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What is reverse dieting? Can it help keep weight off?

Kavin Tjhan , On April 4, 2021


How many times have you been on a weight loss diet that showed some promise only to gain all the weight back after having gone off your diet? There is nothing worse than feeling like you’ve destroyed all of your hard work once you resume normal eating habits.

Reverse dieting is used in fitness as an approach to maintaining results after a weight loss diet plan.

Here is what research says about how reverse dieting can give you weight loss diet results longevity after finishing the diet

Picture of white and brown rice

Reverse dieting gradually increases your calorie intake

What is Reverse Dieting?

Reverse dieting means you are gradually increasing your calorie intake after a calorie-restricted weight loss diet in an effort to promote long-term weight maintenance.

Why do you put on weight after a weight loss diet?

Weight loss, and weight management are the result of of consistent calorie control and adjusting to how many calories your body needs.

Definition: A calorie is a unit of energy.

On a weight loss diet you consume fewer calories than your body needs, causing your body to burn fat for fuel. As your weight decreases, the calories need for weight loss decrease. So if you are lighter, your body consumes fewer calories naturally and your calorie need drops.

Based on this basic science, in order to maintain a lower body weight, you will need to eat fewer calories than before you started on the diet. You can gradually increase your calorie consumption per day with reverse dieting to shift your body from a fat loss diet plan to maintaining weight diet plan.

Why Would You Need to Do a Reverse Diet?

There are two factors to consider that can impact calorie needs after fat loss diet plan.

  1. What was the size of your calorie deficit when you were on your weight loss diet plan?
  2. How much muscle mass did you gain or maintain while on your cutting diet plan?

Many calorie-reduced nutrition plans can enable you to restrict calories lower than what is needed to maintain a lower body weight – this is so you keep losing weight and getting results. And cutting calories very low (more than a 20% decrease from your maintenance calories) for long periods of times can slow down your metabolism…
Through a process called metabolic adaption, your body can compensate for decreased calories by slowing your metabolism down as much as 30% (1,2,3,4,5). But the effects of this phenomenon are typically short-lived, is not a drastic decrease for everyone, and it does not indicate a damaged metabolism (6).

A slowed metabolism can make it a challenge for some people to adjust to a maintenance diet if they need to increase their calories to feel satisfied and stop the weight loss process. Moving your calorie intake back up can cause you to put the pounds on again.
Another critical variable to consider is lean muscle mass. It is possible to lose body fat, overall weight, and still increase your caloric intake needs if you increase your lean muscle mass. This is due to lean muscle mass impacting on your daily calorie intake needs, more than body fat. Having more muscle mass means you have a higher resting metabolic rate and can eat more food without gaining weight.

Definition: RMR or resting metabolic rate is the number of calories your body consumed if you were to sleep all day.

Although hard to achieve, gaining muscle mass in a calorie deficit is possible for some people, especially if they begin strength training and eat a higher protein diet (7).

What Are the Benefits of Reverse Dieting?

The research into reverse dieting and its potential benefits is scarce, but there are a few things we can assume based on what we know about calorie control and weight loss in general. Low-calorie diets are associated with a slowed-metabolism, and increasing your intake to more sustainable levels can help reduce some of the effects associated with adaptive thermogenesis. Some of these benefits include:

Benefits of reverse dieting include you can indulge slightly more

More calories typically means more food! As long as you maintain calorie control long-term and stay at or below your maintenance needs, reverse dieting can mean eating more food for some. This can be a major positive for those who enjoy eating – which is almost everyone!

Benefits of reverse dieting is it can reduce hunger and fatigue

Restricting calories to low levels can mess with hunger-regulating hormones, causing you to crave sweets, feel hungry all the time, or feel just plain cranky. Feeding your body properly can help improve overall energy levels and keep your appetite in check. Proper nutrition is also associated with reduced unhealthy food cravings, improved mood, and better well-being overall (8,9,10).

What are the drawbacks of reverse dieting?

Of course, it is entirely possible to go about reverse dieting the wrong way and end up doing more harm to your progress than you intended. There isn’t really a standard procedure for increasing calories, and for many, the process might not even be necessary. In addition, focusing solely on calorie control has limitations for long-term success. Here are the possible disadvantages of reverse dieting:

Reverse dieting can lead to fat gain

If you are using reverse dieting to try and increase your calories without knowing your maintenance calorie needs, it is entirely possible to scale your calories too high and gain weight.

There are also changes in body water weight to consider that can be hard to distinguish for the average person. For example, if you cut a majority of carbohydrates during your diet, and then add them back in later, you are likely going to start storing some additional water weight. This is not the same as fat gain and can be unsettling for those that don’t know the difference.

Reverse dieting only focuses on calories

While proper food portioning and calorie control is the end-all-be-all for maintaining weight, it’s not the only thing to consider when living a long, healthy life. It is also important to learn how proper nutrition and “treat” foods fit into a long-term approach. A balanced approach that includes nutrition foods with the occasional splurge is a true maintenance diet.
Moreover, just counting calories doesn’t allow you to be in tune with your body and what it needs. Learning to eat more mindfully, fuel your body for daily performance, and get to know what makes you feel good from the inside out is key to long-term adherence and happiness on any diet.

There is limited research on reverse dieting

Bottom line, there really isn’t any research on reverse dieting. So we don’t know much about whether or not it is truly an effective approach, or if it is necessary at all.

Do You Need to Do a Reverse Diet After Weight Loss?

Consider reverse dieting if:

  • You have been restricting calories to less than 80% of your current TDEE (based on your new weight).
  • You have gained muscle mass and train regularly.
  • You do best with a structured approach to healthy eating.

But even if you fall into one or all of these categories, there is no outstanding reason why it is necessary. In the end, it depends on personal preference and what you feel comfortable with.
After being on a regimen for some time, a continued plan or goal to work towards can help keep some people on track, versus jumping back into a “normal” style of eating for them. Of you feel like you have a hard time sticking to a diet in the first place, adding treat foods and calories back in slowly might make more sense for you.
But if you understand your new calorie needs and feel like you’ve mastered a sustainable approach to maintenance already, go for it!

How to Reverse Diet

If you’re thinking you want to take a stab at reverse dieting, here is where to focus your energy to help you be more successful with maintaining your results for good this time!

Step 1 – Figure Out How Many Calories You need a Day

You can easily estimate how many calories you need to maintain based on your new weight and activity level, but the most accurate way to capture this information is through a body composition test. If you are able to identify exactly how much muscle mass you have, you can get a better understanding of your resting metabolic rate (RMR) and daily calorie needs moving forward.
Consider getting a body composition test done. Or use a simple TDEE calculator to estimate how many calories you need.

Step 2 – Increase Your Calories in Small Increments

Once you know how many calories you can potentially eat and still maintain your weight, you can start increasing your intake over time to match it. For example, if you are currently eating 1500 calories a day but can actually eat 2000 calories a day and maintain your new weight, you can add ~100 calories or so at a time.
Start by increasing your intake by 5 to 10% and stick to this amount for two to three weeks. Then continue to increase your intake and repeat the process until you reach your maintenance amount.

  • 1500 + 10% increase (150 calories) = 1650 calories a day

Step 3 – Track Your Daily Intake

Use a food tracking app to estimate how many calories you consume each day from food and beverages. This will help you get a handle on how well you are sticking to your new daily calorie needs. And since reverse dieting typically involves small incremental increases in intake, 100 to 200 calories at a time, it is crucial that you are as accurate as possible in your tracking. Use a food scale or measuring cups and be as precise as you can.

Step 4 – Stick to Your Maintenance Calorie Needs

The last step is weight maintenance. In order to keep your results, you have to commit to keeping some or all of the healthy habits you built over the past few months or so. Continue to choose healthier food options, exercise regularly, and pay attention to how many calories you consume on a consistent basis. If you fall off track, just get right back to it!
Looking for an easier solution to dieting long term? Check out our healthy meal plans designed to help you eat better and control calories without having to think about it. Our expert chefs and nutritionist, plan, prep and ship all of your food right to your door. All you need to do is heat and eat it.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

Kavin Tjhan

Kavin is a health and nutrition researcher and a blog contributor at MealPro. He loves meeting like-minded people, hearing new ideas, and spreading the good word of nutrition.