimation it was a nothing-to-lose-everything-to-gain scenario.
Another reason for the doubt about reverse dieting are the bad outcomes from misuse of the technique. The fact someone undertakes a diet doesn’t automatically mean they should follow it with a reverse diet. It’s simply not appropriate in every circumstance, and context is important.
As such, reverse dieting isn’t a good choice for:
- Someone who doesn’t intend to maintain the results of a diet. For example, a bodybuilder dieting to compete in a show. They might be happy to quickly put some fat back on in order to maximize muscle growth (something that becomes more difficult the leaner you are). Or more generally, someone who only wants to look good for a certain occasion, such as their wedding day.
- Someone who isn’t suited to the process. Reverse dieting is notoriously difficult because the immediate goal of fat loss is removed; merely maintaining a physical state feels much less tangible than the initial purpose of cutting body fat. Such a person might be more likely to binge eat by trying to force themselves to reverse diet, and thus in a worse place than if they’d simply gone back to unrestricted eating.
- The initial post-diet calorie jump. Very slowly eliminating the caloric deficit of a diet is pointless, and will achieve nothing except prolonging the agony of a diet. Immediately after a diet it’s better to increase calories straight up to current maintenance level. By definition this won’t cause fat gain, and it enables the important recovery process to begin. Reverse dieting is better used for going from the artificially low caloric maintenance level that dieting caused, back to the higher level of your fully functioning body.
Wield With Caution
Reverse dieting isn’t a scam, but it’s also not necessary or a panacea for everyone in every situation. It’s simply a tool, and like every tool the appropriateness of it is context-specific.
However, used well the results can be dramatic. Being a former fat kid who was resigned to a flabby body and low caloric intake, my results from reverse dieting did actually feel miraculous. Reverse dieting enabled the attainment of a lean state I never thought I’d be able to achieve on a long term basis.
Feedback is very welcome, It’d be great to hear your thoughts and about your experiences. Just use the comment form below, or send me an email.
Related: this article, about a mental trick I use to stick to a diet.
Thank you so much for reading.
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