Blog
25
02
2019

Reverse Dieting Explained – New Applications For Body Composition Enhancement

Reverse dieting has been, and for some odd reason still is, a hot topic in the fitness industry. Some are more misguided than others in their understanding of what reverse dieting actually is, what it does and how it should be applied, which leads me to writing this article whilst on board a flight to the sunny gold coast.

Just so we are all on the same page: Reverse dieting involves the step-wise increase in calorie intake in an attempt to slowly reduce the size of the energy deficit over time, which allows the body to gradually reach a new adapted RMR and eventually recover RMR and hormones to pre-diet levels.[1]

When I was first introduced to the topic of reverse dieting, like most, I was intrigued. It sounded seriously scientific, highly advanced and looked to be a miracle diet strategy that could prevent weight rebound and enhance metabolic capacity for my clients and athletes. It was certainly worth investigating, so I began reading and researching the information that was available on the topic and trialling the approach with myself and clients. However with time, I soon learned that there were flaws to the approach some kinks in the application of this method that needed some ironing out…

For the most part, it didn’t quite achieve what it was intended to. Many of my clients and athletes would struggle to adhere to the very slow and incremental increase in calorie intake after they finished a contest prep and there wasn’t any real metabolism improvements, beyond the odd client who stuck to it and was able to diet on higher calorie intakes in future diets. After some experimentation and further thought,  I improved my understanding of both physiology and nutrition which led me to find what I believe is a more appropriate and useful way to apply reverse dieting, which is what this article will share with you all.

Origins and initial applications of reverse dieting:

Before I share with you all my findings, let’s first explore the origins and initial application of reverse dieting a little further. Originally, reverse dieting was proposed as a means to minimize weight gain post contest prep for physique athletes. In bodybuilding circles before the introduction of reverse dieting, competitors would finish their contest prep season and jump straight into their off season. It should come as no no surprise that in the majority of cases, competitors wouldn’t be able to stick to any dietary protocol after their contest diet and regained almost all of the weight they lost, if not more.

This was a by-product of both coaches and athletes thinking their job was done once the competition was over, patting each other on the back and parting ways after bringing a lean physique to the stage. I can tell you right now, leaving an athlete in that physical and mental condition post show, without any plan of action or direction is a recipe for disaster. This evident hole in the post-preparation phase lead to some poinoneering thinking, and hence reverse dieting was born.

The attraction of reverse dieting was that it illustrated to both coaches and athletes alike that the job was not done the moment you stepped off stage. It offered coaches who implemented reverse dieting post show an additional selling point and another means of retaining paying clients after the contest prep was over.

Great for coaches, sure.

For athletes?

Hmmm not so much.

The idea was that reverse dieting would be a methodical and structured approach to the post dieting phase aimed at preventing rapid weight rebound and preserving some level of conditioning moving into the off season. To the credit of those implementing reverse dieting in this capacity, it was certainly useful in giving athletes ‘some’ focus and direction, but there were many issues that followed. Namely, athletes were not in a physical or mental state to continue sustaining an energy deficit and the meticulous tracking required to apply a text book reverse diet given they had just completed what is one of the hardest physical and mental challenges one can endure.

Therefore, it became apparent that applying the reverse diet post show may not be the most effective or optimal use of the strategy.

From a physiological standpoint, the major flaw with reverse dieting is that RMR and other hormones like Leptin and Thyroid are not fully recovered until the cumulative deficit is restored and total energy available (both stored and useable energy) meets pre-diet levels. This means that metabolic and hormonal health will not be recovered fully until both calorie intake and body fat levels reach a point within individuals homeostatic range.

During a reverse diet, there may be an ‘improvement’ or ‘temporal increase’ in overall metabolic/hormonal health, but this is not the same as returning to pre-diet baseline levels. Thus, the slow and inherently incremental nature of reverse dieting can delay the rate of recovery post contest prep which is seriously problematic as it prolongs the duration that athletes experience many of the ‘negative’ side effects of dieting.

Below is a basic overview of the effects of prolonged periods of energy restriction. This visual representation of the physiological changes in response to decreases in calorie intake and fat mass provides an insight into how we best structure energy intake in various phases of energy restricted periods and gives clues as to where/when reverse dieting may be useful.

Summarising the above; over the course of a contest prep or extended dieting phase, calorie intake is gradually decreased which results in decreased body weight – primarily via fat tissue. This causes a host of physiological adaptations such as increased hunger, decreased resting metabolic rate, decreased neat, decreased sex hormone secretion and so on, which for the record, are a completely normal and expected response to energy restriction.

The main takeaway from this graphic is that the longer we diet, the more we restrict calories, the more weight we lose, the more the body adapts, the slower the rate of loss should be to account for the physiological changes that arise.

For example, in the beginning of a contest prep when an athlete has finished an off-season with high calorie intakes, minimal dieting fatigue and is in a strong position physically and psychologicaaly, the rate of loss can be faster – especially given they have more body fat to lose, are highly motivated to do so and their metabolic/hormonal health isn’t in the toilet, yet.

As the diet progresses and weight/body fat is lost, the implications of energy restriction reveal themselves as we know – insatiable hunger and increased lethargy, decreased libido (sex hormones), decreased thyroid output, mood and sleep disturbances. [2] Therefore, the same magnitude of energy deficit would only heighten these outcomes and potentially compromise the contest prep and athletes well being.

For these reasons, it makes sense that the magnitude of the energy deficit scales down over the duration of a dieting phase in alignment with decreases in body mass/fat and to ensure that the onset/magnitude of metabolic adaptations doesn’t exceed what is necessary given the target rate of loss or compromise dietary adherence. This theoretical understanding of how body composition changes during a dieting phase also gives clues as to when reverse dieting may be appropriate.

New age application of reverse dieting:

In my opinion, the dismissal of reverse dieting is a hasty generalisation. In reality, the conept is still likely to be useful, just in a more appropriate context of application. I believe that from both a physiological and psychological perspective, the strategy of reverse dieting is applied best in the following contexts:

  1. Peaking physique athletes to enhance stage day condition and the rate of post show recovery; and
  2. Exiting an extended dieting phase to mitigate adverse outcomes post diet.

Peaking physique athletes:

Provided the athlete reaches their target weight/body fat percentage early, reverse dieting the athlete (increasing calorie intake into a show via carbohydrates) can afford a number of benefits in terms of their body composition and visual appearance come show day.

A step wise increase in calorie intake not only slows down the rate of loss in the later stages of the prep when the athlete is at the greatest risk of losing muscle tissue, but the increase in energy intake will help dissipate fatigue, decrease relative hunger, increase glycogen levels – improving visuals due to filling out muscle glycogen stores as well as yield a greater likelihood of muscle retention via performance improvements mediated by additional calories and carbohydrates. Additionally, increasing calories via carbohydrates after chronic periods of energy restriction (a highly stressful process) may potentially reduce extracellular water retention (which is common in extremely lean individuals). For one reason or another, carbohydrates in particular seem to have a therapeutic effect on stress levels which is likely mediated through the action of insulin suppressing cortisol and catecholamines, which can lead to reductions in fluid retention. I’ve definitely sen some pretty crazy stuff in practice with athletes dropping kgs of body weight after temporal increases in carbohydrates during re-feeds, diet breaks and reverse dieting phases. The amount of weight lost due to these strategies is clearly not fat or muscle, so my best guess is that it’s water weight.

As mentioned, the reverse dieting phase can also enhance the rate of recovery in the post contest prep phase. By increasing calories before the contest prep diet is over (again this assumes the athlete is lean enough and has adequate time to do so), the likelihood of experiencing extreme levels of hunger and fatigue once the prep diet is finished can be minimised. This is largely due to the fact that the cumulative deficit has been diminished during the reversing phase which helps the athlete make a smoother transition into recovery. The analogy I use to explain this to my athletes is that instead of having all four tyres flat post show, they will likely only have one or two. The latter is much easier to repair than the former.

If an athlete finishes their season on poverty macros, stupendous amounts of cardio has excessively high food focus and is flat out destroyed, the recovery process will only be a more arduous task. Conversely, if by reverse dieting the athlete ends their contest prep on a higher calorie intake, lower amounts cardio and is feeling less beat up, it shouldn’t take as long for them to recover and the process will be a little easier.

So, if reverse dieting is best applied as a peaking strategy leading into a show, what should athletes do post contest prep?

Given the extreme nature of contest prep dieting, extremely low levels of body fat are not sustainable for most physique competitors as their body fat percentage is well below their homeostatic range (settling point), meaning their physiological and psychological health are seriously impacted.

Once the competitive season is over, it is advisable that athletes quickly gain back body fat to improve all markers of health. Athletes need to repair all of the busted tyres pronto, that is of course if they wish to put back the pieces of their life, which are inherently taken away during a prep, and move forward into a productive off season. Thus, the aim should be to recover physical and psychological health/wellbeing (fixing the tyres) immediately, not preserve stage condition or slowly repairing the tyres. That will get you nowhere real fast…

Therefore, in the weeks immediately proceeding the athletes final show, a recovery diet should be commenced (check out the 3DMJ recovery diet here), whereby there is an assertive increase in calorie intake and body weight (aiming for 5-10% of BW) along with a drastic decrease in cardio (50% of their final cardio protocol) to gain back body weight/fat and restore the cumulative energy deficit.

Exiting Extended Dieting Phases:

The second application of reverse dieting is to use it in extended fat loss phases. Whilst not too dissimilar to a contest prep in nature, the primary difference between an extended dieting phase and a contest prep is that physique athletes must reach extremely low levels of body fat to meet the requirements of the sport. Conversely, an extended dieting phase can be used for individuals who may not be concerned with being contest lean, but are embarking a longer dieting period in a bid to lose a significant amount of body fat. To put some time frames on this, an extended dieting phase will generally last anywhere from 10-24 weeks (2-6 months).

It is well established that a more aggressive energy deficit and thus a faster/rapid rate of loss can improve motivation to diet. However given the absolute amount of weight most individuals want to lose when starting an extended fat loss diet, it is highly unlikely that such a rapid and assertive rate of loss (generally meaning lower calorie intakes) can be sustained for longer time frames or the duration required for the individual to achieve their goals. In addition to this, as many physique ‘enthusiasts’ won’t be dieting down to extremely low levels of body fat, the necessity to recover and regain health is of less of a concern. Meaning that the post dieting objective is to instead learn how to maintain their new body weight within a certain range and practice the behaviours required to sustain their new physique.

Thus, reverse dieting can be used within the extended fat loss phase, not after it. Placing the reverse diet after the intial portion/phase of the extended diet before motivation plummets due to the onset of fatigue, hunger, lethargy etc and the frustration that comes with seeing stalls or progress slow down.

For example, in a 20 week dieting phase, he first 10 weeks may be assertive aiming for a rate of loss of 1.5% of BW per week.

From weeks 11-20, calorie intake can be gradually increased aka reverse dieting (aiming to lose 0.25-0.5% of BW per week) until the individuals intake meets their new maintenance requirements.

Why I like this structure is that in the middle portion of extended dieting phases, motivation generally remains high given the intial progress made and the fact that the onset of dieting side effects are minor. Implementing a reverse diet in these middle-latter phases of a diet can thus prevent the rapid decay of adherence and motivation and help the client continue to see progress in their weight loss, albeit at a slower rate.

Although some may argue that a slow down in the rate of scale weight loss may in fact detriment motivation, lets face it, nobody likes seeing a 100g loss after exerting a bucket load of will powerful an entire week, there are however a number of other benefits of reverse dieting irrespective of this:

  • Seeing scale weight decrease as food intake increases (enhancing buy-in to the process)
  • Increase dietary adherence (reducing hunger relative to baseline)
  • Imroved energy levels and thus training performance;
  • Decreasing relative hunger;
  • Increased potential to maintain weight loss post diet.

This strategy again has similar benefits to peaking a physique athlete – performance improvements and improving visuals albeit the effect size of such improvements due to increased calorie intake will be smaller due to individuals in this context not being at extremely low levels of body fat. That being said, in the context of the every day dieter, reverse dieting will also teach many valuable lessons, such as why it is important to vary calorie intake and the rate of loss and that to continue to progress and improve body composition – eating less and moving more isn’t always the answer. Which in my opinion, cannot be overstated.

A quick side tangent…

A huge problem with most dieting phases is that they are independent of one another – cutting and bulking. It is common that coaches plan periods of ‘energy restriction’ followed by periods of ‘energy surplus’ which in essence is glorified/justified yo-yo dieting and a highly binary approach to nutrition for body composition enhancement that leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of the binge/purge cycle occurring over a 7 day period, many physique athletes simply binge/purge on a monthly basis – they simply have greater will power and habits that allow them to do so.

Athough there is an increasing rise in the use of ‘maintenance’ periods interspersed between the deficit and surplus, this problem still exists and can often impact an athlete/individuals long term progress as they spin their wheels with cyclical dieting phases of cutting-bulking that lead them nowhere real fast!

This is another reason why the application of reverse dieting for folks interested in improving their body composition can be useful as it allows for incremental changes in calorie intake during energy restricted periods, teaching the significance of altering the rate of loss during a dieting phase.

Summary:

It is not advisable to use reverse dieting as a strategy to ‘improve’ your metabolism or after a contest prep diet. Rather, it’s important to understand what reverse dieting aims to achieve – a slower rate of loss via a stepwise increase in calorie intake towards maintenance. Therefore, it is not a magical metabolic enhancing diet technique or appropriate after an extreme diet such as in a contest prep. Reverse dieting is a strategy that can be applied within a fat loss phase to:

  • Slow down the rate of loss in alignment with decreases in body mass and fat tissue;
  • Improve training performance during energy restricted periods;
  • Improve visual appearance via increased glycogen storage (muscle fullness) and decreased water retention (extracellular fluid);
  • Teach the importance of varying the magnitude of the energy deficit and
  • Teach athletes/clients why the appropriate rate of loss will change releative to the duration of the diet and magnitude changes in body fat.

I hope this article was useful and informative to you all, and helped you better conceptualise what reverse dieting is and how you can use it with your cleints and athletes or yourself. If you did find this article helpful, be sure to share it and drop a comment to let me know what you thought!


[1] Pardue A. Why you should reverse diet [Internet]. Biolayne LLC. c2018- [cited 2018 Apr 22].Available from: https://www.biolayne.com/articles/nutrition/why- you-should-reverse-diet/
[2] Rossow Et Al. Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study (2013).

author: Jacob Schepis

Jacob Schepis is the director of JPS Health & Fitness and one of Melbourne's best personal trainers. As Head nutrition consultant and Strength and Conditioning coach at JPS Health & Fitness, Jacob has transformed hundreds of physiques with his no nonsense, evidence based approach to training and nutrition!