What is Reverse Dieting?

You’ve probably figured out by now that your body does not want to lose weight.  That’s just how it was designed. Survival of the fittest doesn’t refer to who can run the fastest, jump the highest, or lift the most.  It refers to who can survive and reproduce under the harshest of conditions.  We come from ancestors who we able to endure with minimal amounts of food and shelter.  They adapted by becoming very good at storing what calories they found and efficiently conserving energy.  Thanks to them, we are here.  Also thanks to them, we have a body that has evolved into being great at storing calories whenever it can, and will only try to dip into those stores for energy usage as a last resort.  The perfect body for survival!  Not so perfect in terms of how we might want to look!

We’ve turned to fitness as a way to coax our bodies in the direction we want them to go.  We use diet and exercise to control our appearance, weight, strength, aerobic capacity, and to develop a healthy level of fitness. But there are limits that we should be aware of.  We must constantly remember that the body prioritizes survival first.  Too much exercise will not make us better but will lead to fatigue, overtraining, and possible injury.  Too much dieting to lose weight/fat will lead to your body adapting to the lower caloric intake, and fighting even harder to store and keep everything it has and everything that you give it.  Your entire system will fight for your survival.  You cannot “diet” indefinitely  without long-term negative effects on your ability to lose the weight you desire and keep it off.  You need an effective break from caloric deficit dieting and the best way to go about it is to “reverse diet”.

“Reverse diet” is not a “diet”, it is a process of dieting.  To follow a reverse diet, you gradually add calories to your food intake at a controlled rate over a period of time.  By slowing adding in calories you are able to rebuild your body’s ability to utilize those calories.  You are reversing the adaptations that happened while you were in a deficit and increasing the amount of calories your body is able to process each day.  This will give you more room to manipulate calories later if you want/need to diet down again.  Adding in the calories will also help you to recover your metabolism, making your body increasing more responsive.  Your body will feel less threatened and won’t have the need to remain deep in survival mode.

Yes, you may gain some weight during the process, especially if your body fat stores have dipped below what your body considers to be healthy or normal.  But some weight gain can actually be part of the healing process your body goes through if it experienced any issues with your overall health from dieting too long and/or too hard.  Start with a gradual increase of your carbohydrates and/or healthy fats, whichever nutrient you reduced the most during you deficit phase.  Don’t endeavor to increase too fast.  It may be as little as a 5-10 gram increase of carbohydrates each week to your daily intake.  You may need to make an increase only every other week depending on how low you were and how carb or calorie sensitive you have become.  If it’s your fat intake that was reduced, know that increasing healthy fats can be very healing for your body and especially your endocrine system so endeavor to recover them to a normal level.  Your goal is to get your calories as high and balanced as you can with as little weight gain as possible, and to make sure your body/system is completely healthy and recovered before you start the dieting process again.

The longer and harder you were dieting, the slower and longer it will probably take for you to complete an effective cycle of reverse dieting.  If you were not dieting properly and reducing your calories gradually initially (as “reversing” this process implies) then you very well could have created even faster and greater adaptation issues and it may be a longer and harder process to reverse diet, but know that it is even more critical if you don’t want problems in the future.  Most rapid weight gains come from the combination of a suppressed metabolism, combined with excessive caloric intake.  If you push the calories too high, too often, the weight gain will be a lot more dramatic and rapid, and the recovery of your metabolism will still be an issue.  You’ll just be starting at a heavier point.  That’s why how you diet down initially is key, and how you recover from that diet is key.

Ideally you want to recover your calories to at or above your initial stating point.  If you need to diet before that for some reason it should be short term only.  You cannot try to remain in a caloric deficit via diet and exercise permanently and expect for your body to do anything but plateau.  Changing your fitness activities can give you a great amount of control over your progress, but understand that at times you will simply need a break.

Reverse dieting is not only a way to give yourself a planned and effective break from weight loss dieting, it is a proven way to set yourself up for future dieting success.  At the end of the process you should be at a leaner/lighter point than your initial diet and be in position to diet down again in a safe, effective manner.  But remember, dieting is a process and the body only changes so fast.  Always try to stay patient and approach things in a healthy way that takes into consideration what is best for you not just now but in the future.

Photo: C. Redd

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