If you’ve steadily been losing body fat but are now finding that your results are stalling, you may want to try the “natural metabolism booster” called reverse dieting.
This dietary tool is said to be “borrowed from the bodybuilding world” because it can offer benefits such as gaining muscle mass and helping with exercise performance and recovery.
According to proponents of this approach, why do you need to reverse diet? Most often it’s done after someone has been on a calorie-restricted diet. The main goal is to prevent your metabolic rate from decreasing and therefore your body’s ability to burn calories for energy from slowing down.
It seems counterintuitive, but by stopping “metabolic adaptation” from happening, the hope is that you’ll prevent a plateau in weight loss or even weight gain by eating more instead of less.
Reverse dieting is a strategy that involves purposefully eating more for a period of time in order to stoke your metabolism and potentially even help with weight loss.
Do you gain weight when reverse dieting? Not necessarily, even though you’re consuming more calories.
It really depends on the specific person and the eating plan, but many find that, if done right, it won’t lead to much weight gain and might even be beneficial for one’s overall body composition.
An unfortunate side effect of losing weight is that your metabolic rate usually decreases. This is called metabolic adaptation. It means that you need to eat less in order to maintain your weight loss and current weight.
This also makes it harder to keep losing any additional weight because your body requires fewer and fewer calories just to remain in balance.
The reason reverse dieting can be beneficial is because it helps stop the metabolic adaptation known as the body’s “starvation response.” (It’s what people refer to when they say they’re in “starvation mode.”) Side effects of this response, which kicks in when someone eats less then the body requires for maintenance (aka diets), typically include:
Can you lose weight while reverse dieting? Most likely, reverse dieting will help you to maintain the weight you’ve already lost for a longer period of time. It can potentially also help you lose weight, but again this varies from person to person.
In addition to supporting a healthy metabolism and preventing your metabolic rate from slowing down, reverse dieting can also offer some of these benefits by keeping your body out of starvation mode:
1. Increased Muscle Mass
Muscles need plenty of energy to grow, especially when faced with the challenge of repairing themselves after resistance exercise. Giving your body more energy in the form of food/calories is the best way to promote muscle growth, in conjunction with strength-training.
On the flip side, gaining muscle is very hard while in a calorie deficit and following a low-calorie diet. If a boost in muscle mass and strength is one of your goals, especially if you don’t mind possibly gaining some body fat too, this can be a good way to go about it.
2. Preventing Increased Appetite and Cravings
As explained above, your body adapts to a calorie deficit in a number of ways, including by making you want to eat more, oftentimes especially calorie-dense foods. If your appetite and cravings have ramped up due to weight loss/dieting, adding more calories to your diet can be a good way to signal to your brain that it’s time to normalize hunger.
In addition to feeling more satiated, you might also notice improvements in digestion and other physiological processes, such as sleep and libido.
3. More Flexibility and a Mental Break from Dieting
Dieting for an extended period of time doesn’t only wain on you physically — it also usually leads to some feelings of deprivation and restriction. By allowing yourself more flexibility in your diet, you may find that your motivation to eat healthy actually extends long term and you’re more enthusiastic about cleaning up your diet once the reverse dieting is over.
4. More Energy and Better Performance
Eating more food translates to greater intake of macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat) as well as micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) that help give you more mental and physical energy.
Obtaining a greater range of nutrients is also supportive of processes including learning and other cognitive functions, and it can help fuel your workouts too.
Studies suggest that there’s also a good chance that when you increase your calorie intake you’ll naturally have more energy for “non exercise activities” (also known as NEAT), such as walking, playing with your kids, fidgeting and other forms of movement that you mostly do without necessarily trying. This usually translates to more calories “burned” and can help keep weight gain in check.
Not every person reacts to reverse dieting and overfeeding (when you eat more than your body requires) in the same way. There are many factors that can potentially influence your results, such as:
The greatest risk when trying this strategy is that it won’t work and you’ll actually gain weight. While the hope is that your body and metabolism will get stoked to burn more calories and that your level of activity will increase, this may not necessarily happen.
Overall, how well this works varies from person to person, so reverse dieting is not always 100 percent effective.
Side effects that you might potentially experience while reverse dieting and/or overfeeding can include:
While these side effects will likely go away when you return to your normal diet, it might be a good idea to stop reverse dieting if you continue to experience:
How do you start a reverse diet? First and foremost, get a good idea of how many “maintenance calories” you need to maintain your current weight. There are plenty of online calculators available to help you do this.
Then identify your goals, and follow the steps below.
Here are tips for beginning for getting the best results, according to experts in bodybuilding and other dietary strategies:
How long should you reverse diet?
A common recommendation is to stay at a higher calorie intake (or at least matching your calorie needs) for roughly as long as you spent dieting. Then, after several weeks or months, you can choose to diet again if you’d like if more weight loss is desired.
Many experts recommend first experimenting with your maintenance intake of calories for about two to four weeks. Monitor how you feel and your progress, and then adjust accordingly.
Pay attention not only to your weight, but also changes in strength, performance, energy levels, hunger, digestive symptoms and your mood. You might also choose to track body measurements or performance measurements, like heart rate, etc.
If tracking your intake of calories, counting macros, being really careful about portions, etc., is daunting and unappealing to you, reverse dieting may not be the best option for you. Instead of cycling between cutting and increasing food intake, you can take a more balanced and consistent approach if this works better for you.
Alternatives to reverse dieting can include:
There are also similar but different approaches to improving your body composition, such as intermittent fasting, the keto diet or carb cycling. All can help with weight loss while still supporting a healthy metabolism. It really comes down to your preferences and lifestyle.
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