Reverse Dieting: why cutting calories is not always the answer [With Case Study]

Updated: Feb 28



Time and again, my clients come to me with the same goal. They want to look good naked. Who could blame them? Doesn’t striving to reach a point where you are completely confident in how you look with no clothes on seem like a worthy goal?


Reaching that goal seems like a relatively simple concept. After all, calories equal energy and the first law of thermodynamics states energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transferred. Therefore; operating at a caloric deficit, burning more calories than you take in, should result in weight loss.


The problem is, by the time my clients come to me with this goal, they are in misery. They are at a point where they have all made serious cuts in their caloric intake, yet are failing to see results. Worse yet, they have noticed other negative changes like low energy, poor sleep, diminished libido, decreased appetite, mood swings, and stunted performance at the gym.


The reason for this is the body, much unlike thermodynamics, is more complex than one might think. A drastic reduction in caloric intake triggers a process called adaptive thermogenesis. Consider the grizzly bear. When food is scarce during the winter months, they pack on fat and then hole up to sleep for several months. This sudden lack of food triggers a process that lowers their heart, slows their breathing, decreases their energy, and causes their metabolic rate to slow down to a point where the bear can survive on stored fat without consuming any food. But their physical activity is close to none to accommodate this.


New clients that come to me are much like a withering away, hibernating grizzly bear. But they are far from having zero activity. In order to meet their goal, they have drastically reduced their caloric intake (winter is coming!) which, instead of resulting in equally drastic weight loss, has had a paradoxical effect and their bodies are actually burning fat slower so that it can survive on a decreased diet since the daily expended energy is still high. This is adaptive thermogenesis.


To break the body out of adaptive thermogenesis and help my clients achieve peak performance and reach that ever-important goal of looking good naked, I begin them on a “reverse diet”. This actually begins with a gradual caloric increase. What kind of calories, how many calories, and when to eat them are all based on a highly individualized plan that considers a number of personal traits including goals, age, weight, and physical activity level. This gradual increase allows me to monitor a number of biofeedback indicators to find a caloric baseline while avoiding the frequent trips to the bathroom which accompany a sudden increase in calories.


It’s at this point that one can expect to see weight loss as well as an increase in energy and endurance along with an improved mood and performance. It’s also at this point that my real work begins. Once I have found a client’s caloric baseline, and can monitor changes in their body composition, I can manipulate their calories to help them reach the goals they set.


Setting simple goals like “I want to look good naked” is good. A simple goal means one has taken some time to understand the essence of what they want, and are ready to begin the journey to accomplish that goal. This journey, even toward a simple goal, can be a complex thing that is always different for each person, as you can see with a client I worked with a few years back.


Case Study:


This client I worked with is a great example of how well reverse dieting can work, when doe correctly. She was a hustling business owner looking to lose weight. Because she thought she had to work out more and eat less in order to reach this goal, she had put herself in an absolute caloric deficit of over 1000 kcal per day. Taking her thought process into account, I immediately began educating her on why she would actually need more food throughout her day. We discussed hormones, energy, and my plan to put her on a reverse diet. I then slowly started adding more and more calories in the form of proteins and fats. As a result, she lost around 20 pounds in under three months and had more energy which allowed her to perform better at work and in the gym.


Below are some of the specific actions that this particular client and I took to help her reach her goal.


1. Build a plan that allows for more food to be consumed.


One of the major issues this client had was that she was never hungry throughout the day. She was often really busy running her own business and so she would forget to eat. Since she wasn't eating throughout the day, she felt as though she had to shovel food down her throat at the end of the day to reach her daily calorie intake. I discovered this because I had her give me a complete timetable of her daily routine. After reviewing her day, I noticed that the majority of her calories were coming later in the day due to her training in a fasted state in the morning. So I told her to try a small snack before training and gave her some ideas on what that snack could entail. This ended up increasing her appetite throughout the day, which helped her be able to eat more food, during the day instead of at night, from that point forward. You can see these contact notes in the messages below.


2. Food, Hydration, and Supplementation


Food

Now that her appetite was coming back and she was able to eat more food, my plan was to put her on a reverse diet by adding more and more calories to her daily intake, in the form of proteins and fats. I began by increasing her daily calories by about 20% (because she was at such a deficit to begin with) and then continued to make smaller increases after that. I did this until the client was around 2600+ calories per day. The specific increases can obviously change based on biofeedback from the client. Once she was able to consume this amount of food on a daily basis, I reassessed and then started to take away calories to keep metabolic adaptation high. At this time I also planned out a full periodized season of nutrition for this client so she could continue losing weight until she met her end goal.


Hydration

During this time, I gave this client a water goal of a minimum of 100 fluid ounces of water per day. This did not include pre/postWO, coffee, etc.


Supplementation

We added the following:

20-25g whey protein isolate 20 minutes post workout.

Morning greens and probiotic supplement.

Fish oil- dosed appropriately based on EPA/DHA content.

We also added BCAA’s preWO to aid in recovery. Along with some caffeine for her early am training.


3. Accountability


Contact with this particular client was weekly and frequent. The client had tracked macros before and understood how to do it. She was very devoted to get to work and stay true to the process.


Here are some important contact notes that I made on my end after consultations and text messages with communication below.


28AUG17

Increase macros 10% more to 1935 kcal/day

Says hardest part is reaching carbohydrates (gave some new ideas)

Increase protein and fats

New Macros: 130p/185c/70f (7% increase)

*Long delay in changing up macro prescription due to client traveling. See biofeedback and text messages below.


04OCT17

New Macros: 135p/180c/75f (2.5% increase)


11OCT17

New Macros: 140p/180c/80f (3.3% increase and 13% increase since starting with me)


22OCT17

New Macros: 145p/180c/85f (2.9% increase)



You can see the text messages below on how we communicated, along with her daily tracker that I have all my nutrition clients fill out.


Tracker Page 1 of 3: The client's tracker which we used to track progress in weight, adherence, and other biofeedback markers

Tracker Page 2 of 3: The client's tracker which we used to track progress in weight, adherence, and other biofeedback markers

Tracker Page 3 of 3: The client's tracker which we used to track progress in weight, adherence, and other biofeedback markers


Conversation 1


Conversation 2

Conversation 3

Conversation 4

Conversation 5

Conversation 6

Conversation 7


Conversation 8


Conversation 9

Conversation 10

As you can see, the amount of detail, commitment, and overall effort that goes into prescribing and carrying out a reverse diet could be daunting. That's why it's important to have a qualified coach with the resources to monitor daily progress, make small changes based on individualized biofeedback, and approach achieving goals with the same energy and discipline that the client does. Finding a coach to help you with this is the fastest, most effective, and most efficient way for anyone to reach their weight loss goals.


If you think you are in need for some help with a reverse diet or are interested in some individualized coaching, please don't hesitate to reach out. You can book a free 30 minute consult by following this link!

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