What is Reverse Dieting? Pros, Cons, and How to Do It

What is Reverse Dieting? Pros, Cons, and How to Do It

Social media is abuzz with videos promoting a new way of eating that seems to turn dieting — and weight maintenance — on its head.

TikTok influencers call reverse dieting a way to “train your metabolism” to eat more food and not gain weight. It was popularized by bodybuilders who lose weight before a competition and then use this technique to return to their non-competition size gradually.

Certainly, the promise of eating more and maintaining weight loss is alluring, but does it work? Here’s what you need to know about reverse dieting, the science behind it, and what experts say about it.

What is reverse dieting?

Dr. Lilian de Jonge, associate professor at the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University, tells TODAY.com that reverse dieting often involves adding back 50 to 100 calories per day — mostly in the form of protein — in weekly steps. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly the number of calories in one-quarter of a cup of cottage cheese or a large hardboiled egg, so it’s not a huge increase in food. You’d continue with this pattern, tacking on an additional 50 to 100 calories the following week and so on until you reach a calorie level where your weight increases at which point you’d stop adding food back so you can stabilize your weight.

The advantage of focusing on protein is that it helps fill you up and helps build and maintain muscles — factors that help maintain stable weight. Others think of reverse dieting more broadly, so you could add one half to a whole piece of fruit or about one-quarter of a cup of cooked whole grains for the same calories as the protein choices.

In theory, reverse dieting can help you gradually liberalize your diet and find the calorie level where you can comfortably maintain your weight. However, at this point, there’s no scientific evidence that the reverse dieting has any effect on your metabolism, and the practice has some drawbacks.

What happens to your metabolism when you lose weight?

As you lose weight, your metabolism adjusts to a smaller body. Technically speaking, this is called metabolic adaptation, and evidence suggests that your body employs several adaptive techniques. Here’s how this plays out:

When you cut calories, your body senses you’re giving it less fuel, so your metabolism slows down to conserve energy. De Jong explains that this is an evolutionary response left over from when food was not abundantly available all year round. However, these days, food is readily available 24/7, so this creates a disadvantage.

A smaller body burns fewer calories, so your metabolism naturally declines down as you drop pounds.

If you’ve taken up a rigorous exercise routine, you may conserve energy when you’re not exercising — an adaptation known as constrained energy expenditure. This means that the overall calories you burn remain relatively constant because you burn fewer calories outside of your workout. So, on the days you work out, you might unconsciously spend more time sitting, for example.

These conditions make it tough (but not impossible) to keep weight off, which is why the idea of reverse dieting is so appealing.

Does reverse dieting restore your metabolism?

There’s no evidence that it does. According to Dr. Robert Kushner, medical director of the Center for Lifestyle Medicine at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, gradually reintroducing food after weight loss is a practical and standard approach used in both research studies and clinical practice. But the reason for doing this has to do with gradually eating more while keeping an eye on the scale to make sure you’re maintaining — and not gaining — weight. As for tricking your metabolism? Without any proof, that’s a catchy spin, he says.

Can reverse dieting prevent regain after weight loss?

Maybe. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate clinical professor emeritus in the department of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine points out that there’s a clinical trial in the works, but currently, there’s no scientific evidence on reverse dieting. “It doesn’t mean it won’t work, but finding out takes sound studies and time,” he says.

Kushner says that “after a period of dieting, slowly reintroducing more food makes sense because it helps you increase the variety of foods you eat and feel more in control while also assessing any weight changes.” So, if you see a bump in the scale when you eat more, you can decide if you want scale back on how much you’re eating or work on maintaining where you are.  

Ayoob agrees, adding that weight maintenance requires a commitment to a lifestyle change. “If you treat things as though the ‘diet is over’ and resume former eating habits, you’ll regain the weight, no question,” he says.

Are there benefits to reverse dieting?

If you’re following a strict diet to lose weight, loosening the requirements might reduce the emotional impact by making your food choices feel less restrictive. At the same time, it may help you identify a more manageable calorie level while you work on stabilizing your weight.

That’s because people often create unsustainable behaviors when trying to lose weight, and after doing that for some time, deprivation kicks in — and so do old eating habits. In this case, reverse dieting may help you discover a more realistic and enjoyable eating pattern while helping you to maintain a lower weight.

The bottom line

In order to prevent weight regain, it’s helpful to continue the behaviors that helped you lose weight, but that’s easier to do when you establish and practice healthy weight loss tactics. If your diet is too restrictive, gradually increasing your calorie intake can be a successful (albeit tedious) strategy, but not necessarily because it’s hacking your metabolism. Instead, it’s more likely that it’s helping you identify the balance between an eating and exercise pattern that you can maintain.Meanwhile, it’s important note that weight can fluctuate, depending on numerous factors, like a heavy meal, water retention, hormones, and more. And rigorously counting calories and checking the scale can be stressful and triggering. If this takes a toll on your emotional wellbeing, it’s not a helpful practice. Of course, those with a history of disordered eating or eating disorders should avoid intentional weight loss and reverse dieting.

Finally, remember that weight loss is not just a matter of calories in-calories out. Your body is complex, and there’s more to it than that. Also, it’s not necessary or advantageous to pursue thinness; healthy bodies come in a range of shapes and sizes.



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