What Is Reverse Dieting?

This dieting tactic is supposed to help you maintain weight loss—here's what it's all about.

When I first heard of reverse dieting, I was confused by the terminology. My initial assumption was that it somehow implied that you could experience weight loss by eating more rather than less. Instead, reverse dieting is all about how to add back calories after a diet ends.

Reverse dieting includes slowly increasing your calorie intake over time after coming off a calorie-restrictive diet. The method allows you to introduce more calories back into your diet while increasing your metabolism and preventing weight gain.

Here's a summary of how this is carried out and my thoughts on why it's unnecessary if you're trying to lose weight safely and sustainably.

How Reverse Dieting Works

Essentially, reverse dieting essentially allows you to gradually reintroduce calories back into your eating plan after completing a calorie-restrictive diet in a way that prevents you from regaining any weight that you lost.

Let's say you cut your calorie intake to a low 1,200 per day to lose weight, and you subsequently shed some pounds. Proponents of reverse dieting suggest gradually increasing your calorie intake by 50 to 100 calories per week for about four to 10 weeks rather than simply reverting back to your pre-diet eating pattern.

Why Weight Regain Happens

If you follow a diet that severely restricts your calorie intake, returning to your usual diet may result in weight regain.

The type of diet, how long you were on a diet, and your eating habits affect your risk of weight regain. Per the American Psychological Association (APA), metabolic changes and mental and emotional factors also contribute to weight regain after strict dieting.

For example, if you followed a strict diet for several months, suppose you celebrate by enjoying some of the foods that you loved but avoided during that time. However, if you do not develop sustainable ways to eat mindfully, you may unwittingly return to your old eating habits.

That is harmful because while strict dieting, your metabolism decreases. That means that your body adapts to the low-calorie diet, and you no longer need to consume as much food as you previously did in order to maintain energy throughout the day. So, if you eat more calories than your body needs, you can experience weight regain.

Also, if you do not have people, like friends, family, or a nutritionist, encouraging you to practice healthy habits, you may not feel motivated to continue eating mindfully. That's why having a support system is important during and after strict dieting.

The Benefits

People who advocate for reverse dieting claim that it can help increase energy, normalize hunger hormones, and reduce the risk of rapid weight regain, according to one study published in 2018 in the Current Research in Diabetes & Obesity Journal.

Strict dieting can often lead to low levels of energy due to your low-calorie intake. If you slowly reintroduce calories into your diet, reverse dieting allows you to increase your energy—boosting your mood and helping you concentrate.

Reverse dieting may also help reduce your hunger by stabilizing hunger hormones. One study published in 2014 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that carefully controlling your caloric intake may normalize the amount of the hormone leptin, which controls feelings of hunger. But that study did not specifically focus on reverse dieting.

All in all, the goal of reverse dieting is to allow you to consume more calories without weight regain. That promotes more freedom in your meal choices than strict dieting normally allows.

The Risks

On the other hand, per another study published in 2022 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, reverse dieting seems only to be grounded in theory and anecdotal evidence. In other words, no research focuses specifically on reverse dieting.

In reality, while a low-calorie diet may result in weight loss for some, it can also trigger physical and emotional side effects—including nutrient shortfalls, irritability, moodiness or depression, fatigue, and obsessive thoughts about food and weight for others.

Also, for many people, calorie counting can be tedious and stressful, such as in cases where you don't have access to the actual caloric content of foods or if the calories aren't listed on a restaurant menu.

Further, some of the studies used to support reverse dieting only focus on the negative impacts of dieting on metabolic rate—as investigated in a Current Sports Medicine Reports review published in 2019, for example—and hormone balance.

And that's very different from a controlled study that applies reverse dieting to one group compared to a control group in order to examine outcomes such as changes in metabolism, hormone levels, or other factors.

Lose Weight Without Strict Dieting or Reverse Dieting

The main reason why reverse dieting is not necessary is that you should avoid strict or low-calorie diets in the first place.

Additionally, traditional weight loss approaches that focus on calorie intake and calorie outtake are outdated. Instead, it's best to focus on food quality, meal balance and timing, and other factors, like tuning into hunger and fullness signals, as well as addressing emotional eating.

In terms of quality, replacing processed foods with whole foods increases post-meal calorie burning. That means trading something like a pastry or sugary cereal in the morning for oatmeal with berries and nuts can positively impact weight loss, even without focusing on calories.

Also, processed foods affect gut bacteria in ways that impact weight control, according to one study published in 2020 in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. That is one reason why simply eating more vegetables, increasing fiber, and tweaking meal times can lead to weight loss without the need for deprivation.

When people who struggle with emotional eating begin to find healthy coping tools that don't involve food, their calorie intakes automatically drop—not based on rules or numbers but rather on a shift in their relationship with food. In other words, dieting is not the only way to lose weight, and it's certainly not the most successful or sustainable approach.

The bottom line is that following a strict diet with continued calorie monitoring for a month or two via reverse dieting (especially with such small increases that require precise tracking) can be an unnerving process. Also, there's no evidence that reverse dieting helps to maintain weight loss in the long run. Instead, healthy weight loss comes from sustainable lifestyle changes that adequately nourish your body.

Ultimately, any method you use to lose weight shouldn't require a diet after the diet. It should optimize your overall wellness, not compromise it.

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