With little else to distract us, the past year’s lockdowns have led many of us to pay more attention to our food, exercise and bodies than we usually would. One method that many young women are using to take back control of their health is "reverse dieting", a concept that’s become ubiquitous among the fitness community – posts tagged #reversedieting (266k) or #reversediet (172k) are ballooning on Instagram.
But what actually is a reverse diet? For many people with a restrictive or otherwise problematic history with food, reverse dieting can encourage a new, healthier outlook towards nutrition and result in a better functioning body and mind.
In basic terms, "reverse dieting" means gradually increasing the number of calories you consume (over weeks or months) to get out of a restrictive diet, without putting on a large amount of weight (as you might if you drastically increased your calorie intake overnight). The term originated from bodybuilders and physique athletes, who needed a healthy way to get back to a more sustainable diet (that would allow them to maintain their weight rather than lose it), after long periods of restriction.
While reverse dieting isn’t well researched because of its niche origins, it’s often used to help people (not just bodybuilders) to gradually break out of crash diets or long periods of restricted eating, which may be causing damage to their metabolism, mental health and more. Reverse dieters may lose weight, maintain their weight or gain weight during the process – it depends on the individual – but regardless of their weight, they frequently report feeling more energised, stronger in the gym, less fixated on food and generally happier.
Dijana Kumurdian, 32, from Melbourne, Australia, began reverse dieting for the first time in July when the city went into lockdown. Despite lifting weights and knowing that her restricted diet was unhealthy and not a long-term strategy, she hadn’t been fuelling her body properly since she was teenager. “First, it was calorie counting, then intermittent fasting, then no sugar, then keto, and probably some others that I can’t remember.”
Dijana sought help from her PT to change her perspective of food and break out of unhealthy patterns. “I’d always eat a bit too much ‘bad’ food and feel guilty, then restrict later. It was exhausting, so I decided to try the bodybuilding method instead.” Slowly and gradually, she’s increased her calorie intake monthly without putting on weight.
“The goal was to learn to treat food as fuel and remove guilt and negative associations with it altogether,” Dijana says. Crucially, she’s come to appreciate that food isn’t offset by exercise, it fuels her weight training, and that macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) are all required for us to thrive, both inside and outside the gym. “I’ve got over my fear of carbs and sugar. My favourite pre-workout meal is toast with honey, bananas and a pinch of salt. Carbs are the best fuel for training, protein is what grows your muscles, and fat is important for hormonal functioning – and it’s what makes food taste good.”
Reverse dieting is about “focusing on the positives of wholesome, nutritious food” and how it can help you feel better, rather than denying yourself and feeling hungry to cut calories and achieve short-term weight loss, says registered dietitian Dr Sarah Schenker. “It can help people break down negative feelings about what they eat.” It can also result in a better understanding of what your body needs and thus a greater sense of wellbeing.
“People have more time to spend on eating well, cooking meals from scratch and considering their food choices,” Dr Schenker says, explaining why it seems particularly popular right now.
By encouraging you to consistently eat a healthy number of calories throughout the week, reverse dieting can also help those with a history of binge-eating. 27-year-old Francesca Evans, from Staffordshire, aka @plantpoweredvegan_, began reverse dieting in October after a years-long “terrible relationship with food”. Knowing, now, that it’s possible to break from a low-calorie diet and “binge/restrict life”, she says her it’s “the best thing I’ve done. I’m so much happier and healthier now”.
“Lockdown made me realise how unhealthy my relationship was with food. I’d previously put down my lack of eating to being too busy to make something,” she says, adding that she also felt the need to over exercise. Working with a PT, Francesca’s calorie intake is now increasing weekly until she hits her maintenance calories (the number her body needs to sustain itself without losing or gaining weight).
Francesca no longer binge eats, experiences intense hunger or cravings, and doesn’t restrict any foods. “I’m not as obsessed with food anymore and have less food anxiety. I used to always think about my next meal – because I was so hungry – panic if friends asked me to go out for lunch and would worry about having to get lunch on the go.”
“It’s so much nicer having more energy and better gym sessions. My periods have returned and my nails have stopped breaking,” Francesca adds.
Lauren*, 35, from Washington state, U.S, reverse dieted for the first time from March to September last year. She had previously been eating very little and exercising every day, but her desired weight loss had plateaued, so her PT put her on a reverse diet. To Lauren’s amazement, by increasing her calories every fortnight until she was eating double her initial intake, prioritising protein and even reducing her training frequency, Lauren gained barely any weight. She says she’s “never been happier” and describes the reverse diet as “the best thing [she’s] ever done”.
Previously, Lauren was “scared of food, especially carbs” and would binge eat every two weeks. “I was always hungry and irritable and my world revolved around food.” Nowadays, she says: “There’s so much less noise in my head about food and I can use that energy to focus on more important things.”
If you want to reverse diet yourself and have the means to do so, it’s worth working with a professional. Lauren says: “After years of depriving myself, having a coach to talk to about how I was feeling and to hold me accountable was worth the money. I’ve developed habits that will stick with me for life.” While she doesn’t believe her “food fears” are completely cured, the reverse diet transformed Lauren’s relationship with food.
“I have so much food freedom now. I’m at a happy calorie goal, I track [calories] maybe four days a week, but I mostly eat intuitively and still prioritise my protein. I don't have the food fear I used to have. I’ve learned food is there to fuel my body so I can get out into the world and function,” Lauren concludes.
However, reverse dieting is by no means a silver bullet for disordered eating, nor is it suitable for everyone. It goes without saying that anyone with a current eating disorder should seek help from their GP. For those with a history of restrictive and/or disordered eating, the processes involved in reverse dieting – calorie counting, tracking macros (food’s carb, fat and protein content) and regular weigh-ins – can be triggering and/or lead to obsession, rather than empowering and educational tools.
Dijana, who has a history of disordered eating and body dysmorphia, recommends treating reverse dieting with caution if you have an eating disorder and/or perfectionistic tendencies. While it works for her right now, “tracking every gram of food you eat and weighing yourself constantly can quickly become obsessive,” she says.
Dietitian and eating disorder specialist Priya Tew instead recommends such people try eating intuitively and “tuning into what their body needs” to repair their relationship with food. In her view, “diets are not a sustainable approach, if you move towards listening to your body and work with a dietitian or registered nutritionist who specialises in a non diet-approach, you can find a way that works for life that means you don't have to count or track your food intake all of the time."
*Surname withheld for privacy
Beat is the UK's leading charity dedicated to helping people with eating disorders. If you or someone you know is struggling and want to seek help, call their helpline on 0808 801 0677 or visit their website for more details.
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