Unless you’re a fitness competitor you’ve probably never heard the term “reverse diet.” After all, most people are strictly concerned with reducing their body fat and the idea of anything that appears to go in the other direction is not worth their attention.
In fact, reverse dieting is a useful tool for improving your body composition without the misery of starving yourself. Not only can it help you achieve a healthier body fat level in the long-term, but you can also increase muscle definition, gain strength, preserve your sanity and mood, and protect your health—a variable that takes a huge hit when you engage in a repeated cycle of diets.
What Is Reverse Dieting?
In simple terms, it is the process of increasing your calories over time to minimize fat gain and repair your metabolic health following a diet. Traditionally, it has been used by fitness competitors and athletes who need to reduce body fat to a very low level for a competition, however, there are other useful applications as well.
It works like this: Over the 4 months prior to a competition, you ratchet down your daily calorie intake to below 1,300 a day, while increasing training—generally aerobic training. The body responds to lack of calories by slowing certain metabolic processes in an effort to preserve fuel stores. Called metabolic adaptation, this means that where you used to be burning a minimum of 1,600 calories a day at rest, you’re now burning fewer than 1,200.
Once you complete your competition, it’s time to “reverse your diet” and progressively increase calories, which will coax your body to upregulate metabolic processes so that you raise your resting energy expenditure. Restoring your metabolism is key because living on 1,300 calories a day is both miserable and harmful to your health and performance.
The alternative of immediately bumping calories back up to your normal pre-dieting range after a competition doesn’t give your metabolism time to catch up and get with the program and it can lead to significant fat gain, which is bad for both your head and your health.
What Does A Reverse Diet Look Like In Real Life?
In this article, we’ll cover the traditional reverse diet that you use after a period of low-calorie eating but we're also going to look at an alternative application. This is pretty cool because it allows you to get improved body composition results without severe dieting, making them sustainable and tolerable.
The standard formula for reverse dieting is as follows:
Say you’re a female fitness competitor weighing 140 pounds (64 kg) at 20 percent body fat who needs to get down to below 12 percent. Your maintenance diet looks something like this:
Calories: 2350 calories a day
Protein: 30 percent, 176 g/day
Fat: 30 percent, 78 g/day
Carbs: 40 percent. 235 g/day
Over the course of 3 to 5 months you diet down to the following values:
Protein: 40 percent, 170 g/day
Fat: 30 percent, 56 g/day
Carbs: 30 percent, 127 g/day
Notice that the calorie reduction came from lowering carbs and fat, while maintaining protein intake pretty steady. This approach will help preserve lean muscle mass, which is absolutely essential to minimize the long-term effects of metabolic adaptation. It also helps you maximize physical performance and maintain strength, which is paramount if you’re dieting for a weight class sport.
Over the course of the next 4 months after your competition, you want to get back up to your maintenance calories. Ideally, you want to do this as quickly as possible without excessive fat gain. Depending on your metabolism and training levels, you should be able to add roughly 50 to 75 calories a week. Some people find they can increase calories faster (in the 150 a week range), so finding your sweet spot will depend on what you can tolerate mentally and physically. Say you want to add 75 calories each week, this can be done adding 10 grams of carbs (40 calories) and 4 grams of fat (36 calories).
It should be noted that you might find coaches who suggest a greater reduction in calories to the 1,300 a day range. Although this might be indicated for a week or so pre-competition, it is generally not recommended because it leads to a greater degree of metabolic adaptation that is so severe, it is much harder to recover from.
We know from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (a low-calorie diet experiment conducted following World War II) that such a low energy intake leads to changes in neurological function that result in depression and sustained obsessive preoccupation with food. Keeping calories higher in the 1,600 to 1,800 a day range at the end of a diet may prevent this.
There’s even an example of this type of program from a recent study of Finnish female fitness competitors who lost an average of 54 percent body fat, going from 23 percent body fat to 12.7 percent for their competition. They achieved this by progressively lowering calories from 2,366 pre-diet to 1,885 immediately prior to competition. Then over 4 months post-competition, they increased calories to 2,216, ending with less body fat than when they started (20 percent).
By maintaining their protein intake during the diet, the women prevented any significant loss in lean mass. Additionally, although they experienced significant reductions in metabolic hormones (leptin, thyroid, testosterone, and estrogen), hormone values mostly returned to normal by the end of the “reverse diet.” Thyroid hormone and testosterone were still reduced from baseline, but they were going in the right direction.
The High-Protein Reverse Diet
Another example of how to use a reverse diet comes from two studies that tested the effect of increasing calories by bumping up protein intake for a set period.
A 2014 study had trained subjects increase their daily calories by 800 (from 2,042 to 2,835 calories a day) by doubling their protein intake so that they were consuming an average of 307 grams of protein daily. Most of the extra protein came from whey protein. There was no organized training program but subjects continued training as they had prior to the start of the study. By the end of the study, subjects had reduced body fat percentage from 16.9 to 16.3 percent, gained muscle, and lost a small amount of body fat (0.3 kg).
A second study from the same research group that included an organized strength training program had similarly impressive results: Trained subjects who increased calories by 400 from 2240 to 2614 per day by raising protein from 154 grams to 255 daily resulted in a reduced body fat percentage from 18.3 to 15.9 percent, a 1.5 kg increase in muscle, and a 1.5 kg decrease of body fat.
These two studies show that despite increasing calories, it’s possible to get significantly leaner and lose body fat if the majority of extra calories come from protein. Training correctly is key to this equation: The subjects conducted intense strength training in both studies and did no aerobic exercise.
Take Away Tips:
#1: If you reduce calories to lose body fat, avoid going below 1,600. Most people who are training correctly should be above 1,800 a day.
#2: When cutting calories, maintain your protein intake. Note that as your body weight decreases, you’ll need less total protein to maintain the same quantity per pound, so it’s reasonable if your total protein intake goes down slightly.
#3: Avoid going too low with fat because this will deprive the body of raw materials necessary for manufacturing hormones involved in maintaining health and metabolic rate.
#4: Strength training is essential any time you are trying to reduce body fat because it will allow you to maintain your muscle mass and minimize the metabolic slowdown that comes from a decrease in body weight.
#5: When increasing calories, you need to find the sweet spot that your body can handle without creating a calorie excess. People with smaller body sizes may benefit from increasing 50 to 75 calories a week, whereas larger frames may be able to go as high as 150 calories a week.
#6: Protein should be gotten from high-quality sources that supply the greatest quantity of amino acids per gram of protein. Chicken, turkey, beef, eggs, fish, and dairy are all high-quality protein foods.
#7: Prioritize whole sources of fat and carbohydrates because these foods will be digested more slowly leading to better blood sugar and insulin health. Nuts, seeds, avocados, fish, eggs, and whole fat dairy are all good sources of healthy fat. Vegetables, fruit, boiled grains (such as buckwheat, millet, or oats), and beans are all healthy carbohydrate foods.
#8: Minimize your intake of refined carbs and processed foods because these have low nutrient density per calorie. They are also quickly digested and low in fiber, leading to a larger increase in blood sugar and insulin, which results in a poorer metabolic response and greater hunger.
#9: One strategy we didn’t cover that can be helpful when lowering calories is to cycle your carbohydrate intake. This approach has been shown to improve hormones such as thyroid hormone, which is key for sustaining metabolic rate. If you are eating a lower carb diet on most days, you could increase your carb intake 1 to 2 days a week, generally on your heaviest training day.
#10: Avoid doing cardio with the express purpose of burning calories. Low-intensity aerobic exercise such as brisk walking can be useful for improving body composition, but it’s easy to go overboard if you’re doing it in order to create a calorie deficit and this can lead to eating more calories as a reward and exacerbate hormonal imbalances.