Are You Eating Enough? Why NOT DIETING might be the key to your physique goals.
Most of the people who contact me looking for my help, do so because they have come to the decision that they need to go on a diet. And in wanting to take control of their physique, weight, and lose some fat, the next step seems clear: Cut calories, get ready to up the gym time, and hire a coach to keep you on track.
But honestly, for those with a history of crash dieting, severe calorie restriction, or multiple failed diet attempts, jumping once more on the diet bandwagon is unlikely to yield results, and will probably do more harm than good.
Often in these cases, I wind up INCREASING the client's calories FIRST, or "reverse dieting" them out of the deficit they've placed themselves in for so many months.
Here's why: Over repeated bouts of calorie restriction, your metabolism takes a beating. When you drop calories too low for too long, your body intervenes on several fronts. Most notably, it reduces the number of calories you burn throughout the day, often priming your body for surprisingly rapid weight gain.
This biological phenomenon is NOT a "broken metabolism", it's simply "metabolic adaptation," but it can make weight loss and weight management challenging.
With your body continuously fighting to erase the calorie deficit necessary for fat loss, eating fewer calories than you burn can eventually become very tricky. You can only drop calories so low and increase exercise so much before that lifestyle not only becomes utterly miserable but also unsustainable.
This is why EATING MORE, or "reverse dieting" can help.
What is "reverse dieting?"
Reverse dieting sounds fancy, but essentially it just an "upside down" diet, or a diet turned on its head. It's the process of ADDING calories into your daily intake versus the process of TAKING calories away.
Although it sounds simple (eat more!) there's more to reverse dieting than just haphazardly adding in food. If you want to maximize gains in metabolic rate without storing a ton of body fat, you have to go slow, be strategic and patient. You need to give your metabolism time to adjust by making slow, strategic and deliberate changes.
To understand and appreciate the importance of reverse dieting, and why you may actually need to eat more to reach your physique goals, you first have to understand what happens to your body during metabolic adaptation.
When you drastically restrict calories or lose weight, your body senses the energy gap and your departure from its body-fat set point. As a result, it attempts to "correct" the energy gap and stop the fat loss:
1) Your organs consume less energy
2)Your heart beats slower as sympathetic nervous system activity declines
3) Hormones that influence metabolism and appetite, such as thyroid hormone, testosterone, leptin, and ghrelin, are adversely effected
4) You burn less energy during nonexercise activities, such as fidgeting, walking around the house, working, and doing chores
5) You use fewer calories to absorb and digest food because you're eating less
6) Your muscle becomes more efficient, requiring less fuel for a given amount of work
These changes ultimately boil down to burning fewer calories, both at rest and while working out. I know that none of this sounds positive, but it's also nothing to "panic" over. Every single one of these adaptation is healthy and normal and part of your body's natural survival mechanisms.
Understanding and accepting that these adaptations take place can help you make the appropriate choices for yourself when it comes to your nutrition.
What's more, many of the physiological changes that work to slow metabolism during calorie restriction can occur in the opposite direction when adding calories back in to help make the metabolism faster.
How do you know if you should start to increase you calories? The following are some things to pay attention to:
1) You have come off of an extreme weight loss diet and never changed anything after the initial weight loss. (AKA never slowly started to eat more)
2) You have a history of yo-yo dieting (losing and gaining weight over and over and over)
3) You have hit a plateau and nothing you do seems to work or make a change in your body
4) You don’t eat a lot... at all (1000 calories or less a day) and you are often not even hungry.
5) You have lost your period or it’s spotty month to month
6) You don’t really have regular bowel movements.
7) You work out a TON (everyday or close to everyday)
8) You do cardio 5x a week or more
9) You are often tired, cranky, depressed, sore, achy and overall just blah
10) You worry about your next meals or often feel guilty for eating certain foods
11) You don’t feel good about your body despite how much you diet and how much you workout
If you went through this list of questions and answered yes to more than half of them, then quite possibly the answer to your physique goals might NOT be another calorie cut, another cardio increase, another "diet". It just might be to slowly add calories back in, and work yourself up to a higher caloric intake.
I know the idea of eating more food, for many women is terrifying, but you have to ask yourself what needs to be done in the best interest of your health and your fitness goals.
Do you want to continue living your life as a slave to the gym and constantly placing rules and restrictions around food?
Do you want to wander around hungry, cranky, and exhausted?
Aren't you tired of losing and gaining weight over and over again?
Deciding to reverse diet, or increase your calories is a long term investment in your body and health. Not only can it change your physical appearance but it will have a positive impact on your entire life on a much larger scale.
This all being said it's not an easy process to go through.
The following are some tips I can offer about the process of reverse dieting, having gone through it numerous times as an athlete, and having coached many clients through it as well.
1) TAKE IT SLOW. It's not a race! I know there are conflicting opinions out there as to how many calories to add into your diet and how fast you should take calories up. There is, however, no "hard and fast" rule.
I feel that the "speed" of a reverse diet depends very much upon the individual, how low of a deficit they were in calorically, and for how long, and how mentally "positive" they feel about the reverse diet process. Some people can handle higher calorie loads right away, others need to go much slower. The key is to take it step by step and allow your body to adjust to each calorie increase.
In general I feel 100-200 calorie increases each week is a good place to start. If you add that caloric amount in and have zero to minimal weight gain, you can repeat that process the following week, and so on until you get calories up to maintenance.
On the flipside, if you gained more than a couple of pounds, hold off and wait until weight stabilizes until you add more food in. Once your weight has stabilized, then try again.
Some people will be able to add more frequently and at higher amounts, and that's fine. IT IS NOT A RACE. Go at your own speed and do what works for you.
2) ACCEPT THAT YOUR WEIGHT MAY GO UP. There are some people who actually LOSE WEIGHT during the initial phases of a reverse diet. They get leaner and tighter and bodyweight goes down. However, others aren’t so fortunate. Sometimes the scale leaps up. I have found that when the scale goes up, people immediately panic and get scared they are doing something wrong. This is a pivotal point in the process. Because the WORST thing you can do at this point is panic and cut back calories. You have to have some faith in the journey.
For EVERYONE, at some point the numbers on the scale WILL increase. Even if your weight doesnt going up much during your reverse diet, your weight will likely go up when you hit maintenance calories and consume that higher caloric intake for a while.
This is especially true if you're training hard and building muscle, which weighs more then fat. If you are doing things correctly (training & nutrition), fat gain will be minimal and muscle gain will be optimal.
3) KEEP THE BIG PICTURE IN MIND. This is crucial. Ultimately, the main goal in a reverse diet is to bring back and BUILD a healthy metabolism (again, our bodies were NOT meant to diet our whole lives’).
Instead of focusing so much of your attention on the scale, try to remember that you are only given ONE body in this life and you need to treat it properly. The last thing you want to do is continue to diet and deprive yourself day after day month after month year after year. Long term health should ALWAYS be your number one concern.
Why would anyone want to live the majority of their lives’ feeling less than optimal?
Why feel hungry and tired all of the time when it’s not necessary?
Getting your calories back up, temporarily, will help speed up your metabolism and will inevitably put you in a better place to maintain a healthy weight, and to handle a calorie deficit if you chose to lose weight and/or bodyfat in the future.
4) REMEMBER TO APPRECIATE ALL PHASES OF YOUR JOURNEY– I feel like a broken record because I say this so often to my clients through email, and to my followers on IG and social media, but you have to find appreciation in the process, YOUR process. You have to accept that each phase of your journey has a place and a purpose.
You cannot spend your life eating sub 1000 calories and doing cardio for hours trying to "keep" your weight at some arbitrary number.
It will catch up for you and the results will be horrifying. So remember that getting calories back up after a long diet is a necessity, to your mental and physical health.
Just as cutting calories, is a phase in your journey, so is adding calories back in. Find the positives in what you're doing, and appreciate the role this phase in your process will play in the overall scope of your fitness goals.