The Holy Grail of modern physical culture is a well-defined set of abs. But even if you’re one of the few who get them, it’s normally temporary. Reverse dieting can be used to stay lean.
The side effects of dieting
These days we’re more likely to suffer ill health from eating too much than too little. But throughout most of our history starvation was the problem. As defense against it, we evolved the ability to store energy in the form of body fat. Therefore body fat is a survival mechanism, and as such we’re genetically programmed to defend it.
This defense involves a lot of complicated physiology. But the effects are basically reduced energy burn (slowed metabolism) and increased hunger. These are the things that almost guarantee our fat loss efforts will be temporary.
Short term diets fail
Dieting is the best way to get lean, but staying lean is a different matter. People normally go straight back to unrestricted eating afterward, and of course if you eat the way you got fat in the first place, you’ll get fat again.
And it can happen very quickly when your metabolism is slow and your appetite is increased from dieting.
So why not just stay on the diet?
Permanent diets fail
In theory, remaining on the same calories as the diet phase would work to keep fat off. The problem is that metabolic slowdown and increased hunger are miserable to live with at best. At worst, very low caloric intake is detrimental to health.
As such, a low calorie diet can be sustained short term, but not lifelong.
Metabolism is fluid
Our metabolic rates have a certain amount of slack in them (so to speak). Given the same level of body fat, the energy you burn will be different if you’ve just finished a restrictive diet compared to if you’ve been deliberately trying to put on weight.
Thus, even when you’re lean, metabolism can be recovered so that life can go back to normal. This means eating more and eliminating diet hunger and fatigue, while keeping the abs you worked so hard for.
To do it we use reverse dieting.
What is reverse dieting?
Reverse dieting is a method of building up food intake. It involves small increases over time.
These increases are small enough not to produce fat gain, but coax the body out of storage mode (if you’ll permit the oversimplification) and boost metabolic rate.
The progressive nature of this approach takes the guess work out of finding maintenance calories, providing scale weight is monitored.
What it isn’t
Reverse dieting isn’t a way to supercharge metabolism. If you’ve lost significant weight, you won’t be able to eat as much as you used to (assuming your activity level is the same).
And if you’re too lean, no amount of reverse dieting will return you to full health and normality. In that situation, you simply have to put some fat back on.
How much food and how fast?
There’s no all-encompassing rule because everyone responds differently. The best way to proceed is by carefully monitoring weight and body fat and adjusting diet accordingly. The speed and size of your increases depend on how averse you are to the possibility of fat gain.
When you start getting close to or exceeding maintenance, it’s important to proceed slowly. Make changes no more than every week, preferably longer. That’s because fat gain can show up seemingly overnight and set you back.
(This apparent fat gain is strange. No doubt it doesn’t actually happen that quickly, my guess is that there’s a sudden shift in water balance somehow related to the whole process.)
What I do
Immediately after a diet I increase my daily energy intake to about 200 calories below predicted maintenance for a week. Then each subsequent week I increase that daily intake by 50-100 depending on how I’m feeling and what’s happening on the scale.
I spent my first decades of life carrying too much body fat. After getting into lifting weights, that changed to a demoralizing cycle of dieting myself lean then quickly and unintentionally regaining body fat afterwards.
Now thanks to reverse dieting I’ve had visible abs for years, while getting to eat plenty of food.
I still diet occasionally, but now it’s more about degrees of leanness after lean bulking to increase muscle growth.