Whether you’ve recently hit your goal weight or simply want to figure out how to maintain weight loss without undoing all of your hard work, you’re likely going to need to start adding some more calories into your diet. While you’re checking out different eating plans, you might come across reverse dieting.
The term is a little confusing—it sounds like you’d eat more to try to lose weight—but experts say reverse dieting isn’t like that at all. Instead, it involves slowly adding calories back into your meal plan, and working your way out of a calorie deficit.
As for who would try reverse dieting, it’s popular among bodybuilders and athletes, in addition to people coming off of calorie-restricted diets (like a 1,200 calorie meal plan, for example), explains Scott Keatley, R.D., of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy.
Here’s what you need to know about reverse dieting, including how it works, the pros and cons, and what experts really think.
What is reverse dieting and how does it work?
Reverse dieting is less of an actual diet and more about what you do after trying a restrictive eating plan (which, many experts recommend against in the first place). “The idea behind reverse dieting is that after a period of being hypo-caloric and getting down to your goal body fat percentage, you can reverse the unwanted effects of dieting,” says Keatley. The goal with this, he explains, is to help your hunger cues and metabolism adjust so that you lower your risk of regaining weight or overeating.
Under reverse dieting, you don’t just stop a diet and immediately go back to your old way of eating, Keatley explains. Instead, you slowly work your way back to where you were. Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet, and Keatley both say reverse dieting is typically done after a calorie-counting diet.
How to reverse diet
The actual process of reverse dieting is simple. You take a look at your caloric intake on the restrictive diet you were on and slowly add more calories until you get to a new baseline where you can maintain your desired weight, according to Keatley.
Typically, Keatley says, you add 50 to 100 calories more a week for a month to three months (usually around four to 10 weeks) until you get your intake back to a new baseline.
Does reverse dieting help you lose weight?
“There has been no scientific evidence to support weight loss when following reverse dieting,” says Emily Pianko, an R.D. with Spectrum Health. “However, there may be something to encouraging people to eat regularly to promote a healthy metabolism.”
There is research to suggest that it’s easy to gain back weight after you go on a severe calorie-restricted eating plan. Among other things, hormones that control appetite are raised after you go on a calorie-restricted diet for at least a year, making you feel hungrier than you should.
Animal research has also suggested that your gut microbiome communicates with your metabolism after a severe calorie-restricted diet and encourages it to slow down.
Keatley says that reverse dieting is “probably not” effective for weight loss by itself. Gans agrees. “It most likely will not instill weight loss in most individuals,” she says. “Ideally, the most someone could hope for is weight maintenance, and even with this, the research is limited.”
Will you gain weight reverse dieting?
“Depending on the person and their diet history, they may see fluctuations in their weight when attempting to reverse diet,” explains Pianko. “For example, a person who was restricting their calories and/or meals during the day will likely see fluctuations in weight while transitioning to eating more regular meals and snacks during the day along with a healthy calorie amount.”
But, this is only natural, Pianko says, as your metabolism adjusts to one fueling your body properly versus a restriction, or even starvation, type of diet. “The best method of promoting healthy weight loss is to reduce your caloric intake by 250-500 calories per day,” Pianko says. “Sustainable long-term weight loss should look like losing 1-2 pounds per week.”
The pros and cons of reverse dieting
Again, there really isn’t data on reverse dieting, so it’s hard to say for certain what the risks and benefits of this method are.
If you’ve been on a restrictive diet for a while, Keatley says it can be “liberating” to increase your caloric intake. It may normalize your hormones, he says. And, Keatley adds, “since you’re consuming more energy, you may feel as if you have more energy.”
If you do this correctly—meaning, you don’t end up eating more calories on a regular basis than you would have pre-diet—Keatley says there aren’t many cons. Logistically speaking, though, “it is almost impossible outside of a laboratory to properly calculate energy expenditure and make the appropriate increases,” he says. Meaning, you could end up “overshooting” your goal and gaining weight.
Is reverse dieting really necessary?
The biggest issue with reverse dieting is that it’s coupled with a restrictive eating plan, Keatley says. Research has shown that severely restricting your caloric intake raises the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body—and that increases the risk of gaining weight around your midsection.
Gans also points out that severely restricting your calories isn’t good for overall, sustainable weight loss—not to mention the potential mental health effects of restrictive dieting. “It’s another diet plan consumed with counting calories, which is far from ideal for a healthy lifestyle and long-term success,” she says.
Instead of doing a restrictive eating plan and reverse dieting afterward, Gans recommends trying to incorporate healthier foods like more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and high-fiber foods, into your diet so that you can form healthy eating habits that you can continue over time.
“Any eating plan that is overly regimented is typically never necessary and potentially dangerous,” she says. “Instead an individual should learn how to incorporate an all foods fit mindset with an emphasis on eating more plant-forward foods, along with plenty of physical activity, adequate sleep, and decreased stress.”
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