Research tells us that as our society we are pretty good at losing weight, just look at The Biggest Loser competitions where some participants lost almost 50% of their body weight. The same can be said for competitive physique athletes, who generally display phenomenal levels of conditioning on stage, evidenced by their outstanding dietary adherence for prolonged periods.
The problem we have is clearly not losing the weight, it’s keeping it off or at least address the phases the proceed energy restriction, with current data suggesting that around 80% of people who lose weight, regain it within 12 months. This is a major issue for many folks looking to diet, and for many individuals it questions the value of the weight loss in the first place.
In this article we are going to discuss post diet considerations for physique athletes once they have finished a bodybuilding show/season and how the two contrasting approaches give insight into some of the important factors to consider when determining an appropriate post dieting strategy.
There has been significant debate surrounding post-weight loss dieting approaches recently and it warrants discussion. Essentially the primary goal of any approach post contest prep diet (regardless of the amount of weight lost during the dieting phase or the level of body fat reached) is to bring the person to a position where they are eating enough to satisfy hunger cues and maintaining a body weight/composition they are comfortable with.
There are two primary approaches we have in our arsenal, the first of which is the “reverse dieting” method. In basic terms reverse dieting refers to the very conservative and systematic increase in calories post diet for a number of weeks with the goal of gradually restoring energy expenditure and impaired hormonal profiles, while preventing or minimising fat gain. The downside to this approach, is that it usually leaves the individual in an energy deficit for a number of weeks post-diet, albeit the energy deficit is smaller. We know that the most significant adaptive responses to energy restriction only begin normalising once energy balance is achieved (eating at weight maintenance requirements), so it is unlikely that the first few weeks/months of a reverse diet will provide much benefit in this regard. Another issue we have, is that individuals reaching extreme levels of body fat (e.g. the competitive bodybuilder), have more significant and persistent negative adaptive responses to dieting than an individual at normal body fat levels. These include greater losses of fat free mass (includes muscle), more irritability, more susceptible to injury and illness, and greater impairments to anabolic hormone profiles. To use an analogy, a pre-contest bodybuilder (or very lean athlete) is essentially in a burning house with the roof about to cave in, the firemen (nutritionists and coaches) should get the person out as soon as possible, it does not make sense to leave them in there longer (the reverse diet).
This leads us to our second approach, the “recovery method”. To continue with our analogy, the recovery diet takes the person straight out of the burning house immediately, and away to receive medical attention, so they can return to good health as quickly as possible. To describe literally, the recovery diet involves a more aggressive caloric increase post-diet (to energy balance or slightly above) with the goal of adding 5-10% of the individual’s body weight quite rapidly, returning them to a more positive mood state with improved capacity for training, and with metabolic and hormonal restoration initiated. Now, this method is not to be confused with eating as much as possible post-diet to take advantage of heightened anabolic potential and improved glucose uptake. Yes muscle cells are more receptive to nutrient storage and growth post-weight loss…..but so are your fat cells. Couple this with the fact that muscle growth only increases linearly with caloric intake to a certain point until extra calories won’t contribute to further hypertrophy, it does not make sense to attack a dozen Krispy Kremes like Homer out of The Treehouse of Horrors episode. Research has also shown that overfeeding/binge eating can negatively affect insulin sensitivity in as little as 3 days. So, if you are going with the mindset that just a few days or a week of bingeing won’t matter, you are mistaken.
In summary, we don’t need to be so eager to get back to peak offseason calories right after our show/event, but a more assertive increase in calories for the extremely lean athlete can certainly yield superior outcomes compared to the dragged-out reverse approach. However, it’s important to note that the benefits and applicability of a recovery diet over a reverse diet become more prominent the leaner the individual is. For example, a reverse diet (or more conservative increase in calories post diet) can be very beneficial for normal weight or overweight dieters, because the goal of these individuals’ post-diet is not to launch into an offseason and start packing on muscle, it’s to maintain what they’ve lost. Furthermore, for overweight or obese populations, just 5-10% loss of body weight can be a successful weight loss phase for these people, and is known to provide significant health improvements. So, it does not make sense to accelerate a 5-10% body weight regain post-diet for these guys, because it would make the initial weight loss useless.