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What is the “reverse diet”? by Terrence Riley

The reverse diet is not just another fad diet and, in fact, might not even be considered a “diet” in the traditional sense. Losing weight is not the primary goal of reverse dieting. The goal is to gain weight but as slowly as possible after a weight loss period. The concept was created in response to an unusual phenomenon seen after a diet commonly known as rebounding. Rebounding is the rubber banding effect of weight gain after an extended period of weight loss. A person may start their new year’s resolution by restricting Calories to lose a set amount of weight. And in many cases, they are successful. The issue isn’t the losing weight part, it’s the keeping it off part that is difficult. The most common next step after a person reaches their goal is a relaxation of food selection. Most people visit their local fast food restaurant and indulge to celebrate their dieting achievement. After a few months of this behavior the weight hasn’t just been added back on but you may see the scale settle above your pre-dieting weight. The reverse diet concept was created to directly address this rebounding effect. How can the reverse diet be used to not only hit your weight loss goal but stay there?

What is the reverse diet?

- The Reverse diet is a controlled introduction of food post weight loss phase with the intent of limiting the amount of additional fat mass added during the process. What that means is once you’ve hit your dieting goal, you won’t be binging on pancakes and waffles at the local IHOP. Instead, you would be calculating the next adjustment to your diet but for weight gain not loss. There are a few ways to execute this change and the two most prominent reverse dieting coaches, Dr. Eric Helms and Dr. Layne Norton, offer distinct methods. It should be noted that both are based only on group cases and experience and not scientific data. The information is incredibly important nonetheless. Dr. Layne Norton advocates for a slow introduction of food usually added biweekly. Macronutrients, not Calories, are adjusted based on weight gain after the two weeks. This process is continued until the person is satisfied with their weight status, food intake, performance etc. Dr. Helms suggests a strategy that increases Caloric intake in a shorter amount of time. The body is then allowed to settle at a fat storage level based on maintenance Calories prior to the dieting phase. Smaller adjustments to the diet are made thereafter like Dr. Layne Norton’s method. These differing methods still address what is essential about the diet and can both work depending on how your body responds.

How does it work?

- How reverse dieting works isn’t well understood. To apply this concept in a research model is extremely difficult. The study would need a large number of participants, span for years at time, assume subjects stick to the diet, and costs millions in the process. So, for now, we only have theories as to why people rebound and why reverse dieting works. The general idea is that a person’s metabolism is not static and can fluctuate over time even becoming damaged because of a person’s lifestyle. The term is called metabolic adaptation and refers to the body’s ability to down/upregulate your energy expenditure based on physiological parameters (fat cell size, RMR, FFM, etc.) and energy intake. Metabolic adaptation can persist even after you correct for previously stated factors characterizing the metabolism as chronically affected. Therefore, lowering things like Caloric intake and body fat percent will downregulate your metabolism and vice versa with a lasting effect. You might experience something like this when you track you macros only to find that you’re eating around 1,000 Calories without losing weight. Any reduction in Caloric intake would be consider starvation but your body has adjusted to the poor eating habit. This is where the reverse diet plays a role. Caloric intake is one area with which the dieter has most control. Controlling the introduction of food back into the diet will allow the body’s metabolism to adjust to the new Caloric intake. Eating an extra 200 Calories every day for two weeks coaxes the body into turning your natural furnace back on, or so the theory goes. Why this furnace turns on/off is still somewhat of a mystery, however. Some research suggests the effect is due to something called Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) but these metabolic pathways are beyond the scope of this article.

How can I reverse diet?

- Things to keep in mind when reverse dieting are your energy levels, relationship with food, and body weight changes over time. Be wary of food cravings and energy levels as markers during the reverse diet as these will be your first indicators of a poor relationship with food. If you are afraid of weight gain but can’t resist that box of doughnuts, then you need to be more aggressive about adding food into the diet. Tracking more objective data like body weight or waist circumference will help guide the diet outside of the psychological factors. If you choose to slowly add food biweekly, then you will definitely want to track your macronutrients and not just Calories. Assuming you are eating enough protein in the diet, only the fat and carbohydrate intake will be adjusted. The recommendation is a 10% change to both fat and carbs every two weeks assuming the physical measurements have not changed. If you decide to add a one-time bulk of food post diet then you will also need to track macros though the addition will be based on Calories. Take your Caloric intake prior to dieting and increase your Calories to your new resting metabolic weight (calculation can estimate this number). This value can be adjusted around the RMR depending of the history of dieting or the goals for the individual.


- Implementing a reverse diet does not come without many confounding variables. The problem with reverse dieting is that it can be very difficult. Cutting Calories can be much easier for some than putting them back into your diet. Seeing the scale go back up while you are experiencing intense cravings doesn’t make for a positive psychological scenario. You will also be battling with a longer “dieting” phase as well. Some people might not want to track Macros for two whole years just to get back to a normal metabolic rate but this might be necessary with severe metabolic adaptation. Introducing a bulk of Calories early in the reverse diet might combat this but there is the chance that you might overshoot your intended fat gain. The problem then becomes how the reverse diet can help the individual, not the masses, making this issue extremely difficult to study. More research, nonetheless, will be crucial to improving outcomes for people transitioning back to a normal Caloric intake. Unfortunately, the reverse diet is generally the best approach to combating the rebound effect right now.

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