January 9, 2024/Weight Loss

Does Reverse Dieting Work?

This strategy doesn’t boost metabolism, but it may help maintain weight loss

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The word “diet” can conjure up images of super restrictive ways of eating. But a “reverse diet” sounds like the opposite of that. So, does a reverse diet really mean you get to eat whatever you want and magically lose weight? Sadly, no.

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But a reverse diet can be a handy way to prevent regaining pounds after weight loss. Registered dietitian Natalie Romito, RD, LD, explains reverse diet myths and facts — and provides tips for how to do it.

What is a reverse diet?

Reverse dieting is a strategy that typically comes after a regular diet.

“A reverse diet is when you slowly increase your calorie intake after a period of reduced calories or dieting,” says Romito. “It’s a way to reach a point where you’re eating to maintain your weight loss.”

She says reverse dieting first gained popularity in the fitness community. Before a competition, bodybuilders often restrict calories to reach very low body fat. Then, they’ll use a reverse diet to slowly reintroduce calories to return to a more sustainable body composition and weight.

But a reverse diet isn’t just for the ultra-muscular. People who follow a restrictive diet for a short time, such as very low carb or calorie, may also use reverse dieting.

“I don’t typically recommend restrictive diets or rapid weight loss,” says Romito. “But if you do it (under a healthcare provider’s supervision), a reverse diet can keep you from eating too many calories as you come off the diet.”

People who use a slow-and-steady approach to weight loss may also use reverse dieting to transition off their diet.

Is reverse dieting just another fad?

“A reverse diet isn’t a fad or gimmick,” clarifies Romito. “It’s a strategy for adding calories after restricting or dieting to avoid unwanted weight gain.”

However, she says some claims about reverse dieting aren’t accurate. It can’t help with:

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  • Metabolism. There’s no evidence that reverse dieting after calorie restriction boosts your metabolism.
  • Muscle maintenance. “Some people claim that reverse dieting helps maintain muscle. But the way you were eating before the reverse diet affects muscle maintenance more than the reverse diet does,” she says.

Does reverse dieting work?

It depends on your expectations.

“If you’re coming off a diet and you don’t know how many calories to eat to maintain your weight loss, a reverse diet works well to help you figure that out,” says Romito.

But if you’re expecting a metabolism boost, it doesn’t work that way.

The amount of calories you need depends on several factors that are specific to you. Here’s an example of how a reverse diet after weight loss might work:

  1. Say you’ve been eating 1,500 calories a day and losing weight.
  2. You reach your weight loss goal (yay!) and don’t need to lose more.
  3. You start a reverse diet, increasing your calorie intake by small amounts while tracking your weight.
  4. When you stop losing weight, you know you’ve reached a daily calorie amount that will maintain your new weight.

Essentially, a reverse diet can help you discover that daily calorie sweet spot where you’re not losing or gaining weight. There’s currently no research on the effectiveness of reverse dieting to maintain weight loss, but it’s a popular strategy, and Romito has seen it work well.

How to reverse diet

“You can’t talk about the reverse diet without talking about what you were doing before it — typically a weight loss diet of some kind,” says Romito. “To lose weight, we typically recommend a calorie amount that allows you to drop a half pound to 2 pounds per week.”

A reverse diet involves tracking your calorie intake and weight while adding a few calories a week at a time.

So, taking the example from before (eating 1,500 calories a day for weight loss), here’s how the reverse diet would work:

  1. For one week, eat 1,600 calories a day. Track your weight to see if there’s any change.
  2. If you’re still losing weight at 1,600 calories a day, increase to 1,700 calories a day for the next week. Track your weight again.
  3. If you’re still losing weight at 1,700 calories a day, do a week at 1,800 calories per day.
  4. Once you get to a daily calorie intake where you’re not losing or gaining weight, your reverse diet is done. You now know how many calories to eat daily to maintain your current weight.

If you want to increase by only 50 calories instead of 100, you can try that. A little more can be fine, too.

“Adding 50 to 150 calories at a time is a good range,” Romito says.

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You can also spend two weeks instead of one week at each new calorie amount. This can be especially helpful if your day-to-day weight tends to fluctuate a lot. The longer period will make it easier to see if your weight is going up, going down or staying steady.

Typically, you’ll have added 200 to 500 calories to your daily total after reverse dieting, says Romito. You’ll still choose similar foods (if you were following a healthy, balanced eating plan). You’ll just eat a bit more than when you were in weight loss mode.

Is a reverse diet safe?

In general, a reverse diet is safe because it’s simply adding calories to your diet in a slow and measured way.

“The diet you follow before the reverse diet is more likely to be a concern,” says Romito. “A concerning diet would be any extremely restrictive way of eating that causes you to lose muscle or any diet that’s too extreme to sustain.”

That level of restriction negatively impacts your metabolism and health.

While a reverse diet is typically safe, Romito warns that if you’ve been fasting for several days or longer, there’s a risk of refeeding syndrome when you start eating again. This condition is a potentially dangerous electrolyte imbalance. She recommends coming off a fast under medical supervision rather than using reverse dieting.

What if you’re still trying to lose more weight and you’ve hit the dreaded weight loss plateau?

“Sometimes, six months to a year after starting to lose weight, your weight loss will stall,” notes Romito. “The best thing to do during this time is wait it out. Focus on building muscle rather than the temptation to cut more calories.”

You can also explore different weight loss diets if you struggle to stay consistent with your current eating pattern. After a few months, you’ll likely start losing weight again. And once you reach your target weight, you can reverse diet your way to weight maintenance.

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