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Reverse Dieting: Does It Help or Hurt Weight Loss?

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Reverse dieting - Dr. Axe

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.

What Is Reverse Dieting?

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.

How It Works

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:

  • A decline in basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of energy you need at rest. This reduces energy out.
  • Fatigue/less energy.
  • Less motivation for exercise and usually fewer calories burned through activity.
  • Decreased non-exercise activity thermogenesis, which is all the activity you do daily besides purposeful workouts.
  • Changes in digestion, including things slowing down, which may result in bloating and constipation.
  • Increased hunger and cravings, due to a dropping of the hormone leptin, which responds to body fat changes and helps control your appetite.

Potential Benefits

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.

Risks and Side Effects

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:

  • genetics
  • amount of NEAT
  • amount of exercise
  • diet quality (whole foods versus processed foods)
  • age
  • stress
  • sleep
  • and more

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:

  • indigestion
  • diarrhea
  • bloating
  • feeling hot/warm
  • restlessness,
  • skin breakouts
  • fluctuating appetite

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:

  • A good deal of weight and fat gain, more than you’re comfortable with.
  • Stark decrease in appetite.
  • Mood changes that are persistent.
  • Other side effects that interfere with your life and last more than about two weeks.

How to Do It

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:

  • Start slowly, and increase your calorie intake gradually. Try reversing your diet in the steps you took when you started dieting. For example, add in several (healthy) foods per week that you cut out when trying to lose weight.
  • Rather than suddenly increasing your calorie intake drastically, consider adding a small amount over time, such as 100 calories every few days. Another option is increasing calorie intake by about 5 percent every week for several weeks. This allows you to track your progress so you can find the “sweet spot.”
  • Try to roughly measure your food and calorie intake. This is the only way to know if you’re actually in a calorie deficit, meeting your needs or overfeeding. You can choose to track calories, macros and/or use hand portions to get a rough idea of your intake.
  • Some people prefer to eat mostly the same amount of food each day, while others take a “cycling” approach. Consider your schedule, and determine if you’d rather spike your calorie intake once or twice weekly by a greater amount or consistency eat more.
  • Try adjusting your physical activity up or down, depending on your goals and energy level. For example, if you want to gain muscle, exercise harder on the days you eat more. Most often, people gradually reduce cardio workouts and focus on strength training instead to promote muscle growth, but this should be determined by your overall goals.
  • Focus on eating whole foods, which helps keep your appetite in check and also keeps inflammation and other issues at bay.
  • Emphasize protein foods in your diet, which can maximize muscle protein synthesis and help reduce overeating too much.

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.

Healthy Alternatives

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:

  • Eating mindfully, such as by slowing down and paying close attention to hunger cues.
  • Keeping an eye on portion sizes, especially when eating processed foods and calorie-dense foods, like avocado, nut butters, coconut cream, etc.
  • Adding more fiber and protein to your diet to control hunger. Both tend to make you feel fuller, which means you may naturally eat a bit less without slowing down your metabolism.
  • Cutting out processed foods and focusing on nutrient-dense foods, which can naturally keep your calorie intake in check.

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.

Conclusion

  • What is reverse dieting? It’s a strategy that involves strategically increasing calorie intake in order to give your metabolism a boost and help with weight maintenance long term, muscle building, or possibly weight loss.
  • Even though this method involves eating more, it won’t necessarily lead to weight loss if done short term, especially if you also exercise. It can potentially offer benefits such as help with appetite control, gaining more energy, exercising harder, recovering better and seeing body composition improvements.
  • To get started, increase calorie intake gradually and slowly while tracking your progress. Pay attention to your reaction, and adjust based on your goals.
  • Plan to reverse diet for several weeks to several months, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Eating whole foods, avoiding processed foods, and emphasizing protein and fiber in your diet can help to keep hunger in check.
Josh Axe

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