Reverse dieting is a term growing in popularity in recent years, but seems to be very ambiguous to many competitors and non-competitors alike. Once contest season or dieting for vacation is over, many resort to jumping right back into their pre-diet eating habits and completely forsake any form of cardio.
Unfortunately, this leads to very quick fat gain and leaves many discouraged and ready to diet off the excess weight once again. This happens all the time, that is- unless dieters incorporate a reverse diet during their transition to growth phases. Knowing why a reverse diet is so important, and how it actually works, is vital for transitioning out of a diet without frustrating excess weight gain. This article is going to explain just why reverse dieting is important for making that happen.
The biggest factor in reverse dieting needs is that of metabolic adaption- a collection of adaptions occurring in the body to accommodate for increased fat loss, in what could be considered a modern day “starvation” by the body. As calories become chronically low, body fat stores are reduced, and subsequent energy reserves are lowered. It’s the body’s job to help keep us from starving to death by reducing the energy we exert throughout the day, as well as enhance our ability to store fat.
Reduced Basal Metabolic Rate
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is essentially the energy the body expends at rest, without the inclusion of exercise, daily activities such as walking to and from work, or digestion. As fat loss occurs, BMR has been shown to decline as the body works to expend less energy to accommodate for the declines in food intake, as well as the decrease in muscle tissue- an otherwise metabolically active tissue.  As BMR declines, the total daily caloric expenditure declines with it, and in turn creates a need for a greater caloric deficit to be created through additional dietary restrictions and/or weekly aerobic exercise intensity and duration.
At the cessation of a dieting phase, the BMR must adapt to increasing energy consumption as greater food intake is introduced. Without incorporating more food gradually, a sudden rise in daily caloric intake essentially overwhelms the depressed BMR, and leads to a greater storage of body fat rather than efficient use of the additional calories.
Reduced Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
Another contributing factor to total daily energy expenditure is that of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which in short is the daily activity a person undergoes in their day-to-day life aside from planned exercise, like walking the dog or taking the stairs to work. NEAT is said to make up ~15% of total daily energy expenditure.
Keeping in mind that casual activity tends to decline as a dieting phase progresses is another factor in the importance of a proper reverse diet. Suddenly adding in large amounts of calories without paying attention to the likely reduced NEAT can introduce another source of caloric surplus and additional fat gain.
Total Daily Energy Expenditure Contributors: 
|Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)||70%|
|Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)||15%|
|Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)||10%|
|Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT)||5%|
While TEF and EAT will not vary much between growth season and fat loss phases, paying consideration to the changes in BMR and NEAT can help athletes to not only appropriately adjust their intake when dieting; but also make wise decisions during their transitions out of a dieting phase to maintain a better body composition following their efforts to improve ratios of body fat to muscle tissue during the diet. Understanding that our bodies are in fact dealing with suppressed abilities to expend calories after dieting helps to highlight the importance of keeping ourselves in check with our eating habits after finishing a fat loss phase.
Hormones Gone Wild
Much like college girls headed to spring break, after a stressful period of time- hormones within a dieter begin getting a little crazy. Dieting and subsequent fat loss brings about a cascade of hormonal changes that are designed to ultimately keep us alive, but in terms of body composition changes- can make diet life quite challenging.
Leptin is essentially a satiety hormone. Generally as body fat declines, so too do levels of circulating leptin due to the hormone being synthesized largely in fat cells. Body fat reduction, coupled with a reduction in leptin, serves as an additional signal to the body that energy reserves are declining, and energy intake needs to increase sooner rather than later.  As can be imagined, this decreased feeling of satiety makes cravings and temptations to over consume food during a dieting phase particularly difficult as leptin declines further and further.
The most popular among hormones for most lifters, testosterone never seems to get enough praise and press. This anabolic hormone can decline substantially when dieting, especially during sudden, large cuts to calorie intake are induced; which as a side note, helps highlight the importance of making gradually adjustments to food intake and aerobic activity when dieting. 
As testosterone levels decline over the course of an extended diet, so too does the ease in which muscle tissue can be retained. Through reduced muscle tissue, metabolic rate is further declined, and lost body fat results in a much less impressive physique as lower muscle mass is present to show.
T3 and T4, collectively termed thyroid hormones, are responsible for thermogenesis (among other roles) and are shown to decline when dieting.  As thermogenesis declines, so too does the total energy the body expends. Reduced thyroid hormones are also a major reason why dieting athletes have a hard time staying warm as body fat declines. As the body’s ability to expend calories declines, excess calories from cheat meals, or sudden increases in daily food intake results in a larger and larger caloric surplus stored by the body as fat.
Ghrelin is actually a collective term for a group of hormones, which largely influence hunger. Dieting (and also losses in sleep), significantly raises ghrelin levels, which then creates substantial levels of hunger in dieters. As food intake declines, this increased hunger can make it increasingly difficult to avoid over consumption, making it much easier to overeat during and especially after cessation of a dieting phase.
A properly implemented reverse diet can help to avoid the often massive rebound in fat gain that is seen in dieters who end their fat loss efforts, then suddenly jump back to a pre-diet food intake, or enjoy excessive, un-tracked meals. Gradually increasing food intake after dieting can help reduce urges to vastly over eat, urges created in large part due to disrupted hormone balance. Reverse dieting ensures hormones positively return back to normal levels and greatly eliminates unnecessary rebound fat gain in the process.
Chronic Under Eaters
You don’t have to be coming off a planned dieting phase to need a reverse diet. More often than most people think, new clients that I begin working with haven’t been trying to diet, but have just simply been under eating during their day to day life. Skipping breakfast, then having a snack or two during the day, maybe a grilled chicken salad, then whatever can be purchased or whipped up quickly at dinner- sound familiar to anyone?
Especially for those that haven’t yet begun tracking their food intake regularly, almost always are they vastly under eating for the performance and physique goals they have in mind. Although it may seem counter intuitive at first, you could be holding on to more body fat by eating less than if you were consuming an adequate amount of calories to fuel your performance and support improved and maintained muscle tissue (which not only improves the ratio of muscle tissue to body fat, but also supports a slightly higher resting metabolic rate).
Rather than starting with a new client by finding their current intake then immediately dropping calories, I instead very often gradually improve their overall food intake; typically by increasing protein intake to adequate levels, then adding carbohydrate, initially to pre- and post-workout meals. This in turn improves training energy and strength levels, helps to begin adding more muscle tissue, and begins to improve body composition- resulting in a leaner physique, but also a more efficient environment for then beginning a dieting phase.
Offseason Performance Benefits
Often times, if reverse dieting is actually discussed, it’s mostly in regards to coming out of a contest prep diet or for general population individuals who have just chronically under eaten. Although often overlooked, it doesn’t apply only to periods after dieting. I risk being labeled a male chauvinist for saying this, but I see this especially often in female physique competitors during their offseason. After reaching an impressive conditioning for a competition, many females feel very hesitant to virtually ever increase calories much at all moving forward.
In an effort to stay lean and feel their most attractive, female competitors often keep calories very low through virtually their entire “growth season” to maintain a very lean physique they feel confident in, afraid to ever really increase calories to any significant degree.
Although it’s understandable to struggle with offseason weight gain, it’s important to remember that without sufficient calorie intake, natural athletes are putting themselves at a near complete stand-still in ever making further physique progress. Not to mention, chronically undereating during the offseason can continue disturbing already disrupted hormone health, and even begin harming bone health in female athletes.
So you can’t keep calories ultra low year round and still make progress, but you also don’t want to gain a ton of body fat, so what the heck do you do? Yep, you guessed it- follow a strategic reverse diet. Some body fat is necessary for optimal health and consistently improved physique progress. But that doesn’t mean you have to look like the Michelin Man to have a successful offseason either. Making sure calories rise strategically throughout the offseason will also be vital for setting yourself up in an ideal environment for future dieting phases. It’s nearly impossible to diet effectively if you’re starting the diet already eating very low amounts of calories.
Reverse Dieting Guidelines
The ideal compromise is simply taking your transition from dieting to growth phases pretty gradually. Raise calories enough to help with hunger management the first 1-2 weeks after finishing a dieting phase (maybe upwards of 50-60g carbs and 4-8g fat), then keep an eye on your weekly weight change while adding calories in more gradually (let’s say anywhere from 10-25g carbs and/or 4-8g fat per week, depending on your individual metabolic rate and weekly weight gain).
Then, as the offseason progresses, make smaller and smaller additions to your intake, and periodically mini cut when necessary to keep your body weight within a reasonable offseason range (10-18lbs above stage weight for women and 15-25lbs for men is a nice rule of thumb).
Doing this, you can more easily keep an eye on your weight gain post-diet, allow our metabolism time to positively adapt to the new increase in calories and gradual reduction in weekly cardio, and more easily avoid any rebound fat gain along the way. As a result of recording your weekly weight change throughout the offseason, and gradually raising total calorie intake based on your weight and body comp changes, you can make sure you’re creating the environment for your physique to continue progressing, while avoiding the feared, sudden fat gain.
Why it all Matters
This collection of changes within the body culminate to create an environment primed for over eating, sudden fat gain, and reduced muscle tissue- resulting in a less favorable body composition, more fat to lose than was present before the diet, and a whole lot of frustration.
By incorporating a reverse diet at the cessation of your dieting phase through gradually increasing food intake and reducing aerobic activity, dieters are able to allow time for the body to slowly return back to normal levels of hormone balance and metabolic capacity.
Rather than being suddenly ambushed by floods of calories and having weekly exercise greatly restricted, the body can instead have time to become accustomed to the increasingly new environment of food consumption and exercise, and maintain a much more favorable ratio of muscle to fat, along with an improved ability to consume and metabolize larger amounts of food. Doing so allows for a more ideal start to the new growth season and greater potential for overall metabolic capacity, new muscle growth, and a hormonal environment conducive to proper health and maximal training performance.
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