Reverse dieting: scam or metabolic supercharger?

Reverse dieting after a fat loss phase is controversial. Some swear it’s a metabolic supercharger, others claim it’s a diet coach scam. I’ve researched it, and dieted with and without it, so here’s what I think.

Post fat loss transition

Significant fat loss causes metabolic changes that reduce energy expenditure. An amount of food that wouldn’t have caused fat gain before the diet now does. Your body wants to regain fat, which is necessary as a starvation defense, but frustrating when your intention is to get in shape.

It’s a catch 22. Energy expenditure and metabolism will return to normal with a greater caloric intake, but a rebound is almost guaranteed if pre-diet eating is immediately resumed.

Reverse dieting is proposed as a way to solve this catch 22. The idea is that with gradual increases of food intake, metabolism increases proportionately, thereby avoiding fat regain.

So does it work?

Yes, it works. So well that some post-competition bodybuilders stay leaner than they even intended, and still have trouble with diet-induced adaptations months later, despite a huge increase in calories.

Most people have more modest results though. I’ve personally gone from an intake of 1900 calories at the end of a fat loss diet all the way up to 3000 with no fat gain using a reverse dieting approach.

So why the controversy?

No science

There’s no direct science supporting it. Instead we have the anecdotes of people who’ve experimented with it. Naturally and rightly that leads to skepticism.

The best we can do is consider the claims against our current knowledge. To that end, we know energy expenditure is reduced in people who diet, and that this can be remedied with increased energy intake. (With the caveat that full recovery from dieting to extreme leanness requires some fat regain.)

We also know that immediately returning to pre-diet levels of food intake leads to fat rebound.

Given those facts, the hypothesis of reverse dieting is plausible. It doesn’t require any major leaps in our understanding of physiology.

Bad outcomes

Further reasons for doubt are bad outcomes from misuse—it’s not a universally appropriate technique.

Reverse dieting is psychologically very difficult because the immediate goal of fat loss is gone. Weight maintenance feels less purposeful. That can lead to issues with adherence, which may develop into cycles of binging and further dieting.

Sketchy claims

There have been claims that reverse dieting is a way to supercharge your metabolism so that you can eat endless amounts of food with no fat gain.

As fun as being immune to fat gain would be, it’s wishful thinking. You can’t overcome your genetically determined metabolic rate.

What reverse dieting is good for

Reverse dieting is a way to return a suppressed metabolic rate to full capacity while staying lean.

It’s great for going from artificially low energy requirements at the end of a long or extreme diet to the amount you would require if you hadn’t just been dieting.

What reverse dieting is bad for

Reverse dieting isn’t appropriate:

  • When you don’t intend to maintain the results of your diet. For example, a post-show bodybuilder as mentioned above. They’d be better to put some fat back on to get back to health. Or more generally, someone who only wants to look good for a certain occasion, then doesn’t mind returning to pre-diet condition.
  • When you’re not suited to the process. If reverse dieting leads to disordered eating, obviously it’s not a good idea.
  • As a way to eliminate the caloric deficit at the end of a diet when your goal has been achieved. This will effectively only prolong the diet. It’s better to increase calories straight up to the estimated new weight maintenance level (or just beneath) so that you stop losing weight. By definition this won’t cause fat gain, and it enables recovery to begin.
  • When you haven’t incurred any metabolic slow-down. For instance, if you haven’t lost much weight, or still carry quite a bit of fat at the end of your diet.

It’s just a tool

Like most things, reverse dieting is context-dependent. It’s not a scam, but it’s also not a panacea for everyone in every situation. It’s simply a tool, and like every tool the appropriateness of it is context-specific.

However, used well, it’s very worthwhile. I’m a former fat kid who was resigned to a flabby body and low caloric intake. Reverse dieting allowed me to become lean and stay that way, while getting back to a normal food intake. Honestly, for me it was miraculous.

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