Do you cut calories again and throw yourself into the deep dark abyss of minimal, bonehead eating?
Hell to the NO.
Cutting calories will eventually get us to a point where we can no longer progress. When you continuously cut calories, your metabolism adjusts and slows in order to meet the stimulus and maintain homeostasis. When we diet, the following metabolic adaptations occur:
- Our organs and muscles require fewer calories and consume less energy
- Sympathetic tone decreases
- Decrease in thyroid function
- Increase in cortisol in certain cases
- Lack of energy
- Disturbances in testosterone, leptin, and ghrelin
- Thermogenic effect of feeding (TEF) decreases due to fewer calories being consumed
- Not enough fuel for the muscles for recovery and/or muscle growth
- You’ll burn fewer calories
This is the body’s way of making sure we don’t just melt away and turn into Gumby. Do you want to stimulate growth and progress again? Are you coming off of a diet, challenge/contest, or physique show? If you are facing any of these challenges, you might just need to do what we call reverse dieting.
What is reverse dieting? Why do I need to do it?
In simplistic terms, reverse dieting is a phase after dieting when we slowly add calories, macronutrients, and foods back into the diet in order to re-regulate our metabolism to a healthy, sustainable level. The biggest reason why extreme diets and calorie restriction are not successful long term: it just isn’t sustainable. The body is not made to live, train, and adapt on 800 calories/day. We also can’t deprive ourselves of the most wonderful breakfast cereals and pizza in the world forever. There is a tipping point. A diet will always end at some point. Otherwise, we would all eventually diet down to death.
This is where reverse dieting comes into play. As mentioned previously, our metabolism slows as we diet down. Likewise, the same way we slow down our metabolism when we diet down, we can speed up our metabolism to bring ourselves back to a safe point, burn more calories, help support our training and energy demands, build muscle, and burn fat again. However, this doesn’t mean we just throw all of the calories we can find back into our diet right away. It also doesn’t mean we just go binge on pizza, cupcakes, and beer while going hours deep into a Netflix binge while simultaneously firing an automatic machine gun into the air.
No, it means we need to have a game plan to incrementally add calories, macronutrients, and foods back into the diet. This allows the metabolism to adjust and increase so we avoid gaining excess weight and fat back, versus, adding too many calories, macronutrients, and foods back in too fast when our metabolism is still slow and not ready to match the food intake. This allows us to better maintain lean body mass and the weight we previously lost. Then, when it might be time to cut calories or adjust macronutrients again for a new diet, contest, challenge, or show, we can do so in a safe manner.
The Big Question: How do I reverse diet?
The first thing to note is that with a reverse diet we providing a principle of progressive dietary overload to our metabolism. The same way we may provide progressive overload in the form of reps or weight across a training program. We might be ready to go hit up Golden Corral right away, however, our body and our hormone levels are certainly not. As we add food back in, our hormone levels concerning leptin, ghrelin, forms of thyroid, testosterone, and growth hormone are going be slowly returning to normal. The point of reverse dieting is to allow our bodies to readjust in a safe way that lines up with our physique and training goals.
- Make sure you are tracking food intake to know where you are currently at. This will help us develop where our baseline is at right now. If we do not know where baseline is at, then it will be very easy to add too much back in too fast.
- Continue making good food selections. Avoid throwing empty calories and excessive amounts of junk back in to your diet.
- Maintain your training frequency. If you’re training 3 days per week, then continue doing at least that amount.
- Look at protein intake. If you are not already around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, then focus on increasing your protein intake first. Protein has the highest TEF and stimulates the metabolism more than any other macronutrient. This is important while adding calories back in. It also helps us recover, stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and contributes to
- I like to recommend adding about 5-10% back in each week. If you’re use to consuming 1200 calories, 100g of protein, 100g of carbs, and 44g of fat, then slowly add 5-10% calories and grams back in each week. You should hopefully be set with protein, therefore, most of our increases should come from adjustments in fat and carbs. This will slowly increase your metabolism while increasing your thermogenic effect of feeding.
- Monitor your changes during this incremental period each week. You may gain some weight in the process, however, you are going to notice yourself maintaining your lean mass without adding fat back. Pay attention to your body composition changes and when/where you plateau each week.
- If you have restricted certain types of foods for a while, then slowly add them back in each week. Overall, the calories are going to be most important, however, we still must focus on food quality. For example, if you have been shying away from rice or potatoes for a while, then slowly add them back in as long as it fits your macronutrients, calories, and portion sizes. If you want to enjoy a cookie or a glass of wine, then do so. Just don’t go bonkers and binge. Keep it within reason.
- Continue your tracking and determine where you’ll be happy in accordance with your goals. If that’s eating 2000 calories at X weight and Y body fat percentage, then maintenance out at that point.
- I’ll say it again. Maintain protein intake.
- Maintain your hydration status. For starters, take your body weight and divide by 2.2. This should be you minimum water intake. This will aid in proper digestion and absorption of the added food intake, organ function, recovery, and other metabolic processes.