Reverse dieting: can it help with weight loss?
LAST UPDATED: Jun 23, 2023
6 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
If you’ve been dieting for a while and you’re getting tired of counting calories, you may be looking for relief. One new trend is reverse dieting, which focuses on gradually increasing your food intake post-diet, in a way that allows you to eat more, but maintain the weight loss.
Reverse dieting sounds too good to be true, so can it really work? The research is still out.
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What is reverse dieting?
Popularized by the bodybuilding community, reverse dieting is a post-diet eating strategy. Specifically, it focuses on increasing your daily calorie intake after a restrictive diet to more sustainable levels, but doing so gradually so as to prevent rebound weight gain, also known as the yo-yo effect. While a reverse diet looks different for everyone, and depends on your previous diet and future caloric goals, a general rule of thumb is to start eating about 2% to 3% more calories—primarily from carbohydrates and fat—per week for several weeks.
How does reverse dieting work?
If you’ve heard of reverse dieting, you probably have bodybuilders and powerlifters to thank, as they’re the ones who made this diet famous. Bodybuilders and some competitive athletes often have to follow strict, extremely restrictive diets to reach a certain weight class before a competition.
But here’s the thing — your metabolism eventually catches up when you’ve been in a calorie deficit for a while. And by catching up, it slows down. To prevent you from losing too much energy, your metabolic rate slows down to align with your reduced caloric intake—a process called metabolic adaptation. So, when your diet ends, and you start eating more again, you start gaining weight because your metabolism is working slower than before. This weight gain can be rapid, and usually involves fat gain. Metabolic adaptation often shows up as a weight loss plateau in people who continue with their weight loss diet, where you notice you’re not losing as much weight as you were previously.
Another thing that can happen with extreme diets is changes to your hormone levels. Research shows that when people lose body weight, their levels of ghrelin (the “hunger” hormone) increase, while leptin (the “fullness” hormone) decreases. Increased ghrelin makes you feel fatigued, increases cravings, and encourages your body to store more fat. This is all part of your body’s natural response to feeling starved, and wanting to prevent you from starving yourself. However, stopping the diet can lead to a sudden and surprising amount of fat gain, because you’re eating more, storing more fat, and potentially feeling too tired to work out.
Reverse dieting is designed to slowly ramp up your caloric intake to bring your hormones and metabolism back to normal, without experiencing the rapid fat gain that can occur when you stop dieting.
Benefits of reverse dieting
There’s little research on reverse dieting, regarding its potential pros, cons, or overall effectiveness. However, advocates of reverse dieting may anecdotally report the following benefits.
You have the freedom to eat more
One of the obvious benefits to reverse dieting is the leniency it allows in your diet. A reverse diet encourages you to eat more than you have been recently. However, it’s not that large of an increase — only about 2% to 3% per week for six weeks or so.
With a traditional reverse diet, such as that practiced by powerlifters, the goal is to devote that increased food intake to carbohydrates and fats, since those are typically restricted during their diets when preparing for competition.
You can feel more balanced
Extreme diets and calorie restrictions can make you hungry, literally. Once you’ve been on a reduced-calorie diet for a while, your hormone levels may change. Leptin lowers while ghrelin and cortisol (the “stress” hormone) both rise, so you may feel more hungry and more stressed.
Being able to eat a bit more may help you balance yourself back out, although reverse dieting hasn’t been necessarily proven to do that.
You have more energy and less fatigue
But with more calories, you’re feeding your body more energy, so you may feel less tired and have more energy again. This may help you burn more calories through your workout and non-exercise-related activities, like walking around.
It may speed up your metabolism
If they’re not actively engaging in muscle-building activities like resistance training, people on low-calorie diets can lose lean muscle mass, leading to a weight loss plateau. Increasing your muscle mass, on the other hand, can accelerate your metabolism. Some experts recommend a “recovery” period for those who hit a weight loss plateau wherein they eat more calories to boost their energy so they can develop more muscle mass. Remind you of a reverse diet?
Downsides of reverse dieting
You may be excited about the potential benefits of reverse dieting. But, it’s also important to be aware of the potential downsides.
You may regain more weight than you expect
Your body is primed to hold onto fat for energy, but when you lose a lot of weight, you also lose fat. When you stick to a diet for an extended period of time, your body adapts, and may learn to hold on to fat even longer. According to some research, this may explain why it’s tougher for people with obesity to keep losing more fat, even after they’ve lost weight. It can also make them more likely to regain weight after experiencing weight loss.
It’s also worth remembering that weight loss and gain can vary from person to person based on your sex, age, physical activity level, and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT describes the energy you burn from everyday activities like typing, talking, fidgeting, and walking around. In one small study, participants were given the same amount of extra calories daily. By the end of the study, the amount of weight they gained varied from 1 to 9 pounds.
It’s not scientifically proven out
We still don’t know if reverse dieting really works. While a few studies have been conducted, they’ve focused on the effects of reverse dieting in powerlifters, bodybuilders, and other competitive athletes — not exactly the most representative sample of people.
And while the potential benefits reverse dieting could have for maintaining weight loss has researchers excited, they all caveat that more research has to be done — especially regarding its use in helping people with obesity who lose weight keep the weight off.
It’s just as much work as a traditional diet
While reverse dieting allows you to take it a bit easier, you still have to count the number of calories and keep track of what you’re eating. And since you’re only supposed to increase your calories by a small amount each week (2% to 3%), there are a lot of calculations you need to make to do it “right.”
Reverse dieting sounds attractive as a phrase, but it may mask the fact that it involves just as much mork as a traditional diet.
It’s not sustainable
Perhaps the largest issue with reverse dieting is that it’s simply not sustainable. Yo-yo dieting between calorie-restricted diets and reverse diets wreaks havoc on your body and leads to weight gain in the long-term.
This kind of yo-yo pattern can also create fluctuations in your heart rate, blood pressure, and hormone levels, increasing your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension (high blood pressure).
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What does a reverse dieting plan look like?
A traditional reverse dieting plan focuses on making small caloric intake increases— about 2% to 3% — for weeks until you get to your new goal calorie count. Powerlifters and athletes are trying to return to their baseline levels of caloric intake before the diet, since they often have to slim down significantly (and quickly) to compete.
For people who followed a diet to lose weight, you may not want to return exactly to your pre-diet levels of energy intake, or your prior eating behaviors. If you think you’ve reached a weight loss plateau, you might opt instead for a “recovery” phase, which feels similar to a reverse diet in that it allows some calorie intake increases and is also intended to be short-term.
Get your extra calories from healthy, nutrient-dense foods and carbs, including oats, beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Avoid using your reverse diet as a free-for-all. Instead, focus on maintaining the healthy eating habits you’ve developed, but just sprinkling in a few more calories.
While reverse dieting may be helpful for some people —particularly those who are following an extremely restrictive or low-calorie diet for a temporary amount of time (like bodybuilders, actors, and the like) — it may not be the right choice for everybody, at least not until we have more research. If you’re wondering whether a reverse diet could be helpful for you, talk to your healthcare provider or a dietitian.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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