Is Reverse Dieting The Key To Fat Loss Success?

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For weight loss, we’re told to lower calories and do more cardio.

While that might yield initial results, over time, that strategy will end up doing more harm than good.

Which leads me to Reverse Dieting.

The definition of reverse dieting is pretty simple. After a prolonged dieting phase, increase calorie intake to restore normal metabolic function. But of course it is much more to that.

Reverse Dieting:

  • How much calories to increase?
  • How quickly do we increase those calories?
  • What about macros?
  • Where does our relationship with food and lifestyle fit in?
  • For how long do we stay in an increased calorie state?

These questions are important before plan design but know “Reverse dieting” isn’t a scientific term. But it is used widely in Bodybuilding circles.

It’s the process of gradually increasing calorie intake after a prolonged period of dieting period to help your metabolism recover. But with the increasing rate of metabolic adaptations due to extreme dieting, the term is now accepted in our industry.

Whoa there Jenny! What’s do you mean by Metabolic Adaptation?

Before I circle back to reverse dieting, I have to talk to you about metabolic adaptation.

Many of my scientific mentors in the weight loss industry have hypothesized that everyone has a “Metabolic Set Point“. This is the point in where your body is most comfortable to function and fights to maintain regardless of lowering calories or increasing calories. Your body will try to remain closest to this set point.

Think of your set point like a thermostat. Lyle McDonald (a research pioneer in my industry) explained it like this: if your thermostat is set to a specific temperature and outside conditions change, then the thermostat will adjust by heating or cooling to maintain the temperature setting.

The human body reacts the same way.

In a normal metabolic environment, lower calories means fat loss. Increasing calories means weight gain.

In a perfect metabolic environment, a higher calorie range as maintenance results in lean and strong physique. That means eating more and having a sexy, detailed body.

But with all of those aggressively low diets (like the Keto rage as I write this blog), many dieters often complain about results. Why? Because their body is holding on to its set point.

With a yo yo dieter, we’re dealing with a sluggish metabolism. So even when a caloric deficit is introduced we might have little change on the scale. Or even a possible uptick in scale weight.

I know that’s not what someone with a weight loss goal wants to hear.

So let me break it down for you – the human body is smart. It figures out when its constantly starved so will adapt by slowing your metabolism and storing body fat. Body fat is an energy source by the way.

Think about all of those no carb strategies, soup diets, eliminating protein, or whatever preposterous weight loss strategy people undertake. Do you think there’s no repercussion?

The big take home here is we can’t outsmart our bodies.

So if you’re a yo yo dieter and want to make real fat loss progress, my advice is this. Check the ego at the door by ignoring the scale. Doing the right things consistently. And listen to your body.

Physiologically Speaking aggressive and repetitive dieting promotes Sympathetic Nervous System activity slowdown. It also reduces hormone production and thyroid output along with sex hormones and metabolic function. Sleep, hunger, sex drive, mood, strength and fat loss is what I’m referring to here.

From an Emotional Standpoint, prolonged dieting also has a negative affect in our relationship with food and our bodies. Possibly with loved ones too so that is something else that needs to be looked at. Dieters typically feel the need to “diet more” and/or “diet harder”. This is done by restricting foods, skipping events, and looking at food like it’s the enemy.

And for moms, the negative association with food is be passed on to children.

Research Specialists and Pioneers in my industry can do a much better job at explaining the science behind all of this. But we can all come to 1 conclusion – for the body to thrive, extremely low calorie diets has to stop.

Which is where Reverse Dieting fits in.

Being in the fat loss game for as long as I have, my own clients have to sidestep their goals from weight loss to focusing on “undoing” years of dieting abuse.

With reverse dieting, we start with a higher calorie range and possibly decrease exercise output to assess.

Less exercise? Say what?

This isn’t always the case. But if you’ve been doing 45 minutes on the treadmill yielding you little to no results, it’s not likely 1 hour on the treadmill is going to give you the outcome you desire. And why in the world would you spend an hour on the treadmill anyway?

With clients who have a very colourful history of dieting, I will use a reverse dieting strategy and start at either maintenance calories or a reasonable deficit (x13-14 one’s body weight) to better understand how my client responds. The actual calorie range assigned will depend on a number of factors. This includes dieting history, hormonal or adrenal issues, stress levels, emotional feedback and other lifestyle factors.

After 2-4 weeks of assessment, I have data to work with for adjustments and possible updates. Please note I said DATA and not necessarily weight loss.

This data is important to analyze and response falls into 3 categories.

3 Types Of Response:

1 – No Weight Change. This is usually what I come across first but this usually does come with positive body recomposition (less body fat, more lean tissue).  Since muscle is a more dense tissue, this also comes with inches lost. 

2 – Weight Loss. If a client experiences this, then we can determine they haven’t experience any long term negative metabolic adaptations. Caloric intake is reasonable to signal the body to resume its normal metabolic processes and begin fat loss.

3 – Weight Gain. This is a doozy and obviously the most disheartening category.  Metabolism has been affected so drastically that initial caloric increase contributes to increased weight gain. This is done via glycogen storage and possibly increased body fat levels.  But the good news is, as the reverse diet is continued, body fat is lost and metabolic function will eventually normalize adjusting metabolic set point.

Unfortunately there isn’t a way to determine which category you’ll will fall into. That will vary from person to person (with dieting history being the main contributor). The bottom line it is absolutely necessary to consume increased calories to improve metabolic function regardless of the outcome of the scale.

If metabolic function isn’t restored (and you keep trying to starve yourself to progress), you’ll never achieve your goals. And may face a number of health consequences along the way.

Reverse Diet:

So now that you’re ready, start with a caloric range closer to maintenance or just a tad below. Somewhere between x13-15 of your body weight is a good start.

Assessment is no different than typical check-ins. Every 2 weeks is a reasonable amount of time to assess data (i.e. physical and physiological assessment including some emotional management). Increase carb and fat ranges in regular intervals. By how much depends on the person: present conditioning, how long they’ve been dieting, ability to digest food, and stress levels in their ability to leave vanity aside.

Periods of higher carbohydrate feedings also have the potential to reverse negative hormonal changes. As well as refilling muscle glycogen which can help maintain weight training/lifting performance. Complex carbohydrates from whole foods is the macro I keep an eye on in a period of reverse dieting.

Now it’s not surprising when a client starts eating more whole foods, it feels like a shock. Most people who want to lose weight typically under eat whole foods. Just to be clear whole foods are high in volume and lower in calories which will aid digestion and can improve metabolic function.

More importantly the prolonged period of reverse dieting is also an opportunity to work on your relationship with food. By understanding a higher calorie range (i.e. more food) is necessary to move forward.

I know weight gain or staying at a standstill while trying to lose weight sounds counterintuitive. Regardless it still doesn’t make the process easy to handle from a mindset standpoint.

Like I said earlier if you can check your ego at the door and leave vanity aside to fast forward your progress. You’ll be off to the races in repairing your body’s natural functions and improving it’s metabolic set point.

But ultimately it’s always up to the INDIVIDUAL to accept reality and what has to be done to correct it.

Hopefully this blog gives you a good place to start when setting up your nutrition plan for fat loss success. But if you need more guidance, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

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