There is a lot of talk about Reverse Dieting lately and I thought since I’m smack dab in the middle of one, I’ll elaborate and share out about it. This is my third time to reverse diet, commonly known as Rev Diet or RD. I’m a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, Online Coach, and a competitor with the National Physique Committee (NPC). I trained and competed for two years in the Figure division and my third year was a switch this past summer to the Bikini division. If you are reading this and think, “Well, I don’t compete, this does not apply to me!”, please read on. A Reverse Diet can apply to ANYONE who has gone on a “diet” to lose weight OR the many people who have been undereating or yo-yo dieting for years (that’s many, many Americans!) So please keep an open mind!
In order to get to the stage, competitors diet down over periods of time, and that time frame will vary for everyone. For me, I was in a slow caloric drop for about 24 weeks from April thru the end of September. Going into a caloric drop for someone with a healthy metabolism at this starting point will usually illicit a weight loss phase, hopefully moving the numbers on the scale Now whether you’re losing fat or muscle and how fast you go to get the weight loss is a post for another day!
For those that don’t compete, if you have been on a “diet” in a caloric deficit for a wedding or special date on the calendar or to lose weight after having a baby, for example, you’re in the same boat. No matter why you have been eating below your caloric maintenance amount to lose weight, your body has been underfed for this time frame and now you’re at a point where you need to maintain your new weight or start to slowly add more food in over time, also known as a Reverse Diet. No one can be in a constant state of dieting all the time or they will have long-term effects impacting their metabolism, therefore doing damage down the road. Our bodies love being in homeostasis, the stable comfort zone.
Our bodies were made to be fueled for our activity. We need adequate and quality food for mental clarity, health, energy and activity. We have a basal metabolic fuel rate (BMR) that needs met daily just to make our heart beat, lungs function, and brain compute. Once you add in any activity like doing dishes, walking the dog or actual “I’m working out” exercise, you need even more food to fuel those movements. To be in a deficit, you want to be 10-20% under that total daily expenditure (TDE) to create the caloric deficit to lose weight and hopefully fuel off your body fat, ideally minimally off your muscle (save the muscle!).
If you are always in a caloric deficit, your body is stressed. Some people have been dieting up and down for 10-20 years and their bodies are paying for it. What happens is your metabolism down regulates and slows down to adjust to the lower amount of food. In return, you have less energy. Makes sense, right? Less fuel in gives you less ability to put energy out. In theory, the down regulation of the metabolism is also powering a smaller body now that you’ve taken weight off your frame, so you need less to move and function a smaller mass. However, whether you want to maintain your new scale weight or work to put size back on, we can’t stay at that deficit intake forever, so we must find a new maintaining amount and slowly add food back in.
For me personally, in this 2015 24-week contest prep, I slowly dropped from 2200 to 1400 calories of daily intake, which is pretty low for me. My weight made it down to 126.5 on the scale in late September from a starting weight of 153 in April. To break it down even further, at the end of my contest prep, I was at daily macros of 130 grams of protein, 150 grams of carbohydrate and 25 grams of fat. In order to Rev Diet me safely, we will slowly add the food back in with the goal of actually keeping my weight no higher than 132 in this building season, as I no longer want or need to yo-yo my weight up high for the Bikini category anymore (and mentally I just cannot go there….I like a smaller, year-round fit me now a days!)
So how to RD?
I report in weekly with my waist and weight measurement to my Coach Brooke Erickson and also send progress pictures bi-weekly. She is SLOWLY giving me more food to get my metabolism out of a deficit and bring it up to a maintenance intake so I don’t keep losing weight. Ultimately I’ll go into a slight building intake, a bit above my caloric maintaining needs so I can have healthy body fat levels in order to also add some muscle before my show season in 2016. I don’t need a ton of size, but we have some areas of change we’re going for.
In a Reverse Diet you have to slowly feed your body with more macros or calories so that it can learn how to metabolize a new and growing volume of food. We also go slow so we can avoid fat gain, which is what would happen if all of a sudden I started throwing a lot more quantity into my system. Having been at 1400 calories, I can’t go right back to 22oo where I was in April because my metabolic rate now is not used to digesting that higher amount on a daily basis. That was the food I ate at 153, so at 127, I don’t need as much intake. Additionally, we have to reteach it how to digest more food!
Over the last three weeks since my show, we have risen my macros from 130p, 150c, and 25f to 130p, 175c, and 45f in small incremental increases each week. At this point, my scale weight is staying nice and low, just about a pound or two above my stage weight from three weeks back. Stage weight is water and sodium impacted, so it is not maintainable for the long haul, but I’m going to keep it within five to seven pounds.
Really though, the success of a Reverse Diet will greatly depend on how you got to that low calorie intake in the first place. If you’re a competitor OR a fat loss dieter OR whatever you call yourself when you’re trying to make the scale move, your body is sensitive to change, especially fast change.
If you slowly lost the weight, you’ll want to slowly add food back in to hit your new maintenance values based off your new size. You won’t want to STAY in a deficit because you don’t want to keep losing. So you work slowly back up to maintenance so your weight loss plateaus and then you can maintain that new size OR add size, depending on your goals. Don’t be afraid to eat, just keep working the balanced systems that got you to the loss in the first place!
What happens if you crash dieted (slashed calories drastically and fast to make the scale move) or were eating at a low caloric intake and all of a sudden you go back to “normal” ways of eating and increase your intake? Most likely you’ll pack on the pounds, and maybe even more than just water weight. Your down regulated slower metabolism simply can’t keep up with all the extra food (and likely lower quality foods!) that you just threw in. So in return, it stores it as fat.
That’s why many Americans who crash diet gain MORE than they originally lost and why many competitors who were greatly restricted in prep go into binge mode and quickly pack on the pounds. The mindset can’t keep up with the extreme restriction, so the dieter swings the pendulum in the opposite direction and the body simply can’t adjust to the large caloric intake. So to combat this and heal a slowed or damaged metabolism, we go slow with food additions to nourish and repair your system.
Another undiscussed factor for many competitors and fitness dieters is the insulin sensitivity issue. In my post about the “Low Sugar Lifestyle“, I go into more detail about what happened to my body and metabolism in my 2014 fall season. In short, I had been eating very low sugar in contest prep in order to lean out, but as I started to RD back to higher values, I mistakenly chose to eat more sugar than I should have. This in turn threw off my hormones and caused an insulin spike, therefore giving me false hunger signals that were hard to turn off. I ended up storing a lot of body fat that lead to my 153 Spring 2015 weight. Now I know that a low-sugar lifestyle is the best for me as I reverse back up to higher calories. Live and learn!
On a positive note, this low-sugar lifestyle NOW is why I believe I’m still basically at stage weight currently almost three weeks post contest with a lot more calories on intake each day. I’m eating more food to fuel my body back to maintenance, but keeping sugar to a minimum and therefore NOT causing extreme hormonal imbalances as I did before. These are issues NO ONE talks about, because maybe they have not experienced it or don’t understand the science of it? So I’ll use my experience to help educate others and hopefully encourage the low-sugar lifestyle as well. I am also maintaining three 30-minute steady state cardio sessions in each week to help keep my weight down, roughly 150 ounces of liquid (water, tea, and coffee) daily, and routine macro tracking for my own accountability. A good RD is a mindful system day in and day out, avoiding the mindless autopilot lifestyle.
What is so hard about doing a RD?
It’s hard. I won’t lie. There is no immediate date for a show or wedding or event on the calendar. Who will know if you clean off your child’s plate and don’t track it (at every meal!)? Who will know if you go on a week-long binge hitting every sugar joint along the way? Who will keep track if I over eat by 100-200-300 calories a day for the next three+ months….I’m not getting on a stage to display my hard work. Summer is far away. So who cares?
Well, your body will know. Your body will keep track. And your body will feel the brunt of the quick hormonal and ultimately weight upswing. AND, it’s just too stressful on your system to allow your body to yo-yo like that time and again. I’ve been there and it’s not fun. So while the fall of 2014 may have been hard for me, it is now a GREAT reminder of what the body will actually do based off science. So for now, I try to keep my food choices varied, my sugars low, enjoy fun treats here and there, hit my fiber goals, and just keep working the plan one day at a time. If I go over in macros on a day, I’m rest assured knowing the next day is a RESTART and I don’t have to keep that rhythm into a week or month-long downward spiral. We’re human, we mess up, we’re imperfect, but we don’t have to let a slip turn in to a slide!
For those who have been undereating for years and now are looking to really charge their metabolism, an RD is a good thing. Many will fear eating more calories because they don’t want to potentially gain more weight. But in the case of many of my clients, they come to me overcardioing and undereating and have a lot of belly fat due to imbalanced hormones from the low intake and high output over time. They’re frustrated with low energy and the result of continuing to eat less and do more is only sending them backwards. What we have to do and it’s very difficult to teach people this concept, is we have to slowly repair the system to a healthy and balanced metabolism, often times by increasing food and decreasing activity with the eat more, do less principle. Honestly, very few clients will give this a chance and want fast results. But I’ll keep promoting what I know truly works!
So what to do?
Eat. With my fitness clients in the above scenario, we slowly add in about 50 calories a week between the fluctuation of fats and carbs and we tick their food intake up over time. Several of my clients are benefiting from this method. One in particular came to me in July at roughly 1800 daily calories, which is low for her age, weight and activity stats. Now three months later, we have slowly gotten her up to 2200 daily calories and she has lost two pounds and two inches on her waist! Keep in mind, she is NOT in a caloric deficit trying to lose weight at this point. She is in a building season to change her physique and we are feeding her 2800 more calories in a week than when she started and she has LOST weight! This is an RD success!
The goal of any type of RD is to charge the body with as much food as possible slowly over time to get the body to fuel as efficiently as possible with minimal fat gain . Many, many times when a client is consistent with tracking and activity, their intake will increase and their body will get smaller or even hold the same weight. Again, this is a huge success because you’re eating MORE food and the body is learning how to efficiently metabolize it!
The reason I believe in an RD is because we were created to eat. We were created to move and we were created to enjoy life. The goal of an RD is just that, to fuel and power a body efficiently. It really is to your benefit!
For those that are coming out of a restricted, low calorie intake, it’s hard having to slowly add more food when all you want to do is eat double what you’re given (I’m there now!)! For those lifelong dieters, it’s hard being told to eat more when you’ve gotten used to a lower intake amount mentally and you may fear that you’ll gain weight, the last thing you want to do, right? However, when you work the plan one day at a time, stay present mindfully, and find ways to put a variety of fun treats and whole-food options in your plan, you CAN make this work to your benefit.
Trust the process. Work the plan. Take your RD just one day at a time!
Questions? Email Mindy