If you want to lose weight for health or aesthetic reasons, there are a plethora of different options out there to help you do so. However, a diet which promises that you can eat more while maintaining a low weight is surely the most appealing of them all! But what is reverse dieting, is it good for you, and can it ever actually work for weight loss?December 16, 2021 4:46 pm December 02, 2021 2:43 pm
What is reverse dieting?
Many people believe that reverse dieting means adopting a diet which increases your caloric intake, yet still allows you to lose weight.
However, this is a misconception.
The term ‘reverse dieting’ actually refers to the period immediately after a strict diet, when you gradually begin to reintroduce more calories. The goal of reverse dieting is to maintain the low weight you achieved on your previous diet, or minimise any weight gain from reverting to a higher calorie diet.
So, for example, if you have been on the keto diet for a period of weeks or months and want to come off it, you may use principals of reverse dieting. The aim would be to make sure your weight doesn’t go up dramatically once you start eating carbohydrates again.
Similarly, if you’ve been restricting your caloric intake to lose weight, you may want to use reverse dieting techniques to reintroduce higher calorie foods. Some athletes and bodybuilders may also use reverse dieting to slowly go back to their normal eating patterns after undertaking a special diet (for example, in preparation for a competition).
How does reverse dieting work?
The idea behind reverse dieting is that, by slowly increasing the calories you consume, you can speed up your metabolism.
The theory goes that your faster metabolism will therefore be able to burn off the additional calories you consume.
Thus, you can eat more without gaining weight, as these calories are burnt off rather than being stored as fat.
In reverse dieting, it’s recommended to increase your caloric intake by as little as 50-100 calories per week until you get back to your pre-diet calories.
Theoretically this gives your metabolism a chance to catch up.
What is your metabolism?
‘Metabolism’ is a word we read a lot in health literature, but its meaning can seem rather fuzzy. Before we get into what dieting does to it, let’s stop and clarify what your metabolism actually is.
It’s quite a wide-ranging term, but in a nutshell your metabolism is the sum of all the reactions in your body which produce or consume energy.
To go a little deeper, turning food into energy is your ‘core metabolism’. Within this definition, there are three subdivisions of different chemical processes needed to keep you alive.(1)
The first involves breaking down molecules to release energy (catabolism). The second revolves around glueing building blocks together to make new molecules needed for bodily functions (anabolism). And the third and final subdivision concerns itself with getting rid of waste products.(1)
Your metabolism is constantly running – even when you’re asleep.
The speed at which it carries out these energy-producing or consuming activities varies from person to person.
It’s of interest to people who want to lose weight because a faster metabolism means you’ll burn through calories from food faster. Therefore, ‘boosting’ or ‘speeding up’ your metabolism is an attractive idea if you’re trying to bring your weight down.
What happens to your metabolism when you diet?
Generally speaking, dieting slows your metabolism down.
Many diets work by restricting the number of calories you eat. This creates a calorie deficit, whereby your body consumes more energy than it can get through your diet. As a result, it starts to burn through your fat stores as a source of energy, and you lose weight.
However, the process is slightly more complicated than this.
Evolutionarily speaking, holding onto stores of fat during times of food scarcity was a big advantage. Those of our ancestors who were able to eat less, but retain their fat stores, were more likely to survive when there was little to eat.
(Of course, we’re in a very different time now – and the main problem facing the metabolism of the Western world is that of obesity!)
As a result, our bodies have developed some very clever mechanisms to hold onto our fat stores even while dieting.
If you’re not eating enough to support your body’s needs, and/or your fat stores are running low, your body responds by doing its best to conserve energy and encourage caloric intake. This is managed by a ‘homeostatic endocrine response’ – changes in your hormones which attempt to curb fat loss.(2)
Put bluntly, when you restrict your calories, your metabolism slows right down and you become very hungry. Anyone who has been on a calorie-restricted diet will likely recognise these symptoms!
How can reverse dieting help you come off a restricted diet?
Say you’ve been on a restricted diet for several weeks or months, and you now want to return to your normal eating patterns.
The reverse dieting theory maintains that if you swapped straight back to your normal diet, the sudden increase of calories would be too much for your slowed metabolism to cope with.
The result? Those extra calories get stored as fat.
However, if you gradually reintroduce those calories over a long period of time, you’ll give your metabolism time to speed up alongside. Thus, your faster metabolism burns through the extra calories and you do not add to your fat stores.
This should mean that you can go back to eating normally without returning to your pre-diet weight.
"Evolutionarily speaking, holding onto stores of fat during times of food scarcity was a big advantage."
Does reverse dieting work?
There is relatively little scientific literature on reverse dieting. Most of the evidence for it is anecdotal.
In fact, most of the information out there about reverse dieting focuses on the ways it might work, rather than offering scientific data to suggest that it actually does work.
For example, we know that restricting our calories decreases the amount of a hormone called leptin in our blood.
Leptin seems to be linked with appetite. When we’re short on calories, less leptin is in our system. When we have eaten well, we have lots of leptin and, at the same time, expend more energy.(2)
Therefore it stands to reason that eating more will increase our levels of leptin and therefore our energy expenditure.
However, this seems to be mainly a theory at this stage.
In addition, using a reverse dieting technique may help you manage the transition back to normal eating without ‘bingeing’. This could help you avoid any sudden spikes in calorie intake which might lead to weight gain.
In terms of scientific evidence, though, we haven’t been able to find any conclusive scientific studies to support reverse dieting to keep weight off following a restrictive diet.
In essence, restrictive dieting may work, but there’s too little information available for us to be sure.
Other ways to keep weight off
Scientists agree that the best way to avoid putting weight on is by eating healthily and exercising.
Indeed, some believe that the speed of your metabolism plays only a minor role in losing or maintaining weight. As we get older, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle may be more important factors.(3)
The NHS recommends that all of us get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week. This is not just to help us maintain a healthy weight, but also to support our overall health and wellbeing.
While it might sound like a lot, ‘moderate intensity exercise’ includes activities you might not think of immediately. For instance, mowing the lawn or brisk walking counts, as do more traditional exercise activities like riding a bike or hiking.
You can also incorporate some more ‘vigorous’ activities such as running, playing football or practising martial arts.(4)
Making sustainable changes to your diet
Of course, you can eliminate the need for reverse dieting entirely if you stick to a diet which you can maintain indefinitely.
In fact, so-called ‘yo-yo dieting’ – the process of rapidly losing and then regaining weight – may be very bad for you.
It’s a controversial topic in the scientific community, with some maintaining that yo-yo dieting isn’t as bad as it has been made out to be. However, others have linked fluctuations in body weight to an increased risk of cardiovascular problems and mortality.(5)
In one particularly scary study, the researchers found that the participants with the highest variations in their weight were at a 117% greater risk of heart attack, 136% greater risk of stroke, and 124% greater risk of death.(5)
So, does this mean we must restrict our calories forever, glumly eating salad leaves and eschewing chocolate for the rest of our lives?
Rather, it’s about adopting a way of eating which satisfies your appetite, nourishes your body and mind, and allows you to maintain a weight you are comfortable with.
A few examples of sustainable diets
From our own perspective, the less restrictive the diet, the better. After all, we’re looking for diets we can stick to for years and years, so we want to make sure to include lots of variety.
A very simple (and easy to follow) diet would simply be one which revolves around eating plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
A diet of this kind includes lots of vitamins, minerals and fibre to keep you feeling full. Then, you can add other foods around this base, remembering to keep processed foods and those high in sugar, fat and salt to a minimum.
However, others may appreciate a bit more guidance when it comes to their diet. In that case, a good one to follow may be the Mediterranean diet.
Scientists agree that the traditional Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest in the world. It revolves around eating lots of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains and a moderate amount of fish.
The main source of dietary fat is olive oil, which has its own health benefits, and replaces less healthy saturated or trans fat.
The diet includes very little processed meat or sweets, but does account for a moderate intake of red wine.(6)
We have a whole article on the Mediterranean diet for you to check out, but briefly: its benefits include a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and obesity.
Importantly, it includes lots of variety, and many people find it very easy to stick to over the long-term.
Our take on reverse dieting
After reviewing the science, it seems as though evidence for the efficacy of reverse dieting is thin on the ground.
Instead, we’d encourage you to try out a healthy, long-term diet which satisfies your appetite and your mind. Given the risks associated with yo-yo dieting, try and stick to healthy eating patterns that you can maintain over a long period.
The Mediterranean diet is a great place to start, or check out our Erbology Editorial for more info on healthy eating.
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