Reverse Dieting Guide

How to Fix Your Metabolism & Recover From Restrictive Diets

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: March 26, 2024

As a certified nutrition coach, I have had dozens of clients come to me after following prolonged calorie-restricted diets. They’ve usually hit a weight loss plateau, are always hungry, and have low energy levels.

For all these reasons, overly restrictive diets don’t work in the long term. But how can you return to a healthy diet and body weight?

Reverse dieting is often the solution to restore metabolic health and improve body composition. That’s why I will show you how to break the yo-yo diet cycle and set yourself up for long-term success.

Reverse Dieting

What is Reverse Dieting?

Reverse dieting is a planned transition out of a chronic low-calorie diet. The goal of a reverse diet is a gradual increase in daily calorie intake to return to maintenance calories. So it’s kind of like the diet after the diet.

While it sounds counterintuitive, increasing calorie intake after a restrictive diet can be the best way to restore metabolic health and balance hormone levels. Once you reach maintenance levels, your body can better burn fat or build muscle tissue.

Who Should Use It

Reverse dieting is not suitable for everyone, but there are certain situations where it can be a helpful strategy. Here are some examples:

  • Chronic Dieters: If you’ve been on a weight loss diet with a prolonged caloric restriction of several months or more, you may have a slow metabolism. Reverse dieting could help you rebuild your metabolic rate and burn more calories to lose weight in the future.
  • Bodybuilders: After cutting or contest prep diets, physique athletes can use reverse dieting to stay in better shape during the off-season.

However, a reverse diet isn’t suitable for people already consuming at or above their maintenance calories.

How Does Reverse Dieting Work?

The scientific evidence on reverse dieting’s direct metabolic effect is mixed. However, plenty of anecdotal evidence within the bodybuilding community and extensive research related to metabolic adaptations exists.

Reverse dieting is based on adaptive thermogenesis, in which undereating reduces basal metabolic rate (BMR). Basically, your body adjusts to an energy deficit by becoming more efficient and burning fewer calories during everyday activity and exercise2.

Metabolic adaptation is like living with someone who doesn’t like being cold. When you turn the thermostat down, they turn it right back up. Similarly, your body doesn’t like drastic weight or energy fluctuations, so it changes hormone levels to return your weight to normal.

reverse dieting hormone balance

However, adaptive thermogenesis works both ways. That is, you can increase your metabolic rate by increasing food intake.

Reverse dieting works by gradually increasing calories and body weight, thereby raising your metabolic rate and burning more calories when you exercise. It is also a means of restoring your hormones after a calorie-restricted diet.

Once you restore your metabolism, you can take measures to avoid adaptive thermogenesis and keep your hormones balanced in the future.

reverse dieting calories burned

Actual energy expenditure changes in response to diet and body weight. Adapted from Leibel et al.

How to Reverse Diet

In this section, I’ll walk you through how to start reverse dieting with four simple steps.

Step 1: Establish Current Calorie Intake

Before starting your reverse diet, it’s essential to determine your current daily calorie intake. If you haven’t tracked calories, monitor your intake for a few days to establish your baseline.

How to Count Macros & Calories

Step 2: Determine Calorie Goal

Next, you must determine your maintenance calorie intake. Your goal is to build up to eating the same number of calories you burn.

Another name for this number is total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)It’s the sum of the calories burned at rest (BMR) and the calories burned during regular activity and exercise.

There are formulas and online calculators to help you find your energy expenditure, but they can be wildly inaccurate. So, I recommend using my free TDEE Calculator.

reverse dieting calorie goal

Step 3: Plan Calorie Ramp-Up Rate

​The key to a successful reverse diet is increasing calories in small increments. The most common approach is adding 50-100 calories to your daily total each week of the diet.

One exception would be if your calorie intake is currently below your BMR. In that case, you should immediately add enough calories to equal your BMR to avoid additional metabolic damage.

The graphic below illustrates the adjustment up to BMR (orange dashes) if needed and the normal weekly increase (blue dashes).

reverse dieting graph

Step 4: Follow Reverse Diet Plan

The duration of your reverse diet depends on two factors: the calorie differential and the rate at which you increase calories. For instance, if you need to increase your calories from 1,000 to 2,000 by adding 100 extra calories per week, you will need ten weeks to reach that goal.

While reverse dieting, it is crucial to follow a balanced diet and healthy meal plan. This means that your food intake should consist primarily of whole foods such as lean protein, whole grains, and healthy fats.

Monitoring your body weight while following the plan is a good idea. If you notice rapid weight gain, you can slow down the reverse diet. But if your weight stays the same or decreases, you can continue at the same rate.

After Reverse Dieting

With reverse dieting, reaching maintenance calories isn’t always the end. Different goals should determine the next steps you take.

  • Weight Loss: I recommend holding at your maintenance level for at least a few weeks before starting another fat loss diet. This allows your metabolism enough time to adapt to the higher calories before you reduce again. In addition, start with the smallest calorie deficit that results in weight loss. Then, make small incremental adjustments to prevent the negative effects of calorie restriction.
  • Muscle Gain: When your goal is to add more muscle, you need to create a calorie surplus. But it’s not a good idea to jump into a large calorie increase immediately following a reverse diet. Instead, it’s better to continue increasing by 50 to 100 calories per week until you reach your bulking target. Or you could even choose to stay at a very small calorie surplus for a lean bulk.
  • Weight Maintenance: You might like how you look and feel once you reach an energy balance. In that case, you could choose to stay at your maintenance number for several weeks. When your energy intake is aligned with your activity level, you may also experience body recomposition.

Reverse Dieting Results

As a physique competitor, I used reverse dieting to slowly increase calories following an aggressive 16-week contest prep diet. To do this, I added 20-25 grams of carbs each week for an 80-100 calorie increase.

At the same time, I intentionally expended less energy to help reduce the deficit. My weekly cardio went from a whopping 300 minutes of steady state to just 48 minutes of HIIT

As a result, I reached my calorie target (calorie intake = TDEE) after just five weeks. From there, I added 80-100 calories weekly to begin a lean bulk phase.

The table below shows my body composition and energy balance results.

  Start Week 4 Change
Weight 170.1 lbs  174.1 lbs +4.0 lbs
Body Fat 4.94% 3.96% -0.98%
Lean Mass 161.7 lbs 167.2 lbs +5.5 lbs
Fat Mass 8.4 lbs 6.9 lbs -1.5 lbs
Calories Burned 2,986 2,682 -304
Calorie Intake 2,122 2,560 +438
Calorie Balance -864 -122 +742

The main takeaway is that I gained 4 pounds on the scale, but I lost 1.5 pounds of body fat. Based on those numbers, I gained 5.5 pounds of lean body mass. However, the extra weight was primarily due to the added carbs stored as glycogen.

Everyone will get different results from reverse dieting because there are so many variables involved. Your results will depend on your diet history, stress levels, sleep quality, body type, and more.

Disadvantages & Challenges

I’ll be real with you: reverse dieting is not always an easy process. It can be challenging both physically and emotionally. If you try a reverse diet, be prepared to face some obstacles.

Here are some of the challenges I’ve experienced for myself and with my clients while reverse dieting.

  • Food Cravings: Keep in mind that your cravings may get worse before they get better. In my personal experience, my desire for sugary foods was even stronger during the reverse diet than they were during the strict contest prep. However, one way to manage this is to allow yourself to indulge on a refeed day. For example, I scheduled my refeed so that I could enjoy pizza and brownies without completely undoing my progress.
  • Weight Gain: You will likely gain weight during your reverse diet. But don’t panic—that’s perfectly normal. As I mentioned, your body stores the extra carbs and soaks up some water. In addition, you’ll have more food in your belly. Remember, weight gain does not equal fat gain.
  • Head Games: Reverse dieting can also be challenging psychologically. There were times when I felt “fat” despite having a single-digit body fat percentage. However, it is essential to stick to the plan and not let negative thoughts derail progress. It may be difficult, but it is crucial to maintain a positive body image and focus on long-term happiness with how you look and feel.
reverse dieting refeed day

Reverse Dieting Q&A

In this section, I’ll answer some frequently asked questions regarding reverse dieting.

Can You Lose Weight Reverse Dieting?

Yes, you can lose weight during a reverse diet as you are still in a calorie deficit. However, this should not be your primary expectation. The goal of reverse dieting is to set yourself up for a healthier body composition in the long run.

It is important to remember that the aim of reverse dieting is not to lose weight now but to fix your metabolism for more effective weight management in the future.

Will You Gain Fat If You Reverse Diet?

You can expect to gain 1/2 to 2 lbs per week, but that doesn’t mean you are gaining fat. Most of that new weight is glycogen and water stored in your muscles.

Depending on your starting body composition, you may gain a small amount of body fat as you increase calories, but it should not be significant. If you feel like you’re gaining too much weight, slow down on increasing calories.

How Long Should You Reverse Diet?

Generally, you can expect to reverse diet for 4 to 12 weeks. The length depends on your starting calorie intake, maintenance calorie target, and future diet goals.

Should You Exercise While Reverse Dieting?

Yes, you should continue exercising during the reverse diet. If you decide to change your exercise routine, make sure to adjust your TDEE and calorie intake accordingly.

Resistance training is the best form of physical activity for building muscle and boosting your metabolic rate during a reverse diet. Cardio can help prevent excess fat gain, but be careful not to overdo it.

Try The Reverse Dieting Calculator

At the end of the day, reverse dieting isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. However, I’ve found it to be the best option for recovering from long calorie-restricted diets.

So, if you’re ready to try reverse dieting but need help creating your plan, try my Free Reverse Dieting Calculator! It takes all the guesswork out of creating your reverse diet plan.

reverse dieting calculator

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By |March 26, 2024|Nutrition|0 Comments
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