If you want to lose weight, you’ve got to diet – that is, create a calorie deficit. But what if you’ve been dieting for a long time, and progress stalls? It might be time for a “reverse diet” to re-ignite your fat loss!
The first law of fat loss is to eat less food than your body requires to maintain your current weight. This amount depends on a number of factors, including your height, weight, age, gender, body composition, and activity levels.
All of those calculations are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, if you’re moderately active, your maintenance calorie needs are somewhere around BMR x1.5 where “BMR” stands for your base metabolic rate, which you can determine here. Adding about 50% more calories to your BMR will allow you to perform daily tasks and to train with moderate intensity 3-5 times per week.
To follow the first law of fat loss, then, you must eat slightly less than BMR x1.5. The commonly recommended calorie deficit is about 500 calories below maintenance each day, which adds up to 3,500 cal. each week, or about one pound of fat loss per week.
A slightly better (and more personalized) approach is to eat at a 10-20% calorie deficit. Let’s say your BMR is 2,000 cal/day and your maintenance level is about 3,000 cal/day. To create a moderate fat loss deficit, you would remove 10% of those calories, eating 300 less, for a total daily intake of 2,700 calories. For faster fat loss, you would remove 20% of those calories, for a total daily intake of 2,400 calories. Keep in mind that bigger deficits are harder to maintain for long periods of time.
Which brings us to the second law of fat loss – you will plateau eventually. This is because your body craves homeostasis. When you start dieting and losing weight, your body needs less fuel. Your brain responds to your diet by decreasing levels of the hunger hormone leptin, slowing your metabolism. The calorie deficit that once worked no longer has an effect.
Not to mention, there are a bunch of other survival mechanisms that kick in so that your body maintains homeostasis. As you lose weight, you need less fuel for a smaller body. As you take in less food, your energy levels diminish, and “NEAT” (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) declines. Simply, you move around less because you feel lethargic. Since you have less energy from less food, your workout intensity probably diminishes, too, so “EAT” (exercise activity thermogenesis) also declines. The take-away is that you end up burning fewer calories throughout the day when you eat less food.
At this point, most people panic because the scale stays the same, or god forbid, starts to tick upward. In their panicked state, most people then cut calories even lower and maybe bump up their cardio to increase calories burned. This strategy will work for a little while, but then the same process happens again – you lose some weight, your leptin levels decline further, your metabolism slows, and your weight loss plateaus.
You can only drop your calories so much before you’re simply starving yourself!
Enter the “reverse diet.” This is where you strategically increase calories for a short period of time to Jedi-mind trick your body into being okay with your next dieting phase. Think of it like interval training for your diet: you create a deficit for 6-8 weeks, see some weight loss, then increase back to maintenance levels when progress stalls. This tells your body that everything is okay. After 1-2 weeks at maintenance, you can go back into “diet mode” and start to lose weight again.
Reverse dieting can also be used after extended periods of low-calorie dieting that have “wrecked” your metabolism. While you cannot really break your metabolism, you can fck it up pretty royally by chronically under-eating. All kinds of hormones get out of whack in response to long-term, low-calorie diets, including the stress hormone cortisol, which elevates significantly in response to dieting and causes you to retain body fat.
If you’ve been in a calorie deficit for a really long time, but just can’t lose weight, you are a perfect candidate for a reverse diet.
Reverse Dieting to “Fix” a “Broken” Metabolism
I put serious air quotes around “fix” and “broken” because, as I said above, you can’t really break your metabolism. It’s always working… otherwise, you’d be dead. However, you’re going to need to do some work to get back to baseline before you can effectively diet and lose weight.
Let’s say you weigh about 150-lb and have a BMR of 1,400 calories. You workout 3-5 days per week and are moderately active outside of the gym. Your hypothetical maintenance needs are 2,100 cal/day… but you’ve been dieting at around 1,200 calories per day for the last several months.
You just cannot drop the ten pounds that you’d like to lose! You’re probably frustrated and feeling “broken.” Here’s how to fix that with a reverse diet.
- Gradually increase your calories until you’re back to maintenance level.
- Stay at maintenance for 2-4 weeks. You might gain a little weight – do not panic.
- Gradually drop calories until you’re at a 10% deficit.
The key here is to GRADUALLY increase and then decrease your caloric intake. Don’t go from zero to sixty overnight. Your body likes homeostasis, remember? Slowly building up to maintenance calorie levels, then holding there for a couple weeks, can reset your hormonal environment so that your body is ready to diet down to your desired weight.
I understand it can be scary to increase calories when your ultimate goal is to lose weight, but remember that this process will actually accelerate your results. Have patience!
Using the reverse diet, you allow your body to return to homeostasis so that your hormones are optimized for faster fat loss down the road. Getting stronger helps this process by increasing your lean muscle mass, thus boosting your metabolism.
Follow the principle of “eat more, move more,” and put those extra calories to use in the gym. Strength train 3-5 times per week, focusing on getting strong at the major movement patterns (squat, hinge, push, pull).
As a side-effect of eating enough calories for maintenance, you may find that you have more energy and more productive training sessions. Embrace this and challenge yourself in the gym.
You may even set new personal bests in your lifts, which is always a win.
Common Dieting Mistakes to Avoid like the Plague During This Process
Whether you’re in maintenance mode or in a calorie deficit, there is so much misinformation out there, it’s hard to know what advice to follow to lose weight. Do you go low-carb, paleo, or keto? None of those are a magical fat loss solution.
All diets (ALL of them) work by creating a calorie deficit. In truth, it doesn’t really matter what you eat, so long as you control calories. You’ll be healthier and probably happier if most of the calories come from whole foods (meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats)… but in the end, it doesn’t matter what type of diet you follow. Don’t stress about following the latest fat-loss trend.
Another common mistake is not eating enough protein. When weight loss is your goal, you should aim to eat one gram per pound of body weight (1g/lb). So, if you weight 150-lbs, you should eat 150g of protein each day. Best sources are lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs and egg whites, plain yogurt, cottage cheese, low-fat cheese, legumes, and protein powder supplements as a convenience option. Eat a protein source at each meal.
Finally, there’s no getting around that dieting sucks. You’re going to feel hungry when you return to a calorie deficit. Drink water, black coffee, plain tea, or no-calorie sparkling beverages. Fill up on high-volume foods like leafy greens, berries, colorful veggies, and fibrous foods like beans. Relative to other food sources, these are low-calorie options that will keep you feeling full.
Returning to a Fat Loss Diet
After two to four weeks of maintenance mode, your body should be comfortable enough that you can return to a fat loss diet, if you so choose.
Because you’ve been putting those extra calories to use by training smart in the gym, you probably added some lean muscle. This means that the scale probably hasn’t gone down (maybe it’s even gone up) – but that is okay! Having more lean mass means your metabolism will work better when you return to a calorie deficit.
As with building up to maintenance calorie levels during your reverse diet, you will need to gradually reduce your food intake until you’re in a fat loss-promoting deficit. Drop 100-200 calories from your diet each week until you hit your desired fat loss calorie target. This can be as simple as eliminating an apple or orange, or a small handful of nuts from your daily diet.
One place you don’t want to skimp is protein. Always aim for one gram of protein per pound of your body weight each day when fat loss is your goal. Cut your calories from carbs or fat – the choice is yours.
For more information on how to count calories and macros so that you finally lose weight, click below