Conservative Vs Aggressive Reverse Diets

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Written by Master Coach Kim Leggett

Going on a diet appears to be the obvious first step for anyone who has made the decision to take control of their physique and lose some fat. However, not everyone should do so!

If your client is someone who has a history of yo-yo dieting, severe calorie restriction or consecutive failed diet attempts, diving head first into yet another diet is unlikely going to give positive results. Instead, it will most likely cause more harm than good. 

When a client yo-yo diets, their body’s metabolism goes haywire. As calories are dropped too low for too long, the body switches into survival mode in order to intervene in this change. For example, it reduces the number of daily calories burned throughout the day priming the body for surprising weight gain- this is a ‘metabolic adaptation’, and is the body trying to fight against the calorie deficit. To the body, a deficit isn’t a tactic for trimming down- it’s a challenge to survival. There is a fine line between dropping calories and increasing exercise before this lifestyle becomes miserable and unsustainable.

If this sounds familiar, this where the art of reverse dieting comes in as a possible solution to reboot the metabolism. Like a diet that goes backward, you can recommend calories or macros each week and train your client’s metabolism in the opposite direction- by going up! It takes a while but when it’s over, your client will be able to cut from (or maintain on) higher calories.

When a client is reverse dieting, they are building up calories up to their true daily energy expenditure (TDEE) whilst mitigating how much body fat they put on during this process.

When we look at approaching a reverse diet, there are 3 main approaches. These approaches are: conservative, moderate and aggressive.

In this article, we will look more closely at a conservative vs aggressive approach.

Which approach we take will depend on the starting point.

For example, if you have lost a large amount of weight in a short time, the goal is going to be a conservative reverse diet because we want to build up slowly!

We do this by firstly recalculating the client’s current TDEE (or finishing body weight and body fat). This is going to be the target calories we are aiming to hit by the end of the reverse diet.

For example, a female client who finishes her diet at 65kg at 25% body fat and dropped 7kg in total is currently sitting on 1,400 calories. After recalculating her TDEE we need to get her up to 2,285 calories from 1,400 over the next 12 weeks or so. We would aim to do this conservatively by increasing calories by 50 calories or so (5-10% increase) at a time. We ascertain when it is appropriate to increase calories when the body has maintained weight for a minimum of 2-3 weeks at each increment of calories.

The reason we do this instead of jumping straight to baseline is to account for metabolic adaptation and the fact that she has lost a fair amount of weight and body fat over that time. Given that her body resulted in a fat loss response by being on 1,400 calories, this shows that her actual TDEE is substantially lower than 2,285 calories- so we need to ensure we don’t put her straight into a surplus as she will experience rapid weight gain! After a fat loss period our body is primed to put on body fat and accumulate new fat cells so we need to be patient and allow the body to settle slowly into its new maintenance point.

On the other hand, for competitors who have dieted easily, are naturally lean and did not require losing excess weight, can be brought up to maintenance much quick without the risk of gaining body fat as they would not have gone through the same metabolic adaptation. Another example of a person who can benefit for a more aggressive approach is someone who has gotten very lean but suffered bad metabolic adaptations. By getting out of a deficit and putting body fat on will actually be the best way to counter any negative effects such as low energy levels and loss of libido. We do this by upping calories by 200 calories per increment or stick to the same increase in calories (5-10%) but do this more frequently. So instead of doing this every 2-3 weeks we do this every 7-10 days.

If you’re unsure as to which approach is right for your client, the answer is almost always to go conservative! This is the optimal way to success reverse diet by ensuring maximal calorie gain with minimal weight gain. In the end, reverse dieting is about boosting TDEE and improving the bodies function. Although it can take willpower and patience to ride out the weeks on end to get your body back up to maintenance, the benefits outweigh the negatives and your client will be better off longterm for having put in the work weekly to allow their body to reset in the best way possible.

Want to learn the science of reverse dieting & a system you can apply to maximize your client’s health & results long term?⁣
Enrol into Dr Layne Norton’s Ultimate Physique Science Bundle (includes the Science of Nutrition & Training The Physique Athlete online courses).

Clean Health Fitness Institute (2020). Performance Nutrition Coach Certification 1.
Norton, L (2020). Science of Nutrition

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