You embark on your first 20 week contest prep diet. You are ten years into your fitness journey, and are finally ready to mark the industry with your Greek God-like presence. You dial in your prep. Like a madman, you obliterate every single workout, crushing rep after rep after rep, with no intention of letting up. Like a mathematician, you eat with formulaic accuracy, nailing your variable daily macro nutrient intake with precision. You are motivated, you are consistent, and you are knowledgeable, and you alter your training and nutrition based on your results to peak the day of your show. Your efforts are both intense and efficient, and its result is astonishing. You confidently step on stage and annihilate the competition. The judges, the audience, and the other competitors stare at you in amazement. You have done it. You are victorious.
So what now? Either one of two things will happen. You will either jump “off the deep end” and dive head first into a “bulk”, eat anything and everything in sight, and regain all of the fat that you lost during your prep and then some, or, you will reverse diet, taper your cardio, and minimize the amount of fat that you regain. The choice is yours.
Post diet weight regain is a huge problem in today’s society. When you “diet”, you lose muscle. Since muscle is metabolically active, it requires a constant flow of energy to function. Both internal energy stores (i.e. body fat, muscle and liver glycogen, etc.) and external energy sources (food) provide your body with fuel. When you lose muscle, your body requires less fuel to perform the same tasks. …and less “required” energy ( a.k.a. a slower metabolism) increases your fat storing potential. Extra fuel that you do not need to power exercise, replenish energy stores, or grow, is stored internally in adipose tissue as “potential energy”.
The Issue: It takes time for you to regain the muscle that you lost while dieting and“restore” your metabolism to its former glory. Consequently, it is extremely easy to eat the world and pack on an obscene amount of body fat in a short period of time. You see, when you diet for a prolonged period of time, your body cues you to eat. To make matter worse, you deprive yourself from eating foods that you love and burn out. These two ingredients are a recipe for disaster and cause you to binge without care for its negative implications. In just a couple of months, you end up heavier than you were before you started your diet, and with less muscle mass and a slower metabolism. You are unhappy with the way you look, and the cycle repeats itself until your metabolism is fried. Sound familiar? If so, then I have your solution.
The Solution: Reverse dieting. When you diet, you slowly and methodically reduce your caloric intake over time. You watch your progress measures and decrease your caloric intake when you stall. When you “reverse” diet, you do the exact opposite. You watch your progress measures and increase your caloric intake when need be.
The following sections overview reverse dieting and its misconceptions, and provide practical guidelines for structuring a reverse diet.
Reverse Dieting Misconceptions
Misconception: You are not supposed to gain weight during a properly planned reverse diet.
- It is difficult to maintain or lose weight while reverse dieting. To not gain weight, you must increase your caloric intake at a snails pace, stick to your plan every single day without deviating, and/or be genetically gifted.
- You do not want to "maintain" or lose weight while reverse dieting. Think about it. When you diet for a prolonged period of time, you lose muscle mass. It is inevitable. If you have not gained weight during your reverse diet, then you probably have not regained the hard earned muscle that you lost during your prep or dieting period either.
- Alter your mindset. Be realistic. Through a properly planned reverse diet, you should increase your metabolic rate, minimize excessive weight regain, and improve your relationship with food. Let's be real... Dieting is tough and can hinder your relationship with food. It happens. But starting a reverse diet with unrealistic expectations will only exacerbate that problem, and you will end up obsessing over your daily macronutrient goals just as much as you did during your dieting phase. That is not healthy. Enjoy the process, and embrace the extra body weight. It will not kill you.
Planning a Reverse Diet
The Big Picture: Like training, there is no right or wrong way to reverse diet. Different reverse dieting methods produce different outcomes. If you increase your caloric intake more quickly, then expect to regain fat, muscle, strength, and recover your metabolic rate more rapidly. Contrarily, if you increase your caloric intake more slowly, then expect the exact opposite.
Consider these points:
- Reverse dieting is dieting, there is no way around it. The last thing that most people want to do post show is to continue dieting. If you fall into this category, then consider increasing your caloric intake more quickly.
- For those of you who compete regularly, your time is precious. A longer reverse dieting period will reduce the amount of time that you have to make improvements in your “offseason”. If you fall into this category, then consider increasing your caloric intake more quickly.
When to Reverse Diet:
- After a prolonged period of low calorie dieting.
- If, when you start tracking your macros, you realize that your "maintenance" intake is a lot lower than it should be. Remember, the goal is to reduce your caloric intake slowly and methodically when your progress stalls. If you are already severely restricted, then you will not have any room to work with when the time comes for you to reduce your intake. In this case, I urge you to sacrifice gaining a couple of pounds of fat for your long term weight loss success.
How to Reverse Diet:
- If you have dieted properly, then you know your starting point. That is, the macro nutrient breakdown that you ended your diet consuming. These are the numbers that you will increase upon starting out. If you do not know your starting point, then refer to the "determining your starting point" section below prior to advancing to step two.
- Select a time interval. Most reverse dieters increase their macro nutrient intake either weekly or biweekly. Typically, you can get away with more frequent jumps starting out, when your caloric intake is at its lowest. Do not think about this step for too long, it will not make or break your success. Use progress measures (Body weight, body fat percentage, progress pictures) to determine whether or not your time intervals are working for you. Consider the "big picture" points above when choosing your time interval.
- Select an "intake increase" interval. Some people, a) choose a calorie total (i.e. 100 calories) and increase their fat and carbohydrate macros based on that total (i.e. 30% of their 100 calorie increase from fat and 70% from carbs, yielding a 3.5g fat and 17g carb total increase, etc), while others, b) increase their macros less strategically based on the types of food that they like to eat (i.e. Someone who enjoys fat more than carbs may choose to increase their macros by 5g fat and 5g carbs at a time, whereas someone who enjoys carbs more than fat may choose to increase their macros by 10g carbs and 2g fat at a time). This step lends a ton of variety. Do not overcomplicate things. The goal is to increase your calories, not have a brain aneurism trying to perfect an imperfect science.
- "Intake increase" interval continued - Increasing each individual macro nutrient: carbs - carbs yield 4 calories per gram. Thus, 10g of carbs yields 40 calories, and so on. If you prepped for a show and "zero'd" out your carbohydrate intake for the last few weeks before competing, then immediately increase your carbohydrate intake to your pre-zero levels. If you did not, then do not worry about it. Increase your carbohydrate intake by 5-50 grams at a time depending on your reverse dieting goal. Protein - protein also yields 4 calories per gram. Thus, 10g of protein yields 40 calories, and so on. If you are an active individual desiring more muscle mass, then maintain your protein intake around 1g/ lb bodyweight (i.e. If you weigh 200lbs, then you should consume 200g protein/ day). This is a generic guideline. You can eat a little bit more or a little bit less, within reason. Fat - 1g fat yields 9 calories. Thus, 10g of fat yields 90 calories, making it the most calorically dense of the three macro nutrients. With that said, your fat increases may not be as drastic as your carbohydrate increases (i.e. You may increase your carbs by 10g (40 calories), and your fat by only 4.5g (40 calories). Increase you fat intake by 2-15 grams at a time depending on your reverse dieting goal.
- Modify your time interval and "intake increases" based on your progress measures (i.e. Weight regain, etc.). Keep your increases consistent if you like your progress, and switch it up if you do not. It may take a little bit of tweaking starting out.
- If you choose the "calorie total" intake increase method, your calorie total and percentages can vary. You do not have to use the "100 calorie, 30% fat, 70% carb" example that I provided above. Just remember, fat yield 9 calories per gram, while carbohydrate and protein yields 4 calories per gram).
Tying it all together- I concluded my 16 week contest prep diet consuming 275g carbs, 225g protein, and 35g fat. Every week, I increased my macros by 10g carbs and 3g fat. Despite the fact that I only weighed 173lbs, I kept my protein intake at 225g (above 1g/ lb) because I enjoyed eating protein rich foods. After three weeks of increasing my calories, I got leaner. At that point, I took a slightly more aggressive reverse dieting approach, and increased my macros by 20g carbs and 6g fat at a time. After two weeks, I gained four pounds and "filled out". From then on, I increased my macros every time my weight plateau'd. I am now ten months post show, 27 lbs over stage weight, and happy. Although my reverse diet did not always go according to plan, I am stronger and leaner than I was before I started dieting, and that is what matters.
I did not start my reverse diet with unrealistic expectations. I did not calculate my macro nutrient jumps using a super secret "state of the art" formula. I did not obsess over hitting my numbers to the tee every single day. I did, however, focus on improving both my metabolism and my relationship with food, and rekindling relationships that had suffered during my dieting period. I focused on self improvement, life balance, and happiness. After all, what good is a shredded midsection if you are miserable sustaining that midsection.
Alternative Methods: If you have dieted before and are familiar with your typical "maintenance range", then you can increase your intake to that range without reverse dieting up to that point. As long as you understand the pros and cons of this method, then do as you see fit.
Determining Your Starting Point: This section applies to those of you who have dieted without counting macros.
- Download the myfitnesspal app (or an equivalent macro nutrient tracking phone app). Familiarize yourself with the app. You should know how to search for the foods that you eat in the apps database, scan nutrition labels, and manipulate serving sizes.
- Buy a food scale. Your scale must be able to weigh in both grams and ounces. Familiarize yourself with your food scale.
- Weigh and log everything that you eat in your tracking app over a two week time span
- Average out your consumption totals for protein, fat, and carbohydrates to determine your daily averages.
- These averages represent your starting point. You will increase your macro nutrients based on the guidelines provided above. Refer back to step two of the “how to reverse diet” section to get started.
Note: Your metabolism is dynamic. Using an internet application to determine your starting point (i.e. iifym.com, etc.) will not always work, because you are not representative of the "average" human being with your dimensions (i.e. Height, weight, activity level, etc,). You have just finished dieting, and your metabolism has taken a hit. Internet applications are not completely useless, however, and can provide a general idea of where your caloric intake should be towards the end of your reverse diet.