Reverse Dieting, also known as Building Your Metabolism, is a strategic method of eating that is used to slowly increase calorie intake while monitoring the body’s response. This allows your metabolism to gradually adapt to an increased caloric intake, rather than going through a large jump, which could cause unwanted fat gain.
In this article, I’ll teach you what reverse dieting is, whether or not it is something you should try, and how to reverse diet effectively.
Table of Contents
- Reverse Dieting Introduction
- Metabolic Adaptation
- Sound Too Good to be True?
- Is Reverse Dieting Right For You?
- How to Reverse Diet
- Step 1: Choose How You’re Going to Track Your Calories
- Step 2: Determine Your Maintenance Calories
- Step 3: Pic Your Macronutrient Ratio
- Step 4: Choose Your Rate of Progression
- Step 5: Monitor And Adjust
- How Long Should You Reverse Diet?
- This is Not a Substitute for Healthy Eating
- The Ultimate Goal With Reverse Dieting
- Reverse Dieting Conclusion
Reverse Dieting Introduction
Let’s get this out of the way first…
Reverse dieting is not for everyone and should be done under the guidance of a qualified professional.
If you’re still with me and are interested in reverse dieting, here are some things you need to keep in mind.
First, it is important to start slowly. You do not want to increase your caloric intake by too much too fast, as this could cause unwanted fat gain.
It is incredibly important to monitor your body’s response closely. If you experience any negative symptoms, it may be time to cut down your caloric intake, stay where you are, or raise your caloric intake faster to a level that fits your goals better.
Remember, reverse dieting is not for everyone, so understanding whether it is right for you is important. I’ll discuss who may want to try reverse dieting later in this article, but first we’ll talk about what it is and why it works.
Metabolic adaptation is the phenomenon where the body adapts to a caloric surplus (eating more calories than you burn) or deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn) by adjusting energy output, substrate partitioning (where the calories go), and hormone levels.
Basically, your body gets used to living on the amount of food you’re feeding it and stops gaining or losing weight. (2)
There are two forms of metabolic adaptation: starvation response and adaptive thermogenesis. These are very easy to understand! So stick with me!
The starvation response is the body’s natural response to a decrease in caloric intake. Kind of like our ancestors starving for long periods of time.
When you first start dieting you lose weight pretty easily. Your metabolism is high because it is used to getting plenty of calories.
But then your weight loss progress slows or stops altogether.
So you drop your calories a bit more and see some more success.
But then your progress stops again, and the cycle continues.
Eventually, you just can’t eat fewer calories. You have dropped to 1,200, 1,000, 800 calories, and you’re not losing weight!
- Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) declines. That’s the number of calories required to keep you alive. Not accounting for any daily activity. Your body does this to reduce how much energy is going out. This conserves calories for survival. (4)
- Exercise becomes more difficult. You’re not eating as much, so you don’t have as much energy for working out. Now you’re not burning as many calories during your workouts as you used to!
- You use less energy through exercise. Because your body has gotten smaller, you’re not burning as much as you used to and your body requires fewer calories to operate. Kind of like a truck getting worse gas mileage than a small car. You’re now a small car. You need less gas to run. This also lowers the number of calories you burn throughout the rest of the day!
- Your Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) goes down. You have less energy because you’re eating less food, so your body naturally moves less throughout the day. You don’t fidget as much, you sit when you’re on the phone instead of walking, you play with your kids less, you sit while you work, you even blink less!
- Your digestive system slows. Your body needs to absorb as many nutrients as possible from the little bit of food you’re eating. So it slows and squeezes every last vitamin, mineral, and macro out of your food that it can.
This is why most diets fail. Our bodies are very good at keeping us alive. Sometimes that means surviving on as few calories if necessary. (7)
You hit the dreaded weight loss plateau.
And, the fewer calories you eat the more your body is going to pull energy from muscle instead of fat! You started dieting for fat loss, but now your body is holding on to it because you’re not giving it all the food it truly needs.
This is also why it’s so easy to rebound back to your starting weight and then surpass it.
The opposite can also happen.
Adaptive thermogenesis is the body’s natural response to a sustained caloric surplus. Your body is getting all of the food it needs, so it ramps up your energy levels.
Scientifically, your body wastes more calories as heat than in starvation mode.
Here is what can happen, if don’t right, using the science of adaptive thermogenesis. (6)
- BMR rises. Your body is learning to run on more calories. It’s heating up, running more efficiently, and you spend more energy just being alive. Remember, your BMR is the number of calories your body uses just to stay alive; not to be active. Wouldn’t it be awesome if your body needed 1,800 calories just to keep your system running instead of 1,200?! You could eat more food and not gain weight!
- Workout capacity increases. Now that you are eating more food, you have more energy in the gym, or outside running. Your workouts are better, you’re enjoying them so you’re more consistent, you’re training harder, and you’re burning more calories while you workout.
- Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) increases. Now you have more energy outside the gym as well! You’re playing with your kids more. You want to go on a walk with your spouse. You’re standing at work instead of sitting all day. Your legs are fidgeting while you’re sitting. You’re walking while talking to your dad on the phone. All of this burns more calories and is a natural response to the increased amount of energy you’re giving your body in the form of calories!
- Lean bodyweight increases. Extra muscle mass requires extra calories, as does a heavier bodyweight in general. As you gain back some weight, your body burns more calories. (8)
- Digestion returns to normal. Your body isn’t trying to get every last ounce of food out of your meals. You’re digesting like normal and absorbing macros and micros as intended. This also means that you’re not bringing in much energy because you’re not squeezing every last drop. Your digestive system produces more heat.
Your body responds to extra calories by increasing the amount of energy you use each day. Now you have the energy to play, workout, and live!
There is a catch, though.
You can’t just add a ton of calories and expect your body to handle it. In order to get these benefits, you need to add your calories back in slowly and consistently.
If you spent 6 months dieting, you can’t expect your body to reverse all of that in a month.
A good, general rule is that you should spend at least the same amount of time rebuilding your metabolism as you spend dieting.
And there is a limit to how high you’ll be able to take your calorie intake.
One study found that eating 20 percent above your maintenance calories, the amount you’re eating now, did not significantly increase fat gain. But 40 percent did! (1)
So, if you’re maintenance calories (calorie amount where you don’t gain or lose weight) is 2,000 each day, you can expect to boost up to about 2,400! That’s a lot of extra calories each day!
Sound Too Good to be True?
it’s important to note that this is not a magic pill or guaranteed way to eat more and not gain weight.
It may work amazingly well for you!
But it may not.
There are no guarantees.
Everyone is different. What works really well for one person is just okay for another, or doesn’t work at all for someone else.
There are some things you can do, however, to maximize the possible benefits of reverse dieting.
You need to be willing to:
- eat roughly the same amount of food each day
- weigh and measure your food
- adjust your physical activity in response to your data
Is Reverse Dieting Right For You?
I don’t use reverse dieting with all of my clients. But here are the situations where I’ve found reverse dieting is helpful:
- You want to eat more without gaining a bunch of weight
- You’ve hit a plateau
- You have very low bodyfat and want to put on lean mass
You want to eat more without gaining a bunch of weight
Maybe you haven’t been dieting but you’re afraid that if you start eating more food you’ll gain weight.
Reverse dieting and adding calories slowly can help your body turn up your metabolism, increasing your “calories out”
But there are limits to how much metabolism can heat up and cool down.
If you are already metabolically healthy, there’s less room for your metabolism to move.
You’re probably not going to see a lot of change, and the process is going to be very slow.
You’ve Hit a Plateau With Your Weight Loss
If you’ve crash dieted your want down to a really low-calorie intake, reverse dieting may be just what you are looking for.
If you’re not losing weight it is because your body has hit a calorie deficit wall.
Yes, you may only be eating 1,200 calories a day. But your body has slowed your BMR, slowed your digestion so you’re not creating as much heat, turned down your non-exercise activity, toned down your workouts, and dropped some weight so you’re easier to move around.
In this case, reverse dieting can help “reset” your metabolism and get it moving again.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- you need to be eating healthy foods, and add healthy foods, not junk foods
- you need to add calories slowly. You should expect to spend as long building your metabolism as you spent dieting (you’re reversing your dieting!)
Honestly, the best part of reverse dieting may just be that it gives you a break from dieting!
You Have Very Low Bodyfat and Want to Gain Lean Mass
Having really low body fat may look cool (or be what you think you want), but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not super healthy. You probably don’t have as much energy as you could. And it’s harder to be athletic or put on muscle.
Maybe you want to gain some weight, add some muscle, but you don’t want to put on much fat.
That can be traditionally hard to do!
In order to put on muscle you need to eat in a calorie surplus (eat more than you burn).
By reverse dieting, you’ll slowly add calories, and your body will adjust by expending more energy.
You’ll feel better for your workouts, you’ll train harder, and you’ll have more energy for play in your everyday life.
This is what bodybuilders do, but they make one major mistake; they tone down their cardio.
The reason reverse dieting works is because you are both eating more and spending more energy.
Keep your daily activity high and slowly add more calories until you find a sweet spot.
How to Reverse Diet
If you’ve decided you’re going to give reverse dieting a shot, follow these steps.
Step 1: Choose How You’re Going to Track Your Calories
If you’ve been dieting I’m guessing you’re already using one. If you have a method that is working for you, stick with it.
Personally, I recommend any online calorie tracker app. MyFitnessPal is my favorite. I’ll show you how to set it up here.
You’ll set your daily calories and do your absolute best to hit them every day.
It really doesn’t matter what eating ethos you follow. Vegan, vegetarian, one-meal-a-day, Paleo, Keto, whatever. You reverse dieting can work with any of them.
But you do want to make sure you’re getting enough protein. Protein is satiating, it takes more calories to burn and use than carbs and fats, and it preserves and builds lean muscle mass.
Here is a great article on how much protein you need each day.
The lower your calorie intake, the higher you want your protein intake.
If your calories are really low, set your calorie tracking app for 30 percent of your calories to come from protein.
If your calorie is moderate, set for 25 percent of calories from protein.
If your calories intake is high, set for 20 percent of calories from protein.
Those are generalizations, but they work for most.
Step 2: Determine Your Maintenance Calories
This is the most important step! This can make or break your initial success!
You need to know your maintenance calorie intake.
Do not trust an online calorie calculator!
They are too general and don’t know you at all. There’s a better way!
If you’ve been meticulously counting calories for a while and you’re not gaining or losing weight, use that number.
And by meticulously, I MEAN METICULOUSLY. No cheat meals on Friday nights. No weekends off. You weren’t just on vacation.
You count your calories every day, and you eat the same number of calories every, single, day.
Most don’t do this. That is often the reason people say they’re eating 1,200 calories a day and not losing weight. The Saturday night splurge ruins all the tracking and eating work you did all week.
If you can’t honestly say that you have been perfect every day for the past week at least, then do this…
Track your calories, meticulously, every day for the next week. Two weeks is even better.
If it goes in your mouth, it gets added to the app.
The only exceptions are water and zero-calorie beverages.
The better you do with this, the better your results.
Most people eat a lot of unaccounted calories. A couple of crackers out of your daughter’s lunch when she gets home, a few tastes of the dinner you’re cooking, just a sip of egg nog.
Don’t do that.
Do Not make any changes here!
- Don’t start dieting if you haven’t been dieting.
- Don’t start eating better
- Don’t start exercising
Go to a holiday party and eat a ton? Fine! Just log it! Especially if that’s somewhat normal behavior.
You need to do exactly what you’ve been doing for the past while. Whatever you have been doing, both eating and lifestyle-wise are what has set your current body weight.
If you make any changes during this phase you will not get what you’re looking to get from reverse dieting.
And you need to weigh yourself every day.
This is going to set your baseline weight. We need to know if the amount you’re eating is your maintenance if it’s going to result in weight lost or gained.
What gets measured gets changed!
Wake up, roll out of bed, go to the bathroom, strip (or weigh the same nighttime clothes every time), and weigh yourself.
Write this down.
I’ve added a section for this in your cheat sheet.
At the end of the week (or two!), find your average calories and your average weight.
Total calories divided by 7 (or 14). That’s your maintenance calories.
Total weight divided by 7. Average weight.
This works if your weight was basically the same. A couple of pounds here or there throughout the week is no big deal
If you notice major changes in body weight, you’ve got decisions to make here.
Did you gain weight every day? Then you are eating too many calories and reverse dieting is not a good idea. Unless your goal is to gain weight.
Did you lose weight every day? Stick with it if you want to lose weight, reverse diet if you want to gain.
Step 3: Pic Your Macronutrient Ratio
I mentioned this above. It doesn’t matter if you like high carb-low fat, high fat low carb, paleo, vegan…whatever. Just make sure you’re getting enough protein.
I usually recommend a macro setup of 20-30 percent protein, 20-25 percent fat, and the rest made up of carbs.
I find this is the easiest method for most people to get set up.
And honestly, total calories are what are going to be the most important part here.
If you want to truly personalize your protein, you can also follow this method (this method takes more work and knowledge, however).
Daily protein intake:
- 1.3 to 3 g/kg (0.6 to 1.35 g/lb) for women
- 1.4 to 3.3 g/kg (0.65 to 1.5 g/lb) for men
If you are trying to lose weight, go toward the higher end of the protein range.
Already eating a lot of food, go for the lower end.
Step 4: Choose Your Rate of Progression
This is where you need to know yourself and exactly what your goals are.
Remember, we are going to add calories slowly over a period of time. How many calories you add each time, and how long between additions, depends on your body image tolerance and goals.
Here are three approaches you can try based on your goals:
If you have a low tolerance to adding body fat:
- Start with the maintenance calories you found last week, or up to 10 percent higher (if you’re adding 10 percent just start there)
- Add 40-60 calories
- Stay with that number for 1 to 2 weeks
- Track your weight
You can expect to add about 1/2 or less pound each week with this method. The idea is that the weight gain will be lean and not additional body fat.
If you have a medium tolerance to adding body fat:
- Start with the maintenance calories you found last week, or up to 10-20 percent higher (if you’re adding 10-20 percent just start there)
- Add 80-120 calories
- Stay with that number for 1 to 2 weeks
- Track your weight
You can expect to add about 1 pound or less each week with this method. The idea is that the weight gain will be lean and not additional body fat.
If you have a high tolerance to adding body fat:
- Start with the maintenance calories you found last week, or up to 30 percent higher (if you’re adding 30 percent just start there)
- Add 140-180 calories
- Stay with that number for 1 to 2 weeks
- Track your weight
You can expect to add about 1.5 pounds or less each week with this method. The idea is that the weight gain will be lean and not additional body fat.
Step 5: Monitor And Adjust
Remember, what gets tracked gets changed. This is where most people fall short, or can use the help of a professional. Sometimes it’s just nice to tell a professional what you’re doing and let them tell you exactly how to adjust.
- Weigh yourself daily or weekly. If you weigh weekly, choose the same day every week. Daily? Take your average weight at the end of the week.
- Take your body measurements (waist, hips, and any other body areas you want). Rarely do I have clients do this. I prefer the mirror and photos.
- Progress photos. Once a week. Mirror if you’re by yourself, spouse, or significant other if possible.
- Workout performance. How are your workouts going? Feeling better? Stronger? Hitting PRs? Heart rate improving? All of this is helpful information.
- Energy level. How are feeling throughout your day? Good energy? Wanting to play with your kids more? Less tired?
- Hunger. Are you hungry often or are you starting to feel more satisfied?
And remember that even small things you probably have never thought of can make a huge weekly difference in your weight.
- stressful situations
- not sleeping well
- breaks to your normal routine
Adjust based on the above information. But never daily changes. One week at least with this number of calories.
Increasing calories every 2 to 4 weeks is pretty average.
How Long Should You Reverse Diet?
This really depends. A good general rule is that it will take you as long to rebuild your metabolism as you dieted for. Here are some signs to either keep with it or move on.
Continue with your reverse diet as long as you can say YES to the following:
- You haven’t gained much weight, fat, or you don’t mind the amount you’ve gained.
- You simply want to be able to eat more.
- You’ve been reverse dieting for less time than you were in a calorie deficit.
Stop reverse dieting if you feel the following:
- You’ve gained as much fat as you feel comfortable gaining.
- You’re eating about as much food each day as you want.
- You’ve been reverse dieting for longer than you were in a calorie deficit.
These are reasons reverse dieting is a more advanced method. You need to be willing to track any and all changes and make adjustments as necessary.
If this seems like too much, please don’t discount this method! There are professionals that can help with this.
I’m one of them! Contact me!
This is Not a Substitute for Healthy Eating
No one wants to diet for the rest of their life. That would be horrible.
Honestly, the better your food choices the less dieting you need to do.
And the best plan in the world won’t fix poor food choices.
But one of the nice things with reverse dieting is that your food choices don’t have to be perfect!
You are going to focus much more on your total calorie intake.
And build your metabolism to a point where you can enjoy the foods you like and keep your body at a healthy weight.
No more strict dieting!
The Ultimate Goal With Reverse Dieting
Ultimately I think everyone wants to get to a point where they can eat what they way (within reason), enjoy food and social interactions, and keep their weight basically the same.
And have energy!
This is where I see reverse dieting really work.
If you stick it out and are routine with tracking, you’ll learn how to eat.
You’ll learn portion sizes, what meals should look like, and you’ll know how to replicate your results if you ever feel you need to without crash dieting.
Even if you decide you want to lean up a bit after reverse dieting, now you know that small changes and tracking everything make a huge difference.
Instead of dropping a bunch of calories or following some online calculator.
Now you know why weight loss stalls.
Reverse Dieting Conclusion
Reverse dieting is not magic and it takes meticulous tracking to really work.
The Reverse Dieting Cheat Sheet can help you get started and understand what reverse dieting is, whether or not it’s something you want to try, and how the process works.
The Ultimate Goal of reverse dieting is to get your body to a point where you have plenty of energy, aren’t gaining or losing weight, and don’t feel like there are restrictions on your food choices. If this sounds appealing but too difficult, don’t hesitate to reach out! I’ll work with you one-on-one to help you reach your goals.
I’ve hope this article gave you the knowledge you need to at least know if a reverse diet may be right for you.
And remember that it’s not the only way! If you’re not dieting at all right now, start by adding in more healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) and cut down on processed foods and animal products. Or start tracking your calories. Be more consistent with your intake. Put yourself in a small calorie deficit or surplus depending on your goals.
Until next time,
Plant-Based, Plant Built
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