Here’s a fact that might startle you: in order to start losing weight, you might actually need to eat MORE food, rather than less.
Yes, this is real life. No need to pinch yourself. We’re not making this up. Reverse dieting, as it’s lovingly called by its supporters, is a legit method of eating that totally works—especially if you’re a victim of metabolic dysfunction. The condition is more common than you might think. In fact, if you’ve been dieting or restricting calories for months or even years, you might have seriously messed up your metabolism without even knowing it.
If you think you might be at risk for metabolic dysfunction, and are wondering if reverse dieting right for you, here’s everything you need to know.
At first blush, Kate Moss and Arnold Schwarzenegger don’t have a ton in common. But they’re actually pretty similar—at their respective peaks (think ’90s Vogue photoshoots and cutting for the Mr. Olympia competition), their jobs required them to be very hungry. Model or bodybuilder, counting and restricting calories is the tried and true method of losing weight quickly. But just because it works short-term doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea, and usually the results aren’t long lasting.
Unfortunately, many people fall into this trap of extreme calorie restriction without even meaning to. Here’s how it might happen:
- A normal person wants to drop a few pounds.
- Googles “how to lose weight.”
- Reads that calories ingested should be less than calories expended.
- Cuts 500 calories out of their daily intake.
- Starts going to the gym a few days a week.
- Notices the number on the scale dropped a little bit; does a happy dance.
- Reduces caloric intake even more, and starts working out every day.
- Loses some more weight.
- Reduces calories to 1,000 a day, doubles up on workouts.
- Doesn’t lose any weight, gets confused.
- Starts gaining weight, even though they’re eating almost no food and working out constantly.
This cycle of cutting calories to lose more weight isn’t sustainable, right? Because eventually, you’ll be eating so little that your body is basically in starvation mode all of the time. Guess what—constant hunger isn’t fun for anyone, especially when it doesn’t pay off with fat or weight loss.
Not only is this kind of calorie restriction miserable to endure, it’s also terrible for your metabolism. A recent study from the journal Obesity found that caloric restriction and low-calorie diets slowed both resting metabolic rate (or the amount of calories your body burns on a daily basis) and the amount of calories you burn during exercise. That’s a double whammy for dieters trying to lose weight by the calories in–calories out model. And in a separate study from Canada, scientists found that women who were constantly on calorie-restricted diets had higher body-fat percentages around the waist and hips, slower metabolic rates, and higher BMIs compared to those who ate more calories regularly. Basically, restricting calorie intake for months or years often results in metabolic dysfunction.
Reverse dieting can help
It’s all coming together, right? Why years of eating less food stops working, and why, when you try to start eating more again, you feel like you gain weight immediately. That metabolism is totally shot, my friend. But it’s OK—there’s a way to regain a healthy, functioning metabolism that doesn’t involve any medications or superfoods.
Just slowly start eating more food, aka reverse dieting.
Who should try it?
Bodybuilders are familiar with this way of eating, because they have to cut so much weight before competitions. They know that crash diets aren’t sustainable, but going right back to eating the same amount as they were before their “cutting” period causes annoying fat gain. Consider trying reverse dieting if you fall into any of these categories:
- You’ve been dieting or eating a very low-calorie diet for a long time—anything under 1,200 calories per day would be considered “low-calorie”—and you’re no longer seeing results
- Dieting and increasing exercise doesn’t seem to help you lose weight
- You have low energy levels and feel fatigued all day
- You feel unmotivated to eat well and work out because it’s too restricting
- You’re participating in a bodybuilding competition or completing a race that requires you to get down to a very low body-fat percentage through caloric restriction, and you want to start eating normally again without gaining tons of weight
How does it work?
It’s relatively simple: You’re going to slowly increase the amount of calories you eat, week over week. Odds are that you’re pretty familiar with calorie counting already if you’ve reached this state, so this won’t be too daunting mentally. Most nutrition experts recommend increasing consumption by about 3 to 5 percent per week—so if you’re eating 1,000 calories a day, you’ll want to add in 30 to 50 more calories somewhere. Doesn’t seem like much, right? But over let’s say, six weeks, you’re eating nearly 20 percent more than you were before. And the best part? By slowing re-introducing more calories to your diet, you’re helping to heal your metabolism. This will keep you from gaining weight as you emerge from years of restricted eating patterns. Woohoo!
Reverse dieting will be way more effective if you’re eating quality foods—we’re talking clean, healthy ingredients that aren’t loaded with sugar or preservatives. Using your extra calories on a piece of candy or some potato chips isn’t gonna do much for your metabolism or your energy levels! Check out the Ultimate Paleo Diet food list for examples of high-quality clean foods that will nourish your body and keep you satisfied.
Reverse dieting will reignite your metabolic function—yay!—so it starts working more normally. That means you’ll burn more calories throughout your day, have better energy levels, and lose fat.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of eating this way is the fact that it eases lifelong dieters into more normal habits. According to review from the United Kingdom, the average woman has been on 61 diets by age 45—it’s clear that so many people have unhealthy relationships with food and weight. Learning firsthand that food can be your friend is really important—calories are not the enemy! And the reverse diet model is a great way to discover that your body won’t betray you. When you’re nicer to it, maintaining a healthy weight becomes a lot easier.
If the idea of consuming 30 more calories a day terrifies you, it might be a good idea to talk to your doctor about your relationship to food. They can recommend a health practitioner to help you work through any possible issues or disordered eating habits.
Illustration by Kamilah Albahri