Reverse Dieting And How It Works

Reverse dieting is also referred to as "the diet after the diet," and it’s popular among gymnasts, bodybuilders, and other competitive athletes. This dietary technique¹ is supposed to raise your metabolic rate after calorie restriction while maintaining body composition.

While it can be an effective option for preventing weight regain among some people, others regard it as an unnecessary and ineffective technique. Let's take a closer look at reverse dieting: How it works, what the science says, and whether it can have any adverse effects.

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What is reverse dieting, and how does it work?

The idea of reverse dieting is to maintain the weight you lost during a calorie-restricted diet. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) reduces as you lose weight, so your body needs fewer calories. This is called metabolic adaptation. This change conserves energy and reflects your weight. 

Your body only stores energy as fat if you use less energy than the amount you consume.

The factors that influence your energy intake include: 

  • Your appetite

  • The food you eat

  • The calories your body absorbs

  • Psychological factors: Stress, sleep quality, mindset, and self-esteem

The factors that influence your body’s energy use include:

  • Exercise

  • Energy burned at rest

  • Non-exercise activity

  • Energy your body uses to metabolize food

Metabolic adaptation² is one of the main reasons people regain a lot of the weight they lose. Their bodies now burn even fewer calories than before calorie restriction as they need to use less energy at rest. Their BMR is lower, so their bodies don’t need as many calories for essential processes, like organ function.

When you reverse diet, you gradually increase your calorie intake by a small number of calories each week. This gives your body a chance to increase your metabolic rate slowly and catch up with the calorie increase. Your body will learn to burn these extra calories and not regain the weight you’ve lost, maintaining your weight.

How can reverse dieting help?

You may attempt reverse dieting in various circumstances, including: 

There is scarce research on the potential benefits of reverse dieting. Most studies focus on high-performance athletes, not healthy nonathletic people. Still, some of the claims of reverse dieting include:

It allows you to consume more food without binging

Reverse dieting may allow you to eat more food without putting on additional weight. Most importantly, it could help you slowly reintroduce more calories after an energy-restricted diet without binging food. Many people tend to overindulge after finishing their diet, which could lead to unhealthy eating behaviors and weight regain.

Reduces hunger

Cutting calories can affect several hormones that determine appetite and hunger. Gradually increasing calorie intake could lead to better hormonal balance and reduced hunger. However, no research proves this theory.

It boosts energy levels

Plenty of overly restrictive diets cause mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and energy reduction. Whether this is due to a nutritional deficiency or inadequate calorie intake, increasing your calories with reverse dieting might resolve some of these issues.

Cons and potential adverse effects

Reverse dieting requires a lot of discipline and patience. Even with the savviest of routines, there are no guarantees. Although you could lose weight through reverse dieting while eating healthy and exercising, it works differently for everyone. We all metabolize excess calories uniquely. 

Age is one of the biggest factors in how your body reacts to metabolic adaptation. Because metabolism naturally declines with age, an identical reverse dieting protocol will most likely work differently for the various age groups. 

Moreover, a rigid reverse dieting protocol could start or worsen eating disorders or unhealthy behaviors such as obsessive calorie counting.

It is hard to keep track of your exact daily calorie intake, so you need a reasonable estimate of how much you can currently consume without gaining weight. Reverse dieting requires tiny incremental changes to your daily calorie intake. You can only reverse diet well by calculating calories, macros, and portion sizes. Consistency is key, and you will have to be willing to:

  • Acknowledge the fact that it might not work for you.

  • Measure your food intake.

  • Consume about the same amount of food daily.

Essentials of reverse dieting

Calculate your calorie target

Calculating your calorie target is easy since your current food consumption will always be the basis of your initial calorie target. If you have finished your cutting period, you will base your new calorie target on the number of calories you were consuming at the end.

To calculate your calorie target, add an extra 5-15% of your current daily calories to your intake, and continue this for a week or two. You can keep doing this until you reach a healthy target intake.

Let’s say you’re aiming for 2,000 calories per day on average. You’re currently on 1,200 calories after a calorie-restricted diet, so adding 10% gives you 1,320 calories. After the first week or two, you can add another 5-15% and repeat until you reach your goal. 

Calculate your macro targets

After calculating your calorie target, it’s time to calculate your macros. The macronutrients you include in your daily diet will go a long way in determining how effective your reverse dieting protocol will be. The macronutrients you should consider in your reverse diet include:

Fat targets

Fats should typically make up a small fraction of your daily calorie intake. Nevertheless, it is essential to include enough fat in your diet to maintain many essential body functions and the levels of hormones such as testosterone at a healthy range.

When reverse dieting, fat should make up 20–30% of your daily calorie intake. One gram of fat contains nine calories. To calculate your appropriate minimum fat target, multiply your daily calorie target by 0.2. Divide the result by nine to calculate the amount in grams of fat. 

If your daily calorie target is currently 2,000, then 20% in fat would be 2000 x 0.2= 400 ÷ 9 = 44.444 grams.

More importantly, pay attention to the fat you’re consuming. Limit or avoid foods high in saturated or trans fats, and focus on healthy fats such as those found in fish, nuts, and avocados.

Protein targets

Proteins play a critical role in numerous bodily functions, including the formation and development of muscles. You need to maintain or increase muscle mass to ensure a healthy metabolism, as the body uses more energy to build and maintain muscles than fat. 

Reverse dieting does not demand high protein intake; you should consume approximately 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound, accounting for around 15% of your daily calorie intake. You can go up to 30% depending on your age, build, and exercise. One gram of protein contains four calories. 

Carbohydrate targets

Carbohydrates are essential for energy production and play a critical role in determining your reverse dieting protocol's efficiency. They should generally take up the largest percentage of the calories you consume daily. 

Carbohydrates should make up 40–55% of your total calories, often the remaining number of calories in your diet after calculating your fat and protein targets. Like protein, carbohydrates contain four calories per gram. 

Focus on more complex carbs found in grains, fruit, and vegetables. Limit your consumption of pasta, bread, and baked items.

The lowdown

Reverse dieting aims to boost your metabolism by gradually increasing your calories. This approach has the potential to prevent weight regain after a cutting period.

While many of its purported benefits are still unsupported by research, anecdotal evidence supports its effects on maintaining a healthy weight after dieting.

It can be challenging to reverse diet consistently. You need to know how to calculate calories and make incremental changes to boost your metabolism.

It’s important to plan your reverse dieting protocol for a reasonable period. For results, you’re looking at a few weeks or months, not days.

Pay attention to your body's reaction to your reverse dieting and adjust your protocol according to your goals. You can also keep your hunger and energy levels in check by eating whole foods and including high fiber and healthy protein and fat in your diet.

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