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What Is Reverse Dieting? A Nutritionist Explains

Health.com logo Health.com 2020-09-16 Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
a woman standing next to a bowl of food: This dieting tactic is supposed to help you maintain weight loss—here's what it's all about. © Getty Images This dieting tactic is supposed to help you maintain weight loss—here's what it's all about.

When I first heard of reverse dieting, I was confused by the terminology. My initial assumption was that it somehow implied weight loss by eating more rather than less. Instead, reverse dieting is all about how to add back calories after a diet ends. Here’s a summary of how this is carried out, and my thoughts on why it’s not necessary if you’re trying to lose weight safely and sustainably.

How reverse dieting works

Reverse dieting is essentially what to do after a restrictive diet. Let’s say you’ve cut your calorie intake to a low 1,200 per day in order to lose weight, and you’ve subsequently shed some pounds. Proponents of reverse dieting suggest gradually increasing your calorie intake by 50–100 calories per week for about 4–10 weeks, rather than simply reverting back to your pre-diet eating pattern. People who advocate for this approach claim that it can help increase metabolism, normalize hunger hormones, and reduce the risk of binge eating or rapid weight regain. 

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What does the research say about reverse dieting?

There is no research specifically on reverse dieting. Some of the studies used to support this practice are based on the negative impacts of dieting on metabolic rate and hormone balance. But that’s very different from a controlled study that applies reverse dieting to one group compared to a control group, in order to examine outcomes such as changes in metabolism, hormone levels, or other factors.

Why reverse dieting is unnecessary

The main reason why reverse dieting isn’t necessary is because strict or low calorie diets should be avoided to begin with. While a low calorie diet may result in weight loss for some, it can also trigger physical and emotional side effects, including nutrient shortfalls, irritability, moodiness, or depression, fatigue, and obsessive thoughts about food and weight.

In addition, calorie counting is tedious and stressful for many people. One study found that following a 1,200 calorie diet and monitoring calories boosted levels of cortisol, a stress hormone known to increase belly fat. In the same study, those who weren’t asked to limit their calories but were required to track them experienced increased perceived stress levels.

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How to lose weight without strict dieting

Traditional weight loss approaches that focus on calories in, calories out are outdated. With my private practice clients, I focus on food quality, meal balance and timing, and factors like tuning into hunger and fullness signals and addressing emotional eating.

In terms of quality, replacing processed foods with whole foods has been shown to increase post-meal calorie burning. That means trading something like a pastry or sugary cereal in the morning for oatmeal with berries and nuts can positively impact weight loss, even without focusing on calories. Processed foods have also been shown to affect gut bacteria in ways that impact weight control. This is one reason why simply eating more vegetables, increasing fiber, and tweaking meal times can lead to weight loss without the need for deprivation.

When my clients who struggle with emotional eating begin to find healthy coping tools that don’t involve food, their calorie intakes automatically drop—not based on rules or numbers, but rather a shift in their relationship with food. In other words, dieting is not the only way to lose weight, and it’s certainly not the most successful or sustainable approach.

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Bottom line: Following a strict diet with continued calorie monitoring for a month or two via reverse dieting (especially with such small increases that require precise tracking) adds to stress. Also, there’s no evidence that reverse dieting helps to maintain weight loss long-term. Healthful weight loss comes from sustainable lifestyle changes that adequately nourish your body. Any method you use to lose weight shouldn’t require a diet after the diet. It should also optimize your overall wellness, not compromise it.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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