What is reverse dieting and should you be doing it?

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    Published: 16 June 2021. Written by: Nicola Down.

    Want to lose weight – and keep it off? Some reverse dieting advocates say that this latest trend that claims to recharge your metabolism could be the answer. 

    The term ‘reverse dieting’ sounds rather appealing – as if you can somehow lose weight by eating your bodyweight in cake, cheese and chocolate. However, this isn’t what this new trend is about at all.  

    Reverse dieting is, in fact, a diet to follow after you’ve been on a diet (yes, you did read that correctly). So, let’s say you’ve been on a low-calorie plan and are now at your goal weight – what now? Should you go back to eating normally and just cross your fingers that you don’t regain the lost pounds? No, say reverse-dieting fans, who suggest that the trick to sidestepping post-diet weight gain is to increase your calories at a snail’s pace. For example, adding an extra 50-100 to your dietary intake every day for a week, for at least 4-10 weeks, until you’re back at the calorie consumption you need to maintain your weight. 

    It’s been suggested this ‘reverse’ approach helps to recover your metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories), slashing the risk of your weight yo-yoing, and even potentially helping you shed more pounds. With Kim Kardashian’s trainer believed to follow the method, and 278,000 hashtags on Instagram, it’s a claim that’s causing a real buzz right now. 

    Is reverse dieting a fad? 

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    As many of us know, losing weight is often the easy bit, it’s the keeping it off that’s tricky – so, what’s the truth? Well, the first thing you need to know is that if you go on a very low-calorie diet, or a crash diet, your metabolism can slow down slightly because your body may be forced to break down muscle to use as energy. 

    This matters because muscle burns more calories than fat and so the lower your muscle mass, the lower your metabolism. However, there’s no solid research on reverse dieting, or its specific impact on metabolic rate, to suggest that slowly reintroducing calories is the secret to keeping your metabolism fired up. In fact, it’s widely established that the majority of people don’t struggle to lose weight or keep it off because of a misfiring metabolism, but simply because they’re consuming more calories than they’re burning. 

    ‘There are various factors that determine the amount of calories you require to maintain your weight,’ says Jamie Monk, a physiologist and Vitality coach. ‘These include your body size and composition, sex, age, and the amount of physical activity you do. Therefore, when your weight reduces, the amount of calories you require will likely reduce in line with this.’

    Should you try reverse dieting?

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    Although this trend might be bubbling away on social media feeds, it’s an approach that’s typically only been used by some bodybuilders or weight-class athletes, like boxers. For a show, competition or event, they may significantly cut their calories to reach a very low weight and body composition, and then, post-event, want to ‘reverse’ back to their previous calorie intake to help them bulk back up and reach their fitness goals. 

    They might take a restrictive, calculated approach, but that doesn’t mean it’s something the rest of us, with very different bodies, lifestyles and objectives, should be jumping on. On top of this, while it’s sold as a post-diet plan, the strict calorie tracking is still restrictive and, for some, could even potentially trigger obsessive thoughts and behaviour about food and weight. 

    Not only that, but while calories count, they shouldn’t be your only consideration. For instance, 200 calories of chocolate doesn’t provide the same vital nutrients and sustained energy as 200 calories of wholemeal toast and egg. 

    Also, making it all about calories doesn’t take into account the other key reasons many of us struggle. ‘Weight problems are often associated with our habits and behaviours,’ says Jamie. ‘A process of gradual, wider, healthy changes over a longer period of time are much more effective. And, of course, consistency in the long term is key – one burger doesn’t make you “fat” and a salad doesn’t make you “skinny.”’ Intuitive eating might be an option if you’re looking to eat more mindfully. 

    Is reverse dieting a sustainable approach?

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    So, what should you do for long-term and sustainable weight loss? Well, if you need to lose weight, avoid crash diets or very low-calorie diets and instead think about changes in habits that you can keep up. ‘Making small adjustments increases your likelihood of maintaining a healthier weight in the long term,’ says Jamie. 

    To do this, think about why you’re in the place you are, what your pitfalls are, and then come up with some practical solutions. ‘At this point, you can identify very simple changes to implement which are achievable – this could be as simple as drinking more water,’ says Jamie. Once you are able to adhere to the new healthy behaviour consistently, introduce another. They will all start adding up.’ 

    As for your metabolism? ‘Much of our basal metabolic rate the amount of calories we need at rest is predetermined, based on our genetics and body composition,’ explains Jamie. ‘As a result, you may not have as much control of it as you might think, which means it is far more important and effective to ensure you’re consuming the right amount of calories for your body and maximising your physical activity, rather than trying to affect your body’s natural processes.’ 

    However, when it comes to exercise, weight training – also known as strength or resistance training – can help to maintain and build muscle, which does burn slightly more calories than fat. Whether you choose to lift weights or do exercises that use your own body weight, such as press-ups and lunges, finding a workout you enjoy is the key. 

    Once you’re at – or near – a healthy weight that you can maintain, it’s smart to recognise that healthier choices, modified eating habits and regular exercise should be part of your life. ‘Focusing on consuming lean sources of protein within each meal, a cupped handful of vegetables, as well as complex carbohydrates and a portion of unsaturated fat, is a goal that will still allow you to enjoy “treats” on occasions,’ Jamie tells us. If you zone in on making long-term healthy tweaks, you’ll see long-term results.   

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