Reverse dieting might be one of the best things you can do for your body, your health, your metabolism, your fitness journey, and your overall mental well being. If you have been in a caloric deficit (a.k.a dieting) for extended periods of time, gone back and forth with trendy fad diets your whole life, feel like your metabolism is shot to hell, your weight loss has stalled, or are coming off of a bodybuilding type show where you had to diet hard to get ULTRA lean, then the process of slowly adding calories BACK into your ‘diet’ might just open your eyes to a much bigger and brighter picture.
Our bodies simply were not meant to be starved for such long periods (I’m talking about 7+ months and YEARS). Our bodies NEED food to survive, function properly, and of course train properly. In many cases, the process is quite easy and people respond very well to reverse dieting. In other cases, people feel completely lost, all over the place, and have no idea where to begin let alone how to structure their new added calories. Sometimes people simply give up and revert back to their old dieting habits because they don’t trust the process and can’t fathom eating MORE. Regardless of where you may end up falling, I have found that very few people talk about the actual STRUGGLES of reverse dieting. These are things that come along with the process that are NOT so “shiny & fun”. These are roadblocks that some people encounter that will prevent them from ultimately doing whats BEST for their bodies.
Having gone through three reverse diets now over the course of my own journey, I won’t say I’m an expert by any means, but I do know the benefits, the struggles, and the questions that do arise during the process. Because this topic has been SO popular on my blog, I figured I might as well touch upon the subject again in an effort to help people who feel a little stuck. Mainly, I want to give a glimpse into the “dark side” of reverse dieting and talk about the things that so few people do. Reverse dieting is amazing and I will never stop singing it’s praises. However, there are lots of things to consider to prepare yourself for that journey. A necessary journey I feel the majority of women should be taking!
It’s probably best to illustrate everything I want to discuss with a series of my own progress pictures.
** Please excuse the excessive watermarks… I’ve fallen victim to my pictures being stolen and marketed for ridiculous cleanses, detoxes, etc. that I have NEVER and will NEVER promote! **
- IMAGE 1: basically what I looked like my entire life. Skinny fat, on & off exercising, and paid little attention to what I was eating (let alone how much I was eating).
- IMAGE 2: end of my last cutting/dieting cycle. I had already gone through TWO reverse diets bringing my calories UP to 2,300+ which allowed me to eat MORE throughout the dieting phase.
- IMAGE 3: this is the physique/body I have maintained for the past 10 months. My goal for 2015 was to BUILD muscle, stay in a steady caloric surplus, optimize training, and eating solely to perform.
As you can see, the body goes through SO many changes as you change your food intake and training. Yes, I was able to get leaner on higher calories (as a result of REVERSE DIETING), but the process was not always fun & games!!! So many struggles. So many things to consider. So many times I wanted to stop the reverse dieting process/eating above maintenance and hop back into dieting. Fortunately in my journey this past year, I became so much more focused on #1 long term health, #2 a stellar metabolism, and #3 longevity than on strictly aesthetics. I used to care so much about seeing a six pack that I lost sight of just feeling GREAT every single day in my own skin. I finally got to a place where I was truly just happy to train and push my body beyond getting lean. The mind can be a very beautiful thing. It’s the most powerful source of energy you have… you can either use it to your advantage or it can set you up for failure. That being said though, during a reverse diet… that mind WILL play tricks on you! Believe me… I know!!!
Here are some things that I’ve learned during the course of my reverse diets that I wish I had known the first time around:
- Slow & Steady- If you have been in a caloric deficit for an extended period of time, there is some debate on whether you should get your calories back up to maintenance as quickly as possible OR take a longer period of time getting just to that point. Personally, I think taking anywhere from 2-3 weeks (at most) just to get to maintenance is the right amount of time. A good rule of thumb is once you decide to reverse diet and get out of a caloric deficit, your initial calorie increase will be roughly 1/2 up to maintenance. That’s what’s worked best for me anyways. Once you are at maintenance though, things need to be taken very slow. You should not be under the impression that you will immediately be eating an enormous amount of food right from the start (as fun as that may sound). Your body will need time to adjust to each food increase. I think most people will add in anywhere from 100-150 calories each week (mainly coming from carbs & fat, protein should remain fairly consistent). This would turn out to be something like 10- 15 grams of carbs and 1-2 grams of fat. You add that amount in on Monday and see how your body responds. The following week if you have zero to minimal weight gain, you repeat the process and add in another 100 calories. If you gained more than a couple of pounds, hold off a few more days or even a week to add more food in. Once your weight has stabilized for a few days, then try again. Some people will be able to add more frequently and at higher amounts, it does NOT mean you are broken if you need to go slower. This is NOT a race.
- Be Prepared For Weight Increases– There are some people who actually LOSE WEIGHT during the initial phases of a reverse diet. They get leaner. They get tighter. And they think reverse dieting is like magic. However, others aren’t so fortunate. They immediately gain weight, get scared they are doing wrong or their bodies are just broken. This is a pivotal point in the process. You MUST take a leap of faith and trust the process. For EVERYONE, at some point the numbers on the scale WILL increase especially if you have been eating over maintenance for quite some time AND are training/lifting hard to build muscle. Last time I checked, muscle does have weight and in order to grow it, you will get heavier. Do NOT look at that as a bad thing! Want to change and shape your body? “Tone” up you say? That’s MUSCLE ladies! IF you are doing things correctly (training & nutrition), fat gain will be minimal and muscle gain will be optimal!
- The Scale Does NOT Define YOU– This holds true whether you are reverse dieting or not. The numbers on a scale are NO reflection of YOU. They will go up, go down, and fluctuate all over the place depending on the hour, time of day, or time of the month. You will need to use the scale and your weight simply as a gauge during a reverse diet to make sure you are not gaining weight too fast, BUT always try to look beyond the numbers that are shown. How are you feeling overall throughout the entire day? Do you have energy? Are you killing your workouts? Are you hitting PR’s on your lifts? Are you getting faster? Do you walk around with more confidence? Do you feel healthy? There are SO many more things in life to be concerned with. Focus your energy and attention to all the amazing qualities you possess. The scale knows NOTHING.
- Keep YOUR Focus OFF Social Media– This is perhaps one of the biggest struggles you may face during a reverse diet. To a certain extent, this especially held true for me. As it turned out, I ended up reverse dieting during the summer months TWO out of THREE times. Do you know how hard it is to see EVERYONE you follow on social media shredding for bikini season and looking all cute while you just keep eating feeling fluffier by the day? In theory, it’s nice eating in a surplus when everyone you see is starving themselves for their six packs, but it plays heavily with your mind. One of the most serious brain F&*#’s ever. You scroll through your Instagram feed only to see six packs and every magazine cover has a girl on the beach flaunting their rock hard body. Here you are hiding behind larger clothes and yoga pants. You are busting your ass with training and sometimes even hitting those PR’s, doesn’t make you feel any better about yourself or where you are physically. It’s EXTREMELY difficult and takes a VERY strong person to look past the aesthetic goals of your journey and look towards bettering your health in the long term. Remember, just because these “fitspos” look lean and healthy, does NOT mean they are. You are only given a very very tiny glimpse of their lives’ and what most don’t show is the struggle to maintain this type of body. They rarely talk about how HUNGRY they are all of the time, the health problems they may have, how they have struggle to get pregnant, the eating disorder demons they face on a daily basis, how they feel so isolated from the world and their family and friends because they won’t allow themselves to simply eat. Most are so wrapped up in how they look on a daily basis, they forget that they are only given ONE body in life that needs to be healthy years down the road as well.
- Arbitrary Numbers– I fell victim to this during my first two reverse diets. I had this idea in my head that I needed to hit OVER 300 grams of carbs in order to have a successful reverse diet. I was so caught up in comparing my process to so many others. So many girls were talking about how much they were eating and unfortunately, I felt the need to eat the same amount. I remember at the end of my first reverse diet, yes my metabolism was extremely healthy , but I felt sick by the end of the day with all of the eating I had done. Yes I hit my numbers, but I began to feel sluggish as each day passed. I didn’t feel my best and I certainly wasn’t performing my best. I was under the impression that hitting these huge caloric numbers was a sign of me ‘succeeding’ so I kept telling my coach how great I felt because I know if I kept saying that, he would keep increasing my macros. However, I paid less attention to being in the “300 club” on my second reverse diet and pain NO attention to hitting that number on my last reverse diet. I brought my carbs up to around 225-275 and truly felt like I performed at my best there so didn’t push any further. I had enough energy throughout the entire day and never felt overly stuffed or lethargic. I let my body dictate where I ended my macros for my reverse diet VS pushing my numbers beyond what my body truly wanted & needed. As long as you restore your metabolic function, feel good, and stay on this path to better your overall long term health, who cares how much someone else is eating! Do you, always.
- Eating is NOT All It’s Cracked Up To Be– So you have gone from eating less than 1,000 calories to now eating over 1,800 calories or more. In theory, this may sound AMAZING. The thought of getting to eat all of that food may excite you, but it also might scare you a little. Aside from the fear of gaining weight, it used to be easy to meal/food prep for yourself when you only had to prepare a few things. Now that your calories are higher and you have more room to play with your macros, it might get overwhelming. At some point, you may even begin to feel so stuffed and full that the thought of having to fit in another meal is nauseating. This is the time where you need to put those creative skills to use and/or simply eat more foods that are calorically dense. This would include foods that are higher in carbs & fat, but not a ton of “nutrients” such as cereals, bagels, some types of breads, or even your favorite sweets. These foods won’t necessarily fill you up and in most cases you won’t need much of them to ensure you are hitting your macros. Eating calorically dense foods will ease the thought of having to fill up on yet another HUGE meal.
- Timeframe– One of the biggest regrets I have in my overall journey was putting a timeframe on my reverse diets. The first two processes, I only gave myself 4-6 months to reverse diet because I was in such a rush to cut and diet back down. Again, my metabolism was on FIRE, but because I jumped off the reverse diet train and onto the caloric deficit train I missed out on a LOT of potential muscle gains. Just as I was gaining momentum in my lifts, the idea of being lean again was haunting me. “Oh, summer is around the corner and I can’t be quite so “puffy” in my bathing suit… yup, the diet has to begin in time for that.” HUGE mistake. In retrospect, I should have just kept my calories exactly where they were at simply because I was in such a good place mentally and performing optimally. This past year has been PIVOTAL in my journey. I began to look at my nutrition simply from a performance perspective VS an aesthetic one. If you are in a good place and happy with yourself, why jump ship?
- Trust & Appreciate the Process– Yes, you will have weight gain. Yes, your body will change. Yes, you will need to look in the mirror every single day and try to be at peace with that reflection you see. If you have lived with an eating disorder or poor body image, this may be the HARDEST thing you ever do. It will test you. It will play mind games with you (DAILY if to HOURLY). It will push you beyond your comfort zone. It’s during those sticking points you MUST give it everything you have to resist the temptation to fall back into your old habits. It’s not an easy process, but a necessary one for your body to function properly in the long term. So instead of hating every minute of it, learn to appreciate the little things. Use this time with extra calories to enjoy foods you have been depriving yourself of for so long. Indulge in more food options. Try foods you have always feared. Appreciate those moments out with your family and friends… eating WITHOUT regret.
- Look at the BIGGER Picture– Ultimately, the main goal in a reverse diet is to bring back and BUILD a healthy metabolism (again, our bodies were NOT meant to diet our whole lives’). The quickest way to kill your metabolism and simple functions of your body is to deprive it. Instead of focusing so much of your attention on how you look and the six pack you want so badly, remember that you are only given ONE body in life and you need to treat it properly. The last thing you want to do (especially all you young girls) is get your bodies into the habit of eating less and less in hopes of achieving some arbitrarily “ideal” body. You will NEED this body functioning properly for many many years. Longterm health should ALWAYS be your #1 concern. Why would anyone want to live the majority of their lives’ feeling less than optimal? Why feel hungry and tired all of the time when it’s not necessary?
- Love & Appreciate Yourself at ALL Stages of YOUR Journey– I feel like a broken record because I say this so often on my blog and Instagram. Regardless of where your journey takes you, what road blocks you hit, whatever forks in the road you encounter, you MUST love who you are on the inside BEFORE anything else. You could hit your target weight, have a six pack, the perkiest booty in the world, and hit every single AESTHETIC goal you set out for, BUT none of it will mean ANYTHING if you aren’t happy with who you are to start with. You need to be able to look in the mirror and think to yourself “Damn, I’m pretty freaking AWESOME!” It’s not about being cocky and thinking you are better than someone else. It’s simply about finding all those amazing things about YOURSELF that make YOU special. NEVER forget your worth in this rat race of the fitness world! Work on the inside and EVERYTHING in your life will fall into place!