Over the past 5–6 years, the concept of reverse dieting has gone from a tactic that was less known by the majority of fitness coaches to a very mainstream tactic that gets a lot of people significant results, particularly for those who want to increase their calorie intake without gaining weight.
However, like any shiny new tactic that people get excited about because of the results it can potentially give, a lack of complete knowledge can result in over-application or the tactic being applied in situations where it probably shouldn’t be.
Don’t get me wrong; reverse dieting is an indispensable tool for many situations. Those who are super lean at the end of a fat-loss phase, those who aren’t so lean but have metabolic adaptation and can’t lose weight, or just as part of intelligent long-term nutritional periodization to get caloric intake back to maintenance would benefit from a reverse diet.
However, there may be some situations where although it might seem like a good idea to start a reverse diet to get higher TDEE, it might not be a good idea in reality.
This blog post will give a brief explanation of what is a reverse diet and will explore 5 situations where your client shouldn’t reverse diet.
Table of Contents
What is a Reverse Diet?
Reverse dieting is a structured approach that involves gradually increasing calories after a period of calorie restriction or a fat-loss phase. A reverse diet aims to optimize metabolism, support muscle retention, and promote long-term sustainable results.
During a reverse dieting phase, you will help your client strategically increase their caloric intake over a period of time. This gradual increase allows the body to adapt to higher energy intake while experiencing minimal weight gain. Their macronutrient composition also gets adjusted to maintain a balanced diet and support overall health.
Since prolonged calorie restriction can slow down metabolic function as the body adapts to the low calorie intake, a reverse diet aims to gradually increase calories to help normalize metabolic function. Your client will minimize rapid weight regain by slowly increasing calories rather than going straight to their maintenance level.
Benefits of a Reverse diet
After a period of sustained calorie restriction, the body’s metabolism may slow down as a result of metabolic adaptation. Reverse dieting helps restore metabolic rate to a healthier level, which can enhance overall energy expenditure and support better metabolic function.
By gradually increasing calories and adjusting macronutrient ratios, your clients can find a balance that supports their fitness goals while allowing for flexibility and enjoyment of food. This can help prevent the common pattern of weight regain after a fat-loss phase.
Additionally, a reverse diet can help improve psychological well-being by reducing feelings of deprivation and promoting a healthier relationship with food. The gradual increase in calories and flexibility in food choices can help your clients feel more satisfied, enjoy a wider variety of foods, and reduce the likelihood of experiencing intense cravings or binge eating episodes.
And, of course, we have to look at the hormonal factors of a reverse diet since a lengthy calorie deficit can disrupt hormone levels. Reverse dieting supports the restoration of hormonal balance by providing the body with adequate energy and nutrients. This can positively impact various aspects of health, including menstrual regularity, sleep quality, and mood stability.
Why Your Client Shoudn’t Reverse Diet
While it’s important to understand what a reverse diet is and how reverse dieting can be beneficial for optimal health, I hope I didn’t get you too excited to start putting all your clients in a reverse diet phase. As I mentioned, there are some situations where a reverse diet is not the best option for your clients.
1: Metabolic Syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes, or Severe Insulin Resistance from Overeating.
Say you’ve just signed on a client who is obese and has a lot of weight to lose. Upon looking over their food logs, you notice that maybe they’re eating fewer calories than you think they should be based on their body weight with mostly low-quality, processed foods.
They also send over the last set of blood work they had done, and their fasting glucose and insulin are through the roof, triglycerides are uber high with a low HDL (all markers of insulin resistance; take note!), and they let you know that they struggle with blood pressure issues and are on medication for it.
You feel like you know exactly what to do; their TDEE is lower than expected, so you go for a reverse diet. This might not be a good idea.
Even though their food logs show lower calories than their projected maintenance, pushing food for individuals with bad insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome could make the situation turn sour pretty fast.
This is especially true if someone has full-blown type 2 diabetes. If you increase their macros in a fashion that most coaches have a tendency to when reverse dieting (increasing carbs and protein, and maybe a bit of an increase in fat depending on where their macros were before), this is only going to make their insulin resistance and metabolic issues worse.
Clients with this metabolic profile are probably going to be experiencing leptin resistance along with insulin resistance.
Leptin acts as a satiety signal in the brain, as does insulin. In healthy people, both of these hormones activate a set of neurons in the brain that decrease food intake and increase energy expenditure. However, when the brain can’t see the signal as in leptin/insulin resistance, the result is that your client’s energy expenditure is, in all likelihood, going to be lower than projected, and they will have a higher appetite.
Let’s talk about what we actually want to do if someone who is obese comes to you eating a mere 1,800 calories.
First, you have to make sure that their tracking is accurate. They could have switched up their food choices in order to impress you (even if you asked them not to) during their pre-coaching tracking period, and if they’re new to tracking, most people fall prey to the common errors of not tracking cooking oils, not tracking beverages here and there, etc., meaning they could be eating hundreds of calories more than they are recording.
Another common error with tracking food is entering qualitative foods instead of quantitative ones. For example, many people who are new to tracking their food intake will choose “one medium chicken breast” instead of “250 g chicken breast” when entering their food into their tracking app or food log. Several of these per day can easily add 400–700 or more calories than what’s being logged per day.
If your client’s calorie intake is truly that low, the next step would be to clean up their diet. Including more micronutrients, fiber, polyphenol, and antioxidant density, as well as higher protein while keeping their calories similar to what they’d recorded coming to you.
Once they’ve cleaned up their diet you’ll have to see what happens with their weight. Doing this could potentially modulate hormonal responses from food intake, giving a more favorable insulin response, and may also help out their tracking game.
Adding exercise to their current routine is key here as well.
Exercise has been shown to improve markers of metabolic syndrome even if someone maintains their weight. The strategy of sticking to where they were in calories, cleaning up food, and adding in weight training can build muscle, which will improve metabolic health and total energy expenditure, and you’ll probably see some body recomposition as well.
If your client can’t exercise or can only do lower-intensity walking or similar for whatever reason, consider lowering their carbohydrates. The decrease doesn’t have to go down to ketogenic levels of carbohydrates (although this is an option), but they may feel better with carbohydrates on the lower end of the spectrum and fats slightly higher given their current metabolic state.
If their weight doesn’t budge after all that, then you may have to lower calories further. Remember that they have a depressed energy expenditure due to their current metabolic profile, so they simply may need a lower calorie intake. Of course, once you do this, pay attention to their SHREDS biofeedback to ensure that all of their biofeedback is improving with weight loss instead of getting worse.
You can still add in diet breaks back to maintenance for certain periods of time if they’re experiencing mental diet fatigue or after 3–6 month time chunks of straight dieting since they’re probably going to need to diet for quite some time to lose the weight they need to lose.
Once they’ve reversed their insulin resistance/metabolic syndrome/type 2 diabetes and get on the leaner side of things, then that would be a situation for a proper reverse diet along with resistance training.
2: High-stress, Low-Sleep, and Cortisol-induced Insulin Resistance
This one’s in a similar vein as number one but with some key differences.
Chronically elevated cortisol itself can cause insulin resistance and contribute to metabolic syndrome even if someone isn’t obese and does not have a lot of weight to lose. We see a lot of the same effects with our clients by cortisol-induced insulin resistance that we do with overconsumption-induced insulin resistance.
Chronically high cortisol can affect those same neurons in the brain we were talking about earlier, drive gluconeogenesis and triglyceride formation even after meals because of liver insulin resistance, drive muscular insulin resistance, and, probably most importantly, drive fat deposition into visceral fat as well as sensitizing all fat tissue to insulin for greater storage.
As a result of these effects, if you pushed a client in this situation into a reverse diet, they’d have very poor nutrient distribution; meaning that the nutrients that they’re consuming are going to be shunted more towards fat storage instead of glycogen storage or muscle building, which will make their insulin resistance even worse than it was to begin with.
This might be tough to parse out and probably requires you to see some labs to be able to help your client to the best of your ability.
You might see this with an individual who has some weight to lose, but they’re not obese. They may appear to have a high-stress lifestyle, but to truly see if it’s affecting their insulin sensitivity, checking things like fasting insulin, trig/HDL ratio, fasting BG, A1C, and SHBG would be a good idea.
If all of those things look good, reverse dieting may still be an option. However, if they don’t look so great, you may need to address the real issue first — their stress.
To address this, I wouldn’t change much with the client’s calorie intake; maybe stick with the amount of calories they showed on their tracking logs while looking to see where you can improve food quality. Adjusting macros to a typical profile for weight loss would be good, meaning higher protein and setting carbs and fat based on activity and preference, but I wouldn’t consciously set them in a calorie surplus or calorie deficit just yet.
Address the core of the issue first, which is stress and/or poor sleep.
There are numerous ways to manage stress. Meditation, art, walks, listening to music, spending time in nature, spending time with loved ones, breathwork, and doing fun activities can be good stress-reduction techniques.
The name of the game is getting them out of a cycle of negative thinking and worrying about their health and into enjoying the present. All of the above activities can help your client get into this mindset.
You could also ask probing questions about sources of stress that they might not see as well. Do they have toxic relationships? Do they feel supported? If it’s financial stress, do they budget well, or are they impulse-buying things all the time? Do they constantly have mainstream news on their TV?
These are all valid questions to ask to see if you can help. In the interest of improving sleep and circadian rhythm regulation, some tips here include a cold, dark room, cutting off electronics after a certain hour, blue light blockers, not eating too heavy of a meal within a few hours of bed, and as much sun exposure as possible in the morning to get some vitamin D.
The caveat here is if someone has extremely low body fat and is undereating to maintain their weight or body fat and also has high stress levels. Their current metabolic state is contributing to that stress, so you probably still need to increase calories slowly, particularly carbohydrates, while working on stress and sleep as the primary variables.
If the stress and sleep get controlled, they may start experiencing body recomposition or weight loss when their macros and calories have stayed static. If they don’t, and you know that their insulin resistance is resolved based on labs, then this might be an instance where you can start a reverse diet or lower calories based on how much they were already eating.
3: Severe Gut Issues; Dysbiosis or Increased Intestinal Permeability (Leaky Gut)
If someone comes to you with a bit of weight to lose, eating on the lower calorie side compared to their projected maintenance, but they also get severe bloating and stomach distension after nearly everything they eat and that’s also accompanied by gas and alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation. Maybe they also get acid reflux here and there a few times a week…
You get the point; their digestion and gut health is not in a good place.
Tons of things could be happening here that would make reverse dieting a bad recommendation.
They could have enzymatic insufficiency or low stomach acid; this would mess up their protein and fat digestion. They could also have overgrowths of harmful bacteria, which could be contributing to systemic inflammation through increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), which could result in worse nutrient absorption.
In this instance, a reverse diet could potentially cause other sensitivities as well as further damage the gut lining.
The clear thing to do here would be to shift the focus from body composition or weight loss to addressing the gut issues. I can tell you from personal experience that many people lose weight just from doing this; perhaps it’s water retention from inflammation, but either way, it’s a win.
Keep their calories where they are with a macro profile that prioritizes protein and adjusting carbs and fats based on activity levels while adjusting food choices to include more nutrient-dense options. If your client came to you eating a Standard American Diet, then the first thing to do would be to improve food quality. Advise your client to prioritize micronutrient and fiber-dense whole foods, increase hydration, increase protein intake, etc.
If they’re still experiencing the same amount of gut issues after they’ve been consistently eating “cleaner” for at least a couple of months, then you might have to look to elimination or a full gut protocol.
Going into detail about a full 4R/5R gut protocol would be beyond the scope of this post, but a few worthy approaches to try would be low FODMAPs, classic paleo, which eliminates grains, dairy, soy, etc. (which I view as more of an elimination diet strategy than a permanent way of life), and, if your client is unresponsive to that, something like an autoimmune protocol might be necessary if things are very severe.
After the individual’s gut health is back in a good place, then you can consider implementing a reverse if it’s still needed.
Once again, the caveat here is if someone is extremely lean and undereating and experiencing gut issues. Just the fact that they’re underfed and malnourished could be contributing to the excess sympathetic nervous system and HPA activation, potentially causing worse digestion.
In this case, I would experiment with increasing calorie intake first, particularly carbohydrates, to see if it helps alleviate the digestive issues along with making the food choices ones that are easier on the gut; perhaps fewer cruciferous vegetables and whole grains.
(You can learn more about designing a gut protocol for your clients through my Functional Nutrition and Metabolism Specialisation program, which you can access here)
4: Hormonal Downregulation due to Inflammation or Oxidative stress
However, there are many other sources of hormonal downregulation, such as excessive inflammation and oxidative stress from a high-stress lifestyle, obesity, environmental toxins/heavy metal exposure, or another source.
If they have hypothyroidism, low testosterone, and/or imbalanced estrogen/progesterone, this is also going to severely affect nutrient distribution here, shunting more of the calories they consume toward fat storage.
The thing to do here is to keep their calories where they are and where they’re maintaining weight and find the source of inflammation and hormonal downregulation. This is going to require some detective work on your part, but first look at the obvious suspects: stress, sleep, training volume, and food quality.
I have several podcast episodes on these topics, so please look there for more details.
A simplified protocol in this situation would be getting your client on a better macronutrient profile and increasing food quality in all of the ways I previously discussed, getting them to sleep a solid 8 hours per night, and reducing their stress as much as possible.
Sex hormone axis issues could also exist coming off of birth control. In this case, you’d really want to work on balancing the three main sex hormones before really encouraging a reverse diet. Again, you can check out my podcast for episodes about post-birth control syndrome, but here’s one you might find helpful to start with.
If we’re dealing with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism instead of just thyroid downregulation, then we’d need to get stress levels down and go on a gluten- and dairy-free diet while looking out for other potential food sensitivities.
Once hormones are in a good place, then we consider a reverse diet if it’s still necessary. It may not be, however, since improving hormonal status can increase TDEE on its own.
5: Improper Tracking
I hinted at this on the first point, but improper tracking is easily the most common issue we see with clients (particularly those who are new to tracking their calorie intake), and this is one that can be especially tough to mitigate.
Your client gives you their pre-coaching food logs, which say they’re eating 1,400 calories. If you don’t question their accuracy and automatically go into a reverse diet phase, you could potentially be making a big mistake.
The first thing you’ll want to do is to check their tracking accuracy.
There are numerous studies on the topic of how rampant underreporting actually is, even amongst people who know what they’re doing (accidental underreporting).
One study found that people, on average, underreported about 800 calories per day.
Another study found some individuals underreporting by as much as 2,000 calories per day.
Yet another compared obese twins to their non-obese counterparts and found that the obese twins underreported their calorie intake by an average of 764 calories.
Yet another found that people underreport calories even when their caloric intake can be verified.
Putting the nail in the coffin; in one particular study testing dietitians’ accuracy, even they underreported by an average of 225 calories, and they teach people this stuff. We can clearly see this is a huge issue.
Educating our clients about basic tracking is essential. As coaches, we need to teach them the importance of weighing and measuring everything correctly and consistently tracking everything that goes into their mouths since folks do have a habit of grabbing a small handful of nuts here, a square or two of chocolate there that may go untracked.
You and I both know how quickly those seemingly small things can add up, especially if it’s happening multiple times per day.
You should also ensure you’re educating your clients about the common pitfalls of calorie tracking. Those include not tracking cooking oils, not tracking condiments, not tracking liquid calories, and using a poor choice of entry into their tracking app — i.e., choosing “1 medium apple” instead of “250 g apple.”
If you use calorie tracking as part of your coaching approach, you should have some sort of document and/or screen-share video that teaches your clients that they can use for reference to ensure accurate tracking.
If they start tracking accurately and their actual calories were 2,700 instead of 1,400, then there we go, problem solved. However, if they truly were eating 1,400 and don’t suffer from any of the other things we talked about before, then they’re definitely safe to go into a reverse diet.
Before You Recommend a Reverse Diet
Reverse dieting can certainly be an amazing tool for many people, but please cross reference this list with your current clients or new clients before making the decision to start increasing calories.
I’ve seen it many times; someone gets their client from 1,800 to 2,300 calories over 3 months, and their issues either get worse, or they gain too much weight, their TDEE doesn’t actually raise, and they still can’t lose weight going back down to 1,800 calories.
You can save yourself and your clients several months of frustration and defeat by implementing the strategies above based if they line up with your client profile rather than jumping straight into reverse dieting.
While it may seem like a bit of a pain to go through all of this with every client, going into a reverse diet without checking these things first will be a much bigger pain and might impact your credibility as a coach. Trust me, you and your client will be much happier if you take the extra time to figure out whether or not they really need a reverse diet.
You can make this process easier on yourself by learning how to connect macros, metabolism, and functional health to your client’s needs, and you do it without spending countless hours on every client protocol and check-in. I’ve created tools, frameworks, and protocols in my Functional Nutrition and Metabolism Specialisation, which you can check out here.
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