So this blog post isn’t going to be relevant to everyone; but I feel as though it’s something that isn’t spoken about enough, despite how important it is. As I previously mentioned in my ‘Top 10 dieting hacks’, I spent the first few years of my fitness journey in a calorie deficit (and I’m not talking about a ‘moderate’ calorie deficit; just massively under-eating).
Part of this is due to being uneducated when I first started the gym, another element to the under eating has been due to disordered eating habits that have prevailed over my knowledge on the damage that excessive calorie restriction can do.
This resulted in a dramatically down-regulated my metabolism and I felt like sh*t every day. Also, this way of eating escalated to a VERY unhealthy relationship with food (Which I have now completely recovered from).
I stupidly remained in a calorie deficit for years with no break – and found it very hard to allow myself to eat more. This led to an unhealthy restrict – binge – restrict cycle which I will write about in a future blog post. Long story short – I continued eating very low macros and then decided to diet (from an already low starting point) again as I was going on holiday. As you can imagine, this didn’t give me much to play with in terms with cutting out calories, so I increased my activity levels immensely.
I went nuts on cardio, barely ate enough to feed a 3 year old and just ignored the lingering thoughts in my mind that this was no way in HELL sustainable for the rest of my life. I had stopped losing fat and I wasn’t seeing any progress despite the hard core strict dieting and training I was religiously sticking to. On top of this, I literally couldn’t think about anything other than food, calories, numbers, weight, cardio and more food.
I have now educated myself on the damage that excessive and prolonged calorie restriction can do to your hormones, mood, mental health, metabolism and general well-being. This is where reverse dieting comes in (and I WISH I had implemented it a long time ago!!)
What is a reverse diet?
Reverse dieting is the process of slowly and strategically increasing your calorie intake over a prolonged duration of time at a rate that prevents you from storing unnecessary body fat. It can be incorporated to maximize your metabolic capacity by allowing your body time to slowly respond to small incremental increases in food.
The result is a more efficient and ‘revitalized’ metabolism with minimal fat gain; and the ability to eat a much higher calorie intake every day. Whether you are a crash dieter fanatic, suffering from any kind of disordered eating or simply want to reverse out of a calorie deficit and just eat more food, this is sometimes the only option; and in most cases the most optimal option.
If you’re the type of person to constantly restrict your food, your metabolism will consequently adapt by becoming efficient at living on less calories. Your body will perceive dieting as a threat and therefore try to work against it to ensure you ‘survive’. (Evolution is a b*tch).
What does this mean???
It means that your body adapts by desperately trying to BALANCE the energy gap from consuming less food.
WHEN ENERGY “IN” GOES DOWN, ENERGY “OUT” ALSO GOES DOWN TO MATCH IT.
Different systems in your body work synergistically to create a reduction in metabolism:
- Hormones that affect your appetite and metabolism are negatively affected. It increases ghrelin (an appetite increasing hormone) and decreases leptin (which signals to your body when you’re full and satisfied) = it makes you feel constantly hungry and deprived.
- You burn less calories through non exercise activities such as moving, walking, fidgeting and working.
- Your muscles become more efficient during exercise; so they start to require less energy to perform the same activities.
- Your internal systems and your organs consume less energy and your sympathetic nervous system activity declines.
- These biological adaptations result in a metabolic shift and a down-regulated metabolism (which is often what people are referring to when they say a ‘slow’ or ‘damaged’ metabolism).
Reverse Dieting Helps to ‘Repair’ Metabolic Slowdown
Like the way your metabolism down-regulates when you decrease food, by systematically and slowly increasing your protein, carbs and fats, your metabolism responds by adapting; and eventually returning to its ‘pre-diet’ rate.
WHEN ENERGY “IN” GOES UP, ENERGY “OUT” ALSO GOES UP TO MATCH IT.
How to Implement a Successful Reverse Diet
So I’ve basically summarised 6 simple steps you can do to successfully reverse diet. The steps below have really helped me to successfully reverse diet so I want to share them with you!
1. Find your starting point (calorie –> macro targets)
To do this, you will need to track your food for about a week to see how many calories you roughly consume and what your typical macro-nutrient breakdown is for each day. To maximise the effectiveness of your reverse diet, I would recommend using an app, such as My Fitness Pal, and food weighing scales. This will ensure you’re accurately tracking your food intake and ensure that you’re increasing calories throughout the duration of the reverse diet.
2. Add calories in SLOWLY
This concept is similar to my blog post on “progressive overload”. Reverse dieting utilises the same principle, but applied to nutrition. When you’re trying to progress and build muscle in the gym, you consistently and incrementally increase load/volume to your exercises. Similarly, reverse dieting means you gradually and slowly increase calories to build muscle and enhance your metabolism. The most effective way to do it is to apply the progressive overload principle to both your training and your food intake.
Everyone’s reverse diet starting point will vary. From articles and research that I’ve read, a general guide is to add roughly 50-100 calories per week. (Some people might be able to increase it by 150 per week but this depends on your training intensity, the duration of your diet previously, hormones, etc). Monitor your weight or visually keep an eye on your body composition; if you gain weight too quickly, allow it to stabilise before you continue to add more food. This will ensure you don’t gain any excessive or unnecessary fat and helps you to stay in a healthy weight range. This also makes it much easier to lose body fat if you decide to cut down again.
Personally, when I reverse dieted, I added 70-100 calories per week which has been primarily from carbs. My protein macros were pretty much the same (increasing slightly to match 1lb protein per lb of bodyweight) and I increased my fat’s by 1.5-2g per week or every two weeks.
3. Engage in ‘heavy’ weight training
(I put ‘heavy’ in inverted commas as heavy will be dependent on the person and what they feel is challenging for their body).
The BEST thing you can do whilst reverse dieting is lifting challenging weights consistently each week. Since you’ll be eating more food than you’re used to and returning certain hormones to their normal levels, you’ll feel considerably stronger in the gym than you did when you were dieting.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS! and focus on increasing your strength. Lifting heavy weights is the best and most powerful stimulus for building muscle; which is another factor which massively contributes to improving your metabolism. The more muscle you have – the more calories your body will require to maintain this. This is because muscle is very metabolically active and it NEEDS calories just to exist.
To make the most of your reverse diet, add regular resistance training and try to add reps/weight each week to put the extra food to good use! From eating more food, having more energy, reducing my cardio and tracking my workouts, I managed to add 35kg to my hipthrusts and 25kg to my squats for the same number of reps; and I became significantly stronger on all my lifts.
I also found that switching my focus from ‘getting lean’ to ‘getting stronger’ and my performance made me less ‘obsessed’ with how my body looks all the time and gave me a new goal to work towards besides body composition.
4. Minimise cardio
Cardio can be an effective tool for fat loss, but since fat loss isn’t the goal here, it’s counterproductive to continue spending a lot of time using up the calories that could go towards building muscle and ‘repairing’ your metabolism.
If, previous to your reverse diet, your energy expenditure or cardio was very high, then I would recommend slowly reducing it each week. For example, I started my reverse diet doing around 45 minutes of cardio 5 times a week and I slowly reduced the minutes each day so that the net amount of cardio each week was gradually minimised.
5. Ensure you’re keeping track of your changes
Depending on how careful you want to be in regards to gaining minimal fat, I would suggest weighing yourself each week, measuring, taking photos and evaluate how you’re feeling in terms of your body confidence and energy levels. The key is to find the optimal ‘sweet spot’ where you can find your maximum calorie intake without gaining fat (basically optimising your calorie maintenance levels as much as possible). Once you get here, you can then reassess your goals and decide whether you want to start eating in a caloric surplus to build some muscle or remain at the same body weight and enjoy eating more food than your previous dieting macros.
6. TRUST THE PROCESS
It can be scary to start adding in more food when you have a fear of gaining fat; especially when you’re not losing weight at extremely low calorie intakes. I was so reluctant to increase my food due to massive amounts of anxiety that I was going to get fat. But I have now proven that a successfully implemented reverse diet doesn’t cause unwanted weight gain. In fact, (unless my scales are broken and my mirror is playing tricks on me), when I did my reverse diet, my clothes all fit exactly the same, I managed to increase my calories up to 2500 per day whilst doing minimal amounts of cardio. After my current dieting phase, I will be embarking on the reverse dieting process all over again. You really just have to keep faith in the process and remember your long-term goals throughout this process.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In all honestly, reverse dieting is a massive commitment. It involves a lot of work and strategic planning and tracking, but the end result pays significant dividends to your quality of life in comparison to a restrictive and mentally taxing diet.
…And at the end of the day, a few months of investing time into changing your metabolism for the better will massively benefit you in the long term.
If you want any more information on reverse dieting, Bio Layne and Holly Baxter have really informative articles and videos on this subject. The video below is particularly interesting and insightful if you’re interested in learning more!
I hope this helps some of you! Please let me know if you decide to embark on a reverse diet!