How (and why) to reverse diet

Feature Image Reverse Diet

As we start another new contest season, the last thing on a Bikini or Fitness competitor’s mind is what to do when she steps off the stage, other than that well-deserved reward cheat, of course!

This is how you reverse diet out of your comp to maintain conditioning & avoid the fat.

Without a post-comp plan in place, it’s not uncommon for athletes to jump overnight from a calorie deficit to a massive surplus.

From fab to flab

Those who choose to jump straight back into normal eating following a period of calorie restriction tend to pick up significant weight and add body fat due to the resultant hormonal and metabolic response. It’s part of a baked-in survival mechanism that generally promotes fat storage.

But if you want to hold onto some of your conditioning and avoid undoing most of the hard work you put into your contest prep, the ideal dietary approach after a show is a short transitional period between “the burn” and “the build”. Enter the art of reverse dieting.

What is reverse dieting?

Reverse dieting entails slowly adding calories to your food intake over time at the end of a fat-loss or conditioning program. It usually happens after a contest when you slowly reverse back to your pre-diet intake, instead of immediately overindulging in excessive calories.

Reverse dieting is, therefore, a period during which calories are progressively increased to maintenance levels, or above, after an extended period of calorie restriction.

The level is determined by the person’s total daily expenditure (TDEE). It is important to manipulate your macronutrient intake in this manner to restore hormone levels and increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the rate at which the body burns energy at rest.

Avoid adding unwanted fat

Reverse dieting is about using the very same principles that got you stage-ready in the first place, only in reverse. It’s about how to transition out of a diet without adding unwanted fat, and helping the body achieve a state of balance, or homeostasis.

A reverse diet is implemented to allow your metabolic rate to return back to pre-diet levels. The correct way of doing it is to gradually add calories and any omitted macronutrient group back into your diet.

This will ensure you body adapts to the calorie increase, rather than being shocked by a flood of surplus energy. An added bonus to following a reverse diet is that the approach enables an athlete to lose body fat more easily for the next contest once a maintenance calorie intake is reached.

How to reverse diet

Reverse dieting should typically follow a week or two of re-feeding after a show, where an athlete rebuilds damaged tissue and replenishes energy reserves, including muscle glycogen stores.

This period is largely determined by your BMR, muscle mass percentage, the severity of your depletion and the length of time you dieted. Training intensity and your genetic predisposition will also form part of how you implement a re-feed period.

A reverse diet usually takes as long as your contest diet, which is usually between six to 12 weeks.

Depending on the degree of depletion, your body can absorb up to 10g of carbs per kilogram of body weight to replenish intramuscular glycogen. Fat intake should be 0.85g per kilogram of body weight, and protein up to 2.5g per kilogram of body weight.

A periodised increase in calories depends largely on your individualised response to the protocol. Remember that for each gram of carbohydrate the body stores, 3g of water weight is retained by the body, which makes weight gain during the period after a show inevitable. While gaining weight is normal, it is the amount of fat you add that we can control with a reverse diet protocol.

Read expert tips and guidelines from a prep coach and athlete.

Don’t forget to adjust your training

As you ease back to where you were before the contest diet, you also need to look at the amount of exercise you do.

After a show you will have to follow a routine with reduced training volume, intensity and frequency, at least until your body recovers.

Should everyone follow a reverse diet?

A reverse diet protocol should be followed when:

  • you’ve been on a diet for a prolonged period of time, either busy prepping for a show or as part of a weight-loss plan,
  • you’ve hit a weight-loss plateau during a diet,
  • you’ve experienced hormonal problems due to extended periods of calorie restriction,
  • you’ve been looking at increasing lean muscle mass without adding body fat,
  • you’ve been caught in a period of yo-yo dieting without any weight loss or changes in your body composition.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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