Reverse Dieting?

A friend asked me what my thoughts are on “Reverse Dieting”, a method of manipulating metabolism to decrease body fat or weight. Is it something lifters should use? Is it healthy? What is the effect on performance?

Reverse Dieting Review

There’s a concept in “dieting” where knowing the total calories consumed and burned in a day will have a net loss or gain in weight. The standard recommendation is to drop 500 calories off of the daily intake, and since 3500 calories equals one pound, you’ll have a net decrease of one pound per week.

Except the body has millions of years of evolution that result in not wanting to wither and starve, so it makes it difficult to lose weight and body fat. Eventually metabolism is lowered in order to accommodate the lack of calories, and weight loss will stagnate.

Reverse Dieting adds a low percentage — around 5% per week — of calories back into the daily diet in order to raise the metabolism. A bunch of good things happen, and the person generally feels better, yet they still have a decrease in weight or fat because they’re overall caloric intake is still below their “pre-dieting level”.

get-low-calorie-soda-to-be-healthier-still-fatMy Response

Of course they are going to feel better when they add some calories; they were fucking starving! Look, I’m probably the wrong guy to ask about this. For one or two years my recommendation was pounding as much food as possible and drinking a gallon of milk a day. Kidding aside, here’s a full disclaimer, I wrote and sell a nutrition book — Paleo for Lifters — and don’t really like conventional nutrition wisdom, even the natural bodybuilding kind that is successful. And here’s why.

First, the concept of “dieting” bothers me. The word “diet” is a derivative of a Greek word that means “way of life”, implying that a “diet” is what you do all of the time, not just when you’re trying to lose weight or fat. My nutrition philosophy revolves around a base structure that can be tweaked towards a goal. We can call this base “the Paleo diet”, or we can say “not eating processed and inflammatory foods”…whatever. If food quality is consistently sound, then it solves a lot of weight and body fat issues without even getting specific. I’m not a weirdo who thinks the entire lifestyle needs to be predicated on Paleolithic populations, but remember what century you’re in; there’s a lot of horrible, shitty food out there, and the more you cut out all the chemical bullshit, the better.

Second, Reverse Dieting is based on a conventional idea that cutting calories solves the problem. Sure, diet is an important part of health and fat/weight loss, but it’s exponentially more effective with purposeful training. Another tenet of my nutrition philosophy is the training associated with it, and that’s strength training with barbells and high intensity conditioning. The hormonal effect from training, not “working out”, is so important, it can even overrule a shitty diet (yeah, I’m talking to you Dr. Kilgore!). Let’s assume someone is doing a decent job of exercising while Reverse Dieting, which leads me to the next point…

Third, there’s a hormonal effect from food. Dr. Barry Sears said it best with, “Food is a drug.” I understand the concept of not “violating the rules of thermodynamics” blah-fuckity-blah (such a pretentious thing to say about nutrition), but there are direct, secondary, and tertiary effects from the things you put in your mouth (more on that in “On Drugs and Supplements“). Calories obviously matter, but to ignore the fact that sugary corn syrup and a sweet potato have a very different effect means you a) don’t know how it’s different or b) don’t really give a shit. This isn’t the place to get into it, but food is a drug and will have an effect on hormone function, and not just insulin and its sensitivity. Merely cutting calories is a temporary solution, because if someone is fat, they need an entire paradigm shift of how to consume food, not merely having less of it.

Third, Reverse Dieting is one of those “counting calories” things. And aside from it being a giant pain in the ass, it makes people weird. More often than people want to admit, it makes them have a complex about their food, bodies, and self-esteem. Any coach or trainer who thinks they haven’t had a client with one of these issues must have got their certification for a few hundred bucks this past weekend. Even in my world — the one where people want to kick doors down, run fast, and throw some god damn iron around — there are people who get lost worrying about this stuff. I think everyone should be able to look at a few ounces of meat and know how much protein is in there and look at some fruit and know how many carbs they are about to eat, but counting calories and macros should be reserved for those really hard pushes for competition or losing body fat…after learning and implementing food quality.

Fourth, calorie cutting and Reverse Dieting isn’t good for performance. Again, I prefer to work with guys who want hairy chests and jacked backs, and women who want to squat more than most “men”, so “cutting calories” is the equivalent of a POW scenario. Most of these gimmicky diets are used by folks who only, or primarily, care about aesthetics. We train to get better at something, and the aesthetics are a byproduct of training. Instead, restructure how you eat, train intelligently, and then — and only then — jump into the weeds looking for tiny-ass insects like “macros” and “total calories”.

No, I don’t think Reverse Dieting is a good idea. I may not have explained it accurately, but I don’t think I care. I’m all about cleaning up food quality, eating protein to maintain or build lean body mass, eating carbs to match activity level, and eating fat to recover from elbow dropping training sessions. When people complain about Paleo being low-carb, they’re just stupid…just eat more carbs! This shit isn’t hard to explain, it’s just hard to do because it has to be done consistently.

I’m not into gimmick diets like Reverse Dieting, I’m into the “way of life” thing. Base your nutrition on real food — it was slaughtered or gardened within a couple days — without inflammatory effects, train smart, sleep more, and reap the reward. It’s easy to adjust, and there aren’t too many fat people who do it this way.



6 thoughts on “Reverse Dieting?

  1. This is an awesome article, Justin, but I have just one complaint. It’s slightly off topic so I hope you’ll forgive me for bringing it up. It’s about this part:

    “the more you cut out all the chemical bullshit, the better”

    You and I both know what you mean when you say “chemical bullshit,” and this may seem pedantic at first, but bear with me. Literally everything is made of chemicals, and not all artificially produced chemical compounds are harmful. I worry that when the word “chemical” is used as shorthand for “artificial,” and “artificial” is understood to mean “harmful,” we risk creating or perpetuating the idea that what’s natural is necessarily better than the artificial.

    In terms of food consumption I agree with you (or what I assume your position is) — processed or, quad forbid, manufactured “food products” will never be as good for us as something that grows under the sun. But the world is full of manufactured products (like vaccines) that are far safer and more effective than their natural alternatives.

    I realize that this is not the forum for airing my pro-vaccine dogma, and I apologize again for posting something off topic. But ever since my niece was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that makes her vulnerable to disease, I have been thinking much more about the anti-vax movement and how to counter their… *cough* “ideas”. I hope you’ll forgive me for dropping this essay here.

  2. To be fair, I think reverse dieting is aimed at a completely different audience. It’s a method optimizing that last little few % of gains by increasing your caloric intake, while still getting leaner. Which for a professional natural bodybuilder, or someone who counts every calorie, is basically magic, and a huge deal (aka someone like Layne Norton)

    Obviously for the average person, religiously counting every calorie leads to crashes/binges/brain cancer, and is ALOT more effort than required for a non-professional athlete. Making a more ‘lifestyle’ diet (aka paleo, etc) a better option. But there is going to be an optimal macro nutrient composition for a given goal, and the closer you can stick to that the better (with diminishing returns of course).

    A big deal for someone already counting every calorie, irrelevant for everyone else.

  3. I think it’s important to note, though, that most people trying to improve body composition, especially those who need to lose significant amounts of body fat, will eventually need to decrease total caloric intake to reach their goals. Robb Wolf has talked about this recently; improving food quality and decreasing carbohydrate intake can be a good first step, but at some point that just won’t be good enough.

  4. Great article. If I may be so humble to add, “Know yourself”. I retired from the retail grocery and witnessed shopping habits that simply appalled. For those in the pro ranks I do not comment, but Joe and Jane (six-pack) Doe – – – Eat better and less, and get off the fucking couch a little and see WTF happens!

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