Let’s talk about your diet.
It probably looks like a bit like this.
You want to lose weight, so you start cutting your intake and eating a bit less.
You also start increasing your activity at the gym, either increasing the frequency at which you go, the time you spend at the gym, or increasing your cardio or daily activity.
For a while, let’s say 3 months, you have great results. Your weight loss is trending, about a pound or two a week.
Fast forward to after 3 months, your weight loss stalls. What do you do?
You probably decrease your intake again and increase your activity to break through that plateau. You start losing weight again and all is good.
Now let’s say you reach your goal. You’ve achieved your weight loss and you’ve finally made it! You’re excited, confident and ready to take on the world in your new self.
NOW let’s talk about your diet…again. What does it look like??
You likely didn’t change a thing, right? Let’s say you were eating 2500 calories before. Your first diet phase put you at roughly 2000 calories. After that plateau you dropped to 1600. Let’s not forget about that cardio. Let’s just say you were walking daily, doing 2 HIIT finishers, and one 30-minute run/bike each week. You probably didn’t change much of that either.
This is the biggest mistake I often see when it comes to dieting.
You don’t do the diet after the diet.
You can’t just stay at your deficit intake and activity. I’ve said it before, but you must spend time at maintenance after any diet phase. This is because dieting, no matter if it was the perfect diet or the worst crash diet in history, is still a stressor.
If you stay at this deficit intake too long, your body is going to slow down to match that intake and establish a new “maintenance”. How does it slow down? It will slow your metabolism. It will downregulate non-essential processes like your reproductive system (you’re not in a healthy state, so it’s not good environment for a baby to be in anyways), digestion, muscle protein synthesis, sleep, hormone production/regulation, etc. In fact, to get energy, your body will go into your muscles and break them down for energy, so in fact, in a chronically dieted state, we actually see muscle breakdown and a worsening of body composition.
Additionally, it makes any future dieting near impossible. Now that your body and metabolism adapted to this new deficit intake (let’s keep with the 1600 calories), that’s your new normal maintenance. Before, its maintenance was closer to 2500…so we’ve cut ourselves short almost 1000 calories. NOW, if you want to diet again, you no longer can work off of your old maintenance intake of 2500 calories. Instead, you’re limited to taking calories from your new normal intake of 1600 calories, meaning that first cut could have you eating 1100 calories/day, more if your weight loss plateaus. If you never took away the cardio or extra activity, then you also have to add on even more cardio sessions to get energy expenditure up. Not only is this not healthy, but it isn’t sustainable and likely is something you won’t be able to adhere to. In any diet, adherence is key. If you can’t adhere to the diet, then that diet will not work…no matter how hard you try.
I’ve said this over and over again…so I won’t go too much further in detail.
Instead, I’ll talk about what to do when you’ve finished your diet…the diet after the diet.
Unfortunately, when you achieved your weight loss and you’re all happy and confident, the game isn’t over just yet.
The next phase of your diet is reversing your intake back up to its maintenance intake in what is called a reverse diet.
Now, I know what you’re thinking…won’t that just cause weight gain???
MAYBE 1-2 lbs. (3 depending on your body) ... but this is truly just water weight, not added weight due to fat gains.
The trick is that you complete this reversal process as slow as your body needs to adapt to the added food without adding any weight.
There is something called a “recovery diet,” which also is an option. However, this is simply going straight up to maintenance in one big jump. This is reserved for people in severe metabolically adapted states or diet breaks. We tend to see a bit more weight gain associated with recovery diets, although they 100% do have their time and place.
Back to reverse diets.
How exactly does it work?
Step 1. Calculate New Maintenance
The first step is figuring out where your new maintenance is. If you were initially eating 2500 calories, but lost greater than 20-25lbs, you likely have a lower calculated maintenance. As you lose weight, you have less mass burning fuel, so your energy expenditure will drop slightly. If your diet was simply to lose a few pounds, between 5-10 lbs., it’s likely your energy expenditure won’t drop too much, but you can still recalculate your maintenance.
Quick and easy way is to take your bodyweight and multiply by 10. This will give you your BMR, the number of calories your body needs to survive.
Next, factor in activity level using the chart below. Most of you will range between 1.3-1.6.
This gives you the number of calories you will need to work yourself up to over the span of a few weeks.
Step 2. Assess Biofeedback
This step is going determine your rate of reversal or how aggressive you might need to be. This is definitely one of the benefits of having a coach.
If your biofeedback is very poor and you’re likely at the brink of giving up or going on a complete binge, it’s likely your body and metabolism has started to adapt to the new intake. In this case, you’re going to want to get a bit aggressive, at least on the front end, with your reverse diet by making a 100-300 calorie jump (likely via a combo of carbs and fats – discussed in Step 3). After this jump, reassess biofeedback (and weight) and decide if you still need to be aggressive in the reverse OR if you can slow down the reverse.
If biofeedback has not taken a significant hit and you feel generally alright—hypothetically speaking, you could go a few more weeks in a diet phase—then you can be a bit slower and less aggressive in the reverse and just make small additions in carbs and fats weekly or every other week.
Step 3. Slow is Fast
This is the step where you add in food. During the diet, you hopefully didn’t bring protein down at all. If you did, then you’re going to want to immediately bring it back up to body weight. Next, you’ll add carbs and fats. The rate at which you add is going to depend on biofeedback assessed in Step 2. As for which to add first and how much, there really isn’t much of a difference. It’s mainly going to come down to adherence. Which macro are you missing the most and which are you struggling to hit the most? That is going to be the first jump you make. If you’re fine with where your carbs are, but struggling hitting fats, then I’d start first by adding fats then following with carbs.
If you’re making a big jump due to poor biofeedback, I’d do a decent jump (10-15g fats and 20-25g carbs) of both then moving on to the smaller jumps.
If you’re making small jumps, I would work in 5g increments of fats and 10g increments of carbs. You can do small jumps of both each week or alternate the additions. One week you add fats, the next carbs, and rinse and repeat until you’re at your new maintenance!
Now let’s talk about rate. This again, is entirely up to you. You can add food weekly, every other week, or even a bit slower (again, depending on the size of jumps you think you should be taking based on your biofeedback). The rate depends on a couple of things: (1) your mental motivation and progress throughout the reverse, (2) your weight and any fluctuations (3) your ability to adhere.
You should be monitoring your weight (and biofeedback) during this reversal process. Typically during a reverse diet, we see a common pattern in weight changes. Upon an addition of food, we typically see a 1-3 lb. jump in weight in the first 1-2 days. This is all water retention. 1g of carbohydrate retains approximately 3g of water. This weight jump usually falls back down to the previous weight after 3-5 days. Once this drop in weight occurs, you can make another addition of food. This yo-yo effect usually occurs until you reach your maintenance intake. This process is just your metabolism increasing back to its previous normal (we do see a slow-down during weight loss, so the reversal is bringing things back up).
Step 4. Remove Cardio
You also need to reverse your cardio along similar lines as your food. You don’t want to just stop the cardio cold turkey.
Let’s take the example we were working with earlier in the article: 2 HIIT, daily walking, and 1 moderate intensity run/bike.
You want to remove one session at a time, every other week or every third week – basically in even increments during the reverse diet. You can predict how long, generally, your reverse is going to last. Say you have 900 calories to add and you’re going to add 100 calories/week. It’ll take you 9 weeks. The walking is something we don’t need to take out, and you may enjoy it, so we’re going to leave that in there. That means we have 3 sessions to remove. Over a 9-week span, you’d be removing a session every 3 weeks.
You want to first start with the moderate intensity run/bike then the HIIT sessions. It may seem that you’d want to start with the higher intensity sessions first, but in actuality, we want to remove the cardio providing the least benefit first. In terms of weight loss, moderate intensity cardio tends to be the least effective because it leads to the most adaptation, lessening the effect of the intended stimulus. HIIT, because of the constantly changing intervals in intensity, is nearly impossible to create adaptations...so the intended stimulus remains effective longer. Now the walks can be changed as you finish the reverse diet. If you’re going on hour long walks daily, then you can easily bring those down to 15-20 minutes as more a means of movement not weight loss. I personally walk 20ish minutes daily in the mornings as part of my daily routine. If I were in a weight loss phase, I’d probably have 1-2 longer walks thrown in there per week. After the weight loss phase, I’d bring these back down to the typical 15-20 minutes.
Now you may not have a ton of cardio in your plan. If this is you, then simply just remove a session every couple of weeks. The idea is that you’re tapering off cardio just as you would your food intake.
Step 5. When to Stop
Step 1 is merely a calculation. It could go one of three ways.
Perfectly to plan – it may be the perfect, ideal caloric intake!
Not enough – you may get to that number and be miserable (hungry, poor sleep, cravings, no energy)
Too much – you may not be able to get to that number without considerable weight gain or a hit to your biofeedback
As mentioned in Step 3, you want to be monitoring your weight. Generally, you want to stop adding food when you don’t see the typical drop in weight after an addition of food. Say you’re 150lbs. and going through the reverse. Each 50-100 calorie addition leads to a 2lb. jump to 152lbs, but after 4 days, usually drops back down to 150lbs. You would stop either once you see the weight jump remain elevated at 152lbs. or above OR once you see a drop in biofeedback. As you go through the reverse, your biofeedback should be improving. Sleep, energy, recovery, hunger, cravings, and stress should all be improving. You would stop the reverse diet once these start to falter again.
Step 6. Enjoy Maintenance
The point of the reverse diet is to get to a more sustainable intake...something that lets you be a human being. It gives you room to include an extra treat here and there. It gives you a bit more freedom and relaxation. You want to be taking advantage of this period to keep motivation high and keep you adherent long term. The cut is a time to be more strict, limiting treats and alcohol, etc. Maintenance is for you to feel like a human...so that you’re able to mentally grind come the next time to cut. If you’re strict and restricting the foods you love 24/7/365 without any reprieve, you eventually will crack under that pressure.
This is why we have maintenance periods. They’re there to improve your biofeedback and reset your metabolism and improve your overall health and longevity. They’re also there to improve your mental and emotional well being, as well, so use it as the opportunity to do just that.
Now I’m not saying to go crazy, eating nachos every night for dinner. You still want and need to keep balance, following an 80-20 lifestyle. You instead have more room in your calories and macros to account for fun treats. You have room in your day to take a day off either every week or every other week to NOT track and just enjoy being present without a phone in hand.
All of these steps are key to finding the perfect diet after the diet.
Now I know that a lot of this was subjective and “it depends,” which may be frustrating to you. Trust me, I get it. Unfortunately, I can’t give you the black and white cookie cutter approach to a reverse diet because everyone is different: physically, mentally, emotionally, you name it. The diet after the diet is no different. This is why I recommend if you have never reverse dieted before to hire an experienced coach for the first time. This will let you learn the process specific to you so that you then have the tools and information to apply it to all future reverse diets you will embark on.
To apply for nutrition coaching to help you find the diet after your diet, simply follow this link and fill out the questionnaire to see if you’d be the right fit for coaching.
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