There are few things consistently I can count on in people’s nutrition.
Because everyone is SO different.
Yes, there are general trends. There are facts like calories in need to be fewer than calories out if you want to lose weight or that strength training is important or that your BMR accounts for roughly 70% of your calorie intake or that vegetables are kind of important.
BUT for the most part, everyone’s nutrition is different. This ranges from the number of calories they need to eat to the number of calories they’re willing to eat. The meal timing and frequency is never the same. The style of cravings always differ. THIS is why I don’t give meal plans. This is why individualized nutrition is the ONLY way to really get results. You’re not a one size fits all person, and neither should your nutrition be.
BUT one thing I CAN count on is that for every 5 clients I get, 4 will need a reverse diet.
I probably put more people through reverse diets than I do actual cuts. It’s such a sigh of relief when a new client gives me their initial food log and I see an average intake ABOVE 2000 calories...heck, I’m even elated when I see 1700 calories.
The worst thing about a reverse diet is that it’s all mental.
Most people, male or female, are undereating...but they want to lose weight. However, if they set up for a deficit from the already massively restricted caloric intake they’re feeding themselves, then they’re in for a world of misery.
The second worst thing about a reverse diet is that it’s just as individualized as the person, themselves. No reverse diet will ever be the same. The rate of calorie increases will differ. The magnitude of those increases also changes. The macros to bring up changes. The starting AND finish line are different.
Which just makes reverse dieting...tough.
Now, in most cases, I encourage working with a coach because of this.
But I understand not everyone wants a coach or even is in a place to hire a coach.
SO I’m dropping a blog to teach you how to reverse diet! By the end of this blog, you should have a clear picture on how to implement your very own reverse diet.
A reverse diet is simply the periodic and incremental addition of food into one’s diet up to maintenance calories.
When to Reverse Diet
There are two times to take a reverse diet.
When you are coming out of a planned and programmed cut, you need to work back up to maintenance. You can’t immediately just jump back up to maintenance in one fell swoop. First off, you likely will gain a decent bit of weight making such a large jump. As you diet, your metabolism slows down simply to match its new intake. To allow time for your metabolism to adjust, you want to slowly add in food and let biofeedback and your metabolism recover. You also are at a new normal weight, something your body needs to adjust to. Slowly bringing food up allows your body to reset its new normal. This is why so many people eventually regain the weight they lost back (even if it takes a few years). Their bodies never adjusted to the new bodyweight! Lastly, you get used to the diet intake even if you are hungry. Mentally, you need to slowly bring your intake up so you can get used to eating a higher volume of food. This will help avoid fear of gaining weight post-diet and keep you confident in yourself and the process.
Here's the thing, though, this is maybe 5% of people I work with.
The majority fall under the next category:
This is often the more common reason I see the need for reverse diets...and most often faced with the most resistance. This is when you’ve chronically under-fed for so long that you have nowhere left to go to diet. This is when I see people eating 1200 calories or even fewer and come to me wanting to lose weight. I’ve seen as low as 900 calories on average per day. There’s nowhere to go, plain and simple...even if your goal is to lose 10, 50, or 100lbs.
The main goals for reverse diets for our chronic under-eaters is simply to...
Improve biofeedback (sleep, hunger, stress, mood, hormones, metabolism, etc.) because it’s likely they haven’t felt “good” for years...although they might not know it yet.
Give me some starting place to work from. A deficit is needed to get any sort of weight loss and the only way to create a [healthy] deficit, meaning you have to be at an intake to cut from...which means reverse diet. Like the reason for reason #1, you can’t just hop up to maintenance because weight gain is likely and it would be near impossible to get anyone to adhere to that massive increase in food.
To determine if this is you, calculate your BMR (just google for a BMR calculator and plug in your info). Most females average between 1400-1500 and males between 1600-1800 calories. If you’re eating below that BMR, you’re in need for a non-negotiable reverse diet. Why? Because your BMR is JUST the number of calories needed for your body to survive...not factoring in activity, exercise, walking, eating, any of that...just survival...and let me ask you this:
Do you want to just survive or do you want to thrive and be the very best you can be?
(Now there are coaches who will put you in a deficit from your 1200-cal diet, but they’re simply taking your money and doing you a disservice and honestly have no business working on anyone’s nutrition.)
Why Reverse Diet
As briefly mentioned above, reverse diets preserve and protect your metabolism, your hormonal health, your longevity, and any future chance to ever diet again.
Take any diet. Say you were eating 2500 calories. You diet at 2000 and it works, but you never come out of it and stay at 2000 calories. Eventually, you stop losing weight. Weren’t you in a deficit?? How have you plateaued?
Your metabolism has now adjusted or adapted to a new normal of 2000 calories.
Why does that matter? 2000 calories isn’t bad, right??
Fast forward a few years and you want to diet again...now you can’t lose weight at 2000 calories because that’s now your new, defined maintenance. Instead, you drop to 1500 calories to lose weight. Say you have the same success, but again never reverse diet out of the deficit. NOW is where we see the problem. If you ever want to diet again, you’re dieting off of 1500 calories, meaning eating anywhere between 900-1100 calories. Not only is this unhealthy, but it’s completely unsustainable. Even the 1500-calorie “maintenance” intake was still very low and unsustainable, but 900-1100 is way too low...
When you under-eat, your body purposefully slows down. It slows down your metabolism. It impairs hormonal health. It eventually takes a toll on certain organs because your body doesn’t have all the fuel it needs. This is why eating under your BMR is so detrimental.
We also want to reverse diet to simply keep adherence. Making a massive jump is very difficult, physically and mentally, so the reversal process, meaning the slow incremental increases, although it takes longer ends up being more successful in the long run.
Recovery Diet vs Reverse Diet
You may or may not have heard about “recovery diets”.
Recovery diets are the big jump up to (or at least close to) maintenance. These are done in 1-2 additions and are a massive increase in food. As already mentioned, we want to avoid this in cases of reverse diets, but recovery diets do have a place and need to be introduced.
Recovery diets should be used in the case of mini-cuts, diet breaks, and bodybuilders (post-show).
Competitive bodybuilders get to unhealthy, lean levels. They likely are at a point of leanness where they’re mentally fried, metabolically tanked, and likely have lost all forms of a normal sex drive and cycle (for females). It’s essential we add on some body fat immediately, so recovery diets are crucial to implement for a short period of time followed then by the actual reverse diet.
In a mini-cut, you’re only in a deficit for 3-6 weeks (6 at most), which is not enough time to see any form of adaptation (metabolic or hormonal), so there is no need for a complete reverse diets. We use mini-cuts* in off-season body builders and competitive athletes to keep bodyweight and fat gain minimal and in some minimal and specific cases of reverse diets in order to maintain adherence. If someone mentally is terrified of weight gain, I’ll put them in a reverse diet for 4 weeks, then mini-cut for 2-3 weeks, then up to the old intake and reverse again for 4 weeks, followed by a mini-cut for 2-3 weeks until maintenance is reached. This slows the process of a reverse diet, but if it is the only way to get a client up to maintenance and keep their adherence and motivation high, then that’s the way to go.
(*Note mini-cuts aren’t for everyone. They’re very aggressive and more just bring down water retention and SOME fat...an actual cut and weight loss phase lasting 8-12 weeks is the best and safest way to lose weight)
Lastly diet breaks are incremental breaks in one’s diet back up to maintenance. They can last anywhere from 3-6 weeks all the way up to 2-3 months, depending on the client’s adherence, mental motivation, and biofeedback. You will resume the deficit, so there’s no need to reverse out of it. Simply make one addition back up to maintenance. There will be water retention and maybe a little fat gain BUT it will come back off the second you resume the deficit.
How to Reverse Diet?
Now for the fun part. This part is the most difficult because it is all individualized to the person, but I’ll walk you through as much as possible!
Step 1. Calculate your BMR and your activity to determine your theoretical maintenance.
You can do this in my free nutrition guide....but a quick and dirty way is to just Google for a BMR calculator. Pay attention to your units. Some BMR calculators ask for your weight in kg (not lbs) and height in cm (not inches).
Step 2. Track your food for 5-7 days, including one weekend and take the average.
Report calories and macros.
Step 3. What's the difference?
If your current intake is below your BMR OR the difference between your calculated and actual intake is greater than ~600 calories, you need a reverse diet. If that difference is <500 calories, simply make the jump up with macros dialed in.
Step 4. Calculate estimated macros FOR MAINTENANCE.
Generally, maintenance is your bodyweight x 12-14. You can do this more accurately in my nutrition guide. Protein should be roughly bodyweight or target bodyweight. Fats should be between 25-35% of total calories and no less than .3g/lb bw. Carbs are simply what’s left (remember protein has 4 calories/gram, fats have 9 calories/gram, and carbs have 4 calories/gram). They should fall between 35-55% of total calories.
Step 5. Compare estimated macros to your actual macros from your food log.
What macros are you short on? Over on? Exactly right?
You likely are severely short on protein, so this is always the first priority. Most females are usually undereating all macros, but I often do find a pretty okay intake with carbs and fats.
Step 6. Assess biofeedback to determine initial jump.
If you are in a really bad spot (eating <1000 calories and feeling like garbage), I recommend a large jump simply to get you on the road to health. You’re in a dangerous spot and it’s crucial to get in food. I’d start you at 1200-1300 calories.
If you’re not too low, between 1400-1700 calories, then you don’t need to make as large of an initial jump, unless you want to. You can start with the standard 50-100 calorie jump.
Step 7. Protein first, carbs and fats follow.
Always add protein first, unless fats and carbs each are below 0.3g/lb bw and 0.6 g/lb bw respectively. Bring those up to the necessary levels for hormonal and metabolic health, then continue with protein. Oftentimes to start, I have to adjust all three just so I can get some form adherence and mental relief (especially in my under-eating scenarios).
From there, I’ll assess the client. If they’re fine on one of the macros, I’ll just focus on the other one. If carbs are severely low, I’ll prioritize those first before fats. If the client is okay with both and not craving one or the other terribly, I’ll alternate weeks (5g fats one week, 10-20g carbs the other) or add a small amount of both each week (3-5g fats + 10g carbs weekly).
Step 8. Rate of addition
This is completely dependent on the person, but I add between 10-20g of protein until protein goal is met before moving on to carbs and fats. I’ll often add between 10-15g of carbs at a time, and only 5g of fats at a time, as these are more calorically dense.
Aim to add food weekly or biweekly. The quicker you go, the quicker you’ll be done with your reverse diet, but if you’re scared of weight gain or struggling with adherence, take a slower approach.
You also aren’t stuck to one way. If you add weekly until week 8 then need a break, hold for 2 even 3 or 4 weeks until motivation and adherence is back. If you’re adding carbs exclusively but get stuck, then move on to fats until you’re ready to come back to carbs.
Always assess mental motivation and cravings along with other forms of biofeedback.
Step 9. Post-cut
This case is entirely different and much easier. Protein should already be at body weight. Calculate your new maintenance with your new body weight. Make weekly additions of carbs and/or fats until maintenance calories is reached.
Step 10. When to stop
Stop once you get to maintenance or until biofeedback stops improving. IF you are losing weight or maintaining weight (see below for how weight changes), then stop once your weight increases and doesn’t fall back down. If you are gaining weight, just work slowly (probably making biweekly jumps) until you reach maintenance calories or until you see a lag in biofeedback.
What to Expect
There are a number of things to expect during a reverse diet.
#1. Weight change
Your weight can respond in a number of ways. It is 100% independent to the individual. I’ve had clients lose weight. I’ve had others gain weight. Most, however, simply maintain weight.
If you’ve never dieted before or every dialed in macros, you’re likely one to lose weight, especially following the “how” diligently and take a slow approach.
If you’ve chronically dieted and have put your body through the ringer for years, you are unfortunately one of the cases where you might gain some weight. This, however, should be your indication how crucial it is for you to reverse and how much your body needs this reverse. I had a client gain 17 lbs during the first 2 weeks of a reverse diet. Two to three months later, the weight came off (and we kept adding food). Her body was starved and needed food and nutrients. Because it hadn’t probably ever received so much love, it held on to everything and took those 2-3 months to shed that retention and bring weight back down. Don’t panic if you gain weight. If you do, hire a coach to keep you accountable and to help you through the process.
Maintaining weight is also the indication that the reverse is working and that you are still progressing. So many people will be 500+ calories into their reverse diet with no weight change and check in upset and frustrated. They added food and didn’t gain weight...that’s progress. Intuitively (and empirically), adding food means weight gain. The fact you aren’t gaining weight means you are increasing your daily expenditure AND metabolism. This is a good sign and a win to celebrate.
The other option that might happen is that you gain weight 1-3 days following the addition of food, but 4-5 days later it drops back down. This is simply extra water retention upon the addition of food, which falls back down the second your body adjusts.
#2. Improved biofeedback
When you reverse diet, you should see your energy levels skyrocket, sleep improve, hunger increase, cravings decrease, and gym performance and recovery improve. All of these things mean your body is finally being supported. Females likely will feel an improvement in PMS symptoms as well.
These are the wins to celebrate during a reverse diet...especially if you are gaining weight during the process. Stay away from the scale and celebrate the fact that you can get through a CrossFit workout finally without having to lay on the floor for 2 hours afterwards. Celebrate the fact that you’re finally going to sleep and staying asleep in the middle of the night. Celebrate finally having a sex drive. Celebrate not having cravings day in day out and having no control when it comes to sweets and treats.
You also may get to a point where you are starving...this happens more often than you realize. If this happens, feel free to accelerate your weekly additions!
#3. Mental challenge
Reverse diets are not easy. This is why I really do encourage having a coach, even if it’s just for support and accountability. We all, even myself, have an attachment to the scale as much as we try to say we don’t. It’s hard feeling like you’re not making progress (when really you are!) yet putting in all this effort. It takes a lot to add in food and trust the process, but it’s so curial and imperative that you remain mentally strong and adhere to the entire process.
#4. Open mind
You will need to remain open-minded. This goes against everything you’ve likely been taught from social media, celebrities, and marketing/advertisements. If you’ve tried everything under the books, this likely is your only option. Trust the process and have an open mind that it will work...it just takes patience.
I understand reverse diets are hard.
I, myself, went through one in 2018 and increased my intake from 1700 to 2700. It wasn’t easy...but as time went on, I started feeling like a normal human being again. What triggered my reverse diet was the realization I don’t have to feel miserable 24/7/365. I trusted the process and went all in on my health and came out a much happier, healthier, and stronger person than I’ve ever been. The clients of mine that do succeed feel the same way. Yes some of them fail...because they remain close-minded and are too fixated on the scale that I can no longer help them until they are ready to be helped and make the changes needed.
If you need a reverse diet, you can do it on your own. I did the whole thing by myself and actually didn’t have a coach doing my nutrition until afterwards, but some of that was because I wanted to use it as a learning tool to help me improve as a coach.
Accountability is key...so is support...two things that are essential to reverse dieting.
If you need help with your reverse diet, apply here for a coaching call to get your reverse diet underway.
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.
Recipe & Macro Guide here.