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The Reverse Diet Survival Guide
Months have passed, you’ve mustered up thousands of steps on the treadmill, uttered plenty of prayers before stepping on the bathroom scale for those weekly check-ins, and ran every calculation possible in the IIFYM calculator. You’ve upgraded your Instagram selfie game and reached the dieting goal you set prior to stepping on a bodybuilding stage or hitting up the beach for that family vacation.
Despite those washboard abs, peeled pecs and a DM packed with admirers, you’re ready to throw that kitchen scale in the back of the closet and all dietary inhibition to the wind.
The reality of the matter is, however; the work is far from over. Now that you’ve reached your body composition goal, it’s time use that momentum to begin gradually adding calories back into your diet, reduce your total aerobic activity and begin to bring your metabolic rate back to pre-diet levels while preventing unnecessary body fat accumulation, and of course, keep that body comp on point for those Insta-fans.
It’s time to reverse diet, and lucky for you, here’s a complete survival guide that will help you transition out of your diet and into the best possible circumstance for getting back to making improvements to your physique.
Remember Where a Reverse Diet Will Take You
Using the strategies in this article can be very beneficial to a successful reverse diet, but equally, as beneficial is remembering why exactly a reverse diet is so important for anyone coming off a dieting phase.
When dieting, the long-term restriction of calories and increase in aerobic activity, which creates the caloric deficit that prompts fat loss, also creates an adaption to the metabolic rate. 1
That metabolic adaption essentially means the body will expend less daily calories to serve as sort of a “starvation prevention” mechanism. This fact is the reason we need to periodically remove more food from a diet, or increase cardio to continue weight loss.
If a metabolism didn’t adapt during a diet, the IIFYM coaches would only need to make one change to a diet to create a caloric deficit for continual weight loss, and it would also mean a human would starve to death (literally) much quickly without the metabolisms’ survival mechanism.
Even in the most well-programmed diet, metabolic adaption is unavoidable but also a necessary mechanism for survival. Although it’s nothing to fear if the dieting phase is programmed appropriately, it is something that needs to be kept in mind during and after dieting phases.
Once the diet is finished, it’s time to begin a reverse diet which will allow that metabolic rate to return back to pre-diet levels through increased food intake and reduced aerobic activity, while working to prevent unnecessary body fat in the process.
Without going down a rabbit hole with too many details, this is the reason why a reverse diet, rather than suddenly returning to pre-diet food intake, is so important.
Metabolic Adaption Example
If you were to, for example, start your diet with an intake of 3,000 calories per day, then 4 months later finish dieting with an intake of 1,850 calories. It would be unwise to suddenly jump right back up to that 3,000 calorie intake instead of reverse dieting.
The reason for this is that during that diet, your metabolic rate will have declined and thus become unable to accommodate for such a sudden influx of calories.
Instead, it would be prudent to gradually reverse diet, maybe adding 100-300 calories per week (amount and frequency of additions would depend on a number of factors). This reverse diet would essentially allow your body to adapt to the increasing intake, rather than being “shocked” by a flood of unexpected calories.
Often times it can be a great idea to make the first 1-2 reverse diet macro increases a bit more substantial.
If you’ve ever had a friend dieting for several months either to compete in a bodybuilding show, or simply to look better, only to rapidly regain their lost weight after ending the diet, it’s due to the above situation and them very likely returning to a much higher food intake suddenly, rather than slowly reversing back to their pre-diet intake.
Following a proper reverse diet, whether you’re a serious physique athlete or just worked extremely hard to lose unwanted body fat and feel better in your day to day life, is going to be just as important as the diet itself in helping you achieve the physique you have been working so hard for over the long term and remaining as healthy as possible in the process.
Remember What Got You Here
Without the deadline for an upcoming show or photo shoot, it’s really easy to shirk all accountability and go completely off the deep end while transitioning into the growth season. Athletes begin swapping out the rippled muscles for ruffled chips, and 6-pack abs for 6-packs of muffins.
Once show day has passed, so too has any thought of all the tips and tricks used to make the diet a success in the first place. Many will resort to fitting in as much low volume, calorically dense favorites they can find into their macros, leaving them hungry and lethargic; or worse yet, forgo reverse dieting altogether and jump into a perma-bulk.
For the athletes looking to make their offseason as efficient as possible, or the non-competitor eager to keep their new body composition intact, coaches such as those on the IIFYM staff see the most successful clients come from successful reverse diets
As calorie intake is gradually increased through reverse dieting over the coming months post-diet, keeping nutrient dense, higher volume, unprocessed foods as the majority of intake can greatly reduce hunger levels, making it much easier to remain consistent with your reverse diet.
It’s easy to resort to all the foods you’ve largely removed from your prep diet in place of more satiating foods, but keep in mind that those types of treats aren’t going anywhere, and will be just as accessible later to fit into your IIFYM diet.
Rules of the Reverse
There are some general rules of thumb that can go a long way not just for curbing appetite when calories are lower, but can also help promote general health year round. Especially during your reverse diet, aim to consume the following each day:
- 2-4 servings each of various fruits & vegetables
- At least half your grains from whole grain sources
- 14 grams of dietary fiber for every 1,000 calories consumed daily
- 1-2 gallons of water
- Whole foods instead shakes or powders (greater overall food volume)
When following IIFYM, the decision to limit high-calorie sweets and instead focus on nutrient dense foods until intake is higher and metabolism and hormone levels are back to baseline levels can be a challenge, but a challenge that brings an amazing payoff in return if accepted.
Big First, Small Later
The degree of macro adjustments from week to week in a reverse diet can be quite variable depending on the intensity and duration of the recent dieting phase, current food intake and body composition, the rate of weight gain from one week to another, and even gender and lifestyle.
However, generally, an addition of food could be as small as 10-15 grams carbohydrate and 4-8 grams of fat (given the assumption that protein is already at a suitable level), or as large as 20-40 grams carbohydrate and 10-12 grams of fat.
I encourage clients to consider moving their high carb day from their usual day to the day of an upcoming event if it doesn’t already coincide.
Although each person’s ideal reverse diet will vary, it’s generally accepted that most additions are relatively small as a coach and athlete feel it out based on the above factors. That said, often times it can be a great idea to make the first 1-2 reverse diet macro additions a bit more substantial.
By doing this, a few changes will be unlikely to lead to extra fat gain but could make the early stages of the reverse diet much more mentally manageable. After dieting for months, and making every gram of macros count, having an extra 30-40 grams of carbs to work with during the first couple of weeks of the reverse diet can make the process much easier.
After settling into the more substantial, initial additions; it will be easier to adhere to more gradual macro additions in the coming weeks as body composition and metabolic rate developments are kept as top priorities.
Pregame Before Events
Before flashbacks surge back from your college days, this pregame is a little different than you may have delved in before. 9 times out of 10, people are most relieved to finish dieting since it means less stress attending events, dinners, and being more social without the fear of blowing their contest prep on fun food or drinks.
Since I never encourage clients to avoid social occasions for the sake of their diet, there are some strategies you can follow before going out for the evening that can help make the events much less likely to bust up your reverse diet.
A simple high protein, low carb meal eaten before heading out for the evening can do wonders for curbing an appetite and reducing the chance of letting hunger and cravings take control when away from your normal foods and surrounded by only high-calorie options.
Part of our strategy is making sure that your satiation is curbed, let us build your Custom Macro Blueprint so you can sustainably lose body fat without starving!
Consider meals as simple as a salad with a lean protein source and low-calorie dressing can help ensure you’re meeting your protein target for the evening’s meal, but also already have something to help prevent your hunger from getting as amped as you will be reuniting with friends. Even low-carb protein pancakes or a quick protein smoothie are great options.
Regardless of your meal choice, a substantial amount of research in recent years suggests protein consumption prior to a big meal can significantly reduce total food intake, so focusing on protein-based meals can be a great decision during a reverse diet.[2,3,4]
Floating High Carb Day
For most clients, I tend to structure diets around six “normal” days and one high carb day (HCD) where protein and fat are kept the same, but carbohydrate intake is increased one day of the week. Doing so helps with glycogen replenishment, provides a mental break from dieting and also tests how clients respond to various higher carb intakes which can help me determine changes in the offseason
For these HCDs, I have clients pick a day of the week that best fits their preference and schedule, and have their HCD that same day each week, something that helps with keeping weekly weigh-ins more consistent. That being said, there are exceptions to this recommendation, like when clients are reverse dieting and adherence is a top priority.
Although most clients have their HCD on a Friday or Saturday since that is most commonly when social events and date nights are scheduled, plans change and special events pop up. When that happens, I encourage clients to consider moving their HCD from their usual day to the day of an upcoming event if it doesn’t already coincide for the first few months of a reverse diet.
The change in weekly check-in consistency is much less important than making sure a client is able to adhere to the current plan and continue reverse dieting successfully.
By having a few months of a “floating high carb day, “ clients can still reap the benefits of the higher carb intake while keeping total weekly macros within the current plan and reduce the chance of overeating and unnecessary body fat.
Then, as reverse dieting continues, it can become more and more easy to balance the new growth season diet with social events and simply eating without stressing over that extra chicken wing or drink with friends.
Create Homemade Favorites
After not having the ability to easily fit high-calorie foods like pastries into a prep diet, as calories are re-introduced post show- a serving of a favorite store-bought cinnamon roll worked into a diet responsibly using IIFYM, quickly turns to late night fridge fests. The mindset that some foods have to be restricted entirely during prep leads to an all or none mindset during the subsequent reverse diet.
Cooking at home is always best while tracking macros. Yet, before doing this, let us take out the guesswork by having one of our coaches build your Custom Macro Blueprint! This will ensure that all your hard work doesn’t go to waste.
Instead, with a little research and baking skills, most would be surprised at how easy it is to reverse diet while enjoying diet-friendly versions of favorite foods like pizzas, cakes, and even donuts. Making these foods at home can make them much easier to track for flexible dieters.
This will help people enjoy the foods they most crave through IIFYM without having to completely forsake the long-term goal of improving body composition.
There are some general kitchen tips and swaps that can make homemade versions of sweets and comfort food much easier to fit into your macros.
These can be easily swapped out for oils and butter in baked goods recipes such as cakes, not to mention save a lot of macros during a reverse diet. A good rule of thumb would be one serving of the following ingredients for every serving of butter or oil in a homemade or box mix recipe.
- Canned pumpkin
- Low sugar applesauce
- Mashed bananas
- Ground flaxseed in place of whole eggs (mix equal parts water with flaxseed before adding into a recipe)
- Low carb wraps (Flat-Out Wraps or Joseph’s Lavash Wraps are great brands) for pizza crusts, homemade baked chips, burrito tortillas etc.
- Cauliflower crusts (more preparation time needed than low carb wraps, but plenty of recipes available online if you want to sneak in extra servings of vegetables).
Low-Calorie Options for Common Ingredients
- Low-fat/fat-free shredded cheese for burritos, pizzas, salads. (Or use half full-fat, half low-fat options for more similar flavor profile).
- Fat-free cream cheese with added low-calorie sweeteners and flavoring rather than store-bought cream cheese to make cinnamon rolls, add to bagels, or top pancakes & French toast with.
- Low fat, high protein Greek yogurts for the base of homemade “ice cream” that can be easily flavored with various yogurt flavors, fruits, extracts and protein powders/low-calorie versions of toppings.
- Low sugar jams as a substitute for fillings in homemade pastries (or simply mashing up various fruits and mixing with low sugar syrups).
Two Steps Forward, No Steps Back
Contrary to the popular phrase, you don’t have to take steps back to take steps forward. You’ve spent months dieting to unveil a physique you’ve worked years on end to create. Putting in all that effort, only to sabotage yourself afterward by is one of the consequential disservices a person can do for their long-term progress.
Instead, reflect on the work required to get where you are, and use that as fuel to push forward to even greater progress through an efficient reverse diet and upcoming growth season. It’s called a reverse diet, but there are no steps backward anymore- just progress to your ultimate you!
- Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: Implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014; 11: 7. [Pubmed: 24571926]
- Akhavan, T., Luhovyy, B. L., Brown, P. H., Cho, C. E., & Anderson, G. H. (2010). Effect of premeal consumption of whey protein and its hydrolysate on food intake and postmeal glycemia and insulin responses in young adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(4), 966-975. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28406
- Oesch, S. (2005). Effect of a protein preload on food intake and satiety feelings in response to duodenal fat perfusions in healthy male subjects. AJP: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 289(4). doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00039.2005
- Vandewater, K., & Vickers, Z. (1996). Higher-protein foods produce greater sensory-specific satiety. Physiology & Behavior, 59(3), 579-583. doi:10.1016/0031-9384(95)02113-2