What is Reverse Dieting?
As promised, a follow up to last weeks 'What is Flexible Dieting'.
Reverse dieting, in simple terms, is the process of slowly adding calories via macronutrients (protein/carb/fat) to increase metabolic capacity.
Remember that any time you diet (ie: consume less calories than you expend energy wise via activity), your metabolisms' natural physiological response is to slow due to your body attempting to conserve energy.
The problem arises when people are seeking to lose weight, but have been consuming low calorie for extended periods of time, believing they will lose more weight if they drop calories further or add more exercise. But all this does is plummet metabolism lower and lower.
Another issue at play is leptin levels. Leptin is often referred to as the ‘shut off’ or ‘satiation’ hormone. Leptin’s ‘job’ is to send messages to the brain to communicate we are full or have enough fat stored and do not need more energy (aka: food).
After body fat loss occurs, leptin levels are also reduced. However, the brain does not recognize this reduction. Remember that leptin is the ‘shut off’ hormone - telling the brain you are full - but with reduced leptin levels, this ‘shut off’ message does not communicate correctly and appetite is increased.
This is why permanent weight loss is so hard. We yo yo back and forth because our bodies’ biochemical mechanisms work HARD to gain the weight back to ‘survive’ starvation.
Now – when dieting, we aren’t truly ‘starving’. But our bodies don’t comprehend what ‘dieting’ is; only that body fat intended for survival is dwindling. It will fight like hell to keep that from happening.
So – metabolism slows and leptin drops as we lose weight. Each person is different within their threshold but, at some point, metabolism will be so slow and calories cannot go any lower nor can more activity be added in without causing hormonal and metabolic dysfunction. Which is where reverse dieting comes in to play to increase metabolic capacity.
This is achieved by adding macros (mostly in the form of carbs and fats) slowly. Many times macros will be added in weekly or bi-weekly depending on how a persons body is responding.
The goal is to get calories to around 15x body weight with MINIMAL bodyfat gain. Some people can even get to this level while dropping body fat. Why? Because in the absence of adequate fuel, the body will store - not release. With more fuel, the body can and will release fat stores.
As an example:
I am working with a young woman who has been doing weight watchers for over 6 years. She has been consuming around 1200 calories and doing an hour of cardiovascular exercise 5-6 days a week for about 4 of those years. Yet she cannot lose weight. She is 5’4”, weighs 146lbs. Initially, she dropped 14lbs with a straight-line cut in calories (going from about 2,000 to 1200 calories.) The problem with this, as discussed in last weeks post, is that such a steep drop in intake will lead to a plateau – as any drop in calories will. But 1200 calories is very low caloric intake. So once she plateaus, where does she cut from? She will have to drop dangerously low (and I don’t ever let anyone get to 1200 calories unless they are bed-ridden and have an insanely low BMR) and add in more exercise. She is already doing an hour a day of cardio – whats next? 1.5, 2, 3? This will all lead to hormone and metabolic dysfunction.
So, what we needed to do was increase her metabolic capacity. We started with her current numbers, 1200 calories, adjusted her protein up to leave at a fixed number for the duration of the reverse diet and added in anywhere from 10-15g of carbs per week and 2-4g fats.
Over the course of 26 weeks, we worked her from 1200 calories to 2,190 calories which = 15x her body weight. She initially lost 7lbs but gained the 7lbs back plus an additional pound during the course of the reverse. However, she made significant changes to her body composition by us adding in strength training and dialing back the cardio with 2 HIIT sessions per week (remember that strength training/lean muscle build increases metabolism). At the end of the 26 weeks, we started her first fat loss phase (see last weeks post for info on fat loss with flexible nutrition).
Because we took the time, worked her calories back up, thus increasing her metabolic capacity, she was ready to enter in to a slow and controlled fat loss phase. Instead of immediately dropping her down to the lowest caloric intake for her body, we started with 14x her bodyweight (based on multiple factors). She is now 10 weeks in to her loss phase, consuming 13x her body weight in calories and has dropped overall 12lbs and 3% bodyfat. And she is still eating well above her low calorie days of 1200 calories.
At some point, when she reaches her first goal, we will re-reverse. Why? Because we want to keep metabolic capacity high and set the body up for long-term success. If you can ‘diet’ on more calories and still get to your goals – WHY WOULDN’T YOU?
Moral of the story is this:
Dieting and body fat loss lead to slower metabolism and lowered levels of hormones that are important to maintaining your loss. If you have reached a point in your journey where you are consuming low calorie, are working out to your max and are not seeing results or have been living by ‘extremes’ by way or exercise/calories and are no longer getting results – it is time to reverse diet.
If you want to go the reverse diet journey on your own, I highly recommend Sohee Lee (the same professional I referred to last week) and Dr. Layne Norton's 'Reverse Dieting' ebook. If you feel comfortable working with a coach, reach out to me and I can help or give you other great coaching references.
Here's to a healthy, functional metabolic system.
In Health, tNutritionista