"Eat more, lose weight" sounds like an impossible task. After all, one of the main rules of weight loss is "calories in, calories out," which refers to the idea that if you eat more than you burn off, you'll gain weight. For some people, though, eating more may actually be the key to maintaining a lean physique.
What Is Reverse Dieting?
Adding more to your plate is especially effective for people who are coming off restrictive diets or who have been yo-yo dieting for years. The method, known as reverse dieting, involves gradually increasing calories in very small stages. After a restrictive diet, it allows you to get up to a normal, more sustainable calorie level without adding on pounds. "While bodybuilders use it to build muscle, a regular person can use it to allow continued weight loss and avoid plateauing that is usually associated with chronic dieting," says Brocha Soloff, RD, CPT.
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It's important to note that scientific research on reverse diets is limited but ongoing. Research published in February 2014 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition noted that while there are anecdotal reports of success with reverse dieting, additional evidence is needed to support the claims.
Read more: How to Eat Right for Your Metabolism Type
How Reverse Dieting Recalibrates Your Metabolism
Fitness competitors often follow ultra-restrictive diets as they get ready to bare their bods on stage. After their competitions are over, however, many of those ultra-fit men and women struggle to maintain their lean physiques. Restrictive regimens can cause the metabolism to slow down while the body adapts to become more efficient and burn fewer calories, according to a review article published in Current Obesity Reports in December 2016.
The body is wired this way, as humans' ancestors adapted to make the most of their caloric fuel, just in case there was suddenly a food shortage and they had to function on less. These days, the landscape has obviously changed quite a bit. With food in abundance, when a person stops dieting and starts eating again, their metabolism doesn't burn calories as quickly. Therefore, that fuel gets stored as fat.
With a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and a PhD in Nutritional Sciences, bodybuilding and physique coach Layne Norton is one of the trend's leading experts. Years ago, Norton noticed a quirk among his clients. "Those with a more extensive history of dieting had a harder time losing weight and keeping it off," Norton tells LIVESTRONG.com
In a reverse diet, you slowly increase your calorie intake back up to a normal maintenance level while keeping protein intake relatively constant. Although Norton says everyone responds a little differently, he noticed that bringing calorie intake up slowly generally allowed for a better response. "There is lots of scientific evidence to support alternate day dieting — such as three days on and one day off, or two weeks on and three days off — as long as off-days are specific and not uncontrollable," Soloff notes.
Read more: Does the 80/20 Rule Work for Everyone?
Most of Norton's clients could maintain fat loss while eating a satisfying number of calories per day. "Eating very lean takes a lot out of you," he explains. "Women lose menstruation; men lose testosterone. So, we add more calories."
The reverse diet is a pretty slow process. A lot of dieters get into trouble by immediately wanting to ramp calories back up to "normal" after a prolonged period of low intake. There are no specific foods involved in a reverse diet; however, among Norton's figure competitors, protein has generally been sufficient while dieting, so Norton says he focuses on the carbs and fats his clients have usually been cutting.
You generally add only 1 to 5 percent more calories to your diet per week. If you've been on a 1,200-calorie diet, that means you should add an extra 60 calories per day at most — just a little nudge upward at a time. "By the end of the diet, we usually add 20 to 40 percent more calories, depending on how aggressive they want to be," Norton says.
"If someone is putting on a lot of weight, we slow down," he explains. "But we want to get people to a level of calories they feel comfortable with and that they can maintain." Although some like to eat more, for most people, this number hovers around 2,000 calories a day. This intake level typically allows for the flexibility to still be consistent.
Who Should Try It?
A reverse diet won't fix unhealthy eating habits and frequent indulgences. It's not for someone who needs to lose weight, but rather for someone who needs to restore their metabolism back to proper function after a prolonged, restricted low-calorie diet. Someone who enjoys working out and eating well, but wants to have some options and flexibility, will do best on the reverse diet.
For those with a history of yo-yo dieting, this can be a great fix for a wonky metabolism, says health and lifestyle coach Sheila Viers, who went on a reverse diet herself from April 2015 to January 2016.
Coaching women, she wanted to try a better way of maintaining weight — one that didn't involve a super rigorous workout regimen and just 1,200 calories a day. "A lot of women have come down that yo-yo dieting road," Viers explains. "I had and I wondered, 'What if I could max my metabolism, eat large volumes of food and maintain leanness?'"
The results: "My energy level in the gym increased a ton. I was getting stronger and tightening up my muscles. I felt really good," Viers says.
Increasing lean muscle mass can boost your metabolism, and people with lean bodies need more caloric energy to function than those with higher percentages of body fat, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics points out.
Viers was eating about 1,350 calories per day when she began, which she slowly increased to a maintenance level of 2,600 calories per day. She gained about 10 pounds, which she says was totally fine because she added lean muscle.
If she ever felt concerned, she reminded herself of the bigger picture. "I just had to remember the freedom and flexibility I was gaining through the process," she says.
Read more: How to Build Muscle in a Matter of Weeks
How to Do It
Start very slowly, Norton stresses. Focus on what you've been restricting, and aim for a balanced diet. This may mean adding more carbs and healthy fats into your life.
There's no perfect diet out there, so keep in mind some of the issues with reverse dieting. "The drawback is that off-days must be calculated and counted for, often with the help of a trained professional such as a registered dietitian, in order to avoid eating excessively on those days," Soloff says. "If calories are excessive on off-days, that can prevent weight loss and even cause dramatic weight gain. It may be hard for some to bounce back and forth, and the lack of consistency may make it difficult to sustain and develop habitual lifestyle change."
Viers steadily increased the amount of food on her plate by around 10 grams of carbs and just 1 or 2 additional grams of fat per week. If she started gaining weight while she was on her reverse diet, she simply held her intake steady for another week. Eventually, she saw real progress and worked her way up toward her current maintenance level of 2,600 calories.
Now she's finally in a place of personal freedom. "My entire life has changed," she says. "I was the girl who started dieting at age 15. My whole adventure came from this dark place of wanting to be beautiful and thin. Once I healed, I got out of this 'body jail.'"
And that's the goal with reverse dieting. "You get people comfortable with the idea of eating more," Norton says. "Then you can be more focused on feeling better and being healthy."
Additional reporting by Jen Birch.