You have spent the past few months meticulously tracking your calorie intake. You have devoted countless hours to calculating the perfect ratio of macronutrients to meet your goals. You have said “no” to drinks and dessert with your friends, spent hours in the kitchen preparing your own meals, and devoted even more time at the gym lifting weights to the point of absolute exhaustion. You have been prepping for a bodybuilding show and giving it your all.
But now the show is over—and to a large degree, you are happy that it is. So, what next? How does one go from that level of discipline to a more flexible lifestyle without putting on a tremendous amount of body fat? The answer to that question is reverse dieting, a process that involves slowly increasing your caloric intake after a period of strict restriction until you reach maintenance level… without gaining fat. While it might sound too good to be true, the process is actually quite effective if executed properly. Having said that, reverse dieting is not for everyone, as it requires a deeper understanding of the physiology of your body, patience, and a great deal of dedication. In today’s post, we will discuss the benefits of reverse dieting and how you can go about implementing it to reach your goals.
Your Body on a Diet
Many people believe that if they consume less and exercise more, they will lose weight. To a certain extent, this is true; a large component of weight loss boils down to basic science and a numbers game of expending more calories than you consume.
Over time, however, this process becomes a bit more complicated. You see, there are a number of hormonal processes and adaptations that occur when you go on a diet that are connected to the notorious weight loss plateau that so many of us dread. Here are some of the main hormones that are affected during a hypocaloric (calories below your maintenance level) state:
Leptin: This hormone is responsible in part for regulating your metabolic rate and appetite. More leptin circulating through your body will cause you to feel more satiated after a meal and will also allow for greater energy expenditure throughout the day. Here’s the kicker: leptin is produced by your fat cells. Therefore, if you have a high body fat percentage, your leptin levels will also be high (sometimes too high causing leptin resistance); however, as you decrease your body fat, your leptin levels also decrease. As leptin levels plummet, frustration levels often rise and a weight loss or lean maintenance program can be derailed due to a decrease in satiety following meals and an overall downregulation of your body’s metabolism.
Ghrelin: This hormone is the antithesis of leptin. Its job is to increase appetite and food intake. Unfortunately for bodybuilders, ghrelin levels increase during periods of caloric restriction and weight loss, oftentimes making for long days of constant hunger.
Testosterone: This hormone is known for its role in increasing rates of protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy. Unfortunately, testosterone levels are decreased during extended periods of weight loss, meaning it will be harder for you to gain new muscle and even maintain current muscle mass.
Thyroid hormone: The active form of thyroid hormone—T3—increases energy expenditure by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle energy consumption. Unfortunately, levels of T3 also decrease during weight loss.
Cortisol: Known as the “stress hormone,” this dreaded yet necessary hormone can wreak all sorts of havoc on your fitness goals. In a chronically stressed (hypocaloric) state, the adrenals produce excess cortisol and can cause your progress to grind to a screeching halt as your growth hormone (GH) and testosterone levels plummet. Cortisol is catabolic in nature, meaning it causes the breakdown rather than the building up of tissues—this is obviously not ideal in the realm of bodybuilding. As stated above, the active form of thyroid hormone (T3) is often decreased during a chronically stressed state, and this can also largely be attributed to cortisol. You see, when cortisol is elevated in the body, the inactive form of thyroid hormone (T4) is converted to a hormone known as reverse T3 (rT3), which binds to the T3 receptors and essentially inhibits the action of T3 at the cellular level. Think of rT3 as a broken toothpick inside a lock which inhibits the key (T3) from unlocking the door (the cell).
So, Why Do All of These Processes Occur?
Allow us to introduce you to the concept of metabolic adaptation, a term used to describe the metabolic and physiological changes that occur during weight loss that affect how much energy you use. You see, our genes are programmed to favor energy storage. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have the luxury of food abundance, so their bodies desperately clung to every calorie they consumed in order to increase the chances of survival. Unfortunately, this innate bodily mechanism is still working today, despite the fact that we are surrounded by so many nutrient-dense, readily accessible foods. Nonetheless, when our body notices that we are consuming fewer calories it says, “You must be in danger! Let me help.” It “helps” by enabling protective mechanisms to ensure that we don’t keep losing weight to the point of death. This is helpful for our survival; however, it can be quite frustrating if we are trying to lose weight or maintain a lean frame.
Signs and symptoms of metabolic adaption may include (but are not limited to): lack of energy, brain fog or difficulty concentrating, no enthusiasm for exercise, inability to lose weight despite a decrease in calories, loss of menstruation in females, and an under-active thyroid.
Keep in mind that other physiological changes are occurring during this time too. Our basal metabolic rate (BMR)—or rate at which we burn calories when at rest—decreases as a way of protecting us. Our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) will decrease, exercise activity thermogenesis will drop, and our reduced body mass means less energy is needed to complete a given activity. Once again, our bodies favor fat storage and will do whatever they can to encourage weight gain during periods of weight loss—frustrating, but true.
What is Reverse Dieting?
As discussed above, reverse dieting is when you slowly increase your caloric intake after a period of strict restriction until you reach maintenance level. When executed correctly, this occurs without unwanted increase in fat mass.
Reverse dieting is successful because it takes metabolic adaptation into consideration. If you were to go back to a non-disciplined eating regimen following a bodybuilding show or any strict period of dieting, you would be extremely apt to gain a large amount of weight and fat in a short period, which happens constantly to bodybuilders post-competition. This weight gain occurs because your hormones simply have not “caught up” with your appetite. So, as you consume more calories, fat, and carbohydrates, your leptin, testosterone, and thyroid hormone levels are still very low because you’ve been in “fat storage” mode for so long. Your body has not been given an adequate amount of time to adapt to this new over-consumption of calories.
How Do You Reverse Diet?
Reverse dieting involves slowly adding calories back into your diet to allow your body to reach homeostasis; however, calories are only one piece of the puzzle. It is crucial that you also focus on macronutrient intake.
Below is a step-by-step guide to reverse dieting. Note that your starting numbers should be based upon your calorie count and macronutrient breakdown which you were allotted at the end of your period of traditional dieting.
Write down the number of calories you were consuming as you prepared for your show. In this example, let’s say you were consuming 1,800 calories per day. This will be the number we use for all calculations going forward.
Increase your calories slowly. You want to increase your caloric intake by just 5% each week. If you are wanting to reach your maintenance weight at a faster rate, increase your calorie intake by 6-10% each week until you reach your ideal maintenance weight; however, realize that by attempting to speed up the process you may increase your chances of adding excess body fat.
Keep protein intake the same. A good rule of thumb here is to consume approximately 1 gram of protein per every pound of body weight. This means if you weigh 180 pounds, you will want to consume roughly 180g of protein.
Increase carbohydrates and fats at equal rates each week in order to account for the 5% increase in calories—50% of calorie increase coming from fats & the other 50% coming from carbs.
In the example below, our bodybuilder is 180 pounds and starting at 1,800 calories per day. He started by consuming 360 calories from fat per day and 720 calories from carbohydrates. Here is how a reverse diet plan would unfold in this scenario:
When Reverse Dieting, Engage in the Following Habits:
Weigh yourself regularly: Choose 2 – 3 days each week to weigh yourself first thing in the morning. This will allow you to closely monitor any weight gain and determine your new maintenance calorie intake. Gaining too quickly or putting on excess body fat? Adjust your fat and carbohydrate intake accordingly. For example, if you are currently increasing your calorie intake by 6% or greater each week, you may want to lower this amount to the strict 5% recommendation.
Swap cardio for weight training: As you add more calories, carbohydrates, and fat into your diet, slowly reduce the amount of cardio you are doing and increase the amount of weight training you engage in. The increase in calories should provide you with more energy to really push yourself at the gym, which will prevent any unwanted increase in body fat and promote lean mass gain.
Be patient: At all times, keep your eyes on the prize. This can be a long and challenging process, but it can be extremely effective and rewarding if executed properly. After months of intense discipline, it can be tempting to binge on all of the candy, pizza, and desserts that you have been dreaming about for months; however, our recommendation is to give yourself a maximum of a two day “cheat period” before beginning your reverse diet. A week or 2-week binge is truly not worth it in the long run—you would be surprised how much “bad weight” you can put on in a short period of time when you are in a depleted state.