There’s a phenomenon in the dieting dictionary called the “yo-yo” effect, and a lot of us are probably familiar (and frustrated) with it. All those times you successfully lost fat during a diet only to gain it back upon stopping, and then having to restart the same (or a brand new) process all over again? Instead of persisting with this torturous back-and-forth, taking a different approach post-diet may prove to be more helpful when it comes to maintaining one's body composition while transitioning to a more “normal” eating pattern. Enter: the reverse diet.
The occurrence of weight-gain most people experience coming off a restrictive diet is actually a very normal thing, where your metabolism rate (which regulates the rate at which you burn calories) adapts to the amount of calories you’re eating. Your body doesn't immediately get the memo when you cease your diet; your metabolism rate is still working at diet-level rates. As a result, the sudden surplus of calories you consume translates to weight gain. The reverse diet essentially draws out this process to make it as gradual as possible, allowing your body (and metabolism) time to “catch up”.
How to reverse diet
The core idea of reverse dieting is to progressively adjust your metabolism rate to the higher amount of calories you’re going to be consuming. You will be reintroducing calories to your diet in a controlled manner over a span of months, so this diet requires a lot of patience and goal-tracking. Here’s how to start.
1. Find out your maintenance calorie level
This is the amount of calories you need to consume daily in order to maintain a stable weight. Your maintenance calorie level is affected by a number of things, such as gender, activity level and weight. There are ways to calculate this but they are still approximations at best. You will have to deal with some trial-and-error at this point.
2. Maintain this level for 1-2 weeks
Once you’ve successfully determined your maintenance calorie level, keep at it for one or two weeks to let your metabolism rate adjust to it as well as the new macronutrient ratio you may or may not be employing.
3. Increase calories by 5-10% of your maintenance level
This is actually a very small amount and translates to one additional small snack during the day or an extra serving of veggies at dinner. It’s important to restrain yourself and don’t go overboard with the additional calories, or your reverse dieting will fail. You should experience some slight weight-gain (mostly water) with minimal negative impact on your body composition. Keep at it for a few weeks until your weight-gain stabilises.
4. Repeat step 3
Increase your calorie intake by another 5-10% and monitor your weight very carefully. Some weight gain is normal, as long as it doesn’t exceed about 2kg at a time. Once your weight stabilises, repeat the increase again, until you find that you can’t add any more calories without your weight increasing by more than 2kg.
5. Maintain this level for 3-4 weeks
In the final step of the reverse diet, give your body a couple of weeks to adjust to its new state and higher caloric intake. Once all is stable, you can say hello to a more inclusive diet that won't end up stretching your pants!
If sustainable fat-loss is the goal, then the reverse diet should be a key consideration. Just remember that the point of it is not to see how much you can get away with calorie-wise; only repeat step 3 up to a point where you feel that your appetite is back to “normal” levels. Also, bear in mind that the total length of time of the reverse diet varies across individuals depending on your calorie deficit and your body fat percentage, so don’t be too focused on how long you have to keep to this diet for. Just be patient with the process and you'll get there in due time!