Reverse dieting involves slowly increasing calories in a stepwise fashion to avoid rapid fat gain after following a low-calorie diet.
While practiced primarily by competitive bodybuilders, figure and bikini competitors, and other physique athletes, many people can benefit from reverse dieting.
This article explains everything you need to know about reverse dieting, including what it is, how to do it, and its benefits and downsides.
What is reverse dieting?
Reverse dieting is a technique that involves increasing your calories slowly over several weeks to months after following a restrictive, low-calorie diet.
This slow reintroduction of calories is suggested to prevent rapid fat gain by normalizing hormone levels and restoring your basal metabolic rate (BMR) — the number of calories you burn at rest — to pre-diet levels (1).
Calorie deficit diets and weight loss cause several hormonal changes that increase hunger and decrease the number of calories you burn at rest and during exercise.
Here are a few examples of the hormonal changes associated with a calorie deficit (2):
- Triiodothyronine (T3): levels decline, lowering your metabolism and decreasing fat burning
- Leptin: levels decrease, triggering hunger
- Ghrelin: known as the “hunger hormone,” levels increase to stimulate appetite
- Cortisol: known as the “stress hormone,” levels increase, promoting muscle protein breakdown and increasing hunger
In physique competitors, it can take 3–4 months for these hormones to return to normal after dieting for a competition (2).
Weight loss alone also decreases metabolism — the less you weigh, the fewer calories you need to support normal bodily functions and the energy demands of exercise.
Because of these hormonal and metabolic changes, reintroducing calories too quickly after following a low-calorie diet will result in rapid fat gain, which is what reverse dieting can help prevent.
By slowly increasing calories, reverse dieting can help restore hormones like T3, leptin, ghrelin, and cortisol to pre-diet levels while providing your metabolism time to recover (1).
Steps to reverse diet
As a relatively new concept, there is limited research on reverse dieting, making evidence-based recommendations difficult.
But that doesn’t mean reverse dieting hasn’t been effective in practice.
Here are the steps to reverse diet:
Step 1: Know your current calorie intake
You need to know how many calories you’re currently eating so you can slowly and incrementally increase your calories.
If you don’t know, track your food intake for several days using a mobile app like MyFitness Pal.
Step 2: Calculate your maintenance calories
In addition to your current calorie intake, you also need to know what your maintenance calories are.
Your maintenance calories will become your new calorie target when you begin to increase your calories.
You can estimate your maintenance calories using an online calculator by inputting information like your weight, height, sex, age, and physical activity level.
Step 3a: Begin to increase your calories
Increase your calories by about 100–150 calories each week — or about 15–20 calories per day — for 3–4 weeks (3).
After this time, increase your calories by 150–200 each week — or about 20–30 calories per day — for 4–8 weeks or until you reach your maintenance calories.
Step 3b: Determine your macros
The calories you add back should come primarily from carbs and fats since they are the macronutrients reduced during dieting.
A 1:4 ratio of fats to carbs is a good place to start, so for every gram of fat, add four grams of carbs back to your diet.
One gram of fat contains 9 calories and one gram of carb contains 4.
Using this strategy, here’s a sample reverse dieting plan:
- Weeks 1–3: Increase calories by 100 (16 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fat) each week
- Weeks 4–8: Increase calories by 200 (32 grams of carbs and 8 grams of fat) each week
Step 4: Monitor your progress and adjust as needed
Continue to closely track your calorie intake and monitor your weight until you reach your maintenance calories or a weight that you feel is sustainable.
If your weight significantly increases one week, you may want to hold off on the next calorie increase for another week.
Conversely, if you’re maintaining your weight and feel OK with your progress, you may wish to be more aggressive with adding back calories.
In either case, it’s a good idea to maintain or slowly decrease your current exercise volume and intensity based on your goals since exercise — especially weight lifting — can enhance the effectiveness of your reverse diet.
Reverse dieting is a slow process but it can be very effective in preventing rapid fat gain when performed correctly.
Indeed, weight regain after weight loss is incredibly common and why diets tend to fail in the long term (4).
By restoring metabolism and hormones that are involved in body weight regulation levels towards pre-dieting levels, reverse dieting can help decrease or prevent rapid fat gain when you reintroduce more calories to your diet.
As a result, you may be able to maintain your weight while eating more calories than previously, which can help with long-term weight loss maintenance.
Reverse dieting — while an effective way to increase metabolism and prevent fat regain — is a tedious and somewhat advanced technique.
To be effective, it requires close monitoring of your daily calorie intake and weight.
This tracking can lead to a preoccupation with food and counting calories that may develop into an unhealthy relationship with food or advance to an eating disorder in certain people.
At the same time, reverse dieting could be used as a tool to slowly increase calories and improve the nutritional status of someone who is underweight and afraid of gaining weight.
Still, if you have an eating disorder or have disordered eating symptoms such as feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating or have compulsive eating habits, reverse dieting isn’t something to try without talking with your doctor first.
Lasting anywhere from several weeks to months, reverse dieting also requires a lot of patience and trust that the process will work for you.
The bottom line
Reverse dieting is the process of slowly and systematically increasing calories — generally in the form of carbs and fats — over several weeks to months after following a calorie-restricted diet with the goal to prevent rapid fat gain.
Reverse dieting can be effective when performed correctly but it’s a relatively advanced technique that’s very tedious and time-consuming.