Reverse dieting: what is a reverse health program?
You’ve put in the work, and you’ve gotten the results you wanted. Congratulations!
Time for a well-deserved happy dance … and then what?
If you’ve been following a specific eating routine to achieve those results, the same eating patterns won’t necessarily work for maintaining them, too — especially if your routine involves eating fewer calories or more low-calorie foods than you normally would.
Enter reverse dieting, an eating routine that aims to help you gradually recover from a period of caloric restriction so you don’t lose your hard-earned results along the way.
What is a reverse health diet, and does reverse dieting work? Let’s get into it.
What is reverse dieting?
You’ve heard of a diet, but what is a reverse diet?
In spite of its name, reverse dieting isn’t like playing a reverse uno card on your eating routine: you don’t suddenly do a 180 on your eating and lifestyle habits or become the human equivalent of a Pacman and devour everything in sight.
It’s actually about avoiding a sudden reversal.
A reverse diet is a post-weight loss eating strategy that aims to increase your calorie intake gradually to prevent regaining lost weight as you return to your eating habit status quo. The goal of reverse dieting is to revert to your pre-diet eating routine without reversing the results you achieved.
In other words, when it comes to a reverse program, weight loss maintenance is the goal; you’re not reverse dieting to lose weight, (re)gain weight or body fat, or undo any health and well-being changes you unlocked.
This maintenance-focused approach is particularly popular in the bodybuilding community, as people training for competitions may follow short-term, strict eating routines (that are unsustainable in the long term) to achieve certain results.
How does reverse dieting work?
Although it may feel like there are days when your body is actively working against you — hello, shaky hands during an interview, and heartburn from something you’ve eaten a million times — your body is always working with your best interests in mind. It has real momma bear energy, and your body is quick to react to something it perceives as a potential threat.
When you eat less, your body thinks you may be at risk of a calorie deficit or not getting enough fuel to keep it going. So, it basically flips a built-in protective switch that slows your energy expenditure and metabolism in order to preserve energy levels.
A reverse weight loss program is based on the idea that a gradual reintroduction of calories — rather than releasing the restrictive eating floodgates and letting in a sudden increase in energy intake — could restore your metabolic rate after weight loss without leading to regaining weight.
Since everyone’s needs will be different, there isn’t an exact recommended process for “how to reverse diet,” but the anecdotal consensus seems to be that a “gradual reintroduction” means increasing your calorie intake by 2%–3% each week, which works out to be about 50–100 calories per week until you reach a range that you can maintain a healthy weight. You can try using our calorie calculator for more guidance on finding your weight maintenance calorie target.
At SIMPLE, we don’t really recommend reverse dieting since, by nature, it requires pretty meticulous calorie counting, which can pose risks to both sanity and safety — not to mention that existing research into reverse dieting is currently limited. As with any adjustments to your eating routine or lifestyle, we recommend speaking with your primary care provider or a registered dietitian to figure out what moving from weight loss into weight maintenance looks like for you and your diet, eating habits, and lifestyle.
Instead, if you were looking to lose weight initially, you could apply this approach through intermittent fasting by reducing your fasting window by 30 minutes to an hour over the course of a few weeks. This gradual adjustment may achieve similar results to reverse dieting, and we can help guide you and keep you motivated throughout. Take our SIMPLE quiz to get started — and remember to double-check with your healthcare team before actually making any dieting changes!
Benefits and drawbacks of reverse dieting
The main potential benefit of reverse dieting can be summed up in one word: stability.
As cool as mastering yo-yo tricks may have made you on the playground, yo-yo eating habits are anything but. Gradually increasing your calorie intake after a period of calorie restriction may help stabilize weight and avoid weight cycling. Since suddenly flooding your system with calories can stimulate the production of hunger hormones that increase your appetite, a gradual uptick in how much you eat may stabilize your appetite, too.
Think of your body like a rubber band. If it’s been stretched for a while (in this case, through caloric restriction), releasing it from that tension slowly rather than letting it snap back to its standard resting state all at once will be much easier to bear.
The same is true from a psychological perspective. If someone told you that you shouldn’t have that piece of chocolate cake, chances are now it’s all you can think about. Feeling less restricted in what, when, and how much you can eat is more likely to help prevent overeating, which could lead to rapid weight regain. Introducing more eating routine flexibility at a gradual pace also means it’s mentally easier to adjust to new food intake levels after a period of a lower calorie intake.
While everybody responds to eating routines differently, generally speaking, there are five main drawbacks to a reverse health program.
1. Limited evidence
While the general aims of a reverse dieting plan sound reasonable, there aren’t currently many scientific studies on the subject. Most of the existing evidence comes from limited studies on metabolic adaptation after weight loss (often in people with obesity). These studies highlight that our metabolic rate may decrease after a period of calorie restriction, but it’s still unclear what methods — reverse dieting or otherwise — are most effective in mitigating this effect.
2. Individual variability
A number of factors affect both metabolism and how it changes. Your resting metabolic rate — the biggest influence on how your body uses calories — determines the baseline of calories you need, and it’s mostly dictated by age, weight, sex, and muscle mass.
3. Potential weight gain
If you increase your calorie intake too quickly — especially if that calorie spike is coming from ultra-processed foods like chips, candy, and fast food  — you might regain some of the weight you lost.
4. Time commitment
Reverse dieting can be time consuming as it requires calorie tracking — which will likely be another item in a long to-do list of other common weight maintenance strategies, like getting regular physical activity, having good sleep hygiene, and prioritizing foods that meet your nutritional needs.[6–8] (That’s one reason why we prefer intermittent fasting for both weight loss and weight maintenance — it’s all about when you eat rather than what you eat! Find out more by taking our SIMPLE quiz.)
5. Disordered eating
While developing mindful eating habits is an important part of any successful weight maintenance plan, monitoring calories as closely as reverse dieting requires can open the door to anxiety or preoccupation around food, which can invite disordered eating patterns to the table in turn.
Is reverse dieting the right weight loss health program for me?
At SIMPLE, we believe the best eating routine is one you can stick to — it’s safer and more effective. Long-term weight maintenance can also get easier the more you do it, so finding a sustainable fit for your unique body, needs, and goals is the most important element of what’s “right” for you.
That’s why it’s so important to involve your doctor and registered dietitian in any eating or lifestyle plans you’re making. With your guidance, they’re in the best place to figure out what’s best for you.
Bonus: with medical advice straight from the source, there’s no need for you to spend hours trawling online only to discover (instead of the answers to your original question) that you have a myriad of undiagnosed issues … one of which may or may not be that you’ve actually been dead this whole time.
That’s a long way of saying that your healthcare team knows best when it comes to what’s right for you — including if and when to reverse diet. It’s also worth remembering that reverse dieting isn’t a fat loss or weight loss program — it’s a weight maintenance program.
Who should avoid it?
While the general ethos of a reverse diet comes from a well-intentioned place of introducing eating routine changes gradually in order to avoid shocking your system or overwriting your results, it’s not a safe choice for anyone who has an eating disorder or has a history of disordered eating. It’s also not a good option for anyone who finds counting calories too stressful or time intensive.
You should also avoid intermittent fasting in general if you:
- have type 1 diabetes;
- are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive;
- are prescribed medication (like hypertensives or any medications that need to be taken with food);
- have a BMI of less than 18.5; or
- are under 18 or 80 years old and older.
Even if you don’t identify with any of those characteristics, you should always double-check with your primary care provider to make sure it’s a safe eating routine for you to try.
SIMPLE’s tips for reverse dieting
If you’ve consulted your healthcare provider and they’re on board with you trying reverse dieting as you move from weight loss into weight maintenance, the key to seeing reverse dieting results is to reintroduce calories slowly and steadily by a small amount each week. A 2%–3% increase is a good benchmark. If you were consuming 1,200 calories daily, try adding 50–100 calories each week until you reach a maintenance range.
If you would like to try our intermittent fasting version, which is our way of reverse dieting, try reducing your fasting window by 30 minutes to an hour until you reach a reasonable range, for example, fasting from 9 PM / 10 PM to 8 AM (which mimics a typical eating pattern anyway!).
How to reverse diet without gaining weight also involves — like any balanced eating routine — building your calorie intake around nutrient-dense, health-promoting whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. For the best results, you also want to limit foods high in refined carbs (like candy, white bread, and sweetened sodas or juices) or trans / saturated fats (like fried foods, deli meats, frozen pizza, and commercial baked goods).
There’s no universal “best weight maintenance strategy” out there, so our bottom line is to check with your healthcare team to see if reverse dieting may even be a good fit before trying it on for size.
Frequently asked questions about reverse dieting
There aren’t any set guidelines for what you eat on a reverse diet, but for maximum health benefits, prioritizing whole foods that provide essential nutrients is the way to go for any eating routine. You can get recipe inspo from our intermittent fasting meal plan and learn more about balanced eating and calorie intake through our guides on what to eat during intermittent fasting and what you can drink while fasting. In general, a balanced diet includes whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains (like quinoa), healthy fats (like avocado and olive oil), and lean proteins (like eggs, fish, tofu and chicken).
“Can you cheat on a reverse diet?” isn’t a question we like to encourage since we don’t like to see anything as “cheating” when it comes to your health and well-being — if you need to adjust your eating routine to suit your needs better, do so (after consulting with your healthcare provider, of course)! If you’re just feeling extra snack-y and don’t really need the extra caloric fuel, you can always try out our ways to hack hunger while fasting or push through any minor intermittent fasting side effects.
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