If you want to lose weight or, more specifically, shed unwanted body fat, you’re going to have to eat less and exercise more. This creates a calorie deficit or negative energy balance. Faced with this calorie shortfall, your body has no choice but to burn stored body fat for fuel.
Depending on how much fat you want to lose, your restrictive diet and fat loss workout plan will last a few weeks to several months. If you are a bodybuilder or figure/physique athlete, you may spend 12-16 weeks getting into peak condition.
However, unless you are prepared to maintain your diet and exercise program indefinitely, eventually, you’ll need to return to a more sustainable diet and exercise regimen. This may be because you’ve passed the date of your competition, reached your target weight, or just had enough of dieting.
Unfortunately, for many people, the end of a diet is often accompanied by weight and fat regain. Some people even gain more weight than they lost initially, literally dieting themselves fatter. This is often called yoyo dieting.
In this article, we explain why weight gain often follows weight loss and how reverse dieting may prevent this problem.
What is Yoyo Dieting?
Yoyo dieting is the term used to describe losing weight and then regaining it. A lot of people who experience the yoyo diet effect gain back more weight than they lost in the first place.
Reasons for weight regain include:
Reduction in basal metabolic rate
Long, restrictive diets cause fat and weight loss but, in response to eating less, your BMR decreases too (1). This means your body burns fewer calories. Depending on the length of your diet, your daily energy requirements may drop by anything from 5-15% (2).
This effect is partly hormonal and is also due to losing muscle mass, which is something that’s hard to avoid during any diet. In addition, the digestive process slows down, so you can absorb more nutrients from the food you eat post-diet.
With a lower total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), and a body primed for fat storage, relaxing your diet means that any calorie surplus will be bigger, leading to faster, more significant weight and fat regain.
Returning to old, bad nutritional habits
If you go from eating healthily during your fat loss diet to eating a ton of junk food, it shouldn’t be a surprise that you start regaining the weight you just worked so hard to lose.
This is an unfortunate effect of strict diets; as soon as they are over, you’ll want to give in to temptation and binge on all those foods you’ve been avoiding for the last few weeks or months.
Needless to say, after a period of restriction, your hunger and cravings will be powerful, and you will probably eat far more of these “forbidden foods” than usual, leading to weight regain.
Strict diets and intense exercise often go hand in hand. After all, the combination of diet and exercise is the best way to shed those unwanted pounds. In an effort to lose weight faster, a lot of dieters step up their exercise regimen and do more than usual. For example, dieting bodybuilders often add 1-2 hours of cardio to their workouts.
On reaching your fat loss goal, you will probably be ready to drop the extra training and return to a more modest workout plan. You may even want a complete break from working out after pushing yourself so hard for the last few months.
Exercising less while eating more will create a calorie surplus, and unburnt calories will be converted to and stored as fat, leading to weight regain.
To avoid weight regain and yoyo dieting, a lot of athletes and dieters use an approach called reverse dieting.
What Is Reverse Dieting?
The aim of reverse dieting is to minimize or even prevent post-diet weight regain and allow you to return to a more sustainable eating plan and exercise program.
As the name suggests, a reverse diet involves reversing the steps that you took to lose weight in the first place. It’s a nutrition strategy that revolves around gradually eating more over several weeks or months after a period of restrictive eating.
The idea is that by gradually increasing your food intake, you avoid overloading your body with too many calories. Also, in the same way that eating less causes your metabolism to slow down, gradually eating more increases your TDEE, further preventing fat regain.
Reverse dieting is also often accompanied by a gradual reduction in training volume.
By gradually increasing your calorie intake and decreasing your training volume, you give your metabolism time to normalize and “catch up” with your more relaxed diet, avoiding fat regain and that dreaded yoyo effect.
How to Reverse Diet
Reverse dieting works, but it’s not easy. After all, after a strict diet and intense workout plan, you’re probably looking forward to putting your feet up for a few weeks and eating ice cream and pizza until you’re in a diabetic coma!
However, if you want to avoid undoing all your hard work and stay reasonably lean, your patience will be rewarded.
Reverse dieting typically involves increasing your calorie intake by 50-100 calories per week. Alternatively, some reverse dieting experts suggest increasing your caloric intake by 10% per week.
So, using the 50-100 calorie method, if you were eating 1500 calories per week during your fat loss diet, the next few weeks would look like this:
- Week 1 – 1600
- Week 2 – 1700
- Week 3 – 1800
- Week 4 – 1900, etc.
Or, using the percentage method, your week would look like this:
- Week 1 – 1650
- Week 2 – 1815
- Week 3 – 1996
- Week 4 – 2196, etc.
Continue adding 50-100 calories/10% to your daily caloric intake per week until you reach your target body weight or body fat percentage. On reaching this point, your reverse diet is officially over, and your weight and caloric intake should remain relatively stable after that.
If you start regaining weight too quickly, you should reduce your food intake slightly and start increasing it again. Monitor your progress and make adjustments as necessary. Some people will be able to tolerate larger weekly increases, while others will need to be more cautious.
Regarding macros, your protein intake should remain high (one gram per pound/two grams per kilo of body weight), and the extra calories should come from healthy fats and carbs.
As you increase your caloric intake, you should also start to dial back on the extra training you’ve been doing to shed those unwanted pounds. Don’t stop training altogether, but just start making your workouts a little shorter.
As your food intake increases and your workouts get shorter, your metabolism should normalize so that you can maintain your weight without calorie restriction or extreme workouts.
During this time, you should continue hitting the weights and trying to maintain or build muscle. After all, muscle is metabolically active tissue, and it needs calories to sustain it. The more muscle you’ve got, the higher your TDEE will be.
The Benefits of Reverse Dieting
The main benefit of reverse dieting is that you can avoid the weight regain that normally follows a restrictive diet. It normalizes your metabolism and helps ease you back into a more sustainable diet and workout regimen. After all, who wants to diet forever?!
There are a few additional benefits too:
You can eat more
Dieting can be hard, and eating less can lead to feelings of hunger and deprivation. Reverse dieting signals the end of your weight loss eating plan and the return to normalcy.
While you can only increase your daily food intake by 50-100 calories/10% per week, this is enough to allow you to eat a little more. By week 3-4, you should be able to enjoy a few treats, and your meals should be larger and more enjoyable.
And, because reverse dieting is progressive, you’ll see your food intake gradually increasing week by week, which gives you something to look forward to. This should make your reverse diet easier to stick to.
The last few weeks of a strict diet, especially combined with lots of exercise, can leave you feeling drained of energy. Eating more and training less will give you more energy, which will probably be accompanied by a better overall mood.
Training on a reduced-calorie diet is usually accompanied by a decrease in strength. During your weight loss phase, the last few workouts were probably far from enjoyable, and your performance was perhaps less than memorable.
Eating more, and doing less voluminous cardio, should mean that your strength levels start to return to normal, and you’ll undoubtedly enjoy being able to lift heavier weights.
More muscle fullness
Eating more and doing less cardio may make your muscles look. After weeks of calorie and carb restriction, you will probably be glycogen-depleted. Glycogen is carbohydrate stored in your liver and muscles. Gradually eating more will restore lost glycogen which increases water levels within your muscles. As a result, your muscles are going to get bigger.
Reverse Dieting Drawbacks
There is no denying that reverse dieting works. However, there are a few downsides to consider:
Requires self-control – the last thing you’ll probably feel like doing after a strict diet is dieting for several more weeks or months. But, that’s precisely what you need to do to execute an effective reverse diet and avoid the yoyo effect.
Just remind yourself that reverse dieting now will save you from having to diet off lots of unwanted fat in the future. Remember too that each week your reverse diet will get easier.
Hard to execute – reverse dieting means weighing and measuring all your meals and controlling your food intake very precisely. Even then, it’s not an exact science, and you’ll need to adjust your food intake up or down based on your progress. Meticulously tracking your food intake can also be time-consuming.
Based on anecdotal evidence only – like a lot of the things that bodybuilders do, reverse dieting is mainly based on anecdotal evidence and bro-science. It’s not really backed by science. That said, thousands of bodybuilders and physique competitors have used reverse dieting to great effect, and it’s based on several proven scientific principles.
When and How to Start Losing Weight Again
The aim of reverse dieting is to get you to a point where your weight and body fat percentage are sustainable. You should be comfortable with how you look, feel, and perform. Your workouts and diet should be manageable – just another day at the office.
However, there may come a time where you want to lose fat and lean out, maybe in preparation for another competition, a vacation, or just because you like to get super-lean from time to time.
Ideally, this should be several months after your last reverse diet ended, so your body has had time to normalize.
When (and if) you are ready to start losing weight gain, avoid strict crash diets and diving headfirst into marathon cardio workouts. Instead, try reverse-reverse dieting! Gradually decrease your calorie intake while increasing training volume. Do this over several weeks to ease your body back into fat loss.
This strategy should help reduce the negative effect on your metabolism and may lessen the need for such a lengthy reverse diet. Aim to lose fat slowly and gradually, giving yourself several months to reach your target weight or body fat percentage. Rapid weight loss is more likely to be followed by quick weight regain.
Related: 20 Simple Weight Loss Tips
Read more on dieting:
Reverse Dieting – Wrapping Up
Reverse dieting sounds counterintuitive. After all, it means gradually eating more and exercising less, which is the opposite of what we usually do to stay fit and lean. However, after losing weight, it could be the best strategy for avoiding weight and fat regain.
A lot of dieters lose weight only to regain it. They reach the last day of their diet only to celebrate by eating all the foods they’ve been missing for the previous few weeks and months. But what should have been a celebratory meal becomes a week and then a month of overeating, and they soon regain all the weight they’ve lost. Some people may even regain more, dieting themselves fatter and not leaner.
Reverse dieting takes self-control and patience, but gradually increasing your caloric intake over the coming weeks and months could mean that your next diet is your last diet, as you won’t regain all the weight you’ve just worked so hard to lose.
1– PubMed: Metabolic and Behavioral Compensations in Response to Caloric Restriction: Implications for The Maintenance of Weight Loss (source)
2– PubMed: Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete (source)