By ALEXANDRA MATZKO
Even though 60-70% of overweight Americans are able to lose the weight, 95% of them end up regaining all the weight they lost and then some. In two previous articles, I discussed why that is and the habits of the 5% of successful diet maintainers.
Today, I’m going to explain how to be a normal, non-dieting person again. I’m going to talk about how to cut back on those hours of cardio you do every week without sacrificing your new physique. I’m going to explain how to eat more in a structured way without gaining back pounds of fat. This information comes from a YouTube series done by the fitness and nutrition expert Layne Norton. Be sure to check him out.
But first, a story.
The Hadza tribe in Tanzania is a modern hunter-gatherer group that lives the way our ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago. They hunt by spearing an animal and then jogging after it for MILES AND MILES until the animal exhausts itself because that’s how old school humans defeated their prey: they outran them.
Scientists assumed the tribe members must burn thousands of calories a day with all their running the same way I hope to when I run miles on the treadmill. They tested their hypothesis, and they were wrong. Well, if I were a Hadza tribeswoman, I would be pissed. But, the reality of this lower-than-expected calorie burn is actually a good thing. If they actually burned 3,000+ calories from hunting alone, there is no possible way they would ever harvest and hunt enough to sufficiently feed themselves. While requiring 5,000 calories a day to survive does sound like a gluttonous paradise, it’s a lot of eating in reality, especially without the luxury of our processed, calorie-dense foods.
This lower calorie burn a survival mechanism. Our bodies adapt to become more efficient with calories (slower burning) to avoid starving. Your first day on the treadmill is torture that will surely kill you, but your one hundredth day is a whole lot easier. Your body has adapted to it, and the same workout becomes less and less effective at burning calories as you did so. The cycle makes sense: push yourself, adapt, repeat. It would be extremely frustrating if our efforts didn’t result in some improvement. The same thing happens when you go into a calorie deficit: your body adapts to your new, lower intake of calories.
If you’ve lost a lot of weight, you had to keep pushing your calories lower and lower as your body continually adapted until you reached your goal weight. At the end of a diet, this means your daily maintenance calories, the amount you can now return to eating without losing/gaining weight, might have gotten pretty low too. Maybe it’s down to 1,500 + the 45 minutes of high intensity jogging on the treadmill that you do 5 days a week.
I don’t know about you, but eating that little and having to keep up the intense jogging so frequently is not a life I want to live for the rest of my days.
I want a higher caloric threshold. I want more flexibility for the holidays and celebrations and weekends without regaining weight. And, I cannot commit to doing a physical activity I detest forever.
Is there a way to have my cake and eat it too? Yes, it’s called the reverse diet.
How to Reverse Diet
A reverse diet is a way to raise your metabolic rate (your daily calorie burn) with as little fat gain as possible. It’s eating in a controlled surplus.
1. Figure out your new maintenance calories
There are several online calculators that spit out your expected maintenance calories number, but they don’t take into account the fact that you’ve been dieting for a while and your metabolism has slowed down.
A more valid way to determine your current maintenance calories is to use your tracking data. How many calories have you been eating weekly on average and how much weight have you lost on a weekly average? I ate 1,800 calories on average last week and lost 1 pound. That means I’m eating at around a 500 calorie deficit. So, my current maintenance calories is 2,300. 1.5 pounds of weekly weight loss = 750 calorie deficit, .5 pounds of weekly weight loss = 250 calorie deficit, etc.
2. Lift heavy weights
Current research shows that in order to gain muscle, we must eat a calorie surplus. There’s some literature indicating possible body recomposition and muscle growth while on a calorie deficit, but that’s a whole other can of worms.
Since you’re eating at a surplus, put that extra energy to use. Direct it to building muscle rather than gaining fat through sending an anabolic signal by lifting weights. Women, don’t be afraid to lift heavy. You should be using at least 8+ pound dumbbells if you’re a fit person. Use a barbell. You should be squatting and deadlifting.
Lift more and more as your body adapts. More muscle will not only raise your metabolic rate, it will make your body look better! You’ll get smooth curves and that coveted toned look. It helps regulate hormones. And no, you won’t look like the Hulk. It’s almost impossible for women to gain that type of muscle unless you’re a professional CrossFitter or power lifter or a guy. Plus, this type of workout isn’t as stressful on the body as a heart-pumping, adrenaline-firing treadmill session.
You don’t have to kill yourself in the gym either. Follow a good, full body weight lifting program two days a week. Walk on your rest days and do mobility work to improve your squat form and address any aches and pains and improve your vitality and wellness overall. Make sure you switch up your routine every 3-4 weeks as your body adapts. I recommend the MAPS programs sold through the Mind Pump company.
3. Slowly increase your calories and decrease cardio (if necessary)
First caveat of a reverse diet: yes, you may gain a little weight while doing it, but what’s the alternative? If your new maintenance calorie level is not sustainable, you’re going to overeat one way or the other; it’s inevitable.
A reverse diet is at the very least a tracked and structured way to manage that and will give you better end results.
While implementing your new weight lifting routine, start eating at your determined maintenance calories. Maybe you want to stay at maintenance for a week. You’ll enjoy the influx of new energy thanks to all that extra food!
Then, you will increase your carbohydrate and fat intake from 2-10% per week.
For example, if I eat 150 grams of carbs and 50 grams of fat at maintenance, I might conservatively increase my calories by adding 5% to each and eating 7.5-10 more grams of carbs and 2.5 more grams of fat.
That additional amount isn’t a lot, but if do this for 10 weeks, you would increase to 35-40 more grams of carbs and 20-25 more grams of fat. That’s almost 400 more calories a day. That’s a significant increase through this progress over time method.
Also, you don’t necessarily have to take the reverse so slowly. You could be more aggressive by veering closer to 10% jumps. It all depends on your priorities: is it more important for your to maintain leanness or eat more calories quickly?
Since your protein should’ve stayed stable and high during your deficit, you shouldn’t need to add more. Eating more calories is protein sparing, so you actually end up not needing as much protein now that you’re in a calorie surplus.
If you adhere to a reverse conservatively (</= 5% increases), fat regain should not be significant, think 4-5 pounds. But, if you get a bit loose with it, it’s really easy to gain more fat as discussed in my first article of this series.
If you’re decreasing cardio because your current routine isn’t sustainable in the long-term, do so conservatively. Go from 5 days of jogging to 4 or 45 minutes of jogging to 30 and so forth. Track your progress.
4. Carefully track your progress
Continue to track calories, macros, and weight just like you did when in a deficit. Continuing to track is one of the key habits of successful weight loss maintainers.
If your weight jumps up your first week on a reverse, don’t panic. Hold steady at your new calorie and macro intake for another week or two. Wait for your weight to settle down and remain stable. It might even decrease. Then, continue with your 2-10% reverse diet increases. Make sure you’re lifting heavy weights so that your gains go mainly to your muscles and not to fat.
Weight gain during a reverse might look like a staircase: you gain no weight week 1, no weight week 2, then 1-2 lbs week 3. Keep steady for the couple weeks after a significant weight gain and then continue the 2-10% increase. Yes, you’ll regain some weight, but you’re doing it in a controlled way.
As noted above, some people even LOSE WEIGHT on a reverse. This could be due to increased activity levels and NEAT with all this new energy to play with that puts them back in an unintentional deficit despite being on higher calories.
It’s not a perfect science and still on the cutting edge of nutrition and health. You’re probably looking at around 4-5 lbs of weight gain (not all fat) but for a decrease/elimination of your unsustainable cardio routine, more muscle, and way more food to eat.
Also, more calories to eat gives your more wiggle room to overeat proportionally. Overeating 300 calories at a 1500 calorie maintenance is a much worse percentage overage (20%) than overeating 300 calories at a 1,900 calorie maintenance (15%).
Though there’s some weight gain, it’s a small price to pay for such great benefits.
5. End at your new, desired maintenance
How long should you stay in a reverse? Until you reach a body fat level and calorie level that you are comfortable and happy with and that will serve your everyday life realistically. Why push past yourself that point? There’s really no need.
Stay on your new maintenance calories for a while, at least 3-4 months so your body fully settles into this new normal. Keep up the weight lifting routine. Don’t throw yourself back into a calorie deficit immediately and get your metabolism all confused.
6. Future deficit again if desired
Perhaps you’ve been on your new maintenance for four months, and you get the itch to get a little bit leaner. Summer or some big event is around the corner and you want to look even better than you already do. You can always return to a calorie deficit. Since you’ve upped your maintenance calorie intake through a reverse, you won’t have to deficit to absurdly low levels. You’re at a doable starting point.
Don’t stay on a calorie cut too long. We’ve already talked about the detrimental affects dieting has on your metabolism. And, hopefully you’ve maintained your already svelte physique from the first time around. Diet for no longer than 6 weeks then return to maintenance. Do another reverse if you are no longer happy with your current calorie levels or if they’re no longer sustainable. You could even do a reverse after months of maintenance if you want to gain more muscle or up your daily calorie intake.
Once you begin to understand the fundamentals of your metabolism, the possibilities are almost endless. Our diet defense mechanisms can be frustrating, but we can manipulate them with discipline and self-monitoring to get the long-lasting results we want the most and maintain them for the rest of our lives.