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The Complete Guide to Reverse Dieting

Avatar Nutrition Staff

October 25, 2017


In a perfect world, dieting is simple.

Eat less, maybe move more, and watch yourself transform from caterpillar to butterfly. Lather, rinse, and repeat until satisfied.

But, for some reason, the clockwork of calories-in vs calories-out gets fuzzy. We all know somebody—maybe it’s us—who just can’t seem to lose weight. They try and try. They seem to do all the right things. They track, restrict, and fail. What’s going on?

That reason is called “life.” And I don’t just mean the roller coaster ups-and-downs of family, work, traffic, and potato chips. I mean biology. Because there’s no way around it: the fat loss formula is calories-in vs calories-out. The trouble is that, when we track macros, we’re only controlling the calories-in side. The other side of the equation is your metabolism—the complex machinery of organs, hormones, and movement that controls the amount of energy your body burns each day. Sometimes that’s the problem.

But what if you could control that side, too? What if you could rev up your body’s metabolic engine until dieting is not only possible—it’s easy? If you could do that, you’d be well on your way to that perfect world.

Well, you can. It’s called “reverse dieting.”


What is Reverse Dieting?

I’m going to tell you a secret.

You’ve heard it before—maybe hundreds of times—people saying they have a “slow metabolism” that keeps them from losing weight. They say it like it’s their lifelong burden; like it’s written in their stars.

But here’s the secret: It’s not really true. I mean, their metabolism might be slow right now, but it doesn’t have to be that way! Metabolisms change over time; they adapt.

We live with the consequences of that all the time. When we constantly restrict food, our metabolism adapts by getting more efficient at living on fewer calories. To your body, a deficit isn’t a tactic for slimming down—it’s a challenge to survival. So, it adapts. Put your body in a long-term deficit, or an uncertain back-and-forth between restricting and binging, and it will start “living cheaper.” For dieting—when you want to burn as much energy as you reasonably can—that can be a big problem.

There are lots of ways your body can “downregulate” your metabolism:

Your metabolism can be thrifty, but you can also teach it to be extravagant… or at least middle-class.

And that’s where reverse dieting comes in. Like a diet that goes backward, you can add calories or macros each week and train your metabolism in the opposite direction: up [3]. It takes a while (we’ll talk about how long later) but when it’s over you’ll be able to cut from (or maintain on) higher calories… one step closer to that perfect world.


How is This Possible?

Your metabolism is a horribly intricate thing, but we’ll keep it simple. When we say “metabolism,” what we really mean is TDEE, or “total daily energy expenditure.”

Let’s boil that down.

The first piece of the puzzle is your “basal metabolic rate” or BMR. This is the energy your body burns to stay alive, and accounts for about 60% of your TDEE [4]. Your heart beating, stomach churning, lungs breathing… all the important stuff. As we covered, your BMR can be lowered by a caloric deficit as your organs, sensing the danger of starvation, start to conserve energy. By steadily moving in the other direction, your organs might start to use more energy each day.

Next is your activity. Scientists break this into two parts: exercise and non-exercise activity. Obviously, any movement requires your muscles to work, which costs energy. How much is highly variable, because everything from standing to sprinting falls into this category. Sedentary people don’t burn much energy here, while professional athletes can as much as triple their BMR expenditure with exercise. When you eat plenty of food, your body has no problem spending on activity. But as you steadily drop calories, it’s likely that your body naturally moves less. It makes sense: you feel hungry and tired and terrible, so you stop fidgeting, walk less, and fizzle out in the gym. As you reverse diet and add calories back in, you aren’t running on fumes anymore and you can start burning more energy without even trying.

The last piece of the puzzle is also the smallest: TEF, or the “thermic effect of food.” This is the energy your body needs to chew, swallow, digest, absorb, and process what you eat. At only 10% of your TDEE, it doesn’t make a huge difference what happens here [4]. But, as you eat more food on a reverse, you’ll start burning more energy just from eating, which is nice!

As your metabolism changes, so does your maintenance. (If you burn more energy, you can maintain your bodyweight on more food. If you burn less, you have to eat less.) And as your maintenance calories change, so do your deficits and surpluses. The same food that might be a surplus (a recipe for weight-gain) before might suddenly become a deficit! That’s the power of reverse dieting.

Changing your metabolism, for better or worse, changes your ability to diet. Simple.

(Quick disclaimer: At Avatar, we try to keep everything scientific, rooting all our decisions and recommendations in cold, hard facts. Make no mistake: reverse dieting is very “scientific.” But there isn’t much research about it yet. Everything you read here is based on what little research there is, and what we’ve seen from thousands of cases where people have used reverse dieting to improve their metabolisms.)

So, you’re probably ready to ask: “Sounds great, but does any of this really work?”

Absolutely! The transformations (for bodies and lives) are so incredible that sometimes it seems unreal—but it’s very real. Throughout this Guide, we’ll share a few of the success stories reverse dieting has created.


Should YOU Reverse Diet?

Well, do you have trouble dieting? If so, then yes.

It’s seriously that general because it comes down to one question: Why is dieting so hard? There could be many reasons—hunger, willpower, social pressure… but all of them stem from how (or how not) awful your deficit needs to be. The lower your calories have to go, the harder it is to stick to the diet. If you have to eat less, you’ll be hungrier—and that sucks. If you have to eat less, you’ll struggle more with willpower—that sucks, too. If you have to eat less, you can’t have one more slice of grandma’s pie—that sucks, and she might write you out of the will. But each of these things could be solved (or at least improved) by being able to diet on more food.

So, ask yourself :

If you’re in any of these situations, it’s definitely time to reverse diet. But reversing isn’t all about fixing the doom-and-gloom! It can also be a positive step after dieting success, such as:

  • If you’re coming off a diet and ready to eat more and jumpstart your metabolism.
  • If you’re happy with your physique and just want to be able to eat more food.

Maybe you didn’t answer “yes” to any of the problems listed, and it’s not the time to reverse. But keep these signs in mind as you set out on a fat loss journey. Not everyone gets there, but it’s a powerful tool to have in your back pocket when you reach the inevitable “now what?”

And remember: Most people don’t fail because their diets weren’t good enough. They fail because their diets left them with nowhere to go. 6-week challenges and cleanses end, and you can’t just eat rice and fish forever. Reverse dieting changes that. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.


What to Expect While Reverse Dieting

In most cases, two things will happen: You’ll add lots of calories to your diet, and you’ll gain a little weight. This is the hardest part to accept for most people. I mean, especially if your long-term goal is to lose weight, why would you spend some time purposely eating more and maybe gaining weight? Because you have to set yourself up for success. You have to be willing to do what it takes to achieve the long-term part of the long-term goal. And if you’re stuck, if you’re unable to restrict more or make progress, where else are you going to go? You have to be willing to gain a few pounds now to lose dozens more later.

(It’s worth talking about that a little more. Let’s get something straight: It’s not easy to forget about the scale or to convince yourself that it’s okay to gain a few pounds. We’re not saying it will be easy, but we are saying it’s necessary. Ultimately, the scale is a scale, so don’t do it for the number on the dial—do it for you! Reverse dieting puts the power back in your hands.

And you’ll be tempted to say, “I want to reverse diet—really—but this isn’t a good time. I’ve got this party/wedding/cruise coming up, and I just want to lose a bunch of weight for that. After it’s over, I’ll happily reverse diet into the sunset.” But it doesn’t work like that. There’s always that thing around the corner that you’d love to lose weight for. There’s always another party, wedding, or cruise to set goals to. And if you didn’t need to reverse, we’d tell you to go for it! But what you do now affects what happens after that wedding, and if you drive your metabolism even farther into the ground, you’ll have that much farther to go on the other side. There’s never a “good time,” there’s just now.)

With all that in mind, understand that this process is slow, systematic, and designed to limit weight gain as much as possible. In fact, in many cases, people don’t gain any weight at all!

In the rarest cases, the gods of flexible dieting smile down on us and people actually lose weight while reversing. When this happens, it’s usually because someone is transitioning out of a diet, and although calories are going up, they’re still in an overall deficit for the first several weeks. However, some lucky few end up losing weight throughout their reverse diet. This probably happens because their metabolism is speeding up faster than the system adds macros, effectively erasing the weekly surplus from the reverse.

But, while no one would blame you for hoping to maintain or lose weight while reversing, the most likely scenario is that you’ll gain a small amount. If you struggle with that idea, you might find that the mental shift—putting your long-term goals ahead of your short-term fears—can be just as life-changing as the reverse diet itself.


How Long to Reverse

At Avatar, we recommend reverse dieting for at least 12 weeks. From what we’ve seen, anything shorter just isn’t long enough to get the adaptations that make reverse dieting a game changer. A better recommendation would be to reverse for somewhere between four and eight months.

Why is that so broad? Because the length of your reverse diet is very individual and depends on several factors:

  • How fast you reverse (based on the Avatar setting you choose, which we’ll get to soon)
  • How your body responds
  • How comfortable you are with the weight gain
  • How high you’d like to get your calories
  • Your long-term goal

But, in general, you have to keep in mind that the point of a reverse diet is to make your body adapt to more food, and adaptation takes time. That’s why committing four to eight months to reversing is important: it gives your body time to make the changes you need.

Once you’re a few months into your reverse, it makes sense to wonder how far this will go. When you feel like you’re approaching the end, ask these questions to figure out if it’s a good time to stop:

There’s no need for reverse dieting to go on forever. If you answer “yes” to any of these, it’s time to take your winnings and exit gracefully.


What to Do After a Reverse

Maintenance. A thousand times: maintenance!

Your body doesn’t like mixed signals. This applies to yo-yo dieting, and it applies here: You can’t switch back and forth between extremes. For that reason, we recommend everyone coming off a reverse diet go straight into a long period of maintenance. This helps your body recognize this as your new baseline, and—if you took your time with the reverse—you should be able to maintain on much higher calories than before.

How long to maintain? Well, that part gets a little hazy, but it seems like the longer the better. If you want to really solidify the results of your reverse, the conservative option is to maintain for the same length of time you spent reversing.

After Maintenance, you’ve opened a choose-your-own-adventure of possibilities:


How to Exercise While Reversing

Reverse dieting success is maximizing your metabolism while gaining as little weight as possible. And while the system takes care of the metabolism part, there are a couple things you can do to minimize weight gain on a reverse.

First: Lift weights! Reverse dieting gives you extra fuel every week, and you can put that energy to the best use by training hard and building muscle. We talked about how your organs use a substantial amount of your daily energy, and while you can’t do much to make your liver churn out more calories, you can build metabolically useful muscle! If you finish your reverse with more calories and more muscle, you’re going to be on top of the world .

Second: Don’t lean on cardio to minimize weight gain! It’s tempting to add cardio into a reverse diet to keep up with the surplus, but this is counterproductive. With resistance training, you’re directing those extra calories to something useful in the long-run (muscle), while cardio will just burn up the extra calories, and your metabolism won’t be able to adapt. The point of the reverse is to be in a slight surplus, and if you undercut this with cardio you’re spinning your wheels.


Carb Cycling, Refeeds, and Diet Breaks

Many people will wonder if a reverse diet is the right time to use tactics like refeeds and “diet breaks.” As you’re experimenting with the freedom of eating more rather than less, it makes sense to think about really letting loose on some days. Reverse dieting is a key part of flexible dieting, and the “flexibility” part is about reaching your goals while enjoying your life. Certainly, refeeds, diet breaks, and cycling up and down with macros like carbs can help with this, but it has to be done intelligently.

That means “cheat days” have no place in a reverse diet. Reverse dieting works because it is slow, methodical, and controlled. Designating certain days to go ham on a stack of pancakes or eat everything in sight isn’t about training your metabolism—it’s an excuse for gluttony. And just like it would if you were regular dieting, this will throw off your progress, storing extra calories as fat without doing much for your metabolism. Say “no” to cheat days!

But you can say “yes” to refeed days and carb cycling. Both refer to intentionally eating more carbs/fat on some days while eating less on others to balance out your weekly macros. That way, you can plan on eating more on days you know you’ll be hard-pressed to stick to lower macros (like the weekends, or on hard gym days when you’ll be hungrier). If you make sure the average calories each week are the same, eating more on some days and less on others won’t hurt your progress!

Refeeds and carb cycling can be tricky to implement on your own—they require some careful calculation. But if you’re using Avatar, you can do this easily by setting High and Low days in your profile. The High days will give you more carbs and fat, while the Low days balance them out. On a reverse diet, the difference between High and Low days needs to be smaller, because the Low days can’t drop below your estimated maintenance. The system will keep you at or above that maintenance to continue training your metabolism in the right direction—up!

It’s important to remember that there’s nothing magical about refeeds or cycling your macros. The overall effect will be the same: you’ll be in a small surplus each week, on average, which will strengthen your metabolism and cause some weight gain. These tactics aren’t special or necessary—they only matter if they help you stick to the diet. But that’s where they shine: Having the control to eat more or less on certain days can make reverse dieting that much easier. And when life is easy, the goals get closer, faster.


Choosing the Right Goal Setting

You can choose from three different reverse diet settings, from slowest to fastest:

  • Conservative
  • Moderate
  • Aggressive

Which one is right for you? The answer is almost always the Conservative Reverse Diet. This setting will optimize the “success” of a reverse: minimal weight gain with maximal calorie gain. The only downside is that it’s slow. This setting will add the fewest calories each week, giving your metabolism the best chance to “catch up” and adapt. If you’ve ever scoffed at the cliché “slow and steady wins the race,” this is the time to take it to heart.

There are times, though, when Moderate or Aggressive reverse dieting are acceptable choices. For instance, if you’re a physique athlete coming out of a deep, dark deficit, it makes sense to reverse faster and get back to a more normal intake as quickly as you can. In this case, you could stagger the settings, starting with Aggressive, then slow down the process to Moderate, and finally to Conservative. As weight gain starts to accelerate (faster than calorie gain) it’s wise to switch to the next slowest setting.

But for most people, it makes more sense to start on the Conservative setting. If you think you can handle more without putting on an uncomfortable amount of weight, then you can consider going more aggressive.


In The End

In the end, reverse dieting isn’t about the seemingly magical effects on metabolism, it’s not about boosting TDEE or improving hormone profiles…

Reverse dieting is about freedom. How freeing will it be to think, “the best thing I can do for my body right now is eat more food?” It sounds insane! But it’s not. When you’re frustrated, frozen, or lost, it’s the way forward.

Reverse dieting is about control. Because so many of us struggle to control our bodies—maybe we think we don’t have the willpower to diet, maybe we say our bodies are too stubborn and just won’t lose fat. We’re wrong. We’re just not setting ourselves up for success.

Reverse dieting is about succeeding where so much has failed you. Because you can’t keep doing the same old thing and expect something to change. The next diet, and the next diet, and the next… they’re not the answer. It’s time to play it smart. Picture that Future You, see their success, and wonder what you did to make it possible. Invest in yourself.

And give it a try.



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4. Levine JA. Measurement of energy expenditure. Public Health Nutrition (2005). 8(7A): 1123-1132.