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?April 28, 2022 5:17 pm December 02, 2021 2:48 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 minimize 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 recognize 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 diet