When new clients come to me who have a background of calorie restriction, yoyo/failed dieting attempts, excessive training and are now unable to drop excess body fat, I generally steer them away from reducing calories again. They always look at me as if I’m nuts, they want to loose body fat not gain it! Yet there is a very good reason why I’m not encouraging restriction.
The general go to method of weight loss is to eat less and move more, effectively the energy in vs energy out formula. This will work but not forever, simply because your body requires a certain amount of energy to operate (called your Basal Metabolic Rate – BMR) and there comes a point where decreasing your energy intake below your BMR, creates metabolic adaption that promotes fat storage instead of fat loss.
Your BMR is the energy amount of body expends at complete rest. When fat loss occurs in the body the BMR also declines as the body aims to reduce it’s overall energy expenditure. As it deceases, for continues fat loss to occur the total daily energy intake also needs to be decreased or energy output increased.
Your metabolism takes a hit with repeated rounds of calorie restriction. When you are restricting calories your body compensates in various ways, including reducing the amount of energy it utilizes throughout the day, which can result in weight gain (metabolic adaptation). As calories become low for a long period of time, body fat stores are reduced, and energy reserves are decreased. To prevent the body from starving to death it reduces its energy exertion and enhances our ability to store body fat. It is however possible to reverse this effect and change the ‘set point’ your body has for its body fat.
Your body has a desire for homeostasis. When there is a continued deficiency in energy intake from what the body deems normal, it wants to minimize this gap through a reduction in metabolism. Your organs consume less energy and the hormones that are involved with your metabolism (thyroid, testosterone, leptin, ghrelin) are all affected. Shifting body fat becomes near impossible.
So what do we do? Reverse Diet.
Reversing can be done through an increase in calorie and decrease in energy expenditure. In general most women in this restriction cycle will also be training excessively, with chronically high cortisol levels. So to reverse diet we decrease cardio, focus on weight training and increase calories. Sounds simple? Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Add in women’s psyches, fear of weight gain and of increased calories and it becomes a method that needs to be approached gently and over a longer time period than any crash diet.
This is also due to the way your BMR and metabolic adpatation operates and if food is introduced too rapidly after periods of deficit, the body will opt for greater fat storage as the body has not had time for the metabolism to adapt to the increased energy intake/decreased energy output.
Reverse dieting has become more common-place within the fitness industry over the last five years with more coaches realising the importance of it. However, there can also be a misconception that reverse dieting is the miracle cure post body building comp or after years of extreme or yo-yo dieting. That it will not only help increase your metabolic capacity but also let you drop 10kg+ with ease and straight away.
What I feel is being left out from the conversation is what is happening in the middle of the process or more specifically, the weight gain that can occur during the reverse dieting process.
It’s far more effective or companies to show the before and after of a reverse diet without showing the uncomfortable middle stage. I have included images below of clients I have worked with but the one thing photos don’t show is the mental struggle the client faces with up regulating their metabolism – the challenge at gaining some body fat and not panic-ing and wanting to go straight back into a deficit. Any one reverse dieting has to shift their focus to not just working incredibly diligently on their nutrition training but also maintaining their mental clarity and health.
Reverse dieting puts overall health above any aesthetics based goals. It involves investing a considerable amount of trust in a coach. It will more than likely, involve some weight gain. You are after all increasing your energy intake. Of course there are some clients that will drop body fat whilst increasing calories but it’s important to remember this is not the norm. Reverse dieting is hard. Mentally it can be one of the hardest things women will take on. Reverse dieting takes discipline and effort with, generally, minimal physical feedback for periods of time.
Client Case Studies
I want to share with you a case study of a former client. Let’s call her A.
‘A’ wanted to drop body fat in the lead up to her wedding and was having trouble doing so. Thankfully she came to me 9 months out. She was maintaining her current weight at a calorie amount that didn’t leave much room to diet her down and was alarmingly close to her BMR. It would have been negligent for me as her coach to reduce her intake lower and risk harming her hormonal and organ health.
Instead I began a slow increase in her energy intake and manipulated her macros. ‘A’ did gain weight – 3.2kg in total (66.9-70.2kg). ‘A’ did feel uncomfortable but she also knew she need to get her body back to a position where it would drop body fat again and do so with an up regulated metabolic rate all while maintaining hormonal health.
Over a 6 month period ‘A’ went from:
103g ➡ 277g of Carbs
72g ➡ 86g of Fat
136g ➡ 257g of Protein
We more than doubled her carb intake with only a 3kg weight gain. The majority of this weight gain occurred during the first few weeks of increasing her energy intake. The overall increases then meant ‘A’s’ energy intake was now closer to 2500 calories and far above her BMR.
‘A’ maintained this body composition with some small increases for the majority of the 6 month period before we had increased to a sufficient enough intake to create a deficit that wouldn’t harm her health. Once we were at an adequate intake and her weight stabilised (meaning her metabolic rate had up regulated and was able to effectively utilise the higher energy intake) it was then possible to decrease her intake with plenty of wiggle room to create deficits from.
If you are reverse dieting, don’t feel disheartened if your body isn’t dropping fat or you are gaining some body fat. Trust the process and put your health first. It takes time and energy but with commitment and consistency you can reach a place of health and maintain a lean physique.
Instead of battling your body composition with more and more training and less and less food, allow your body to heal and increase your metabolic capacity. The result you’re after are absolutely possible but your body has adapt. In a less scientific sense it needs to learnt to trust the food intake and that you won’t starve it or over train in the process.
Be strategic, patient and kind to yourself throughout the process. If you increase calories too quickly, your metabolism will not have time to adapt, resulting in fat gain. So work with a coach who understands how to effectively up regulate your metabolism and does so with your long-term health and body composition in mind.
Client ‘B’ commenced reversing dieting with me in October 2015, taking 5 months of increases to reach her highest energy intake. This client was an expectation the rule and was able to decrease BW and decrease Body fat during this increase period. Eventually she plateaued in fat loss but because her intake was now high enough she was able to switch to a deficit and begin loosing body fat again.
Starting to Highest Intake Macros
88g ➡ 225g of Carbs
93g ➡ 50g of Fat
110g ➡ 220g of Protein
Client ‘C’ had a background of chronic over training and under eating from early teen years to early 20’s and consumed around 1000 calories per day with 12 strength session per week plus 6 cardio sessions varying in duration from 30-90 minutes. Despite the output she never reached her desired body composition and eventually her body could not manage the output on such little energy intake. She was a full time student with a full time job on top of her training schedule and eventually developed adrenal fatigue. This lead her to gaining nearly 20kg in 8 weeks without changing her food intake.
The reverse dieting consisted of increasing her intake up to approximately 3000 calories per day and decreasing training to 3 strength sessions per week with zero cardio.
Due to the added element of adrenal fatigue, training wasn’t able to be decreased slowly so combining a significantly decreased put plus increasing energy intake by 1000 calories per day did in fat see further weight gain resulting in a total of 25-28kg extra. This extra weight stayed put of 6 full months whilst continuing reversing up to 3000 calories per day.
Over all, it took 18 months for the metabolism to adapt, hormones to regulate and for body fat to start to decrease at 3000 calories per day.
Client ‘C’ now consumed around 2000-25000 calories per day with 3 strength sessions per week and holds a body composition they desire year round.
They now have an energy intake that allows for a deficit without risking health and the metabolism is now quicker to adapt respond.
Long term health should always be factored in and if you’re in a place where you feel you cannot drop body fat despite restriction of energy intake and high energy output it may be something to look at.
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