Eat more and weigh less
It sounds too good to be true: a diet that has you eating more to lose weight. But reverse dieting, as it's known, is not totally bogus, and in fact, isn't even a fad diet.
"It's called reverse dieting, and while it's been around for some time in the bodybuilding community, it's relatively new to the mainstream world," says Mir Ali, MD, a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. "The idea behind reverse dieting is to add calories in order to stimulate your metabolism."
It's not as simple as just eating more, however. Here's exactly how reverse dieting works, who it may benefit, and how to try it.
Where reverse dieting got its start
While it's hard to say how long reverse dieting has been around. Many athletes who participate in extreme, physique-based sports such as bodybuilding, wrestling, and gymnastics have followed some sort of reverse dieting in their training. That's because these athletes focus on weight reduction to have the highest amount of strength-to-mass ratio, according to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
To achieve this, athletes often take a break from extended dieting to increase circulating leptin (the hormone that regulates energy and hunger) and stimulate their metabolic rate, per the journal. By incorporating this strategy once or twice a week, they preserve energy levels and continue to see weight loss, even though they are eating more than usual.
How does reverse dieting work?
Now for the red tape: Reverse dieting isn't simply just eating more calories and hoping your metabolism starts working overtime to burn them off.
"Reverse dieting has to be done extremely carefully," says Dr. Ali. "It involves gradually adding some calories to your diet each day, but still staying below your basal metabolic needs." Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories your body requires to function at rest, while your basal metabolic needs is your BMR multiplied by your activity level. (Here's how to figure out how many calories you should be eating a day.)
This means to start a reverse diet, you should have already been restricting or counting your calories closely for some time. "People who have been on a diet and have reduced their caloric intake may find that either they're burned out on limiting what they can eat or are seeing a weight loss plateau and want to do something to fix that," says Dr. Ali.
When this happens, Dr. Ali says eating 50 to 100 extra calories a day, up to a limit below your personal basal metabolic rate, may yield additional weight loss.
"You're still in a calorie deficit, but you've increased it to some extent, which can help [boost] your metabolism," says Dr. Ali. That extra bit of caloric energy may make a difference in your metabolism. (Here are the medical reasons for slow metabolism.)
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What to eat when reverse dieting
All calories aren't equal, and this is especially true when it comes to reverse dieting. Those 50 to 100 bonus calories should go towards increasing carbohydrates and healthy fats, according to 2018 research in the journal Marathon. To figure out your baseline macronutrients, you start by tracking your calories to get your average daily intake.
Next, aim to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. From there, you subtract protein calories from your total amount of daily calories. The remaining calories are for carbs and healthy fats. (One gram of protein is four calories, one gram of carbs is four calories, and one gram of fats is nine calories.)
For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should aim to eat 150 grams of protein. Multiply that by four to get 600 calories. Then subtract 600 calories from your total daily calories and use the rest of your allotted calories for carbs and fat. (Here are the silent signs you should eat more carbs.)
Now that you have your starting point, increase your carb and fat intake by 2-5 percent per week for a slower start, or 6-10 percent for a quicker fat loss. You'll do this reverse diet over a few weeks, until you feel satisfied with your progress or have reached your calorie limit. After that, you can choose to maintain or slowly start restricting calories again to see weight loss. (Here's how many calories you should eat for weight loss.)
The role of exercise in reverse dieting
If you want any diet to be successful, you have to increase your activity levels with an eating plan. But for those who want to try reverse dieting, you don't need to exercise or move more than you are right now. Dr. Ali says you can still see weight loss by doing the same amount of exercise you typically do, even with this calorie increase. (Here's how to lose weight without exercising.)
"Most of the research around reverse dieting is anecdotal, but this is why it may be beneficial for athletes like bodybuilders because they already have a low amount of body fat and a lot of lean muscle mass," adds Dr. Ali.
The benefits of reverse dieting
Restricting calories can only take you so far when it comes to weight loss, making reverse dieting a refreshing approach for some. Even if you don't follow the rules of reverse dieting, there are perks to pausing calorie counting.
"Following low-calorie diets for an extended period is not beneficial for the metabolism," says Brigid Titgemeier, a functional medicine registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of My Food Is Health. "As your energy input lowers, your energy expenditure, or the calories that you are able to burn also lowers."
Titgemeier says her clients often see more success when they increase their calories because it decreases their stress, which is a known metabolism-stopper that in some cases may lead to an increase of 11 pounds per year, according to a report in the journal Biological Psychiatry. Low-calorie sabotaging is also more prevalent in those who work out excessively and decrease caloric intake over a long period of time, adds Titgemeier.
"Both exercise and low-calorie diets are hormetic stressors on the body," she says. That means that the exposure to mild levels of these "stressors" can trigger benefits in the body.
"Hormetic stressors can help the body become more resilient, but only if there are not too many being added to the body at once."
Trying to maintain a strict diet for too long of a period can result in a surge of cortisol and adrenaline, leading to weight gain on top of several other health issues like brain fog, insomnia, and changes in your thyroid.
The downside of reverse dieting
The most important thing to keep in mind if you're going to try reverse dieting is similar to most eating plans—it may not work at all. With limited scientific studies surrounding it, Dr. Ali says there may be a slim margin of people who see the benefits.
"People who have more muscle mass and are able to burn more calories a day may get results from reverse dieting, but for those who have fat to lose, they need to be more careful and should probably stick to the higher protein, lower carbohydrate-type of diets," he says. (Here's how to get started with a high-protein diet.)
Reverse dieting may be an unexpected weight loss option for chronic low-calorie dieters or athletes. But, like any diet, it comes with some caveats and will not necessarily work for everyone.
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