For years, women have been bombarded with the message that the fewer calories we consume, the better. Diet culture sold us 1200-calorie diets, juice cleanses and detox teas, encouraging us to eat as little as possible while moving more. But we know that restrictive diets can have damaging consequences. “They can leave you feeling deprived, hungry, tired and potentially malnourished,” says nutritionist Pauline Cox. “Physical changes from long-term calorie restriction include hair loss, fatigue, poor skin condition, reduced bone density and much more.”
Fortunately, things are (slowly but surely) changing and women are taking back control of their diets, recognising that less definitely isn’t more. One method some women are adopting to break out of low-calorie diets and improve their relationship with food is “reverse dieting”. We spoke to several nutritionists, dieticians and PTs to find out exactly what reverse dieting involves and how it can be beneficial. Here’s what they told us…
WHAT IS REVERSE DIETING?
In simple terms, reverse dieting is the process of gradually increasing the number of calories you consume, following a period of restriction. “Typically, it involves increasing your calorie intake by between 50 and 200 calories per week over a period of weeks or months until you’re no longer in a deficit,” explains registered dietician Fareeha Jay.
The concept has long been popular among bodybuilders and competitive athletes who use it to get back to a more sustainable diet after a competition. Sarah Matyjasik, a female health specialist and former bodybuilder says she swore by reverse dieting to get back to her “normal” way of eating following long periods of restriction leading up to competitions. “For me, it was a healthy, structured way to build myself back up post-comp,” she says. “It prevented me from yo-yo dieting and from developing disordered eating habits.”
With reverse dieting, the idea is that by slowly increasing your calories following a period of restriction, your body and your metabolism will adapt, allowing you to eat more while avoiding drastic weight gain. Jay warns, however, that there is currently no scientific evidence to support this hypothesis.
Despite the lack of research, more and more women are doing reverse diets to develop a healthier relationship with food. “After following a restricted diet for so long, people may struggle with increasing their calories and feel as though they won’t be able to control how and what they eat,” says Jay. “By providing structure, reverse dieting may give them the confidence to return to a more sustainable way of eating without feeling out of control.”
Kim Scott, a fitness and nutrition coach based in Liverpool, agrees. She says that she has used reverse dieting as a tool with clients who feel nervous about ending a low-calorie diet. “These are people who were used to eating very little so we gradually increased their calories so they didn’t feel too stressed or overwhelmed about eating more,” she says.
This was the case for Sarah, a 25-year-old copywriter from London. She started reverse dieting last spring as lockdown had forced her to recognise that her eating and exercising habits were neither healthy nor sustainable. “For years, I’d been under-eating and over-exercising to try and achieve my fitness goals but I just didn’t feel good in myself and I wasn’t getting anywhere,” she tells me. “I was scared of carbs and fats, I was constantly tired, I was irritable and I didn’t have the energy to push myself in my workouts.”
With the support of her personal trainer, Sarah started to increase her calories weekly until she was eating almost twice her previous daily intake. “I honestly feel so much happier and healthier now I’m fuelling my body properly.” Although she still has work to do, Sarah has developed a much more positive relationship with food thanks to reverse dieting.
In the past, she would sip on a black coffee before a strength session but now Sarah tucks into a bowl of porridge with protein powder, banana and peanut butter. “My energy levels have improved massively and I’m performing so much better in my workouts,” she says.
HOW TO REVERSE DIET
If you’re interested in trying reverse dieting, London-based strength and nutrition coach Pennie Varvarides recommends getting professional support to help you along the way. “I’m not sure I would have done so well on my own,” agrees Sarah. “Having my PT encourage me to keep upping my calories and stop depriving myself was invaluable. She basically kept me accountable.”
Reverse dieting does require precise calorie counting. If this is something you’d rather avoid, Varvarides suggests making simple swaps to your usual diet. “Start by reintroducing things you’ve not had for a while. Swap those diet foods for the full-fat versions,” she says. “Opt for proper bagels over thins and choose bread instead of crackers.”
Cox adds it’s important to consider not just calories, but the quality of your food and where those calories are coming from. “Nutrient-dense foods like avocados or olives are high in calories but have so many health benefits,” she says. Make sure you’re including a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat in your diet.
NOT FOR EVERYONE
As reverse dieting involves precise calorie counting, it certainly isn’t suitable for everyone, particularly those with a history of disordered eating, stress and anxiety. “The constant calorie counting can lead to obsession and rather than improving it, can further damage your relationship with food and your body,” explains Jay.
“For some, it can be a way of quantifying their self-worth. Meeting their calorie target might boost their self-esteem but if they don’t, they may experience a whole host of negative emotions,” she adds.
Polly, 33, from Norwich, can attest to this. She tried out reverse dieting a couple of years ago after her personal trainer recommended it as a way to help build up her strength. “It was great to begin with but I quickly found myself becoming obsessed with counting calories and weighing myself,” she describes. “It just became another diet so I had to stop for the sake of my mental health. I find that focusing on foods I enjoy and make me feel energised without thinking about numbers is much better suited to my personality,” she says.
Like Jay, Varvarides also has concerns about reverse dieting. According to her, it can act as a passable excuse for someone to remain on a restrictive diet under the guise of coming out of it. “Anyone who is currently struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating should not consider reverse dieting and should seek help from a professional as soon as possible,” she says.
Varvarides also feels that reverse dieting is, on the whole, unnecessary. “It just prolongs the diet for longer than is needed,” she argues. “I’d recommend people go straight to their maintenance calories to get their energy levels up and feel better immediately,” she says.
It’s clear that reverse dieting can be beneficial for those who are looking to ease out of a restricted diet in a structured way. For many women like Sarah, it has, undoubtedly, transformed their relationship with food and exercise for the better.
But, due to its strict focus on numbers, it does have some significant drawbacks. As such, Jay recommends adopting a more relaxed approach to heal your relationship with food and break out of a vicious dieting cycle. “I suggest turning your focus to intuitive eating, which is all about listening to your internal hunger and fullness cues and responding accordingly,” she explains. It can help you to develop a sense of trust between your body and your mind so you don’t have to waste your time and energy counting macros and calories.
In Jay’s view, tuning into your body’s natural signals rather than getting tied up in calorie counting is a much more sustainable long-term approach.
For further information and help on eating disorders, visit the eating disorder charity BEAT’s website.
Want to try some simple and nutritious recipes? Make sure you check out the rest of our meal ideas in the SWTC library.