This is an important topic. Many people (including me) learned this lesson only after hitting a plateau. Please share this one with people you know who are starting a fitness transformation. Knowledge is power. ~ TW
Are you someone with a long history of dieting? Have you lost weight only to regain it? Do you find it to get harder and harder to lose with every attempt you make? There’s a reason for this, and the last thing you want to do is go on another diet. Even though your intentions are good, you’re probably not going to do yourself any favors in the long-run.
I’ve written before about the importance of keeping calories as high as possible and cardio as low as possible while still losing. I’ve also written about how if you want to not only lose weight and keep it off your diet must be sustainable. That’s all well and good and I stand behind everything I said. But what if you CAN’T lose doing this? What if you’ve done everything right but it’s still not working? You just keep cutting calories right? Unfortunately, it may not be that simple.
One thing you have to keep in mind is your metabolic rate, and that your body doesn’t care about a six pack or getting ready for beach season. It cares about one thing, keeping you alive. So when calories are reduced for an extended period your metabolic rate will slow. This is why no nutrition plan can possibly work forever. Especially when you do extreme dieting, your body wants to hang onto everything it can thinking there is a shortage of energy supply. Eventually your body will adjust to the new demand, your metabolism slows, and you now have your new maintenance level. So when this happens the only way to get fat loss going again is to drop more calories and/or increase expenditure.
Seems pretty simple, but it’s so much more complex than that. Given how much misinformation there is out there people are set up to fail. Especially this day and age where everywhere you look someone is promising some quick fix, TV shows are showing people dropping 15 lbs a week like it’s normal and contestants are upset losing 6 lbs in week and the media is plastered with the latest fad diets. On social media everyone applauds the person who lost 30 lbs in 21 days even though it’s about 99% likely that person will regain it all but nobody bats and eye at someone who is slow and steadily winning the race. Unfortunately, it’s become the norm for people to lose weight quick only to regain it. With the long history of dieting so many people have, they are left with a metabolism running much slower than it should and every new attempt they make to get healthy only makes it worse.
When you diet hard not only does your metabolic rate slow, but you also burn less calories from the exercise you perform, there is a decrease in the thermic effect of food as well as many other factors that lead you to burning less calories daily. (1) Add on top of that negative changes in hormones such as decreased thyroid hormones and leptin (tells your body you’re full) as well as increases in cortisol and ghrelin (hunger hormone.) Yes, the hormone that tells you you’re full decreases while the hormone that tells you you’re hungry increases. NOT a good combination, especially for anyone with a history of binge eating.
Another problem is when coming out of a fat loss phase where leptin has dropped well below where it should it tends to stay low even after you’ve regained weight. (2) When it comes right down to it, basically the more times you’ve dieted in your life, especially with extreme measures, the more efficient your body becomes at hanging onto the calories you give it making it harder to lose weight and easier to gain. (3) Yes, I’m saying dieting (or I should say unsustainable dieting) actually makes you fatter. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who lose weight put it back on and many end up gaining even more. (4)
Seems pretty grim doesn’t it? Honestly yeah, it kind of is. But there is a way out if you’re patient enough. Yes you can speed your metabolism back up, but it’s not through drinking some green drink, taking pills, adding more hot sauce to your food, “detoxes,” eating “clean” or doing lots of cardio (quite the contrary actually.) It’s through a process called reverse dieting, and it’s something a large number of people should do before they go on another diet, which as I’ve stated would likely only make things worse.
What is reverse dieting?
Reverse dieting is just like it sounds, it’s where you increase your calories. You should also slowly reduce cardio during this process. “Woah woah woah!” I can hear you already. “I want to shed the fat NOW, not GAIN weight!” I hear you loud and clear and I get it, I really do. One of the hardest things I have to do as a coach is tell someone who comes to me that they shouldn’t even try to lose weight. But unfortunately if you’ve put your metabolism (granted unknowingly) in a bad place and losing weight, even on low calories, has become nearly impossible. It’s most likely going to be the only way to get where you eventually want to be. I’m not interested in doing something drastic to help someone lose a few pounds. My aim is to put an end to dieting and create FOREVER results.
Honestly I used to think of reverse dieting as something only bodybuilders need after getting stage lean. The average Joe and Jane couldn’t possibly have to worry about this since they never get anywhere near that lean right? Couldn’t be more wrong, and the longer I’ve been a coach the more I’ve realized it’s almost the norm for someone to start their diet in a less than desirable place metabolically. I’ve seen it pretty consistently, someone who doesn’t have a history of dieting can get results MUCH easier than someone even in a similar spot “stat” wise who has a long history of dieting. So don’t think this is only for extreme cases, if you have a long history of dieting, chances are you may not be in the best place to try and lose.
Just because you’re adding calories, however, doesn’t mean you’re doomed to gain 20 lbs. You just have to go about it in a smart way. If you’re currently eating 1200 calories and you’re maintaining your weight you can’t just start eating 2000 calories today. Your metabolic rate will not be able to handle the extra calories and you’ll surely store fat and store it quick. However, if you take gradual increases in calories over time your body can keep up with the changes while minimizing fat gain (if any and in some cases people even lose) while ramping up your metabolic rate. It takes time and patience but if you can stick with this while utilizing an effective strength training program you’ll start building muscle (which also helps with increasing metabolism.) getting stronger, FEELING better (very underrated) and hey who doesn’t want to eat more food?
How fast of a pace you take is up to you, there are positives and negatives to either scenario. If you increase your calories more slowly you’ll be less likely to store additional fat but it will take you longer to feel better and reach your metabolic limit. If you increase your calories faster you’ll feel better faster and reach your metabolic limit faster but you’re also much more likely to put on additional fat in the process. There is no right or wrong answer, you just have to ask yourself what’s more important to you.
Once your calories and metabolic rate are in a better place and you hold it for a while then you can start your cut in a much better place and this time around it won’t be so difficult. Think about it this way. If you start losing weight on 2000 calories or on 1400 calories, which one is going to be easier and more realistic to keep up with? Just remember to take your time and not rush the process, you want to diet on as many calories and do as little cardio as possible while getting results. Somewhere around a .5-1% reduction in body weight on average weekly is reasonable pace, but of course it will never be linear. Remember, your metabolic rate is GOING to slow during the process so you need options to get things going again. It’s also important when you do reach your goal to go through another reverse diet to make sure you can sustain your results. You don’t want to stay on those low calories forever.
Reverse dieting may not be sexy and the idea of taking several months or even a year (really depends on each person and what kind of state their body is in to begin with) can seem overwhelming and like it’s not worth it. However, it’s what many people need and it’s only going to make your efforts easier and more enjoyable in the long-run.
I currently have two clients who have been reversing/holding now for about 7 months. I’d like to show you so you can see that adding calories does not mean you’re doomed to getting fat. (Plus keep in mind even if you do gain, it’s short-term and the long-term payoff is HUGE.) Both people had a long history of restrictive and yoyo dieting and were in a spot where losing weight would have required way too low of calories.
Shannon responded better than I ever could have imagined and I’d like to mention this is NOT the norm, but it’s awesome to see what can happen when you give the body what it needs. When she came to me in February she was eating around 1200 calories and maintaining her weight. Now she’s eating up over 2100 calories daily, she’s lost 4 lbs but there’s been a remarkable change in body composition furthering the proof the scale weight is just a number.
My other client started at 1600 calories and has worked her way up to 2200 calories daily where we are currently holding. Scale weight has actually gone up about 4 lbs but there’s noticeable improvements in body composition. That said even if she looked exactly the same that would be a WIN.
Both are getting close to starting their cut and I’m fully confident given the fact they haven’t been doing any cardio and have their calories high we’ll be able to get them down where they want to be and it will be a much less painful process thanks to them taking them time and having the patience to do things the right way.
I also feel it’s my duty to say not all people I put in a reverse respond this way. Some hold weight or even gain a little and body composition stays pretty much the same. Some may even notice their pants feeling a tad bit snugger. But the payoff to get the calories up and metabolism in a better place is HUGE. Changes in body composition is just a nice added bonus for some. You just have to remember when you’re in a reverse what the real end goal is. To improve metabolism and put you in a position for long-term success.
Tips for a successful reverse diet:
For the record these tips are for general population and not meant for competitors coming out of a show.
- Understand what your current maintenance calories are. If you are unsure track what you eat for a week and see where your calories are at.
- Get on a solid strength training program if you aren’t already.
- Aim for around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. If you have a lot of weight to lose, aim for around your goal weight. If you find it too difficult to reach this number lower your protein with the aim to raise around 5-10 grams weekly.
- Weigh yourself daily first thing in the morning wearing the same clothes and use your average weight for the week as your “actual” weight. Track this and make adjustments in calories based on your pace. If you are more concerned about gaining weight keep your increases around 20-50 calories per week, or even hold steady if you don’t like seeing increases. If you would like to take a faster increase you may want to increase 50-150 calories per week.
- Keep track of body composition as well as weight because scale weight does not tell the whole story especially the leaner you are.
- If you were doing a lot of cardio aim to take out a little cardio every week or two until you’re down to either none or very limited.
- Plug your stats into a TDEE calculator to give yourself a rough idea where your metabolic limit should be (how many calories you should be able to consume while maintaining weight.) Please note this is just to get an idea and it’s highly individual. The higher you can get your calories the better so if you can keep adding without gaining keep it going!
- Once you reach your metabolic limit hold there as long as you can before cutting to ensure your body has adapted to the new calories. I recommend a minimum of a few months for most people but again this is highly independent. The longer your history dieting and the more extreme you’ve been, the longer you’ll need.
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