Probably by now, you’ve heard me talk about or even just mention reverse diets.
Nearly 80% of clients that work for me have to begin with a reverse diet.
Most of the time when we are going through this process of slowly adding food back into their diet, they’ll say the words at some point “thank goodness you’re doing this for me...I’d fail at this completely if I were on my own.”
Now I am completely flattered when I hear something along those lines...but that isn’t my goal.
Obviously, I want and even need clients to maintain a business and a good life for Phyllis (my 6-toed cat in case somehow you’ve missed it), but I also completely understand that not everyone needs or wants coaching. Just because someone can’t afford it shouldn’t be the reason they aren’t living a healthy lifestyle or reaching their goals. My main priority in what I do, first and foremost, is education.
Education ➡ Awareness ➡ Results
As a coach, I am simply here to educate, to give you the tools you need to apply to your diet and nutrition. What I offer exclusively is accountability and ease of stress. Some people, myself, included don’t necessarily need a coach...they just want one simply to make life a bit easier and also provide the accountability needed to be successful.
All that to be said that I realized that—up until today—I have never actually thoroughly explained reverse dieting and how to do it.
Obviously, today is where it all changes. By the end of this blog, you should know all about how to go through a reverse diet: the how, what, when, and why behind it.
What is a reverse diet?
A reverse diet is simply the periodic and incremental addition of food into one’s diet up to maintenance calories.
When to take a 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 increase, 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 teach yourself how to eat more food again and learn the intuition behind it.
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 underfed for so long that you have no where 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. There’s no where to go. Reverse diets for our chronic under-eaters is simply to 1. improve biofeedback (sleep, hunger, stress, mood, hormones, metabolism, etc.) and 2. 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. If you’re eating below that BMR, you’re in need for a non-negotiable reverse diet.
(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 off of 2000 and it works, but you never come out of it and stay at 2000 calories. Your metabolism has now adjusted to a new normal of 2000 calories. 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.
Difference between a “recovery diet” and a “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 minicuts 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 below.
Step 2. Track your food for 5-7 days, including one weekend and take the average. Report calories and macros.
Step 3. 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. 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!