So you have heard the term ‘reverse dieting’ thrown your way and are intrigued – something has to be better than always focusing on what you can’t have or the relentless pressure to continually eat less and less, the end.
So should you try it?
Before we answer that, let’s actually define what Reverse Dieting is (and isn’t).
What is Reverse Dieting?
At the foundation of Reverse Dieting is the strategic increase in energy intake (calories/kilojoules from food) with the goal of raising your metabolism. Other things you may have heard it called are diet breaks, the refeed, the refuel or returning to ‘maintenance’ calories.
In a world that is continually telling us ‘calories in and calories out’, permission to eat more is something we don’t hear all that often!
How Does Reverse Dieting Work?
The calories in, calories out thing appears simple – eat more, increase weight; eat less, lose weight.
However, it isn’t that simple. There are many things that impact how much we eat and how much energy we burn.
One of these things is Metabolic Adaptation. You may have heard us talk about this when chatting through Low Energy Availability and the resultant Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport in men & women.
When we eat less than what our body needs – to cover the energy needs of your body’s processes, movement and training. It needs to adapt. To conserve energy, your processes start to be ‘dimmed’ like going on low power mode to your phone. Your body becomes more efficient, reducing your overall metabolism – meaning you are burning less energy even at rest.
So, what happens if we gradually add more energy in (i.e. plug that phone back in for adequate energy supply)? Would it be possible to ‘reverse’ metabolic adaptation and increase the metabolism back to optimal?
Or would eating more just lead to weight gain?
Why Would You Consider Reverse Dieting?
If you are someone who has been on a restrictive diet for an ongoing time, or someone who has dieted aggressively multiple times in their life, increasing your intake back to a point where you feel you are able to achieve your full potential and feel your best is a good idea.
What you label this re-feed is less important – the goal is to not just reverse the diet, but rediscover food freedom and food confidence.
Signs that you may be in Low Energy Availability (LEA) and experiencing the effects of metabolic adaptation may include:
- Getting sick &/or injured more often than normal.
- Struggling with fatigue more than your usual.
- Ongoing gut upset.
- Eating less than your friends and family while still having a higher body fat.
- Slow to no progress with your strength or endurance training.
- Lowered sex hormones leading to a loss of menstrual cycle &/or lowered libido.
- Feeling low in mood and irritable.
- Finding it difficult to make decisions or concentrate.
Eat more, lose weight?
We aren’t yet at a point to know the answer to this one for sure. You will likely hear weight loss as the biggest claim, all the before and after photos will say so. However, before heading into reverse dieting, it is really important to reflect on what your definition of success is, and your relationship with food and your body image.
If your success is solely defined by your weight, or weight loss, how would a blip in weight make you feel? If this is likely to bring up discomfort and vulnerability – particularly if it challenges your identity, it is important to work with an expert. That is where matching you with one of our Performance Nutrition team is our specialty.
Eating more and covering the cost of not only your training but also all your body’s needs may shift weight in a direction we can’t predict as yet (up, down or maintain). But what we do know is that it can positively impact your overall health and well-being.
When you eat in a place of energy availability, your body processes (such as gut function, immune function and reproductive hormones) switch back on. We increase how much energy we burn through the thermic effect of food. We start moving more over the day (walking, fidgeting, etc). And we burn more energy in our training sessions – with more adaptations to boot!
All of these things add up to not only an increase in your metabolism. We also see an increase in concentration, focus, better decision making, improved sleep and higher mood.
So even though we may not be able to definitively know what your individual weight will do with an increase in energy intake. If we take the goal away from body composition and toward identity, it can be something well worth considering.
Beyond Physique – Relationship with Food
Being in a place of metabolic adaptation from underfuelling could have been intentional or accidental or due to disordered eating.
If your food choices have been fuelled with fear, anxiety, obsession, rules and restriction, then healing this relationship with food is a higher priority than weight loss or reverse dieting.
When we look at eating disorder recovery specifically, the patient is in no fit state to undergo therapy until they are eating enough. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment explored the effects of undereating on men, both physiologically & psychologically. After 6 months of eating 1600 calories, these men were depressed, pre-occupied by food, withdrawn and required severe rehabilitation. And how often do you see 1600 calorie diets (or less!) being advertised in the media?
There has since been further studies to show that brain activity is impacted by even modest dieting. It literally impacts your neurological function. When you are not properly fuelled you struggle to make decisions, solve problems and regulate emotions.
Adding energy back in may ease these symptoms, but it is best done under the guidance of a Sports Dietitian. We specialise in this very thing – not only returning you to a place of energy availability, but to a positive relationship with food and body.
Curious and looking to read more? References below!
De Souza MJ, et al, 2021. Randomised controlled trial of the effects of increased energy intake on menstrual recovery in exercising women with menstrual disturbances: the ‘REFUEL’ study. Human Reproduction, Vol.00, No.0, pp. 1–13
Melin, A., et al 2018. Energy Availability in Athletics: Health, Performance, and Physique. Human Kinetics Journals, 29 (2) p. 152-164
Peos, J.et al, 2021. A 1-week diet break improves muscle endurance during an intermittent dieting regime in adult athletes: A pre-specified secondary analysis of the ICECAP trial. PLOS ONE, 16(2), p.e0247292.
Trexler, E., Smith-Ryan, A. and Norton, L., 2014. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1).
JAMA, 2006. Effect of 6-Month Calorie Restriction on Biomarkers of Longevity, Metabolic Adaptation, and Oxidative Stress in Overweight Individuals: A Randomized Controlled Trial—Correction. 295(21), p.2482.
Eckert, E. D., Gottesman, I. I., Swigart, S. E., & Casper, R. C. (2018). A 57-Year Follow-Up Investigation and Review of the Minnesota Study on Human Starvation and its Relevance to Eating Disorders, 2(3), 1–19.
Centre for Clinical Interventions. (2018a). Eating Disorders & Neurobiology. Retrieved from https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/~/media/7644CF6DB09443138A975DEE6EF725DD.ashx