9 Tips to Improve Reverse Dieting Adherence and Success

by | Apr 18, 2023 | Featured | 0 comments


You’re a coach. Your client comes to you needing to eat more food in order to fulfill whatever ultimate goal they have: Maybe the need to reverse from the end of a dieting phase in which they got really lean. Maybe they’re not particularly lean but have been chronically dieting. Maybe they’re just in an active mass gain phase and need to eat in a surplus.

For many clients, especially gen pop clients in which the thought of “eating more for fitness” has never crossed their mind, this can be hard. In individuals who have been eating very low calorie for quite some time, you often find their hunger signals suppressed. 

Getting these folks to actually adhere to a reverse diet can be tough, from a mental perspective sure, but many times even from a physical perspective. This post is going to be all about how to improve reverse dieting adherence to the clients who simply just aren’t hungry enough to get the food in. 

Let’s first have a discussion around why low hunger might be happening in the first place. 

Why Does Low Hunger Occur?

Let’s take a look at the case of someone who is not lean but has been yo-yo dieting for years. Perhaps the majority of the week they’d be eating 1200 calories, but felt that it was so restrictive that they had a symptom eruption and would binge most weekends. 

Perhaps they didn’t necessarily gain weight, but they remained weight stable. The majority of days their body is used to eating a lower calorie amount and thus their hunger homeostasis gets brought down to where they normally eat over time.

Let’s take a look at a different case: Someone who is very lean and is used to being very lean, and is stuck in a calorie hole with no hunger signals. There could potentially be a little ghrelin resistance going on. Remember, ghrelin is the primary hormone responsible for giving hunger pangs. When you’re very lean, levels are going to be very high fairly constantly, so we may see a resistance to its effects just as we see resistance to many different hormones that become chronically high. The good thing is, it seems that once you get over a certain hump of increasing calories, this resistance reverses rather fast. 

I should say ghrelin resistance hasn’t been confirmed in the above population, however it has been in others. Studies that really look at this are generally in cases of anorexia nervosa (its not particularly easy to get funding for a study on super lean and otherwise healthy fitness freaks). Individuals in those populations have been confirmed to experience ghrelin resistance. Again, once the refeeding process begins, this resistance dissipates rather fast. 

Tips to Increase Adherence in a Reverse Diet

  1. Increase the macronutrient density of food and reduce food volume

Liquid Calories

Liquid calories that contain some nutrient density are always an easy way to increase calories. Including more calorie dense things in the smoothie such as oats, sweet potato, avocado, a little peanut butter, greek yogurt or cottage cheese if not dairy intolerant, along with protein powder would be an easy way to get a higher calorie meal relatively quickly. Although these tend to make you feel full rather fast, they also clear the system rather fast, resulting in getting hungry earlier, or at least feeling like you’re not full. 

Bring Fibrous Vegetable Intake Down a Little and Increase Calorie Dense Starches

If someone is used to having an extensive amount of their carbohydrate come from fibrous vegetables, such as if they just ended a diet phase or maybe if they’re just of the belief that starchy carbohydrates are deleterious, then ratcheting down the amount of fibrous vegetables consumed could really decrease satiety and aid in the goal.

Don’t interpret this as an extreme; this doesn’t mean totally taking fiber out. Ensuring your client is still getting a solid 25-30g a day would still be appropriate.

If we’re bringing down fibrous veg, it follows that we replace those with easier to digest, starchy carbohydrate sources like white rice, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit, etc. A good tactic would be to make the pre- and post- workout meals devoid of fiber or low fiber. Who wants a bunch of fiber making them feel full when they’re working out anyway? Post-workout, you’ll be able to take advantage of a fast digesting meal from an insulin sensitivity standpoint. 

Ground meats

Ground meats would be another way to increase the digestion speed of meals; grinding meat takes care of some of what your teeth would normally do, and if you’re eating a steak, theres a larger chance those bites will reach your stomach less broken down than ground meat, resulting in the protein staying in your stomach for longer. 

Make Your Food Taste Good

When dieting, some people like to use the tactic of making their food not quite as palatable as it’s less of an incentive to over-eat. We can use the opposite tactic during a reverse. Use salt, herbs, and spices liberally, and split your macros equally between meals so that you can get some fat, carbs, and protein in your meals. The combination of fat and carbs is palatable, so combining these two at each meal (within your macro allowance) will be your best bet to make tastier meals.  

  1. Skew Macronutrient Ratios Towards More Carbohydrate and Less Fat

Incorporating higher GI carbohydrates is a great way to stoke hunger in an insulin sensitive individual that’s looking to reverse diet. In most cases, those that need a reverse diet are going to be more insulin sensitive just from the fact that they’ve been under-eating for so long. 

Carbohydrates raise leptin and insulin, which acutely act as a satiety signal post-meal. However, long term, in healthy individuals, these hormones, particularly leptin, also raise energy expenditure, which will result in more frequent hunger. The mild blood sugar drop that occurs an hour or two after a carbohydrate-rich meal may also trigger hunger signals. 

  1. Decrease Stress and Sympathetic Nervous System Activation

People have variable responses to stress. In some folks, it triggers them to eat more, but much of the time it can have an appetite suppressant effect. There’s also the typical cycle of having it suppressing your appetite for healthier, whole foods, and driving appetite for hyperpalatable foods. Sympathetic nervous system activation in general can be quite appetite suppressive as well. 

Practice Stress Reduction Techniques

All the ones we preach for general lifestyle stress: meditation, breathwork, walks, time in nature, art, music, time with pets and loved ones, etc. If you want a full run-down on managing stress, listen to episode 224 in my podcast feed. 

For a few more precise tips, having a high GI carbohydrate meal post-workout can quench sympathetic nervous system activation and lower cortisol a bit

Take pomodoro-style 5-15 minute work breaks throughout the day if available and do something that completely gets work out of your head. 

Incorporate stress reduction supplements like Ashwagandha and other adaptogens, CBD, phosphatidylserine, etc. 

Decrease Stimulant Use

Stimulants increase sympathetic nervous system activation, which, when overdriven, almost always has an appetite suppressant effect. Decrease coffee, tea, energy drinks, preworkout supplements, etc. if use is high. 

Modulate Workout Intensity and Frequency

If someone has a heavier psychological stress load and also working out rather intensely 5-6x a week, their sympathetic nervous system activation is probably going to be in overdrive. Reducing overall stress load of all types can help alleviate this, and this includes training stress. 

You can check HRV for chronic sympathetic nervous system activation. People may know HRV as a measure of recovery, but what it’s actually measuring is the degree of sympathetic nervous system activation. If someone has a consistently low HRV compared to where they normally are in a time of low stress, then this could be a reason for low hunger. 

  1. Assess gut health

Feelings of very early satiety can also be from either too high or too low stomach acid. You may have run across a client that says they feel full after 5-6 bites of food or a very small meal. This is usually accompanied by other gut symptoms like GERD/constipation/diarrhea/bloating/gas.

Do an assessment of their gut health and ask questions around their bloating, gas, bowel movements, etc otherwise. It’s important to ask specific questions here, since just asking “How’s your digestion?” won’t get you a lot of details. Most people don’t volunteer a lot of toilet talk. If there are issues there, then it might be prudent to address that before beginning a full reverse diet or mass gain phase. 

Sometimes this doesn’t necessarily mean food elimination. If someone’s diet has a lot of low hanging fruit, meaning a lot of processed and packaged food with low micronutrient density and like 0-5g of fiber per day, then simply cleaning up their diet, increasing food quality and fiber a bit may help mild digestive issues.

In other cases, such as someone mostly eating whole foods with a good amount of fiber already, we might be looking at an elimination or full gut protocol. 

  1. Space Meals Frequently and Evenly and Avoid Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting, for many people, ends up lowering hunger levels akin to how a low carbohydrate diet would lower hunger levels. Others may end up in a restrict-binge cycle, which also isn’t ideal for a reverse, let alone food mindset. 

Spacing food evenly and having slightly more frequent meals (this can be as simple as adding one extra meal to their daily routine, or one meal and one snack) can help this, especially if each meal contains some starchy carbohydrates via the mechanism we talked about before with carbs.

  1. Take Reverse Diet Breaks

If someone’s hunger hasn’t been stoked yet from all the other tips, sometimes after a while into a reverse diet, client’s can become mentally spent and adherence gets even worse.

Just like you may take regular diet breaks during an extended diet phase, or when trying to get extremely lean, taking 1-2 weeks at a slightly lower calorie level than what you had them target during the reverse process might help. 

  1. Include More “Free” Meals Than You Would in a Dieting Phase

Perhaps once or twice a week, encourage your client to go eat out or not care too much about what they’re consuming at a family function or dinner with friends. When I do this with my clients, in order to prevent going WAY over calories, I still tell them to moderate to the best of their ability with portion size since most restaurant food is very rich with hidden calories. Even if they’re consciously moderating they’re still going to get a larger amount of calories than they normally would. 

I’ve noticed that this can stoke hunger in the days following, allowing them to eat more of the quality food that is back within their regular lifestyle/plan. 

  1. Limit Liquids with Meals 

Besides your morning hydration, limit the liquids that you drink with your meal or within the 30 minutes before. Save drinking for after meals. 

Many studies on appetite management show that “loading” or drinking a significant amount of water/liquid before a meal does decrease calorie consumption at that meal. 

Don’t consciously consume significant amounts of liquid in the time before a meal or with it. Of course, if you’re parched and incredibly thirsty, listen to your body, but if not, save the liquids for after meals. 

  1. Change Meal Environment or Speed

These tips are basically going to be the opposite of what you’d do in a dieting phase. In dieting and decreasing calories, we want to create more awareness around food. However, this works in the opposite direction as well and we can create slightly less awareness around your food. The only danger here is your client making this a habit that would be hard to break during a diet phase. It’s important to frame why we’re doing this with the client, so they understand it’s only a short term intervention.

Tactics would include all the things that you’ve heard people shouldn’t do in most circumstances, such as:

Watch your favorite show while eating.

If you or your client is normally a very slow eater, try speeding up the rate at which you eat (keeping in mind to still chew your food enough). Studies show that if eating a meal quite slow (one study compared 6 minutes vs. 24 minutes) that slower eating will keep ghrelin, and therefore hunger, suppressed for longer.

Trick your brain with a larger plate. Perception of food does play into satiety and intake. This is called the plate-size-effect in research and has many studies backing it. The research suggests that putting food on a smaller plate increases satiety and lowers intake. If you put your food on a larger plate, it will look like a smaller amount of food compared to the plate. 


I hope this has been helpful and has given you a few more tools to use in helping your clients complete their reverse diet. Client’s will only get results as long as they can adhere to and comply with the process, assuming that a reverse diet was the right thing for them. It does tend to be over-used in the fitness space due to its popularity at the time of writing this. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to check out this post, where I go in depth on when reverse dieting might not be a good idea for your clients. 

If you want to uplevel your coaching game overall to become head and shoulders above 95% of coaches in this saturated space, you should also check out the Functional Nutrition and Metabolism Specialization program. 

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