Yo yo dieting is extremely common.
With yo-yo diets, you lose your intended weight or body fat, then gain it all back, then lose it again, etc, much like a yo-yo constantly going down and up.
The reason that so many people fall into this type of dieting is that they don’t know how to go back to eating “normally” after a diet.
What is reverse dieting?
Reverse dieting is exactly what it sounds like: it’s dieting in reverse!
You slowly re-introducing calories into your diet, bringing you back up to your maintenance level or beyond (it’s also the method used if you are looking to bulk/add muscle with minimal fat gain).
The term reverse dieting sounds like an oxymoron, but it is quite literally dieting in reverse. In other words, a reverse diet is slowly increasing your calories over time, which is the opposite of a traditional diet where you slowly decrease your calories over time.
Whare are the benefits of reverse dieting?
If you suddenly go back to your normal eating habits right after a dieting phase, you’ll be quick to regain that weight.
This is why so many people experience weight gain after following a specific diet plan like Weight Watchers or Atkins. After so much calorie counting and calorie restriction, if you don’t know how to properly work back up to eating “normally,” that weight might quickly find its way back.
When you suddenly start eating higher calories, your body is quick to store those extra calories as fat in an effort to preserve as much energy as possible. Some metabolic adaptation has taken place, and your body has gotten used to those lower calorie levels.
And since you’ve restricted your calories for so long while dieting, your body is expecting those low levels of calories!
Naturally, it’s going to hold on to as many calories as possible. Your body does not WANT to be in a calorie deficit, after all!
So, if you suddenly start hitting it with a ton of extra calories, it’s going to hold onto those calories for dear life in anticipation of returning to that deficit. That excess energy gets stored as body fat, and it’s your body’s way of saving you from starving.
Gee, thanks body.
When should you reverse diet?
When reverse dieting is useful (and necessary):
1. You’ve been in a caloric deficit for many months and want to bring your metabolism back up to maintenance level (aka repair your metabolism), allowing you to return to a deficit effectively when needed.
2. You’ve reached your goal weight and are ready to return to maintenance calories.
3. Your calories have gotten far too low or your weight loss has stalled and you need to bring your caloric intake back up (a lot of people find themselves actually losing weight once they increase their calories if they’ve been in a deficit for a long time).
4. You’re ready to pack on some lean muscle, so you want to slowly work into a caloric surplus to start building quality muscle and strength.
5. You just want to be able to eat more food!
How to reverse diet
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that there are no hard-set rules to reverse dieting. Different coaches will have different methods of reverse dieting.
At the core, all the ideas are still the same: slowly increase calories over time. But HOW to go about that can differ greatly. Here is what I have found to work most effectively:
1. Increase your current calorie intake by 100-200 calories.
The initial bump-up of calories can be higher if you are in an extreme calorie deficit. For example, if you have been in a period of extreme caloric restriction, let’s say a total of 1,000 calories (which I absolutely do NOT recommend), then adding 300-500 calories initially can really help.
I recommend adding these calories back mostly in the form of carbohydrates, but that does not need to be the case if your preferences are different.
2. Eat at this increased calorie level for about 2-3 weeks.
After 2-3 weeks, assess your progress by looking at a combination of progress photos, the mirror, and assessing how you feel. I don’t recommend using a scale as your sole means of measurement, because it can fluctuate quite a bit from day to day. But you can certainly use it as a piece to the greater puzzle.
Remember: the goal here is to eat more food and feel great after a period of dieting! It WILL come with some water retention after you’ve been in a deficit for a while, so I don’t like to get hung up on what the scale says.
3. After 2-3 weeks, bump your calories up by another 100-200 calories.
4. Continue this process until you get back up to your maintenance calories or you’re eating an amount of food that has you feeling your best!
The goal here is to get us back to a point where we are living our lives, eating our food, and feeling great.
Your maintenance calories may not be exactly the same as they used to be (your basal metabolic rate may have slightly lowered now due to weight loss) so using how you feel as an indicator is very helpful here!
Do you need to reverse diet slowly?
It’s definitely recommended to take a reverse diet slowly. When you bring your calorie intake up slowly, it will help you to build lean muscle, limit fat gain, and allow your metabolism to keep up with the adjustments.
That being said, you can certainly move things along more quickly if you prefer.
You may choose to bump your calories up by 300-400 calories at a time, or adjust your calories weekly vs every two weeks. That is totally fine!
Reverse dieting is more forgiving than typical dieting. When it comes to lowering calories, I recommend adjusting your intake after one month, but with reverse dieting, I look at my caloric intake every 2-3 weeks to move the process along slightly faster. I mean, I prefer to get my body back to maintenance level sooner rather than later!
That being said, my approach is still more conservative than others out there. In my eyes, if you rush the process too much, you have a higher chance of adding unwanted body fat during the reverse diet. If you’re not concerned about that, by all means take an even faster approach. Some people like to take an aggressive approach to “bulking”, and that is totally fine if you prefer to just build muscle quickly and do not care about extra fat gain.
How long should you reverse diet for?
A reverse diet is going to take as long as it’s going to take.
That’s not a fun answer, I know.
If you happened to have a very restrictive diet and were eating very low calorie, you might find that the slow approach has you reverse dieting for 6 months. That’s normal! The idea here is to take it slowly to allow your body to keep up with the calorie adjustments- don’t rush it.
The obvious exception is if you were eating far too little to the point where it was dangerous- in which case, it’s important to get those calories up quicker.
Remember, some weight regain during a reverse diet is totally normal. In a lot of cases, it is NEEDED. Sometimes we just get too carried away with our diets and lose more bodyweight than our bodies prefer. In those cases where you find you are underweight, a little weight regain will benefit you.
That being said, if you’re not too concerned with adding a little extra weight and want to reverse out of your diet at a faster rate, you certainly can. At the very least, I recommend allowing yourself to reverse out of your diet for at least 2 months. If you suddenly bump back up to maintenance level, you’re defeating the purpose of the reverse diet.
Once you get back to your maintenance calories, or a caloric level that you’re happy with, you should not jump right back into dieting- that defeats the whole purpose!
My recommendation: stay at maintenance calories for AT LEAST half the time you were reverse dieting for.
If your reverse diet lasted an entire year, then I recommend staying at maintenance for 6 months.
It may not be what you want to hear, but your body wants to be at maintenance. Give your body some time to get used to it and feel really really good before you put it through the wringer of another diet.
It’s not abnormal to reverse diet for 3-4 months, and then stay at maintenance for another 2 months, putting the entire process at 6 months.
I’m no hormone expert, so it’s not a topic I can speak to at length. That being said, perpetually dieting can wreak havoc on your hormones, especially for females. That’s one of the reasons it’s pivotal to allow your body to rest at maintenance level (or above) before going back into a deficit!
We talked about patience earlier, and I simply cannot emphasize enough just how important it is. Whether you’re trying to lose weight or gain weight, you’ll find recommendations all over the map for how much to adjust your calories, and how quickly.
There are no exact answers, but at the root of all (good) recommendations, patience is always the key. Don’t rush for results, and always allow your body time to adjust and keep up.
I promise you: in the long term, you’ll be incredibly thankful for that.