Feeling like you've hit a plateau on your journey?This blog is all about reverse dieting — a nutrition strategy that can help you beat the slump and achieve your body composition goals.
Keep reading to determine if reverse dieting is for you, and learn how to apply its principles confidently and effectively.
What is reverse dieting?
Reverse dieting is a strategic, consistent and incremental increase of your caloric intake. In a way, reverse dieting is progressively overloading your meals with calories and nutrients, as opposed to sudden jumps in energy intake.
While reverse dieting can be applied in a variety of scenarios, the first example that comes to mind is gradually increasing calorie intake after being in a prominent deficit, like following a bodybuilding comp prep, or after a prolonged fat loss phase.
However, there’s also a place for reverse dieting in achieving other goals.
Reverse dieting for fat loss
Reaching body composition goals requires achieving an optimal relationship between energy intake and output.
To achieve fat loss, it’s necessary to create a calorie deficit — or consume less energy than you burn throughout the day. Correctly applied calorie deficit ensures steady (and safe) fat loss, up to a certain point.
See, to adjust to limited calorie supply, your body makes an effort to use available resources as efficiently as possible, prioritising its highest needs (breathing, pumping blood, keeping the brain functioning and basically, staying alive). This is often referred to as metabolic adaptation and has been observed consistently in research.
Several factors may contribute to metabolic adaptation in a calorie deficit, such as:
Research shows that when less energy is consumed, non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), or energy exerted when performing non-structured physical activity, also drops.
This means that you will be less inclined to move around, fiddle with your pen when thinking, and will remain overall more sedentary as a result of your brain sending signals that you’re not getting enough energy!
Similarly to the previous point, when consuming less calories, you likely won’t be able to put quite as much energy into your workouts as when eating at maintenance or in a surplus.
Your muscle glycogen stores will be less full, meaning a bit less energy to lift weight or perform explosive cardio movements. Therefore, your exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) will also drop.
Changes in body mass
Fat loss means getting physically lighter! As a result, you will need less fuel to “service” a smaller body, which also contributes to overall metabolic adaptation.
Altered hormonal regulation
Certain hormonal changes are associated with remaining in a calorie deficit, such as increased levels of ghrelin and cortisol, and decreased levels of leptin. This array of hormonal changes can increase stress levels, slow down certain bodily functions (such as anything related to the reproductive system), delay processes that control metabolism, and boost hunger.
Basically, it’s the way of the body trying to make the best use of the limited resources, as well as prompt you to start consuming more energy.
The factors above can lead to reaching a fat loss plateau — there will come a point when it’s no longer possible or sustainable to keep increasing physical activity or decreasing calorie intake.
Alternatively, you may be ready to come out of the calorie deficit to eventually pursue a different goal — being that maintenance or building lean muscle.
These are the scenarios where reverse dieting can be a helpful strategy.
It's worth noting that reverse dieting is not a magical fat loss solution. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with jumping straight to your maintenance targets and beyond, as opposed to going up gradually — so long as it aligns with your next goal.
However, there are many potential benefits that come with choosing the reverse dieting approach, including:
- Easing the transition back to normal diet, which may reduce the risk of going overboard and quickly undoing most of the hard work.
- Preventing feeling bloated/overly full, as increasing intake quickly can sometimes promote fluid retention and unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.
- Gradually balancing out levels of hunger hormones.
- Helping you find your maintenance point with much more precision, as opposed to shooting straight for your previous maintenance target which has likely shifted through the calorie deficit phase.
This is why we implement reverse dieting protocols for most clients wishing to overcome a fat loss plateau or come out of a calorie deficit!
Reverse dieting for muscle gain
Entering or increasing a calorie surplus when aiming to build lean muscle can also benefit from a gradual reverse dieting approach.
Firstly, by increasing your calorie intake gradually, you are giving your metabolism a chance to “catch up” and better utilise the extra calories, as opposed to store them. This may help minimise fat gain when going through a building phase.
Secondly, this is beneficial for your own comfort levels - as getting adjusted to an increased volume of food can be difficult, especially if your intake jumps suddenly.
Implementing reverse dieting
Now, let’s talk about how to best implement it to maximise results!
If you start your reverse from a calorie deficit, begin at Step 1 — or if you’re already hovering around maintenance or are in a surplus, just skip straight to Step 2.
Step 1: Reaching maintenance
Assuming you are in a calorie deficit, you have 2 options for increasing your calorie intake until you reach maintenance:
Option #1: Incrementally increase intake by 50-200 calories every 7-14 days while documenting your progress and going quicker or slower depending on how your body responds. You can move in larger calorie increments to start with, and go in smaller increments when you start feeling like you’re approaching the maintenance point.
You would then stop once your physique has remained stable for a couple of weeks.
This approach is perfect if you’re not yet sure how your body responds to various dietary protocols, or aren’t sure what your maintenance calories are and want to definitely avoid overshooting it.
Option #2: If you are experienced with estimating your energy targets and have a good idea of what your maintenance range is, you can jump to 5-10% under your projected maintenance and go in small increments from there. It’s generally not recommended to jump right to what your previous maintenance calories were, as this target has likely shifted.
As mentioned above, so long as you remain on or under your maintenance requirements, you will not gain fat - even if you don’t get there gradually!
Step 2: Choosing your next goal
Once you have reached your maintenance and are satisfied with the amount of food you’re eating vs how your body responds, you have several options depending on what your next goal is!
If your goal is muscle building: Keep increasing your intake slightly until you reach a plausible calorie surplus. If you’re comfortable with a bigger initial increase, you can jump 5-10% above maintenance straight away and keep adding 50-100 calories every 1-2 weeks as needed, until you’ve reached your personal muscle gain “sweet spot” (e.g. you’re definitely in a surplus, are happy with the amount of food and are not feeling uncomfortably “fluffy”).
If your goal is fat loss: If the aim of your reverse dieting phase was to overcome a fat loss plateau, you can sit at maintenance for a bit and then attempt dropping your intake slowly and gradually. No sudden changes and yo-yo dieting! Otherwise, you’ll just feel cranky and miserable, which is exactly what you have been trying to avoid. If you’ve been implementing all steps patiently and have closely monitored your progress, you will likely find that it’s easier to achieve fat loss.
If you’re happy with the status quo for now: Simply maintain your intake – and enjoy your new baseline.
Reverse dieting tips
- If your macros have been planned correctly at the start of your reverse, you would already have been on a sufficient protein target. Therefore, as your calories go up, the increase should be predominantly from carbs and fats!
- You may notice some weight gain in the process, even if you’ve applied a slight increase while definitely staying in a calorie deficit. Don’t panic — it’s highly unlikely to be fat! Extra food causes a little bit of fluid retention, which is temporary, normal, and will self-resolve over time.
- Consistently assess your progress (photos are the best!) and stick to your nutritional targets as closely as possible. This removes unnecessary variables from the equation and lets you monitor changes with much more control.
- Don’t unnecessarily prolong the reverse when coming out of a deficit — if your incremental increases are too little, you are risking to stay in a deficit for longer than needed, which can slow down your progress.
When applied correctly, reverse dieting can be a great tool to boost your progress, no matter what stage of your journey you’re at!
It’s not magic, but does provide an easy to follow, helpful framework for adjusting your intake while remaining in full control of your progress.