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Reverse Dieting: How To Reverse Diet Without Gaining Excess Weight

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The entire concept of a reverse diet may be completely foreign to you, and if you are aware of reverse dieting, you might be dubious as to whether it is actually effective.

Reverse dieting, or the reverse diet, is an approach taken from the bodybuilding world that essentially constitutes your “diet after a diet.”

Essentially, reverse dieting is the process of coming out of a restricted or low-calorie diet and returning to normal eating without gaining weight.

But does reverse dieting work? Can you reverse diet without gaining weight, and what is the best way to do so?

In this article, we will discuss what reverse dieting is and how to reverse diet without rapidly gaining weight.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Reverse Dieting?
  • How Does Reverse Dieting Work?
  • How to Do Reverse Dieting

Let’s dive in! 

A person reverse dieting, eating a salad.

What Is Reverse Dieting?

Reverse dieting refers to the practice of transitioning between following a low-calorie diet, or some form of restricted eating, back to your normal diet. 

A reverse diet acts as a segue between the two different eating patterns and caloric intakes.

The original conception of reverse dieting stems from bodybuilding wherein competitors first follow a bulking phase and then a cutting phase to achieve their desired body composition with extremely low levels of body fat. 

The cutting phase involves an extremely low-calorie, restricted diet, where the athlete is in a constant caloric deficit by consuming fewer calories than he or she is eating in order to lose any additional body fat.

However, once the competition is over, the bodybuilder or physique athlete will want to return to their normal diet and healthy caloric intake because the caloric restriction during the cutting phase is really not sustainable nor healthy and will eventually result in a loss of lean body mass as the body will have to metabolize muscle tissue to provide enough energy.

Thus, reverse dieting is designed to be the “diet after the diet” that gradually and progressively transitions your caloric intake and eating pattern back up to what it should be for weight maintenance.

When done correctly, the goal of reverse dieting isn’t just to get you back up to the number of calories you were eating before the diet without regaining the fat you lost on the diet, but actually to also be able to eat even more food than you were by increasing your metabolic rate.

Reverse dieting gained traction in the bodybuilding world when it seemed to be demonstrating success and has infiltrated the dietary practices of everyday people.

A person preparing food.

How Does Reverse Dieting Work?

The principle behind reverse dieting is that by very gradually increasing caloric intake after a period of restriction, you can circumvent the common pitfall of caloric restriction, which is a reduction in your metabolic rate.

The human body is designed for survival, so there are certain adaptive mechanisms in place that help ensure your survival under stressful or harmful conditions. For example, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear with the “fight-or-flight“ response if a sudden stressor is upon you.

This stressor was originally something that posed a threat to your survival, such as the need to suddenly outrun a lion. 

When the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, your body is flooded with hormones and neuronal firing patterns that activate your body, increasing alertness, heart rate, focus, and blood pressure, among other factors, to help you “fight“ or “flight“ (outrun) harm.

Another protective mechanism intended to ensure survival under stressful or harsh conditions is known as adaptive thermogenesis. Adaptive thermogenesis refers to metabolic adaptations that occur when food is scarce, and energy intake is not meeting energy output.

A person eating a salad.

In primitive times, when it was difficult to always have ready access to food, adaptive thermogenesis was a protective mechanism that would kick in and help your body conserve calories to minimize weight loss. 

Although deliberate dieting in modern times is a conscious decision to restrict calories, the same biological protective mechanism to decrease metabolic rate and become more efficient at utilizing the limited number of calories coming in can occur, particularly with extended low-calories diets.

This is often why people who are dieting eventually experience “weight loss plateaus.“ 

Your metabolism has adapted to the restricted number of calories that are coming in and has become better able to utilize that finite resource. Therefore, while initially, your healthy basal metabolic rate (BMR) might have been burning approximately 1800 calories a day, with prolonged caloric restriction, your BMR might drop to just 1400-1500 calories.

Adaptive thermogenesis can stagnate weight loss progress because it becomes increasingly more difficult to create a caloric deficit and actually consume fewer calories than you are burning in a day.

During the adaptive thermogenesis process, the body is able to conserve calories by reducing energy expenditure in numerous ways

A salad and piece of toast.

For example, there are hormonal changes that can increase hunger and decrease the feeling of satiety to encourage you to eat more. There can also be an increase in the secretion of fat-storing hormones such as insulin and peptide YY.

Body temperature can drop, and the rate of digestion can also slow, decreasing the thermic effect of food or the number of calories you burn by digesting and absorbing nutrients.

Finally, energy levels decrease, reducing the desire to exercise and be active throughout the day, and reducing the potential intensity of those activity levels.

Weight regain after a diet can be particularly pronounced because of these metabolic adaptations, even if you were successful at losing weight on your diet.

If you try to go back to your prior maintenance level of energy intake, you might start gaining fat because your body has now become adept at burning fewer calories to support your activity levels. 

Where reverse dieting comes into play is in trying to sidestep this problem, kicking the metabolism back into a higher gear so that you can still eat more calories without regaining the fat you lost on the diet.

Most popular diets and low-calorie diets do not prepare the diet to return to “normal“ eating after dieting, so unless you have adopted more of a lifestyle change eating pattern, a fad diet may provide only temporary success until old patterns of eating are resumed.

This can lead to the phenomenon termed “yo-yo dieting, “ in which a person cycles between losing and gaining weight as they start and stop different diets.

A healthy meal of fish and salad.

How to Do Reverse Dieting

So, how do you reverse dieting to hopefully prevent weight regain after following a diet?

As with most diets, the reverse diet isn’t set in stone, so it can vary from individual to individual.

The rate and length of your reverse dieting process will depend somewhat on how much you are under-eating from a caloric standpoint or how many calories per day you cut from your weight maintenance level.

The more restrictive your diet was, the longer your reverse diet will be.

For most people, reverse dieting involves increasing your daily caloric intake by approximately 50-150 per week for 4-12 weeks until you are back up at your pre-diet caloric intake or desired caloric intake.

People preparing to cook.

This is a very gradual approach because 50-150 calories is a very small amount of food. A medium-sized apple or banana might have about 120 calories, and just 1 tablespoon of peanut butter contains 100 calories.

Other people suggest that the best approach to reverse dieting is to increase your caloric intake by 5 to 15% per week (5-15% of the number of calories you ate per day on the diet) until you are back to your normal level.

The more conservative route is to go with the 5% increase, whereas the aggressive route tops off at around 15% per week. Of course, it will take longer to do a gradual increase, but the potential benefits are that your metabolism will have more time to adapt. 

Just as adaptive thermogenesis is able to slow your metabolic rate and conserve energy expenditure, if you gradually increase the number of calories you are eating, your metabolism can adapt and make use of them, enabling you to eat more food without gaining weight.

This process may be more successful if it is spread out with a gradual approach.

A person eating a plate of food.

However, plenty of people are keen on trying to return to their normal way of eating as soon as possible and aren’t overly concerned with a little bit of weight regain. In these cases, an increase in caloric intake by 10 to 15% per week can be the best route to take.

Let’s look at an example of someone who has been following a 1600-calorie diet per day and who needs to be eating 2200 calories per day. 

A 5% increase per week would involve bumping up your caloric intake by 80 calories, whereas a 15% increase would involve eating 240 more calories per day.

Reverse Dieting WeekTotal Daily Caloric Intake With 5% Reverse DietingTotal Daily Caloric Intake With 15% Reverse Dieting
Week 116801840
Week 217602080
Week 318402320
Week 41920
Week 52000
Week 62080
Week 72160
Week 82240

As can be seen, the conservative approach to reverse dieting will take much longer, but many dieters find it to be more successful.

Ultimately, the goal of reverse dieting is to decrease the risk of weight gain after dieting and restore your metabolic rate after restricted eating by taking a measured approach.

Looking for a healthy eating plan to fit your lifestyle and exercise routines? Check out some of our different diets to see what works best for you:

The CICO Diet

Intermittent Fasting

The Best Popular Diets For Runners

The Golo Diet Explained

A salad.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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