You just did a physique show or completed a long diet. Now what? The urge is to immediately binge on all of the food you have been missing out on the last 3-5 months. Intuitively you know that is not the best way to go. What if there was another way? What if there was a way to eat post diet that will allow you to stay lean while gradually eating more food?
The term reverse diet gets thrown around a lot in this industry but the actual practice of it tends to be misguided.If you are unfamiliar with the terminology, reverse dieting relates to the transition period into a caloric maintenance or surplus following a prolonged caloric restriction. Basically its just the opposite of a diet, hence reverse diet. The goal is to gradually re-introduce calories (carbohydrates and fat) typically in an incremental pattern that can span across a few months. By gradually increasing calories you are able to minimize fat re-gain and rebuild ones metabolic capacity. This all sounds great, but, like most things in order to see the benefit you must know how to do it right.
Let’s start by breaking down how to implement a reverse diet.
- Night of Show or Last Day of the Diet: Ok this is a freebee…sort of. You can consume anything you want – eat, drink and enjoy yourself. Relax and try not to think about calories, macros or My Fitness Pal. This is a much needed mental break from the constant strain of dieting. The goal is to have a plan. Do not binge! Eat/drink until you feel full and satisfied. However, as a word of caution your body is in a very delicate state. As far as your body is concerned it just went through a mild form of starvation the past few months. Your metabolic rate is as low as it will ever be, and the re-introduction of calories in excess will have every opportunity to be stored as fat. Your body has an unlimited ability to store adipose tissue. Going crazy and eating upwards of 20,000+ calories will most definitely result in stored body fat. Don’t kid yourself, when you wake up twenty pounds heavier the next day, that’s not all water weight.
- Start The Next Day: Start the reverse diet as soon as possible. All too often people wait a few days or even a week to start their reverse diet. The problem with that is you start to defeat the purpose of the reverse diet in the first place. The main goal of a reverse diet is to keep body fat re-gain to a minimum while simultaneously rebuilding ones metabolic capacity. When you wait until you have already gained 15+ pounds, you put yourself in a bad position metabolically. Putting on a lot of weight quickly does not allow your metabolism the opportunity to catch up. You gained all the weight back without seeing any metabolic benefits from the added weight. So you weigh 20 pounds more but your metabolic capacity is still the same. The first couple weeks are going to be tough. Since we are adding calories back in slowly you will still be in a caloric deficit for a few weeks. Once you tough out the initial period it will get easier.
Progression of Calories
Just like with a normal caloric restricted diet, the key is going to be in the adjustments. Any idiot can figure out a caloric intake and macronutrient breakdown. There are numerous calculators online where you can just punch in numbers and go. Correct and timely adjustments (as well as understanding variation in human metabolism) are the reason myself and all of the other nutrition coaches around the world still have a job.
Where you start a reverse diet is going to depend on where you left off calorically on the fat loss phase. From there it is about figuring out how many grams of carbs and fat to add.
This is how I do it:
- Add around 10% of total carb intake. So if someone finished their diet on 200g of carbs they will add 20g of carbs to start their reverse diet. Don’t get caught up in the minute details, it doesn’t have to be exactly 10%. For example, if you ended your cut on 160-180g of carbs most likely I would still have you add 20g of carbs to start. 10% is just a rough guide line.
- Add around 5% of total fat intake. So if you ended your diet at 50g of fat, you would add between 2-3g of fat. Since fat is calorically dense we will be working with smaller numbers. I have found it to be easier to only increase fat every other week so the increase can be more substantial. Ex. Instead of 2-3g, it can be 5g every 2 weeks.
*If you dieted using a ketogenic or real low carb diet the reverse diet will be different. You will still add carbohydrates in but you may initially need to lower fat.
I know this seems like barely adding anything but just think of it extrapolated out over a couple months. Accuracy with food tracking will be very important.
From there it will come down to making adjustments based on progress. Typically the first couple weeks you will be able to add 10% carbs and 5% fat consistently. That will not always be the case. That is why you cannot just plan out months of a slow increase and not allow for changes. For example, simply saying I am going to add 20g of carbs and 3g of fat every week or every other week for the next 3 months just doesn’t work. You wouldn’t plan out your entire contest prep adjustments in advance. The reverse diet is no different. Things come up that will need to be accounted for.
One of the things that will hold back caloric intake is if the client gains a significant amount of weight in one week. In most cases this is due to the client just eating “off” from the program. I have found that staying true to a reverse diet is harder than the actual diet itself. With the actual diet you have a goal in mind – a show, a photo shoot, the beach, etc. With the reverse diet it’s harder to stay motivated. So if /when you eat over your calorie and macro totals and it causes an unusually high weight gain, the best bet would be to not increase calories that week. It’s not the end of the world, its really no big deal. However, in some instances the increase in caloric intake can cause an unusually high weight for the week. If this is the case I usually hold off on the typical planned caloric increase and see how the body responds with another week on the same macros.
On the other hand, you can go about the reverse diet too slowly as well. Like previously mentioned, the first couple weeks you are still in a caloric deficit. We want to get out of the caloric deficit as soon as possible however, that doesn’t mean we need to be gaining a lot of weight right away. A lot of times it will take a few weeks to even gain anything. Some clients have even been known to lose weight the first couple weeks of a reverse diet. If after a few weeks you are not gaining any weight it would be alright to get more aggressive with the caloric increases. If you were adding 20g of carbs and 3g of fat every other week you could bump it up to 25-30g of carbs and 5-8g of fat one week and see how you progress. You can also add in an extra re-feed day as well along the reverse diet as another means to increase overall weekly caloric intake.
I wanted to make a quick point about training, most importantly cardio. The amount of cardio you do during a reverse diet will depend on how much you were doing during your cut. The idea will be to reverse out of cardio just like the diet. Slowly start to reduce the amount of cardio sessions you are doing per week in terms of volume and frequency. Start getting rid of low intensity cardio first, keeping the high intensity interval training in (if you are doing HIIT).
The beginning of a reverse diet is a great time to jump on a new resistance training program. Since you will be adding in more calories as the weeks progress, that should work in conjunction with the program to get you stronger over the coming weeks as well. The most important thing is to continue training heavy. Some people think post show/diet is the time to take it easy with the resistance training. That is the wrong idea. Use the added calories to start gaining back muscle and strength you lost during the cut. Plus training hard is going to help restore your metabolic capacity.
When does it stop
I often get asked how long a typical reverse diet lasts. I guess, technically, the reverse diet would end as soon as you get above maintenance calories. However, the goal should always be to continue to push calories as high as possible. In essence the reverse diet will continue until you want to start dieting again. You should continue the reverse dieting process long after you have already got back to maintenance calories and even after you have gained all the weight back.