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Metabolic Adaptation and Reverse Dieting (Part 2)

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In part 1 of this series, we discussed a number of mechanisms by which metabolic adaptation occurs during weight loss and how this sets an individual up for body fat overshooting.

However, all hope is not lost. There are a number of potential ways to combat metabolic adaptation during dieting and also minimize re-gain during the post-diet period. Very little research has been done on these techniques; however, this article will provide discussion from application that requires further scientific study.


Can metabolic adaptation be minimized?

As coaches and competitors we use a number of methods in an attempt to minimize metabolic adaptation while dieting:

  • Refeeds – A day where calorie intake is raised closer to maintenance (typically through carbohydrate). There is not strong evidence this has a large effect on metabolic rate and weight loss; however, it may help improve acute workout performance and provide a mental break.
  • Small Caloric Adjustments – Plateaus are a normal part of the weight loss process. When they occur a decrease in caloric intake and/or increase in activity is needed to keep the individual in an energy deficit and losing weight. However, oftentimes only a small caloric adjustment is necessary to re-start weight loss. This also leaves the individual more room to work with metabolically if/when a future plateau occurs.
  • Diet Breaks – A period of 1-3 weeks where caloric intake is increased to around maintenance. This provides a mental break and helps to normalize hormone levels and metabolic rate so that an individual can continue loss once they drop back into a caloric deficit.
  • Mini-Reverse Diet – This is a process similar to a diet break; however, the period is extended to 1-2 months at which time an individual works food up similar to a reverse diet (described below).
  • Others – Approaches such as carbohydrate cycling where a different caloric intake is consumed each day of the week, stacking multiple refeed days back to back with a longer period of time between refeeds, cheat meals/days, and a number of other approaches are commonly utilized. To date, the efficacy of these approaches (and approaches to minimize metabolic adaptation in general) have not been determined and much more research is needed on these techniques.


How to minimize weight regain?

You have made it through your diet using the techniques above to minimize metabolic adaptation as much as possible while dieting, but where do you go next? Oftentimes, this is a place where individuals feel lost and ultimately this lack of direction results in rapid weight re-gain.

As discussed in part 1 of this series, metabolic rate is reduced at the end of a diet and takes time to recover. Gaining weight quickly isn’t enough for metabolic rate to normalize. There still appears to be a lag time in metabolic rate and hormone levels after rapid regain.

Because of this, many individuals have suggested that small increases in food/decreases in cardio coming out of a fat loss phase may help reduce weight gain while normalizing metabolic rate during the post-diet period. This process is commonly referred to as reverse dieting.


Reverse Dieting

Contrary to some of the misinformation out there, the goal of a reverse diet is not to lose weight or to stay stage-lean.

While it is true that the slower you increase food and decrease cardio coming out of a diet the less weight that is typically re-gained, reverse dieting slowly may not be best. The optimal rate of a reverse diet for an individual will depend upon a number of factors.

Reasons to reverse diet faster:

  • Coming out of a prep where you were stage-lean – Being stage-lean results in a number of negative effects on hormone levels, energy, strength, muscle mass, metabolic rate, mood, and relationship with food. Prolonging the amount of time in this state is not necessary, may impact rate of progress in the offseason, and if sustained for a prolonged period of time may even be detrimental to long-term health. Reverse dieting faster initially to add back some body weight and body fat may be advisable to normalize some of the negative effects of being stage-lean.
  • Struggling to stay on track with nutrition at the end of your cut – Binging during the post-diet period is common and is a significant contributor to weight re-gain. If an individual is struggling to stay consistent with their nutrition plan at the end of a cut, reverse dieting a bit quicker in order to find a middle ground where they are able to stay on track will likely result in less weight re-gain than binging.
  • Taking a longer offseason between contests – In general, the longer the offseason, the more leeway a competitor has in terms of how much weight they can re-gain between shows. If a competitor is taking a longer offseason where they plan to hold a higher body weight in order to make improvements in their physique, a bit more weight re-gain initially will not be significantly detrimental towards their long-term goals.

Reasons to reverse diet slower:

  • You didn’t diet to stage-lean and want to sustain loss – If an individual diets down to the point where they are not stage-lean and not “feeling” the effects of a diet, they may be at a body weight that is sustainable long-term. Reverse dieting slower can help to hold this lower sustainable body weight and prevent weight re-gain.
  • You tend to have a more difficult time losing fat – For a competitor who has a more difficult time losing body fat, staying a bit closer to stage lean may be advisable to help with a future prep. However, a minimum amount of body weight should be added so that the competitor is able to normalize hormone levels, metabolic rate, energy levels, strength, and relationship with food prior to dieting for another competition.
  • Psychological you struggle with seeing your body no longer in stage-shape – Some individuals struggle to see their contest body slowly disappearing as they add back body fat post-show. Although body fat does need to be added back post-show, reverse dieting slower for these individuals may be beneficial for their motivation levels and psychological health.


How to reverse diet

There is no “best” way to reverse diet and much more research is needed on this topic.

A general guideline would be to increase calories by 10-20 percent while cutting cardio in half initially. From there, those reverse dieting more slowly may only be adding 50-100 calories daily each week while those reverse dieting quicker may be adding 100-200+ calories daily each week. It would also be advisable to base the magnitude of change on weekly weight change and individual goals and also work to reduce cardio weekly.


Why am I losing weight while reversing?

Occasionally, during the early stages of a reverse diet weight loss occurs. This is not because reverse dieting is a weight loss method and the laws of thermodynamics still apply. However, there are a few potential reasons this may occur:

  • Caloric intake still below maintenance – If an individual is reversing slowly they still may be in a caloric deficit during the early stages of a reverse diet. In addition, if the initial increase in calories results in improved compliance with the nutrition plan, the individual may still be in a caloric deficit.
  • Daily fluctuation – Body weight can fluctuate by as much as 3-5lbs from one day to the next while eating the exact same macro numbers. Therefore, it is key that progress is not based upon a single weigh-in.
  • Reduced cortisol – High levels of cardio and a low caloric intake for a prolonged period of time both increased cortisol which may result in increased water retention. Increasing caloric intake and decreasing cardio may reduce cortisol and result in water loss.
  • More energy – Increasing caloric intake may give an individual more energy to train harder in the gym and expend more calories during their workout.
  • Increased NEAT – NEAT is a highly adaptive component of metabolism and is reduced during prolonged dieting. During the early stages of a reverse diet, NEAT may begin to increase resulting in a greater TDEE.
  • Less stress about the scale and weight loss – Oftentimes, individuals who stress a lot about the scale and weight loss tend to do a good job also stalling progress. During the initial stages of a reverse diet, an individual may relax a bit more, not be so hyper-focused on the scale. This may also reduce cortisol levels and result in water loss.

    Putting it all together, how can we affect metabolic rate?

    • Increase lean mass – Muscle mass is a major determinant of BMR. By lifting heavy weights and dieting at an appropriate rate to minimize muscle loss BMR will be maximized.
    • Increase TEF – Keeping food as high as possible while still making progress and eating a diet high in protein and fiber will help to increase TEF.
    • Increase NEAT – Many times during dieting, individuals become more sluggish and NEAT is reduced. Try to be more active throughout the day to keep NEAT from dropping during weight loss.
    • Prevent large declines in hormones as much as possible – Dieting at an appropriate rate and utilizing some of the methods discussed above to combat metabolic adaptation during weight loss may help to prevent large hormone declines. Moreover, reverse dieting may help avoid weight gain without hormone lag.
    • Minimize adaptive component of metabolism – Making small adjustments when plateaus occur during weight loss and avoiding extremes may help to minimize metabolic adaptation during weight loss.

About the author

About Peter Fitschen
Peter Fitschen

Peter Fitschen is a PhD Candidate in Nutritional Science at the University of Illinois. He has a BS in Biochemistry, MS in Biology with a Physiology Concentration, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is also an NGA Natural Pro Bodybuilder who has competing in...[Continue]

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