Here’s a typical scenario we see at The Fit Clinic.. Someone will sign up and on their screening form it will read something like; ‘Usually eat 1400kcal per day’ (more commonly this is in females!) and then a little further on ‘goals are fat loss’. At that point we might ask for some background and history (if it’s not already provided) along the lines of ‘How has this been working for you?’ And the answer could be something like ‘I’ve been on those calories for the last 12 months’. Granted it’s often the case where okay you’re probably not consistent with those calories for the entirety of those 12 months or maybe weekends are a little ‘looser’ or maybe when tracking properly it turns out not to actually be 1400kcal. In a lot of cases though this is the situation i.e. Very low calorie intake for a long time, wanting to achieve more fat loss because it hasn’t been working for the last several months.
Now we pride ourselves in The Fit Clinic for helping people get amazing results and achieve their goals, but this is one of those situations where it’s a case of -If you want more fat loss, we have to reduce your intake (lets assume that activity levels are already quite high, as they often are in this case) to 1200kcal or even less?
This isn’t really something we want to do a lot of the time especially if the person has been already trying to diet for fat loss for many months on end with little to no further progress. You should not spend the majority of your time trying to diet. That’s a really important point - not to get stuck in this state of perpetually dieting.
We completely understand though that it’s hard to know what to do in this situation. You know you want to get leaner. You know that eating less and moving more is the formula to make that happen. You certainly don’t want to gain weight or undo any of the progress you’ve already made. You’re sort of stuck, unable to progress forward and not wanting to go backwards. So what’s a girl to do? (this applies to guys too but as we said above it’s usually women in this position) - More on this later.
Why Do Diets Stop Working?
When we diet, we lose weight and we’re eating less - This causes some natural slowdown in metabolic rate and how many calories you need overall, for three main reasons:
A. If you’ve lost some weight then you’re now a smaller person who requires less energy.
B. In order to stop you starving to death (your body doesn’t know you’re dieting purposely after all - it just senses a decrease in food availability) your body will adapt and down-regulate certain metabolic processes like thyroid output and other energy costly physiological functions. If your thyroid output decreases you will burn less calories at rest than usual.
C. Finally, you will subconsciously move less and your NEAT will decrease. In this case too, you need less energy overall.
Now, where what was once a calorie deficit to induce fat loss for you, is now your calorie maintenance because your energy demands are lower now than they were when you started - You don’t lose any weight and you don’t gain any either. The 1400kcal where you previously lost weight, is now all you need to maintain your weight.
Enter The Reverse Diet If you find yourself stuck like this then, you can’t really go forwards - We’re assuming here that dropping calories further won’t be sustainable for you but there is no specific number of calories where this applies to everyone - What do you do then? You start to go ‘backwards’ but very gradually. We wouldn’t even call it going backwards because it tends to be a very positive experience, but it may seem counterintuitive initially. If you’re stuck like this, start increasing calories very slowly - This might look like an initial increase of 10%, so 1400kcal becomes about 1550kcal. Then you would hold this for roughly 4-6 weeks before looking to increase again.
What can you expect to happen here? Well, it’s not that you’ll pile on a load of weight as many people might expect if this was suggested to them. In short, your body adapts to what you give it - If you feed it more in this situation you start to reverse the negative adaptations to dieting mentioned above - You’ll start to subconsciously move more, your thyroid output will increase, your metabolism starts to speed up, you have more energy to train hard, you’ll likely build more muscle and strength.
All of these are very positive and when you go from a position of chronically low food intake to starting to fuel yourself enough again, anecdotally the body starts to respond very well - Some things we would see often are drops in measurements initially, little to no gain in weight besides what you might expect from extra food in the gut and glycogen and water stored in the muscles. But overall, if you’re training, body composition tends to stay quite the same or even improve! Except you’re eating more! Not too shabby eh?
You may be able to build up to the point where you’re maintaining on about 1700kcal or even more as outlined above. All of a sudden if you do want to re-enter a fat loss phase, you’ll actually be able to lose weight and bodyfat on 1400kcal once again. And you’ll have also maintained your results from the previous fat-loss phase for the most part, but then being able to get even more results now a few months down the line (We would suggest at the very least 2-3 months of a reverse diet, if not longer). This is how you get long-term results without having to be on very low calorie intakes forever, because at some point, you won’t want to diet anymore because you’re content with what you’ve achieved and you’ll know that you can reverse diet and then just look to maintain your new, leaner physique - All while eating more calories and food than what it took to get you there in the first place - This is the holy grail!
As far as we’re concerned, this is one of the reasons people fail to maintain their results long-term - They don’t know how to implement the reverse diet so they can free themselves of the low level of intake that got them their results. Either they remain stuck or they put the weight back on. In reality though results can be maintained with careful tending to this proactive maintenance phase/reverse diet, which is the ‘forgotten’ part of physical transformation. You need to have a plan for the after diet too.