Weight loss, whether for aesthetic or performance-related reasons, is an extremely common fitness goal. While you may have run a successful diet and dropped some spare pounds, you might be left wondering what to do after.
Some literature suggests that weight loss protocols often result in subsequent major weight gain if you don’t rebound properly. (1) If you’ve worked hard in the kitchen and the gym for months to hit a certain weight, only to rapidly gain it back, was all the restriction really worth it?
Luckily, reverse dieting allows you to recover from a period of caloric restriction in a sustainable way, and might just be the key to running successful weight cuts long-term. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about how to do a reverse diet safely and effectively.
The Guide to Reverse Dieting
- What is a Reverse Diet?
- What a Reverse Diet Isn’t
- How to Set Up a Reverse Diet
- Benefits of a Reverse Diet
- Who Should Do a Reverse Diet
- What to Do After a Reverse Diet
A reverse diet is basically the opposite of a typical diet. Instead of slowly reducing calories over several weeks to try and lose weight, a reverse diet has you slowly and methodically adding back the calories you’ve taken away, typically from carbs and fat.
The goal of the reverse diet is to slowly get your nutritional intake back to maintenance levels or slightly above, without gaining a whole bunch of fat in the process. Adding back calories this way, in theory, should help stave off any negative metabolic adaptations you may have experienced when dieting.
It sounds simple enough, but like all things you do in the world of nutrition, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it.
A reverse diet is not a “bulk.” The goal of a reverse diet is not to gain back a bunch of mass after dieting and it does not mean stuffing your face with any and everything that has calories. A reverse diet is more of a slow and controlled approach to get your body back to baseline efficiency over time.
A reverse diet still involves the tracking of your intake. Although it may not be as carefree as completely eliminating any thought from the way you eat, it ultimately may be what’s best for you if you’re done with a weight cut and want to enjoy more calories — and thus higher performance in the gym.
If you’ve got some experience with shedding fat for beach season or to make weight at a powerlifting meet, the process of a reverse diet should be quite intuitive. In essence, all you’re doing is retracing your steps. Here are those exact steps broken down for you.
Step 1 — Determine How You’ll Track
Unfortunately, relying on your memory is not going to cut it. To successfully reverse diet, you need to track your intake to properly account for what you ate on the day. Most nutritional tracking apps work just fine and can provide additional useful information, but whatever method you used to get down to your current weight will probably suffice.
Remember, though, that precision is key. To gain weight slowly and steadily without bringing back any spare fat, your caloric benchmarks have to be tightly calibrated. Make sure you track diligently.
Step 2 — Figure Out Your Calories
If you’ve been dieting, you should know roughly how many calories you have been eating, but make sure you have consistently tracked your calorie intake and averaged your body weights for a week or two to get a true picture of where you’re at with your nutrition.
Once you’ve determined that your current caloric intake is maintaining your weight, it’s time to sprinkle in some extra nutrition to kickstart the weight gain process. Aim for a very conservative increase on your current intake — some sources recommend a very modest increase of one to five percent — to begin your reverse diet. (2)
If you aren’t sure about where you’re at with your caloric needs, this is the time to hit up a handy calculator that does much of the work for you.
Step 3 — Set Up Your Macros
Protein is arguably the most important macronutrient for a reverse diet due to its effects on muscle maintenance and hypertrophy. Establishing your protein intake should come first, and you should aim for anywhere between 1.8 and 2.4 grams per kilogram of body weight.
Dietary fat follows and is essential for healthy bodily function. Get your bases covered by making dietary fat 20 to 35% of your total caloric intake.
Finally, the remainder of your leftover calories should come from hearty carbohydrate sources. However, there’s some flexibility here. If you want more fat or protein and fewer carbs, you’re free to modify your macros as long as you’re hitting the minimum dosages.
Ultimately, a sample reverse diet for an 80-kilogram athlete, whose maintenance calories are 2600 per day, could look something like this:
- Total Calories — 2730 (+5%)
- Total Protein — 176 grams (2.2g/kg)
- Total Fat — 75 grams (25% total calories)
- Total Carbohydrate — 337 grams (the remainder of available calories)
Step 5 — Evaluate and Monitor
The most straightforward way of keeping tabs on your reverse diet is to weigh yourself daily and then take a weekly average. While a noticeable bump in body weight is expected, particularly if you’re incorporating many more carbs than you’re previously used to, you can adjust your total intake on an as-needed basis if you feel you’re gaining too quickly.
If you’re monitoring your progress with the scale, make sure you always weigh yourself under similar conditions — ideally in the morning after using the restroom and before you’ve consumed any food or water.
Beyond the scale, look to your performance in the gym and how you feel in the mirror to guide your progress. Any increase in caloric intake above maintenance levels should yield noticeable performance bumps in the squat rack or on the deadlift platform, and the conservative surplus should mean little to no extra fat along the way.
It’s not a magic bullet, but a well-planned reverse diet can do a lot to ease you out of an aggressive weight cut and get you back in the game in the gym.
You Get More Food
Adding back in calories means getting to eat more food! As long as you’re adding back in these calories slowly, you’ll be able to keep fat gain to a minimum while maximizing your quality of life and general mood.
Suppressed caloric intake for an extended period of time can be mentally draining. It can cause you to feel sluggish, tired, and irritable at times. Reverse dieting allows you to safely exit your caloric deficit, which should afford some psychological relief especially if you’ve been dieting down for months.
Steady Weight Gain
A common error at the conclusion of a diet is to jump right back into your old eating habits, significantly increasing the amount of calories you’re consuming. This typically results in rapid weight gain.
However, a well-thought-out reverse diet circumvents this and can help you steadily and reliably move up in weight without such heavy swings on the scale. Slow and tempered adjustments will set you up for whatever dietary protocol you aim for afterwards, so don’t shy away from it.
A reverse diet isn’t right for everyone. If you simply cut your calories a little bit for a couple of weeks, you probably don’t need a reverse diet. If you stopped drinking soda or eating refined sugars and this caused a caloric deficit resulting in you losing weight, you most likely don’t need a reverse diet. A reverse diet is for those who have been in a severe caloric deficit over a long stretch of time.
Bodybuilders/physique athletes would benefit from a reverse diet after getting done with contest preparation. These competitors often drop their calories to very low levels so that they can get as lean as possible. This significant decrease in calories can negatively impact their metabolic rate and make them more susceptible to weight gain post-show. A reverse diet can largely minimize this by slowly adding back calories.
A bodybuilder or physique competitor who just wrapped up their show is a prime candidate for a reverse diet. Getting stage-ready-lean means dropping your calories to very, very low levels. This tends to go hand-in-hand with a dampened metabolic rate, and can make you susceptible to weight gain if your caloric reintroduction isn’t properly managed.
If you’re guilty of being a so-called “yo-yo dieter”, hopping from one diet or mean plan to another, a reverse diet is right up your alley. Cycling between restriction and indulgence can have a negative impact on metabolic stability, (3) making it hard for you to truly assess your nutritional needs. A controlled reverse diet should provide a much-needed baseline from which to make informed nutritional decisions.
Those On a Plateau
Even if you’ve been eating a truly scant amount of calories for months, it is possible that the scale won’t budge any further. If you’ve hit a weight loss plateau, stepping back might actually allow you to move forward.
A controlled increase of calories can do a lot for your metabolism over time as well as bring some much-needed mental relief. Even though a reverse diet will slow your weight loss progress in the short term, you’ll be better off in the long run.
The Effects of Dieting
There’s more to dieting than just getting shredded. Maintaining a healthy body weight can drastically improve your quality of life. If you’re overweight or have simply let your dietary rigidity lapse for a while, getting a handle on your nutrition can do a lot for your health. Weight control is strongly associated with improved blood pressure, body composition, and even increased life expectancy. (4)(5)(6)
Dieting down is the avenue to improving your appearance on the bodybuilding stage, but the benefits go far beyond just looking good. As long as you bounce back properly — this is where a reverse diet shines — you can improve your physique and your health at the same time.
What happens after you have achieved your goals with reverse dieting? Do you begin another diet? Do you continue to meticulously track your intake forever? Well, that all depends.
If you’ve been rigorously monitoring your intake for a while, it may bring you some peace to back off of tight tracking and work on mindful eating habits. Evaluating your satiety during meals, eating slower and savoring your food, and indulging in favorite treats in moderation can all benefit your mind and body in the long-term.
If you’d like to hop on a bulk to pack on some extra muscle in the future, you absolutely can, and the same goes for adopting another weight loss plan. The luxury of the reverse diet is that it cleans your plate for you and allows you to make any move you want with your nutrition afterwards.
Reverse diets are far more intuitive than they may sound. If you’re at the bottom of a long, arduous weight cut or have simply been diet-hopping for a bit too long, a good reverse diet will help get your nutritional practices under control.
Instead of doing a hard turn-around back to your old eating habits, reverse dieting can set you up for success in the kitchen — which will pay dividends in the gym. Getting back to a sustainable caloric level, without all the fat that tends to go along with the end of a diet, can make your hard-fought efforts all the more worthwhile.
- Korkeila, M., Rissanen, A., Kaprio, J., Sorensen, T. I., & Koskenvuo, M. (1999). Weight-loss attempts and risk of major weight gain: a prospective study in Finnish adults. Am J Clin Nutr, 70(6), 965-975. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/70.6.965
- Norton, N. L., & Baxter, B. H. (2020). The Complete Reverse Dieting Guide: Your Path to Sustainable Results [E-book]. Independently published. https://biolaynestore.com/products/the-complete-reverse-dieting-guide-e-book
- Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 11(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
- Ashtary-Larky, D., Bagheri, R., Abbasnezhad, A., Tinsley, G. M., Alipour, M., & Wong, A. (2020). Effects of gradual weight loss v. rapid weight loss on body composition and RMR: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr, 124(11), 1121-1132. https://doi.org/10.1017/s000711452000224x
- Semlitsch, T., Krenn, C., Jeitler, K., Berghold, A., Horvath, K., & Siebenhofer, A. (2021). Long-term effects of weight-reducing diets in people with hypertension. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2(2), Cd008274. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD008274.pub4
- Stenholm, S., Head, J., Aalto, V., Kivimäki, M., Kawachi, I., Zins, M., Goldberg, M., Platts, L. G., Zaninotto, P., Magnusson Hanson, L. L., Westerlund, H., & Vahtera, J. (2017). Body mass index as a predictor of healthy and disease-free life expectancy between ages 50 and 75: a multicohort study. Int J Obes (Lond), 41(5), 769-775. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2017.29
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