Does Reverse Dieting Work?

Reverse dieting has been touted as an effective way to maintain your weight following a calorie-restrictive diet, but what is the evidence to support this claim?


Nicolle Monico
Updated 13 April 2022
Does Reverse Dieting Work?
Claim

Reverse dieting helps to promote weight loss and keep it off long-term.

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More research is needed to determine whether reverse dieting is beneficial in decreasing the likelihood of weight gain. However, some of its benefits include normalizing hormone levels to promote weight loss and reducing the risk of binge eating following a diet. Though some suggest that calorie monitoring leads to unrealistic expectations for long-term weight loss maintenance and an increased potential for disordered eating. 

 

Sections on this page
  1. What is Reverse Dieting? 
  2. Reverse Dieting and Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
  3. Calorie Intake, Metabolism & Weight Loss
  4. How Reverse Dieting Works
  5. Research on Reverse Dieting
  6. Does Reverse Dieting Work for Weight Loss?
  7. Frequently Asked Questions

If you’ve been following a restrictive diet to lose weight, considering eating more calories can seem like a quick way to undo all the hard work you put into shedding pounds. However, some fitness experts consider reverse dieting one of the best ways to maintain your weight loss and avoid gaining everything back after following a restrictive diet.

But does reverse dieting actually work or it is just another fitness trend that will disappear in a few years? We looked into the dieting approach along with research surrounding it to answer just that.

What is Reverse Dieting? 

Reverse dieting is especially prevalent among bodybuilders and competitive athletes looking to maintain their body composition and weight loss. The idea behind it is pretty simple.

When coming off of a calorie-restrictive diet, you need to slowly start adding calories back into your diet to avoid shocking your system.

It can be easy to begin indulging in higher calorie foods after your cycle of dieting ends, so this type of approach looks to prevent the yo-yo affect of losing and gaining weight.

With reverse dieting, as you start to climb back to your maintenance calories, you begin to boost your metabolism, gain back any lean mass you lost (which helps to mitigate hunger), and maintain fat loss in the long term.

Reverse Dieting and Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

As humans, we all have unique basal metabolic rates (BMR), known as our maintenance/resting calories. This number is the minimum number of calories your body needs to simply maintain your vital functions and sustain life.

BMR is determined by four factors:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Height
  • Amount of physical activity

Depending on those factors, this number will go up or down throughout your life. Once you know this number, you can use it as a baseline for how many calories you need to get each day in order to maintain your current weight or gain/shed pounds.

How to Calculate Your BMR

To estimate your BMR, search BMR calculator in your browser or use the Harris-Benedict formula below:

Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 × weight in kg) + (1.8 × height in cm) – (4.7 × age in years)

Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 × weight in kg) + (5 × height in cm) – (6.8 × age in years)

How BMR Affects a Reverse Diet

When you reverse diet, you’re working your way back up to your maintenance calories after coming out of a deficit for weeks or months.

The idea is that by slowly increasing your calorie intake, you’re beginning to shift your BMR upwards, thereby boosting your metabolism and allowing you to consume more food and calories without gaining weight.

Once you’ve completed your cycle of reverse dieting (around 4-10 weeks), you can choose to go through another calorie deficit to lose more weight.

Calorie Intake, Metabolism & Weight Loss

To understand how a reverse diet works, you first must understand a calorie deficit and how it affects your body and weight loss goals.

Most diets involve some sort of decreased calorie intake putting you in a “calorie deficit.” This means you’re consuming fewer calories than you’re burning.

To find your calorie deficit number, you’d use a BMR calculator to determine your intake, which is based on your activity level. This is your baseline.

For most, being in a 500-calorie deficit is all that is needed to begin to lose weight while not interrupting your energy levels or affecting hunger. But you can subtract anywhere from 300-500 from your estimated BMR to find your daily calorie intake.

Example of a Calorie Deficit

Say you exercise 3 to 4 times a week for 30-45 minutes a day and your estimated BMR is 1,927 calories. You'd subtract 500 from that number to find your calorie deficit.

So, to lose weight, you'd want to maintain a daily intake of 1,427 calories.

How Reverse Dieting Works

When in a calorie deficit, your body starts to adapt, and your metabolism begins to slow down to conserve energy. Once you’ve reached your goal weight, you're likely ready to start eating more calories than before.

But you'd need to work on speeding up your metabolism first which is why enthusiasts suggest this method to keep the pounds off.

By increasing your calorie intake by 50–100 calories per week above your baseline, it’s thought that you can begin to boost your metabolism to burn more through everyday activities such as talking, walking, or even resting.

Tracking Your Weight & Body Fat

If, after one week of reverse dieting, your weight and body fat remain unchanged, you can go up another 50-100 calories until you reach a calorie intake you are happy with.

Using the above example: baseline calories: 1,927, calorie deficit: 1,427, this may look something like:

Week Total Calorie Intake
1 1,477–1,527
2 1,527–1,627
3 1,577–1,727
4 1,627–1,827
5 1,677–1,927

This gradual increase continues until you’re back to your baseline (which will have likely changed with your weight loss).

Research on Reverse Dieting

Research on reverse dieting as a way to maintain weight loss is limited and more is needed to determine its effectiveness. However, current studies can offer some insight into the potential benefits and downsides of this approach.  

Potential Benefits

Possibly one of the biggest benefits of reverse dieting is its ability to ease your body back to a normal state of eating.

With a restrictive diet, if you go right back to eating how you were before your diet, you're likely to put the pounds back on. The slow increase of calories minimizes this risk as it gives your body time to adjust to your new intake.

One study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that among the potential benefits of reverse dieting is its ability to help normalize levels of circulating hormones, such as leptin which helps regulate body weight and appetite.

Additionally, reverse dieting allows individuals to eat more food throughout the day, which can lead to increased mood and energy levels. With overly restrictive diets, individuals may be plagued by symptoms such as difficulty concentrating and fatigue.

Since reverse dieting increases calorie intake, those eating more daily may start to feel more energized and content.

Potential Downsides 

Among the criticisms of this type of diet is that reverse dieting only focuses on calorie intake rather than fully understanding the complex nature of weight loss and weight gain prevention.

Some believe it does not put enough emphasis on unique circumstances that individuals may have with trying to lose and/or maintain weight loss. This includes factors such as stress, sleep, and hormone fluctuations which must be evaluated regularly in order to maintain long-term weight loss.

As such, individuals may not learn the proper ways to create a healthy lifestyle which can be detrimental in the future following a period of dieting.

And, similar to discussions on calorie-restrictive diets, one of the downsides of reverse dieting is the need to track calories so closely which can lead to disordered or obsessional eating habits. Though calorie-restrictive diets may not cause an eating disorder, research shows they are often a precursor.

The National Eating Disorders Association reports that among “normal dieters,” 35% of them become pathological dieters. And, among those, 20-25% develop eating disorders.

Does Reverse Dieting Work for Weight Loss?

Currently, there is no research to suggest that reverse dieting works to maintain weight loss and most of its advantages are supported by anecdotal evidence. Restrictive eating and dieting as a whole are not recommended as they tend to be predictors of weight gain in the future by about 75%.

That being said, reverse dieting among bodybuilders and competitive athletes can help to reduce the risk of binge eating following a calorie deficit diet. Further, with any type of diet, once you begin to increase your calorie intake, you start to normalize your hormone levels which can promote weight loss and maintenance.

However, some feel that calorie monitoring and counting adds to stress and unrealistic expectations for long-term maintenance. Nutritionists recommend a balanced diet which includes lifestyle changes that nourish your body adequately.

Bottom line: More research is needed to determine whether reverse dieting is beneficial in decreasing the likelihood of weight gain and promoting long-term weight loss.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is reverse dieting?

A reverse diet follows a period of dieting in which calorie intake is restricted. When you reverse diet you begin to slowly increase your calorie intake over several weeks to try and maintain your weight loss and avoid rapid weight gain. 

How do I properly reverse diet?

To properly do a reverse diet, you would begin to increase your calorie intake by 50–100 calories per week above your current calorie deficit. Therefore, if your calorie deficit is 1,400 calories, you'd add 50 calories the first week after hitting your goal weight to being consuming 1,450 calories. You'd continue this increase each week until you're back to your maintenance calories.

How can I find out my basal metabolic rate (BMR)?

To estimate your BMR, you can use the Harris-Benedict formula:

Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 × weight in kg) + (1.8 × height in cm) – (4.7 × age in years)

Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 × weight in kg) + (5 × height in cm) – (6.8 × age in years)

How long do I need to reverse diet?

You can reverse diet for as long as it takes to reach a calorie intake you are happy with or until you're back to your maintenance calories. Typically, this is anywhere between 4-10 weeks.

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