The clouds and rain appear, the dark nights draw closer, and it is officially the end of summer, meaning that your summer fat loss plan is over.
You’ve worked hard all year attempting to lower your body fat by exercising a little more, and eating a little less. Great job, you’re now shredded!
So what do I do now with my diet? What does the next phase consist of?
This is where reverse dieting comes into play. I first came across reverse dieting from Dr Layne Norton after he spoke about the metabolic adaptations that accompany weight loss and the implications with rapid weight regain when rebounding from a fat loss phase. Specifically, after dieting on a very limited amount of calories with a high exercise demand for months on end in preparation for a bodybuilding, physique or figure show.
To cut a long story short, when you find yourself in a calorie deficit for a prolonged period of time (>3 months) you get metabolic adaptations which places the body in fat storage mode. Once you have finished dieting for your show, holiday or wedding you tend to relapse and ‘cheat’ by consuming calorie dense foods. It’s only natural, everyone only has a certain level of will power. Guess what happens? Your body becomes super compensative by storing the additional energy as fat. It is suggested that everyone has a body fat set point, the further you move away from it, the harder and more aggressive the calorie restriction is needed to shed the final few pounds of fat. Think of it this way.
‘The greater the caloric deficit, the greater the potential for weight regain’
It has been reported that the metabolic adaptations observed during long term weight loss diets are:
- Downregulation of fat burning hormones such as thyroid (T3) and Leptin (regulates fat burning and suppresses appetite)
- Upregulation of fat storage hormones such as Ghrelin (increase hunger) and Reverse T3
- Decreased total energy expenditure and metabolic rate
- Decreased testosterone, free testosterone, muscle mass and libido
- Increased mitochondrial efficiency, specifically due to reduced proton leakage from decreased Uncoupling proteins 1 and 3.
In layman’s terms, this is not what you want to happen; you want to become as inefficient as possible, not efficient as you will have an increased ‘metabolic capacity’. Increasing your metabolic capacity is essentially increasing your metabolic rate resulting in an improved ability to burn fat on a higher amount of calories.
Scenario 1: Out of two identical individuals, who do you think will have better metabolic capacity and an increased ability to lose body fat in the long term?
Individual A who can lose body fat on 2500 calories per day
Individual B who can lose body fat on 2000 calories per day
Answer = Individual A
This means that no super low starvation dieting, will take place, and you can eat more carbohydrate rich foods whilst losing body fat. Since metabolic rate is correlated with caloric intake, when you reduce your calories for an extended period of time, you reduce your metabolic rate.
Scenario 2:, Your metabolism has slowly reduced as calories and body fat have reduced, then you either go off the rails and binge, or you go back to a higher caloric intake (maintenance/surplus). Since your body is still in fat storage mode, it’s primed for weight regain as metabolic rate is still suppressed.
Supressed metabolism + Increased caloric intake above normal = Increased rate of fat regain
This is where reverse dieting can be used to attenuate the rapid increase in fat regain. Reverse dieting can be defined as periodically increasing calories to increase metabolic capacity by reversing metabolic adaptation from a prolonged calorie deficit induced diet.
Why is there so much debate about reverse dieting?
Before going any further, it should be noted that there isn’t much data on this at all; the research is mainly hypothetical extrapolations from case studies and weight regain studies in the obese. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it gives us a lot to discuss and to anecdotally try different protocols to see what works when working with lean individuals post dieting phase.
Where do we stand with this all? We’ve covered the implications with prolonged calorie restriction, now we’ll dive into some methods that can be used.
Slow increment Vs Large increments
As previously stated, there is a need to periodically introduce calories post dieting to increase our metabolic capacity. Will any calories do?
As it stands, calories from carbohydrates have been suggested to increase T3 and leptin whilst suppressing all the fat storing upregulated hormones such as Ghrelin and reverse T3. Therefore, it makes sense to periodically increase carbohydrate intake frequently, perhaps on a weekly basis until metabolic capacity has been restored. Since there is little to no research detailing methods used, which is a massive grey area in the research, however allowing us to do our own research; anecdote style!
Since I mentioned Dr Layne Norton at the start, we’ll begin with his proposed method that was mentioned in one of his videos on the youtubez a while back. This is the slow burner approach where carbohydrates would be increased by approximately 5 grams per week following the fat loss diet, i.e. post bodybuilding shows. To put this into perspective, 5 grams of carbohydrates, or 20 calories is essentially one fifth of a banana added on top of your diet per week. You may think this seems ridiculous, but over 12 months you would have added approximately 240 grams of carbohydrates on top of your normal intake. Anecdotally, little fat gain was observed during this time. Unless you are the most regimented, meticulous person in the world, with the best will power in the world; I think you will find it very difficult to diet six months for a bodybuilding show, then diet again for an additional six months. Some people can, and that is great – but is definitely not for everyone!
The fast and ‘who cares if I put on a little fat because I got some awesome pictures when I was shredded’ method is a far more aggressive approach, but leads to the same end result – albeit some fat gain. However, the primary goal of a reverse diet is to restore metabolic capacity, not to necessarily maintain stage leanness (although would be nice). My preferred approach is to use slightly larger increments of 25 grams of carbohydrates/100 calories each week for a shorter duration. This is essentially a whole banana a week!!!! ONE WHOLE BANANA!!!!! You can play around with the quantity of carbohydrates as you see best fits. Make sure to monitor progress and adjust accordingly!
I’ve previously talked about the protein overfeeding study by Dr Jose Antonio where he provided individuals with 5.5 times the recommended intake of protein, which placed them in a major caloric surplus (5600 calories in excess per week), prone for weight gain. However individuals experienced little to no fat gain at all. So, if you wanted to reintroduce calories into an individual’s diet, could they come from protein instead, attenuating fat regain?
Finally, Dr Jacob Wilson suggested on the ‘Muscle College Radio’ podcast that individuals dieting on a very limited amount of carbohydrates may respond well from reverse dieting on a ketogenic diet. This is essentially very high fat, low protein, and little to no carbohydrates. I assume that the aim of this is to increase calories, and become ‘fat adapted’, thus improving insulin sensitivity for when carbohydrates are later reintroduced into the diet. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that backs this up, but sounds like a cool idea. However, means restricting certain foods from your diet which will suck if you’ve dieted hard for a long time – No cake!?
Duration of a reverse diet?
If you have the finances to get regular blood work done to monitor hormonal changes; testosterone, a complete thyroid panel etc. Then periodically increase calories until they are within the normal physiological ranges will suffice. Otherwise, you can use subjective measurements such as energy, libido, training performance, appetite and rate of weight regain.
I recently came across a Podcast with Martin Macdonald and Mike Sweeney (Real Nutrition Radio). On the podcast it was discussed how they reverse dieted an individual whilst monitoring hormonal changes mention above. What they found out that even after adding 1000 calories to the individual’s diet there wasn’t a noticeable change in hormone concentrations. It was only after the individual hit a certain body fat percentage that hormones became elevated and normalised. Thus leading to a conclusion that hormone restoration is associated with a given body fat percentage. Could there be a link with individual body fat set point and hormone concentrations? More than likely!
Food Binging, Disordered Eating, Getting Fat and a Solution!
The main issue that causes rapid weight regain is due to binging on foods because it has been restricted them from their awfully bland and boring diet for the last 6 or so months. So, would improving your food choices for your fat loss diet prevent you from binging after? Thus making a reverse diet far easier as you have no desire to binge allowing it to become sustainable because you wouldn’t have felt that you were on a fat loss diet in the first place?
Here’s a nice tip I heard from Alan Aragon regarding flexible dieting. We’ve all heard of the 80/20 rule; 80% clean eating, 20% not so clean.
Try the 80/10/10 approach instead:
• 80% = Naturally occurring, minimally processed foods, i.e. ‘clean foods’
• 10% = Questionably ‘clean foods’
• 10% = Whatever you want, I like cheesecake
What I like about this approach, you can still eat the foods you want, with minimal food choice restrictions and still reach your goals. I’m not necessarily advocating IIFYM, but a 10% intake form the foods you like won’t hurt!
For example, if you are dieting on 2500 calories per day, the breakdown would look something like this:
• 80% = 2000 calories from ‘clean foods’
• 10% = 250 calories from questionable ‘clean foods’
• 10% = 250 calories from junk foods
A word of warning should be used with this – I’d recommend this approach only if you track your macronutrient intake, as the 10% may turn into 30% or 40% if you don’t track accordingly. I know I definitely get carried away with the cheesecake if I don’t factor it in
On a side note, this method is simple and sustainable that makes dieting not suck, which will prevent disordered eating by binging from food choice deprivation. Also, it lets you have a life whilst dieting, i.e. eating out in restaurants, catching up with family and friends etc
Simple = Sustainable
As I have veered massively off track, I’ll, bring this to a close!
Reverse dieting may be needed if calories have been restricted for a prolonged time and your body fat level is low. This can be done by using either method stated above whilst adopting the 80/10/10 method to facilitate the process and transition into reverse dieting allowing it to be far more sustainable.
I’d love to hear your feedback, and if you’ve tackled reverse dieting before then it would be great to hear how you’ve gone about it and progressed. Would you say it was worth doing? Or even if you haven’t reversed dieted, what have you don post dieting?
Thanks for your time guys, Chris.