A reverse diet is commonly referred to as “the diet after the diet.”
It’s been popular for many years in the bodybuilding scene as a way to gradually increase calorie intake after a competition in efforts to avoid rapid weight regain.
Further, it has exploded in popularity in the general population as a segue between a low calorie diet and resuming normal eating. In theory, a reverse diet allows you to eat more food while preventing fat regain after weight loss.
While it sounds promising, you may wonder if this eating strategy works or if it’s another fad diet.
This article tells you all you need to know what a reverse diet is and how to reverse diet.
Reverse dieting is a strategic eating plan that involves gradually increasing your calorie intake over a few weeks or months to allow you to eat more food after a diet while also increasing your metabolism and preventing fat (re)gain.
This style of eating was first popularized in the bodybuilding community as a way to prevent rapid weight regain after a competition. During bodybuilding competitions, athletes must follow very strict and unsustainable diets to achieve their desired physique.
Once the competition is over, they return to more sustainable, higher calorie eating styles. However, quickly returning to a much higher calorie intake may lead to rapid fat and weight gain, since the body’s metabolism decreases during the restrictive periods.
Reverse dieting was introduced to help bodybuilders slowly transition back from very low calorie diets to higher calorie diets. The idea was that doing it slowly would help them gradually restore their metabolic rates, allowing them to eat more while minimizing fat gain.
Due to many anecdotal success stories, reverse dieting also became popular among non-bodybuilders, including those following low calorie diets or who feel that they’re experiencing weight loss plateaus.
The idea of reverse dieting is based on adaptive thermogenesis (metabolic adaptation), which is a protective process that alters the body’s metabolism to increase energy intake and decrease energy output in efforts to slow down weight loss (
The body does this through a few mechanisms (
- Hormone changes. The body releases or suppresses various hormones (e.g., ghrelin, insulin, leptin, peptide YY) to increase hunger to push you to eat more.
- Decrease in resting metabolic rate (RMR). Your body will focus its energy on vital organs to keep you alive. Less energy is dedicated to “non-essential” functions, such as hair and nail growth.
- Decrease in exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT). You may feel like you have less energy to exercise or see a notable decrease in performance, meaning you’ll burn fewer calories during a workout.
- Decrease in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT includes any energy used for daily tasks, such as walking, fidgeting, and general movement. For example, you may subconsciously choose to park your car closer to your destination to reduce walking, perform fewer household chores, or avoid random movements like pacing while talking on the phone.
- Slowed digestion. During periods of calorie restriction, the body may slow down digestion to absorb as many nutrients and calories as possible. As well, the thermic effect of food (TEF) decreases, since less food is being consumed.
The good news is that studies suggest metabolic adaptation likely isn’t permanent, and your metabolism can gradually increase as your calorie intake increases. In fact, it’s thought that most weight regain after a diet is the result of excessive calorie intake (
This is where reverse dieting comes into play. By gradually increasing your calorie intake in a slow and thoughtful manner, you can support your body in restoring its metabolic rate, manage your hunger levels better, and potentially reduce rapid weight regain (
Reverse dieting is a strategic eating plan that involves slowly increasing your calorie intake after a restricted-calorie diet in an attempt to restore your metabolism while preventing rapid weight regain.
The actual percentage of people that regain weight after a diet isn’t known. That said, studies suggest that people lose an average of 5–9% of their initial body weight within the first six months — but, after five years, they only maintain an average weight loss of around 3% (
While each individual will have a different experience, most research supports the notion that maintaining weight loss is difficult, especially as the years go on (
The reasons people regain weight after dieting vary depending on individual circumstances, such as the type of the diet, the length of time they dieted, and whether sustainable habits were developed and maintained once they stop dieting.
One of the main reasons for weight regain is the sense of freedom a person may feel after discontinuing a restrictive diet. Once it’s over, a person may overindulge on previously “forbidden” foods, leading to weight gain.
This is quite common in diets that are very restrictive, such as those that physique competitors follow. In fact, many competitors will consume — and in many cases binge —much larger amounts of food than their bodies need after a competition as a way to celebrate (
However, if that behavior becomes a habit or compulsion, a person may continue to overeat, especially as a way to resolve the excessive hunger they’ve likely been experiencing during their diet.
What’s more, many diets fail to teach people healthy, sustainable lifestyle habits, such as learning to read nutrition labels, prepare nutritious meals, and practice mindful eating. Thus, once they end their diet, people return to previous habits that led to the unwanted weight gain (
Additionally, if a person does not have a sufficient support system (e.g., healthcare provider, coach, supportive friends) to encourage them to continue their healthy behaviors, their motivation may decline (
Finally, even if a person is meticulously watching their food intake, they may still be eating over their calorie needs.
During long periods of calorie restriction, your metabolism decreases. Therefore, your daily calorie needs to maintain your weight may be lower than it was before the diet. If you resume your “normal” eating right away, you may be eating in a surplus (
Overall, most diets fail to prepare individuals for life after the diet. This is one of the reasons why temporary diets aren’t usually recommended.
Instead, most health professionals recommend adopting lifelong habits that may help you lose weight in a sustainable way, such as eating more whole, nutrient-dense foods, limiting processed foods, being physically active, and getting proper sleep (
Weight regain is very common after dieting and weight loss. Common reasons for this include changes to metabolism, returning to previous eating habits, and lack of a support system.
Though difficult, it is possible to avoid regaining weight after a diet. But first, let’s talk about why avoiding a diet is the best choice in the first place.
Following restrictive diets — which usually involve eating a very low number of calories — is hard long-term. As mentioned, your body engages mechanisms to prevent drastic weight loss when it notices that you’re in a large calorie deficit.
In addition, it’s very difficult to ignore feelings of deprivation and hunger. As a result, sticking to a low calorie diet — especially those that restrict many foods or entire food groups — is understandably tough.
The unsustainable nature of these diets can lead to “yo-yo dieting,” where a person cycles between losing and regaining weight (
If you can avoid dieting in the first place, you’re setting yourself up for more success over time. Instead, it’s ideal to focus on adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors that you can successfully and happily do long-term, such as (
- limiting sugary beverages and drinking mostly water or other low calorie drinks (e.g., tea, coffee)
- eating more vegetables and fruit
- eating more fiber, protein, and healthy fats
- limiting eating out and/or processed foods
- engaging in physical activity daily
- incorporating strength training into your workout routine
- getting 7–9 hours of sleep per night
- managing stress and finding positive coping mechanisms (e.g., meditation, therapy, journaling)
However, if you’ve followed a restrictive diet and are looking to “get out” of it without regaining weight, a reverse diet may be a good option for you.
Ideally, it’s best to avoid diets altogether and instead adopt healthy, sustainable lifestyle habits that may help you lose weight and keep it off.
Reverse dieting will look different for everyone, but it usually involves adding 50–150 daily calories per week for around 4–10 weeks until you’ve reached your pre-diet calorie intake or other goal amount.
To put this into perspective, one tablespoon (16 grams) of peanut butter offers about 100 calories. Therefore, the amount of food that you’re gradually adding to your diet per week remains very small (
To begin, you’ll first want to decide whether you want to take a conservative or more aggressive approach.
A conservative approach will take you longer to reach your calorie goal, but it may help reduce weight regain and digestive discomfort, since you’re giving your body more time to adapt. You may increase your calorie intake by around 5% each week.
A more aggressive approach may be more suitable for those who want to return to a highly active lifestyle and restore their energy levels quickly. You might increase caloric intake by around 15% right away and then increase further by 5% each week for the remaining time.
For example, let’s say you’re currently eating an extremely restrictive 1,200-calorie diet and want to increase your intake to 2,000 calories over 12 weeks. This is what your reverse diet may look like:
Your reverse diet will look different depending on your starting calories, your desired approach, and your goal calorie intake.
If you’re less concerned about a bit of weight regain, then you may wish to increase your calories more rapidly (e.g., 15–20% increase from starting).
If you notice that you’re regaining weight quickly, you may want to double-check your portion sizes to ensure you’re actually eating the amount you intend to. In many cases, we overestimate the number of calories we consume.
As well, keep in mind that you may gain some water weight or muscle mass during this period. That’s especially likely for physique competitors who may have dehydrated themselves prior to a competition. In many cases, weight regain is not solely fat regain (
Keep in mind that calorie counting to the degree that reverse dieting requires can be laborious and problematic for many people, meaning reverse dieting isn’t for everyone.
Reverse dieting looks different for everyone and will depend on their goals — though, most people will gradually add 50–150 extra daily calories over the course of 4–10 weeks.
Reverse dieting is an eating strategy used to prevent rapid weight regain and restore one’s metabolism after following a low calorie diet.
To reverse diet without gaining weight, slowly increase your calorie intake to a higher target calorie goal. By doing this in a strategic, slow manner, you may be able to boost your metabolism, manage your hunger levels, and prevent or reduce rapid weight regain.
Many people find success with reverse dieting since it’s a gradual and tailored approach, but it’s not for everyone because it relies on strict calorie counting. It’s best to find a solution that works best for you.
Ideally, your best option is to adopt a healthy lifestyle that is sustainable and enjoyable for you — rather than following strict, unsustainable, low calorie diets that do more harm than good.