What you Need to Know About Reverse Dieting

A pragmatic, healthy approach following periods of calorie restriction.

By Sarah Hall, online coach and biokineticist (www.sherriftraining.co.za)

It’s a situation many competitive physique athletes are faced with. By the time Monday rolls around after your big show you’ve had that celebratory cheat meal, plus a few more. And, while you’re scrolling through your photos from the night, reliving the experience and admiring your stage condition, it hits you. “Now what? What do I eat, when do I eat it?”

The truth is that many athletes invest a lot of time and money in meticulously planning their approach in the lead up to a big contest, but very few have a plan for what they should do afterwards. This inevitably leads to crash weight gain and a rapid loss of conditioning in the days that follow a show.

What few women realise is that being on a restricted calorie diet, for whatever reason, brings with it a certain responsibility. The way you eat after a period of calorie restriction is just as important as the diet itself, which is why you need to plan ahead for when it’s over.

Far too often there is no plan, and the result is excess weight gain, especially in the form of body fat and water retention. The effects of months of preparation and dedication to your training and dieting literally vanish in a few days. This can be devastating, both physically and psychologically.

Rationalising restriction

The goals of a calorie-restricted diet are to lose body fat, or reduce overall weight, while improving body composition with the addition of lean muscle tissue, among others. When you diet in this manner, following the accepted healthy guidelines, your body adapts to sustaining itself on a lower calorie intake.

This is known as ‘metabolic adaptation’ or ‘adaptive thermogenesis’. The body initially becomes more efficient at utilising stored energy, the most abundant source of which is body fat, in response to a reduction in energy supplied from your diet. The downside to this, however, is that you burn fewer calories overall, which then forces you to consume fewer and fewer calories over time to keep seeing results. 

Accordingly, to prevent the negative side effects of diet-induced weight-gain, a natural compensatory response to periods of restricted calorie intake – a structured programme of reverse dieting should be implemented.

Defining the concept

Reverse dieting is a period during which calories are progressively increased to maintenance levels, or above, after extended periods of calorie restriction. This level is predominantly determined by an individual’s total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Put another way, macronutrients are manipulated to restore hormone levels and increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the rate at which your body burns energy.

The ultimate goal of reverse dieting is to increase calorie intake as high as possible while limiting weight gain, particularly body fat accumulation. In doing so you maximise your metabolic capacity and make subsequent fat loss efforts easier.

Through reverse dieting, you promote a healthier adaptation process by slowly increasing overall calorie intake. This approach reduces the metabolic and psychological stress associated with a switch from low to high-calorie intakes because your body can readjust its metabolic capacity, and return fat loss and hunger hormones to normal levels.

Another advantage of reverse dieting is that this approach will enable you to lose body fat more easily once you reach your maintenance calorie intake. You’ll also be able to eat more, with the ability to still lose weight as your metabolic capacity returns to normal, optimal levels.

Who should reverse diet?

Reverse dieting can be applied in any one of the following instances:

  • if you’ve been in a calorie deficit for a prolonged period of time, either in preparation for a fitness show or as part of a weight loss plan,
  • if you’ve been following a calorie-restricted diet without experiencing any weight loss or changes in body composition,
  • if hormonal problems have developed following extended periods of calorie restriction,
  • if you’re looking to increase lean muscle mass without increasing body fat,
  • if you have a poor ‘relationship’ with food or have gone through a period of yo-yo dieting,

In certain instances, you may need to reverse diet into a show if your body fat levels have dropped low enough and you’re able to increase calories to create ‘fuller’ muscles, while still maintaining a lean physique.

If, after a long period of restricted calorie intake, you don’t implement a planned, controlled, progressive increase in calories, you’re more likely to increase body fat stores and will experience water retention, and disruptions to your BMR.

The reverse diet protocol

Reverse dieting is applied for a minimum of six weeks, with some athletes reverse dieting for up to 12 weeks. Carbohydrates are increased by 5-10g each week and fat by 2-5g per week. Protein is kept the same as recommended intakes are usually the same in and out of diet phases. Depending on the metabolic adaptation your body experiences, you may need to taper this periodised increase in calories if you are gaining weight too quickly.

It is also worth noting that for each gram of carbohydrate the body stores, 3g of water weight is retained by the body. As such, weight gain during this period is inevitable. 

Applying reverse dieting

If you’re applying the reverse dieting protocol after a bikini or fitness show, or a photo-shoot, you need to keep in mind that your body is at its most anabolic in the week following the event. Therefore, you cannot dive straight into a reverse dieting phase.

After the period of restricted calorie intake, your body needs to rebuild damaged tissue and replenish energy reserves, including muscle glycogen stores. Depending on the degree of your 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. 

Theoretically, you should, therefore, be able to engage in 1-3 weeks of ‘re-feeding’ before starting a reverse dieting protocol. However, this approach is largely determined by the individual; their BMR, muscle mass and genetic predisposition, as well as the severity of their depletion, the length of time spent in this calorie-restricted state, and their training intensity, which needs to remain relatively high, within reason, to maximise the exercise-induced muscle adaptations during this “anabolic window of opportunity”.

Reverse dieting guidelines:

  • Have a plan. 
  • Try to remove emotional eating habits during this time.
  • Know that it is going to be as hard, if not harder, than your competition diet or restricted calorie diet.
  • Know what your future goals are.
  • Take into account the rate at which your body fat dropped during depletion, which will inform the length and intensity of your re-feed, and reverse dieting and training approach.
  • Know your hormone levels and look after your body.
  • Consult a coach.


Author: Tanja Schmitz

Founder and Editor of Fitness Magazine. You’ll find her behind her computer or on her bike, dreaming up new ways to improve or create content for you.

Founder and Editor of Fitness Magazine. You'll find her behind her computer or on her bike, dreaming up new ways to improve or create content for you.