I know, I know, sounds too good to be true, right? I get it."Calories in versus calories out bro." We all know that cliché statement. There is a slight catch, but in reality it is not too good to be true and here's why.
Can you really get better results by eating more?
Yes! Reverse dieting is a method that involves slowly and strategically increasing daily food intake, all in an effort to raise your metabolism. It sounds scary, but when done right it is highly effective. Many people gain muscle and lose fat, all while eating more food than they were before with reverse dieting.
How does it work?
Reverse dieting is a safe alternative to something that competitive athletes use to gain muscle and lose fat. For competitive athletes they will go through periods of calorie restriction to lose fat (often called cutting) and then go through a season of increasing calories to gain muscle. The downfall to these phases is that the severe calorie restriction often leads to total loss of control with food in the massing phase which leads to excessive and fast weight regain. This leads to more of an increase in fat rather than the goal on increasing muscle mass.
Outside of being a competitive athlete, this cycle may sound familiar to you. You have probably done it yourself without even realizing. We call this yo-yo dieting. Why is this such a vicious cycle? We have two primary hormones that can wreak havoc on our appetite and self control with food and those hormones are leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin is produced in the stomach and leptin is produced in fat cells. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone that gets released when body weight becomes low. It becomes suppressed when the stomach is distended. So if one is eating regular meals and adequately stretching the stomach out, hunger levels will be well controlled. This is why it is beneficial to eat higher volume foods while in a calorie deficit. In a way it tricks your body into not releasing as much ghrelin even though you are still in a calorie deficit.
Leptin is the satiety hormone that gets released when there are adequate fat stores. When you begin to lose those fat stores, the leptin levels decrease which then contributes to even stronger signals of hunger to the brain. You can have all the willpower in the world but eventually you will run out and your hormones will send you into a ravenous rage of eating everything in sight.
The alternative (and safer) option is reverse dieting. How does one eat more food without gaining weight if the basic concept of weight loss is calories in, calories out where one must eat less calories than they burn to lose weight?
When you eat less, your body instinctively starts preparing for famine in several ways:
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) declines. That’s the amount of energy you need to live when at rest. Basic bodily functions like the heart beating, lungs expanding and the digestive tract all require energy and this is what comprises the BMR.
Exercise becomes more difficult because you have less available energy. If you’ve ever tried to do an intense workout on a low-calorie diet, you know what we’re talking about. So you’re likely to burn fewer calories through activity.
You also expend less energy through exercise because, as your body gets smaller, it doesn’t require as much fuel—and your metabolism also adapts to make you more efficient. This reduces the number of calories you burn through movement, resulting in less energy out.
Daily activity outside of workouts lessens,(think: pacing while you’re on a phone call, walking to your car, fidgeting) resulting in reduced energy out from non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)
Digestion slows, so your body can absorb as many nutrients as possible. This increases energy in. Many people who are chronic dieters struggle with constipation for this very reason. Not only because of less energy intake but also the slowing of the digestive process.
As you can see, someone who has chronically dieted has all of these adaptations in place which makes it very difficult to lose the weight even though they may already be in a calorie deficit.
When done properly, reverse dieting provides several metabolic benefits:
BMR rises, resulting in more energy out.
Workout capacity increases thanks to more available energy, increasing energy out. This may look like you going 5 extra reps in your workout, or pushing to your absolute max on that last 50 meter sprint.
NEAT increases for the same reason, resulting in more energy out.
Digestion returns to normal, so your GI tract is no longer squeezing every bit of sustenance from every morsel, decreasing energy in.
Pretty cool stuff huh? In order to achieve all of this without seeing a huge increase in the scale, the calories must be added slowly and strategically. It is difficult to do this based on hunger and fullness cues in the beginning again because those ghrelin and leptin levels will be thrown off. It may be difficult to stop eating at a certain point because your brain will still be in “starvation mode”. Some data suggests that the time it takes to recover from dieting is roughly proportional to the amount of time spent dieting. So for example if you spent six months dieting, you will need to reverse diet for about six months before considering going back into a weight loss phase/calorie deficit.
If you find yourself fitting the picture of someone who has yo-yo dieted in the past or even currently, know that you are not alone! If you feel like you have been losing and gaining back the same 10-20 pounds and are ready to break the cycle, apply to work one on one with a coach here.