You've lost some weight, but now you've hit a plateau and are even starting to put some of the weight you've lost back on.
You've in a significant calorie deficit for the past two years.
You've working out six times a week nonstop in those same two years.
You're not eating carbs (carbs make you fat, right?)
You're doing everything right, aren't you?
Not so fast.
What if I told you that you're actually drastically under eating and that you need to increase your calories in order to get the fat loss you want so badly?
I know. It goes against just about everything you've heard from fitness "gurus," your favorite Instagram celebrity, and even medical doctors.
The nonstop promotion of the idea, "eat less, move more," has led to a state of society being overstressed and undernourished.
While a calorie deficit is necessary for the vast majority of people to lose fat, it does not need to be as significant or ran for as long as you might think. It's all about context and periodizing your nutrition (a.k.a. having different phases of your plan based on your goal for each phase).
I know I'm asking you to take a huge leap of faith here. I don't expect you to believe me right off the bat, but can you promise to give me until the end of this article before you make your decision?
Now, let's get into exactly why being a perpetual calorie deficit is actually preventing you from seeing the fat loss you want.
Your body is smart. Don't try to outsmart it.
Just so we're on the same page as far as vocabulary, a calorie deficit is a state in which you are taking in less calories (via food) than you are burning. Doing so forces your body to tap into it's stored resources (usually carbs and/or fat) for energy. Over time, this causes you to lose weight.
I'm not hear to tell you that you should never be in a calorie deficit if your goal is to lose fat. That would be ludicrous. It's thermodynamics, there's no way to get around it. What I'm aiming to educate you on in this post is how to use a calorie deficit correctly.
Now, when your body is in a calorie deficit (especially a larger one) it thinks that there's a shortage of food. As we know, food is energy. The glycogen and fat stores in your body are also energy.
If we take a look back at our ancestors hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years ago, the last thing the body wants to do is burn more energy when there is a shortage of energy coming in. From an evolutionary perspective, that's like having a contest to see who can die the fastest (morbid, but true).
Back then, slowing down your metabolism would have been advantageous since you'd then have to use less energy (burn less calories) to survive.
Nowadays, with highly palatable food options available with the click of a button (thanks, Uber Eats), this evolutionary mechanism isn't quite as necessary for survival. Unfortunately, evolution is a ridiculously slow process compared to the rapid increase in food availability over the past century or so.
So, long story short, when you go on that 1200 calorie crash diet for too long (really, most people should not be doing that, period.), your body doesn't realize that there's a Whole Foods right down the street.
You will likely drop weight initially, but over time your metabolism will adapt to burn less calories as a result of this evolutionary mechanism. Then, the plateau hits...
Now, you're eating a ridiculously low amount of calories but not losing weight.
If you eat above those 1200 calories or stop working out for just a few days, you feel like you're gaining weight quick.
Where do you go from here?
Drop calories lower?
If you go any lower you'll be damn near starving your self, so no.
This is often people's next attempt. "If I exercise more, won't I create more of a deficit?" In theory, yes. But the compounding stress of both your insane calorie deficit and increase workout intensity will simply elevate cortisol even more.
Chronically elevated cortisol leads to blood sugar regulation issues, fat retention around the midsection, poor sleep, poor energy... all things that are not conducive to losing fat (or living a good life, to be honest).
So, what the hell do you do?
Enter, the "reverse diet..."
A reverse diet is essentially the process of slowly increasing caloric intake to the desired maintenance amount over the course of several weeks (or months) in order to rebuild metabolic capacity and decrease stress on the body.
Yes, you will have to eat more to lose fat.
Now, don't get this twisted. I am not saying that you will lose fat while increasing your calories (it does happen for some people, I'll get into why a bit later), but that you need to increase calories in order to put your body in a position where it can lose fat.
I know. This goes against just about everything you've heard throughout your entire life about losing fat. But, like I mentioned before, if you're already eating too little calories, where can you possibly go to create a deficit?
By implementing a reverse diet correctly, you'll be able to rebuild your metabolism so that way, the next time you go into a fat loss phase, you'll be able to effectively create a deficit without dropping calories too low.
Why does a reverse diet work?
Before we get into the exact numbers of how you can run your own reverse diet, let's talk about why it works.
Rebuilding metabolic capacity
As mentioned previously, when your body thinks there is a shortage of food, it down regulates its metabolism to burn less calories. The same sort of thing happens when you bump them back up, thanks to that same evolutionary mechanism.
An increase in food means an increase in energy (calories) being taken in. Your body has to do something with these calories; either burn them or store them.
The increased need to burn calories results in an increase in your metabolism. So, as you increase your calories slowly over the course of your reverse diet, your metabolism will adapt as well to burn more calories.
Being in a calorie deficit is a stressor on the body. This goes back to the evolutionary perspective again. Running low on food back then would be pretty damn stressful if you ask me.
Now, the fact that it is a stressor doesn't necessarily mean it is a "bad" thing. It's all about context. Stress is necessary to induce adaptation, as indicated in the equation:
Stress + Rest = Adaptation
In the case of a calorie deficit, the acute adaptation that we are typically after is weight loss. Based on the principles of energy balance, this is a totally reasonable expectation.
As with just about anything, we humans take it to the extreme and f*** it up. After all, if a 500 calorie deficit causes fat loss, won't a 1500 calorie deficit be three times as effective??? And, why ever come out of it? As long as I'm in a deficit I'll be losing fat, right??
Hold you horses.
As with most (if not all) stress, chronically elevated stress is the problem. In the case of the endless, masochistic, calorie deficit outlined above, chronic stress manifests itself in the form of a slowed metabolism and messed up hormones in your body's attempt to fend off the famine that it thinks its about to endure.
Not to mention, stressing your body increases cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol over long periods of time will inhibit fat loss and muscle gain.
Reverse dieting allows your body to receive an influx of essential micronutrients that it may have been deprived off during a dieting phase.
This one's fairly self-explanatory. If you're taking in less food, you're going to be taking in less vitamins and minerals as well.
Typically, when people go into a dieting phase, the variety of foods in their diet takes a nosedive. While this isn't ideal, it's easy to understand why one would do that.
The decreased variety keeps things simple and allows for increased adherence in some cases.
But, just as with the calorie deficit, this lack of variety should not be a long term thing.
Throughout the reverse diet, it should be made a priority to get an abundance of micronutrients from whole food sources like fruits and veggies.
Along with the increased calories, this increase in micronutrient intake will help to ameliorate the stress the body underwent during the dieting phase, as many vitamins and minerals serve as antioxidants that fight off inflammation in your body!
How you can run a reverse diet
Now that you understand the importance of the reverse diet, let's get into how you can implement it.
First things first, we need a clearly established goal.
In the case of a reverse diet, the goal is typically to increase calorie intake to what your maintenance calories should be.
As we've established already, your maintenance calories right now are likely far lower than they should be. To determine what your maintenance calorie goal is follow this very simple formula:
14-16x your current body weight
Ex: 200lbs x 14 = 2800cals
200lbs x 16 = 3200cala
Maintenance calorie range = 2800-3200cals
This way of doing it provides you with a range.Your maintenance calories will likely be within that range, dependent on a variety of factors, such as activity levels.
At the very minimum, you want to get your calories up to the 14x BW mark. Ideally, you want to take them closer to that 16x BW mark. Later in this post, I'll go into a bit more detail about how to determine when its time to finish your reverse diet.
Now, you might be freaking out currently because your calculated maintenance calories are 2600 but you're currently eating 1600.
Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you you need to make that jump all in one go.
What you're going to do is take a slower, steady approach. This way, you will allow your metabolism to adapt in tandem with the slowly increasing calories and mitigate most (or all) fat gain.
Exactly how many calories should you increase per week during a reverse diet?
During a reverse diet, aim to increase your calories by 10-20% each week.
Whether you choose 10 or 20 percent doesn't really matter, in all honesty. It's really a matter of preference. Some people tend to be more worried about potential fat gain, so the lower end of the spectrum makes them feel a little more at ease. On the other hand, some people are totally bought in and have no issue with the jump in calories. It's all about what you will adhere to the easiest!
This 10-20% increase in calories will typically come from carbs and fats, as protein will usually be held fixed. Also, carbs and fats are usually the macros that are decreased during a calorie deficit, so it makes sense that they need to be reintroduced during a reverse diet.
Speaking of proteins, carbs, and fats, what exactly should your macros look like during a reverse diet?
Really, it's nothing too crazy.
Protein is your typical 0.8-1g per pound of bodyweight. This likely won't change too much from when you were in a deficit (it maybe be a small decrease if you were eating higher protein during your deficit).
Carbs and fats vary from individual to individual depending on exercise demands, stress, and preference. I'm not going to go deep down that rabbit hole in this post, but here are some general guidelines.
Fats should make up 25-45% of your calorie intake. Again, this is dependent on a variety of factors. if you are training at high intensity (i.e. weight lifting) I would recommend staying in the moderate to lower end of that spectrum. if you are typically more sedentary or have insulin sensitivity issues then opt for the higher end of the range.
Finally, carbs. Carbs will simply make up the rest of your calorie intake after protein and fats are accounted for. Carbs are your best friend on a reverse diet since they fuel performance in the gym and directly blunt the cortisol stress response.
To sum it up, you'll be increasing calories by 10-20% each week via carbs and/or fat (carbs are prioritized, if you must pick one) until you reach your calculated maintenance calories.
As you can see, nothing to mind blowing when it comes to calories and macros. Now, let's talk about expectations.
What to expect over the course of a reverse diet.
This is probably the most important section, so really focus up.
If you're currently trying to lose fat, being told that you have to eat more can be scary as f***.
If you're a coach looking to implement a reverse diet for one of your clients, you'll likely be met with resistance.
And as we've talked about, it's 100% understandable to be concerned. Hopefully now that we've gone through why reverse dieting is necessary and how to do it, your mind is a bit more at ease. To further solidify your confidence, I'm going to tell you the 3 most common scenarios that you can expect to see in yourself, or your clients, over the course of a reverse diet.
1. As calories increase, weight decreases.
This is literally everyone's dream scenario when they embark on a reverse diet. Yes, it does happen. But no, I can't guarantee that it will happen. Everyone's body responds differently.
You might be wondering how this is even possible. Doesn't this defy what we know about energy balance?
Yes, technically it does. However, remember how we discussed that being in such a calorie-deprived state for an extended period of time is a stressor on the body?
Now that you are reintroducing the food that your body wanted so badly, it's responding in a favorable way. Cortisol is likely going down, you're probably getting better sleep, your mood is improved.
All of these factors that accompany the increase in calories decrease overall stress. This decrease in stress may also help to rid your abdominal region of the "spare tire" look caused by excess cortisol elevation.
Long story short, you're finally giving the body what it needs, so it's responding in a favorable manner.
Think of it as a little "thank you."
2. As calories increase, weight stays the same.
This is what happens for the majority of people. And, in the grand scheme of things, it's a pretty damn good scenario.
I've personally ran reverse diets for clients in which they increased calories by 800+ over the course of several weeks and their scale weight did not change.
That's essentially giving you the power to eat a whole other meal (or two, depending on who you talk to) and maintain the same body composition.
Also, it is so important to understand that the scale isn't everything. You can very well stay the same weight but see pretty drastic changes in body composition. A lot of the times, when people stay the same weight over the course of a reverse diet, they lose a good amount of fat and gain muscle, drastically improving their appearance in the mirror.
That's what we're after, right? Who gives a f*** what the scale says if you look awesome in the mirror?!?
3. As calories increase, weight increases.
Yeah. This one's not as fun as the other ones.
It's sure as hell not easy to sell the idea of gaining weight in the short run to lose a greater amount in the long run, since everyone wants results yesterday.
Look, I'm not going to sugarcoat this. It very well may be the case that your body responds with slight weight gain. There's really no way to predict it, it's just a sort of "wait and see" situation.
BUT, if done slowly and steadily as outlined above, you're likely not going to gain much.
It's more of a psychological battle, to be honest.
In this case, it's of the utmost importance to keep the long game in mind. Your body simply isn't in a position to lose fat currently, and this reverse diet protocol will enable you to lose more fat in the future.
This is where having a coach can be super helpful, whether that's me or one of the other awesome coaches out there. Simply having an objective point of view in this type of situation can provide a great deal of relief and security in knowing that you are on the right track.
Another thing that works wonders in this type of situation is shifting the focus to something other than the scale.
How's your energy throughout the day? How are you performing in your training sessions? How are your relationships with family and friends? How's your productivity at work? How's your mood? How's your sleep?
I'd be willing to bet money that most, or all, of those aspects of your life will see improvement during your reverse diet. Focus on that, rather than the slight increase in scale weight, and you'll be much more likely to see it through and be so much happier throughout the process.
Life is so much more than weight on a damn scale.
When should you end your reverse diet?
When it comes to determining an endpoint for your reverse diet, I like to look at to things.
Are you eating, at minimum, your calculated maintenance calories?
How is your biofeedback?
The first bit of criteria is pretty self explanatory. If you're eating your calculated maintenance calories, your metabolism is likely in a much better place than. before.
But, what about that second one? What is biofeedback?
Biofeedback encompasses all of the different data points, both subjective and objective, that you can use to assess progress. This includes:
-Appearance in the mirror
-Motivation to train
Each of these criteria gives us a holistic view of your nutrition , rather than simply focusing on the scale weight.
Most of the time, if you're in a calorie deficit for extended periods of time, these biofeedback markers start to go to s***. This is typically the indicator that it's time to move into a reverse diet.
The reverse is true for determining when to end a reverse diet. Over time, each of the markers above will likely improve greatly over the course of the reverse diet. When you get to a point where most of the markers are in an ideal place, this is a good indicator that the reverse diet has done it's job.
This is completely individual and largely depends on your goals. If your goal is fat loss, it may be time to enter another deficit. For muscle gain, keep on increasing calories to enter a surplus. If you'd simply like to maintain, just eat at maintenance and enjoy the several hundred extra calories that you can now eat while staying the same weight!
Whatever you choose to do in your next phase, remember that it is exactly that... a phase.
Periodizing your nutrition into phases is of the utmost importance, and I hope that this blog has helped illustrate the unfortunate consequences of failing to do so.
Your body is always changing and adapting; it's up to you to listen to it and give it what it truly needs!
As always, if you have any questions please feel free to reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot me a DM on Instagram! I'm always here to help you get the results you deserve. Thanks so much for reading!