Chances are if you’ve been struggling with your weight for an extended period of time, more than likely you’ve screwed up your metabolism.
Yo-yo dieting—the process of losing weight and regaining it repeatedly—plagues many people who struggle to maintain a long-term fitness plan. There are many reasons why this happens: restricting calories too heavily, reintroducing calories too quickly, not building healthy habits that you can stick to, and going back to old eating behaviors once the weight is gone.
Studies have shown that individuals who yo-yo diet over an extended period of time actually build a propensity to gain extra body fat. 1, 2, 3 In other words, they make it easier for their body to gain weight. This is a disheartening fact, given that many people who fall into this category want nothing more than to achieve their sought-after, healthy, and fit body. Yet, ironically they are actively making it harder to achieve.
Much of the processes that occur to produce this yo-yo dieting effect occur because of a well-understood process called metabolic adaptation. (If you’d like to follow the rabbit hole of related articles, you can read more about metabolic adaptation here.) Suffice it to say that metabolic adaptation is the natural process of energy conservation that your body uses when you go into a caloric deficit. Over time your body will adjust its metabolic (caloric) needs to account for this reduced calorie intake.
Therein lies the problem. Once you have successfully lost the excess body fat, your metabolism is likely running at a slower rate than when you first began your fat-loss diet. If you jump right back to consuming pre-diet calories, you will regain all or most of the weight back. Even your previous maintenance level of calories may now become a calorie surplus.
Does this mean that in order to maintain your results you are doomed to eating fewer calories for the rest of your life? Not at all. Luckily, there is a process that can help restore your metabolism to its pre-diet levels.
Based on the set-point theory of body weight, reverse dieting is the process of reintroducing calories into your diet in a controlled manner. The set-point theory states that the human body has a weight range at which it functions optimally, and therefore will fight to stay within this range.
When you eat fewer calories, your metabolism slows down to avoid falling below this range, and when you eat more calories your metabolism speeds up to avoid going over. The key to a successful reverse diet is in the controlled re-introduction of calories. Increase calories too quickly and it will lead to excessive weight gain.
Important terms to know:
- Calorie Maintenance = calories that maintain current body weight
- Calorie Surplus = calories that lead to weight gain
- Calorie Deficit = calories that lead to weight loss
Step 1: Determine Your Maintenance Calorie Level
Remember, your maintenance level is the number of calories you need to eat daily (given your activity level) in order to maintain your current weight.
While there are various mathematical formulas you can use to estimate this value, the surest way to reach an accurate answer is trial and error. For a week, consume the same amount of calories and routinely check your body weight (daily).
If your average body weight over the course of this time remains unchanged, then that is your maintenance calorie level. If your weight has increased, reduce your calories by a small amount (usually 100-250 calories is sufficient) and repeat the process until your weight stabilizes. If your weight has decreased, do the reverse and add a small number of calories.
If you’ve been dieting for a prolonged period of time then you will have to add some calories to your diet right off the bat.
Step 2: Maintain Calories at Maintenance Level
Once you’ve established your maintenance calorie level, remain here for another week or two. This begins the process of allowing your body to adjust to the new calorie level without leading to excess fat accumulation.
Continue to regularly check your bodyweight to ensure the average over the course of the week remains unchanged.
Step 3: Increase Calories
After a couple of weeks at maintenance, and given that your bodyweight has stabilized, add additional calories at a rate of 5-10% of your daily total. For an individual with a maintenance of 1,400 calories, this is only an addition of 70-140 calories per day.
Note that this is a small increase—enough for an extra small snack during the day. You will not, by any means, be letting yourself go crazy. If you’ve reached the point of requiring a reverse diet then likely your body is going to be very sensitive to large calorie increases.
Step 4: Repeat Step 3
After remaining at your increased calorie level for a few weeks, and so long as your body weight is stable (not increasing or decreasing), repeat step three again by adding an additional 5-10% for another period of two to three weeks.
During this time, you should keep tabs on your weight more closely than usual to watch for any changes. You may find you will repeat step three numerous times before you “peak,” or reach the point where you can no longer add additional calories without substantial weight gain. Substantial weight gain is defined here as a weight gain of more than five pounds. (Weight gain of anything less than five is normal and even expected during a reverse diet).
Step 5: Maintain
When you’ve “peaked” (can no longer increase calories without substantial weight gain) maintain this new calorie level for at least 3-4 weeks.
This will ensure that your body has time to adjust to this new maintenance level. After this three to four week period, and given that your weight is stable, you can then feel free to return to a caloric deficit in pursuit of continued fat loss.
It is always good practice, and optimal for long-term success, to complete a reverse diet after any type of weight loss. The total length of the reverse diet will depend on numerous factors, including length of the diet, amount of calorie deficit (larger deficits are harder on the body), and final body fat percentage (very low-fat percentages are stressful on the body).
Alex’s 6-month Reverse Diet In Action
It’s August and I’m nearing the end of a “summer cut”—the colloquial term for dieting in the summer to get a beach-ready body. (I never said I’m not a little vain.) I’m sitting at just over 197lbs and consuming just under 2,500 calories every day. My weight and body fat aren’t budging. I’m stuck and my only solution is another reduction in calories.
Another calorie reduction is not in the cards for a variety of reasons. After my fitness show in October 2016, I weighed in at 180lbs, and bottomed-out at my lowest calorie intake of 2,000 calories. Now I was nearing that same calorie-level but weighed almost twenty pounds heavier. This is a clear sign that my metabolism wasn’t functioning at an optimal level.
A variety of factors were affecting this outcome. The most obvious was preparing for my fitness show the year before. An event like that places extreme stress on the body and reaching such low body fat percentages often leads to reduced hormonal function, reduced metabolic output, and an insatiable hunger.
All of this led me to gain nearly 30 pounds within the eight weeks following my show. The production of the hunger hormone ghrelin—responsible for increasing appetite—was in overdrive, making me feel insatiably hungry all the time. Its counterpart, leptin (responsible for making you feel full), was pretty much nonexistent.
As a result, I physically didn’t get full. I either ran out of food or made myself sick, which led to a rapid accumulation of extra weight. Such a rapid increase in weight doesn’t give the body enough time to adapt. This means my weight and metabolism didn’t increase proportionately. My weight was up, but my metabolism wasn’t.
Another likely cause is the long-term effects of yo-yo dieting. For many fitness enthusiasts focused on building muscle mass the process is commonplace: gain extra weight in the winter to build mass, then shedding excess fat in the summer to reveal your hard work.
The issue with this never-ending cycle is that skipping a maintenance phase—where you aren’t gaining or losing—doesn’t give the body a chance to settle into a metabolic rhythm. These constant changes continually stress the body. Truthfully, I hadn’t allowed my body to stay at a maintenance level for any substantial length of time in many years.
Steps 1 and 2: I begin my reverse diet assuming that 2,400 calories are pretty close to my maintenance level, given that my body weight wasn’t changing very much over the previous few weeks.
Step 3: I immediately add an additional 240 calories (10% of 2,400). I remain at this intake for just under four weeks. At this point, my weight is stable with minimal changes across the average span of a week. (Note: it is completely normal for your body weight to fluctuate many pounds throughout the course of a single day. This is why I encourage you to look at the average across an entire week).
Step 4: My weight is doing well, really well—in fact, so well that I can increase by another 10% (an additional 264 calories—2,900 total). Here I remain for another three weeks.
After three weeks maintaining my second increase, I actually lose weight. (Note: in some cases, individuals will find that they lose weight at the beginning of a reverse diet. However, this shouldn’t be an expected outcome for most people.)
I continue repeating step three until I reach 3,400 calories at a body weight of 201lbs, just after the holidays. Notice I’ve gained a little less than five pounds overall, but I’ve increased my daily calorie intake by a disproportionate 1,000 calories per day.
Step 5: Throughout the month of January I simply maintain this calorie level with negligible weight gain (a pound here or there). I notice that the most recent increase to 3,400 calories has led to a more rapid weight gain than all previous increases. This is a good indication that I have peaked, and further increases wouldn’t be beneficial. Knowing when to end a reverse diet is just as important as knowing when to begin one.
Consider the Reverse Diet
The total length of a reverse diet will depend on the severity of your dieting history. However, if you’ve gone more than a year without simply maintaining your body weight, then I highly encourage you to think about completing this process. It will leave you much better off and help you set up for long-term fitness success.
By completing this process I’m now in a much better position to alter my body composition, as well as be at a better starting point for preparing for my next show. By reintroducing calories in a controlled manner, I was able to improve the functioning of my metabolism.
This process is the piece that many people miss, which is part of the reason so many people fail to maintain their weight loss. However, you should now have a good (at least basic) understanding of how to keep your metabolism healthy and recover from any prolonged period of calorie restriction.