To hear the TikTok girls tell it, there’s a hack that lets you do it EAT MORE FOOD! While NOT GAINING WEIGHT! And it’s great if you are SICK OF DIETS! Never mind that you can achieve all those goals through a simple trick called “stop dieting”. No, it needs a name and a strict protocol: backwards being on a diet.
The basic idea of reverse dieting is that you slowly add a few extra calories to your diet each week. So you normally maintain your weight at 2,000 calories a day, but you eat 1,500 calories to lose weight. You can then reverse the diet by eating 1,600 calories a day next week, 1,700 calories a day the following week, and so on. Eventually you’ll be back on 2,000 calories, or maybe even more.
This is not a trend that originated on TikTok. The term seems to have come from bodybuilders, whose sport requires them to engage in extreme cycles of bulking (gain weight to gain muscle mass) and cutting (losing as much fat as possible before stepping on a podium). While the process can create dazzling physiques, it also wreaks havoc on your metabolism and overall health.
Reverse dieting is an approach to transitioning from an extreme cut to maintenance or bulking: instead of just carving out the day after your bodybuilding show, you’d rather slowly increase the amount of food you eat while finding your maintenance calories again.
This idea led to the current trend of influencers pitching reverse diets as the cure for all your nutrition-related complaints. But it does not work like that.
The Science Behind Reverse Dieting
Some from the claims you’ll hear from skinny women flexing their abs on TikTok, and from the bodybuilders saying just trust them, man, are WHERE. Amongst them:
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- Your metabolism adapts to diets, so over time you have to eat less and less to keep losing weight (this is a known thing).
- After dieting for a long time, you may be eating a miserably low number of calories.
- By eating more, your body will no longer be so stingy with the calories, and the number of calories your body burns can increase.
- After you increase your calories, you may be able to lose weight again one day while eating Lake food than when you were in the depths of your diet.
There are also a number of falsehoods and half-truths. You may hear that increasing your calories too quickly after a diet will cause your body to store fat, or that you can add 1,000 calories and still lose weight, or something hormones something cortisol. (Scroll fitness TikTok long enough and someone will explain that all your problems are due to cortisol. Have a drink.)
In any case, this is where “reverse dieting” comes into play. Supposedly, the cure for all of these ailments is simply to add 50 to 100 calories to your diet each week. The process is slow and requires patience, but stick with it and you could end up looking like this too this one girl (imagine me moving my head to point to the before-and-after photos I greenscreened behind me) at 2,400 calories instead of 1,200.
So what’s actually what about reverse dieting, and why is everyone so interested in it? Let’s take a closer look at that.
When things go well, “reverse dieting” is just “no diet” but with more rules
After reading all those bullet points above, you might be thinking, OK, so why not just stop dieting? You’ll start eating more food, your body will burn more calories, and from there you can go back on a diet or – crazy idea here – just stop dieting. Hell, you could give to win try weight.
And that, in fact, is the real answer. Just stop dieting. The world will not end. You can eat again and you’ll be fine. So why a reverse diet?
As Eric Trexler, a nutrition and metabolism researcher, drop it herethe original purpose of reverse dieters was to transition smoothly from a calorie deficit, to maintenance, to their first bulk after a bodybuilding competition without putting on more fat than them needed until. One problem with this approach is that bodybuilders who diet so hard, they need get fat back. You can’t stay dangerously skinny forever, and that’s true whether you’re a dork or a TikTok girl.
On social media, reverse dieting is often described as a way to continue dieting while taking in more calories. It’s true that if you’re in a 500-calorie deficit and you add just 50 calories a week, you’re going to be in a deficit for a very long time — 10 weeks, at that rate. Trexler notes that “this would only serve to delay and make even the most basic and immediate aspects of recovery [the dieter’s] make life unnecessarily difficult.”
Reverse dieting is not a cure for chronic dieting
There are two things going on here, I think. One is relatively harmless. LLet’s say you’ve been on a diet and you are ready to arrive. Instead of eating an extra 1,000 calories each day (to go from a 500-calorie deficit to a 500-calorie surplus), eat a few hundred extra this week and a few extra next week, and so on. You’ll be less surprised by changes in your weight (eating more means there’s more food in your belly, so the scale may tip up a bit as a result) and it may be easier to figure out roughly how many calories you should be eating ahead to go.
But that is not how it is described on social media. Thin women tell chronic dieters that they can eat more while staying very thin if they follow a strict reverse diet. But the strictness and the expectations can be harmful in themselves.
For an extreme example, check out this video from a registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist. She describes a woman who received help to recover from her eating disorder. The woman had such a low body weight, with associated health problems, which the dietician says she “needs[ed] arrive straight away.” But instead of following her healthcare team’s guidance that would see her gain a pound a week, she secretly put herself on a reverse diet protocol. Adding just 50 calories each week to the too-low amount she already ate cost her three months to gain a whole pound of body weight – which effectively delays her recovery by three months.
And here’s where I think we should take a closer look at why reverse dieting posts are so popular in corners of social media that focus on weight loss. While eating more may sound healthier – it’s a good start! – following a strict reverse diet is just another way to limit.
Reverse dieting is sometimes just a way to restrict more
Let’s say, as in many of the examples on TikTok, that you are someone who currently eats 1,200 calories (officially a starvation diet) and no more weight loss. Even if you’re a petite woman who never works out – maybe because you don’t have the energy? – a healthy amount daily calories will probably be 1,600 or more. So you have to eat 1,250 next week? And then 1,300 the week after that? At that rate it would take eight weeks to get you on the number that should be just maintenance for you. Even if you don’t have an eating disorder, you’re creating the same problem for yourself as the ED patient in the dietitian’s case.
Which is even more worrying to me is that 50 or even 100 calories is an extremely precise amount. If I aim to eat 2,000 calories a day, I might have 1,950 some days and 2,100 some days. Over time, it balances out. But if you try to hit precisely 1,850 and not 1,900 (because 1,900 is The next goal of the week) you need to monitor your eating closely. This is the kind of lifestyle where you weigh your toast before and after you slather on the peanut butter, and you don’t want to eat at a restaurant because how many calories are in each menu item? What if they are heavy handed with the sauce?
In my flipping through #reversedieting TikTok, I found women saying they had to miss family meals and deal with their friends’ concerns during their reverse dieting. Clearly, they haven’t taken a step far beyond diet land yet. For these people, actually it seems that the “reverse” is essentially a way to expand their diet. You could be eating at maintenance for those eight weeks, but instead you’re restricting. And then what? Reverse dieting is often described as a way to increase your calorie burn so you can diet again.
Even if the influencers show that they’re gaining muscle and eating really healthy amounts of calories (assuming the numbers they cite are true), it’s still all articulated in language around leanness and thinness, and includes pictures of their abs. Prioritize leanness even while building muscle is some retarded shit. It’s okay not to be able to see your abs as you try to make yourself bigger. As strongman JF Caron famously said, “abs is not a force thing. Is just a sign that you are not eating enough.”