The Importance of a Reverse Diet

The human body is a wonderfully adaptive thing.  Your physiological systems are built so that you survive – we wouldn’t have made it this far as a species if our bodies didn’t adjust well to periods of low calorie intake, like during a famine.

The same physiological mechanism that allowed us to survive this long as a species often works against the modern-day human’s goal to be leaner.  We’ve all been there before in our fitness journeys – you lower your calories and increase your cardio and the weight drops off initially, and then your progress stalls more than you would expect it to.  This cycle repeats until you reach a point where you don’t lose weight no matter what you do, and you might actually start gaining weight again.  This is because weight loss leads to decreases in your metabolism – less calories burned – and not just because you’re smaller or that your body composition has changed.

The metabolic adaptations that your body goes through on a prolonged diet is called adaptive thermogenesis.  Your metabolism adapts so that your energy stores are not rapidly added to or taken away from.  This is regulated by the hormones leptin and ghrelin.  (Interestingly enough, while leptin was previously believed to enhance weight loss because of its ability to suppress appetite, researchers have found in experiments that supplementing leptin led to an increase in metabolism.)

So not only does your metabolism adapt, it stays adapted for a long time.  Fothergill et al (2016) studied competitors on “The Biggest Loser,” all of which lost a dramatic amount of weight very quickly.  They found that:

  1. All but one competitor had regained a significant amount of weight that they had lost during the show;
  2. Their resting metabolisms (both right after the show and six years later) were slower than expected for their size.
    1. Predicted: 2272 Calories right after show, 2403 Calories six years out versus 2577 Calories at start of show.
    2. Actual: 1996 Calories right after show, 1903 Calories six years out versus 2607 Calories at start of show.
  3. Although they were increasing exercise, the total energy expenditure (total calories burned) decreased over the course of the show and remained below their normal six years afterwards.
    1. Total calories burned: 3002 Calories right after show, 3429 Calories six years out versus 3804 Calories at start of show.

So what does this all mean?

It means that you can’t press on the gas pedal forever.  You cannot eat to lose weight indefinitely – at some point, you will hit your metabolic floor and start gaining weight no matter all of your efforts. In other words, for some people, it’s not about trying harder, but trying a different approach.  This means taking a break, slowly reintroducing calories back, and letting your body recover back to a baseline before trying to lose fat again.  This is called reverse dieting.

As for myself, I’ve been in almost a continuous prep since 2016 – despite being 5’5″ and ~125-130 lbs, I’ve been at ~1400 calories a day at “maintenance.”  My estimated total daily energy expenditure – how many calories I should be burning based on my stats and activity level – is 1700.  Because I’ve been at a caloric deficit for the better part of 2 years, my metabolism is incredibly slow.  I could keep pushing harder, eating ~900-1000 calories, or I could take the time to build my metabolism back up to where it should be, and lose fat on more calories in the future.

The process for reverse dieting is very individualized; how you proceed will depend very much on what you are currently eating, how you are currently training, and your future goals and priorities.

My coach bumped my carbs and fats up almost immediately after the show, and we’ve been slowly increasing my macros and decreasing my cardio week by week for the last 8-9 weeks.  This means intentionally gaining some fat and increasing calories until my weight stabilizes – I need to build more muscle and build up more of a metabolic reserve so I can grind it out a little less for my next prep.  I’m already noticing that after the initial bump post-show, I’m not gaining weight despite eating more and doing less in the gym.  My weight is holding steady now despite being at ~1650-1700 calories – I tried eating that much on vacation right after prep last year, and I gained a lot of unwanted fat.  Because it was controlled and methodical, I didn’t balloon up and get fat.

As much as people say “you can’t stay stage lean forever,” I found myself really wanting to stay really close to stage weight and feeling down about myself when I got inevitably softer.  I got my head back in the game and stuck to my reverse diet when I reminded myself that 1) this is for my metabolic health in the long run, and 2) I absolutely cannot grow on a caloric deficit.  Other girls may be able to, but I can’t.  Like I said earlier, my specific way of reverse dieting is suited for my metabolism – other girls might be able to go straight to their old maintenance calories and look stupid lean still, but that’s not where I am, and that’s okay.

It hasn’t been the easiest of journeys – I’ve had a few days where I got off track with calories and wanted to say “screw it, I’m going to full-on bulk,” but I trusted in the process my coach laid out, and kept working at it.  You are going to be within your body for the rest of your life – so be kind to it, and be kind to yourself.  You’ll feel much better off in the long run.

If you want to follow my reverse dieting progress, feel free to add me as a friend on MyFitnessPal to see what I’m eating.  I’m eating much more flexibly now that I’m off prep, and trying to enjoy eating and cooking again.  I’ll be coming out with a new series on how to cook shirataki noodles and what other goodies I ate during prep now that I have a bit more time/mental energy to experiment in the kitchen.  If you’re on Pinterest, follow me to get ideas on macro-friendly, healthy recipes that get you out of a super-restrictive dieting mindset.


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