14 Oct The Ultimate Guide To Reverse Dieting And Avoiding Fat Regain
You’ve spent 12, 16, 20, 24 or even more weeks dieting.
How do you maintain your results while living a more sustainable, ‘normal’ life?
This is the most frequent question we receive as a team from our clients approaching the end of a hard fat loss phase. And it’s an incredibly important one.
The period after dieting is a difficult time, and arguably the most important if long term results are the goal.
In the old bodybuilding circles where people diet down to ‘stage level’ condition, you’re typically told to eat anything and everything after a contest – specifically for a big rebound. These old school would say your ‘body is like a sponge’ so absorbs all nutrients for muscle growth.
This is probably the worst piece of advice out there, and it’s what you should absolutely not do.
When you’ve dieted down to a lean condition, you’ve trained your body to the point of survival mechanisms kicking, so your body is like a sponge to soak up nutrients for fat gain.
Don’t believe me?
Here’s what happened to me in I first competed in bodybuilding back in 2014, where I gained over 7kg in 7 days!
Pretty crazy, right?
All that hard work undone in the space of 7 days.
The body likes homeostasis, so when you take it away from it’s natural set point, it will fight with you to go back to normal. Which is why having a post diet plan in place is so critical.
If you don’t have a plan in place, and follow the ‘see food diet’, one of the two scenarios will likely occur:
Worst Case Scenario:
In the worst case, you’ll binge, put on 10 to 30 pounds (yes, the latter can be done! I’ve seen it with bigger frame guys in particular who get extremely lean) and feel terrible.
Your blood pressure will likely climb, you’ll be bloated, you’ll have regained a ton of bodyfat and you’ll likely have severe GI distress.
Best Case Scenario:
The best case is you look better for it, but I rarely ever see this. You’ll have to have a very intuitive and dialled in form of eating to be able to nail it like this, which I only ever come across with experienced dieters.
In most scenarios, having no plan in place will only lead to a terrible rebound.
Why Is It So Easy to Rebound?
There are a number of factors at play here, both physiological and psychological (which we’ll cover a little later).
From physiological point of view, it’s important to understand that when we reduce body fat, we don’t reduce the number of fat cells. They just shrink in size.
If you look at the picture below, you’ll notice how the number of the cells on the far right isn’t any less than the middle – the cells are just smaller.
The problem is that these shrunken fat cells will always be ready and waiting to fill back up again if we quickly enter into a calorie excess.
This is why so many overweight people are constantly yo-yo’ing after a diet. Their bodies are simply primed to return to their previous body fat levels (and where homeostasis is still), or higher.
That’s not the only bad news though…
Depending on how fast you gain body fat, not only will you fill your original fat cells back up, but your body will also start creating even more!
This is why people struggle dieting for the second time after having just rebounded. You can rebound, go back to your previous body fat percentage, but now have 10-20% more fat cells! So you’ll have smaller fat cells, but more of them and more spread out.
It gets worse…
Smaller fat cells have less leptin (a hormone which tells you when you’re ‘full’) and they’re more sensitive to insulin (a storage hormone).
This means even if you’re eating more, you’re always constantly hungry. With these smaller fat cells more sensitive to insulin, they’re also more prone to storing body fat.
The end point is that many ‘dieters’ will end up at an ever high body fat level than when they started, and find it harder to diet back down into shape.
Hopefully this had made you think twice about your approach after a ‘fat loss phase’. We know how hard you’ve worked to get into the shape of your life, and you want to now eat all the foods you love and have abstained from. But is it really worth the potential excess fat gain and associated health risks?
To add to this, there’s also the psychological ramifications that can come with the rebound. This is where you often see poor relationships with food develop, as well as low confidence levels and even mild forms of depression.
The good news is that if we use logic and patience to ‘reverse’ out of a diet gradually and allow our metabolism a chance to adapt and adjust to our new energy demands, this can all be prevented!
It all starts with having a plan. Don’t wing it!
Post-Dieting Nutrition Plan
Day After ‘Deadline Day’:
Take a full day off the diet, eat some of the foods you’ve missed. But don’t wait until your full (remember, your receptors aren’t behaving ‘normally’). Stop eating at the same time as everyone around you does.
Now’s the time to sit down with your family and friends and have a good meal. The key though is to make this about the social aspect, and not about shoving as much food into your body in a short amount of time.
The food isn’t going anywhere!
The second day after your diet, try get back to your old diet, but add an extra 150-400 calories worth of carbohydrates to it (35-100g of carbs).
Add another 150-300 calories to the diet, again mainly from carbohydrate (35-70g of carbs).
In the first week after finishing a diet, you’ll likely gain a few pounds, which is completely normal and fine.
How much will be dependent on your gender, muscle mass and how lean you got.
If you’re going into week 3 and you’re still gaining weight at more than 1-2lbs, you should probably leave the diet as it is for a week or so.
If your weight has begun to stabilise, you should add an extra 150-300 calories, and this time include some fats (10-20g of fats and 15-30g of carbs).
Keep checking your bodyweight. If you’re starting to jump fast, hold calories steady. But if you’re staying roughly the same, add another 150-300 calories.
At this stage we should be roughly around maintenance levels, and then with close monitoring you should adjust up and down accordingly to maintain your physique! If it hasn’t gone to plan, don’t stress. It’s the human body, so variations are bound to happen.
Post-Dieting Cardio Plan
This is something many people skip on, and it can be a critical mistake. It’s important to keep energy expenditure up after dieting, as this was a significant contributor to your calorie deficit, and helping you get leaner.
A good guideline is to start with 70-80% of what you were doing at your peak for the first two weeks, and then taper down accordingly.
For example, if you finished with 15,000 steps and 45 minutes of daily LISS cardio, you may want to at 12,000 steps and 30 minutes of daily LISS cardio.
Over 4 to 6 weeks, this could be brought down to 3 days a week of 20 minutes, and 8,000 steps a day.
Post-Dieting Training Plan
Another common mistake is to stop training for a week after ‘deadline day’. But it’s a good idea to continue training, but at a reduced frequency and intensity.
Train 3 to 4 days a week, and train with enough intensity to handle the additional carbs in this reversing period (through enhanced glucose uptake via Glut-4).
Once calories are up around maintenance and your bodyweight has stabilised, now’s a good time to take 5 to 7 days off completely to rest both mentally and physically.
When you return in the gym, you should slowly start to push towards setting some big PRs and getting as strong as possible!
Beware the Special Snowflake!
While the plans laid out above are what would take place in an ideal world, it may not always go to exact plan.
If you do go off plan, the first thing to realise is that, and this may sound harsh, but you’re not a special snowflake. You’re not the first person to overeat after a hard diet, and you won’t be the last.
The absolute worst thing you can do is fall into this ‘victim’ mentality and telling everyone around you (who are likely bored of hearing it!)
You’re allowed to eat a little off plan, and you’re allowed to eat some junk food. It’s completely normal. But you don’t need to tell everyone you know every time you do so! This might sound a little ridiculous to some of you, but it’s something we come across very often.
Remember, you have just controllably starved yourself for a period of time. So it’s fairly reasonable for the body to make certain adaptations to lead you to want to eat more calorie dense foods that taste more exciting than chicken and broccoli!
Mindset Approach to the Post Dieting Phase
Earlier we touched on the strategies best suited to reverse you back up to normal with your training, nutrition and general activity.
But without the right mindset, it can be tough to execute. Even if you’re aware of the physical ramifications that excess eating can do.
Here are our six best tips:
- Have a plan for life
One of the most critical aspects of coming out of a dieting phase is having plans to keep you busy.
The worst thing you can do after a hard diet is book a week off week to ‘chill’. Think about it. You’ve spent 3 to 6 months focused on an end goal, which for many becomes all consuming. You’ve been meticulously planning every part of your day, and if this suddenly becomes wide open with nothing to do, guess what? You’re going to be bored and want to snack!
So stay busy, keep up with your normal life routine, and don’t let anything slow down.
Also, if you can help it, it’s also best to save a travelling holiday for a few weeks later. The last thing you want to do is be in an amazing food country straight after a diet – it becomes a recipe for disaster!
That picture I showed you earlier? That was taken after 7 days in an all-inclusive straight after his diet. Probably the worst thing you could do!
- Don’t Punish Yourself
As we touched on earlier, it’s completely normal to eat some ‘bad’ food after a diet. It’s going to happen. You’re going to eat out more often, have things you wouldn’t normally do, and just be more relaxed. That’s fine, and an important part of transitioning into making this as sustainable for you as possible.
What we typically recommend is setting up plans to increase calories and sticking to it at least 80-90 of the time in the first six weeks.
This is when the [80:20] rule becomes valid, and when the saying ‘everything in moderation’ is applicable.
The absolute worst thing you can do is punish yourself for eating something. That’s a sure-fire way to develop a poor relationship with food, and develop some negative eating behaviour.
Enjoy it, own it, and move on as normal at the next opportunity.
- Make it about the social element
When you’re out with friends and family for food, make it about the people and the experience. NOT the food, and how much food you might be able to stuff yourself with.
The food will always be there!
Instead, be present, enjoy the company, the conversation and being with the people you love.
Now’s the time to be ‘normal’ again, and eat like everyone else on the table. It’s not the time to restrict, be thinking about calorie calculations, or to gorge.
This is a really big mindset shift that can be tough for many, but is absolutely critical to be conscious of to make this sustainable.
- Weigh yourself
This one can be a real game changer in keeping you on track, provided you utilise the scale as purely data, and not become obsessed over it.
One of the easiest ways to stay in shape during the ‘reverse’ period is to simply weight yourself on a regular basis (ideally daily). By doing this in the first 4 to 6 weeks, you allow your appetite hormones to become under control again, and the novelty of bad food to wear off, while giving yourself an objective measure of your progress.
What you don’t want to do is hide from the scales while your eating habits are all over the place. You’ll only set yourself up for disappointment when you finally do get on them.
By weighing yourself, you keep yourself honest and accountable.
Perhaps a bigger benefit is the mental liberation from being able to weigh yourself daily, accepting bodyweight will fluctuate and trend upwards slowly, and being in a position that you can control it.
- Continue checking in with your coach!
This can be of real help, and we’re lucky at RNT in that many of our clients understand why it’s so important to continue working with us in the period straight after the dieting phase
Having objective, professional accountability means all of the above can be discussed, monitored and tweaked depending on your psychology, and how your body is responding.
It allows you to know what rate of body fat gain is acceptable, and whether your food behaviours are normal, or if you’re crossing that line of eating bad food for the sake of it.
This can be a difficult period, and many people feel lost, so having a coach in your corner can be a real advantage to you setting yourself up for future success, and lifetime gains!
- Changing your goal setting approach
When you’re focused on looking your best for one day, it can be easy to let everything slip when your goal is now accomplished.
Why is why you need to shift your mindset from being physique oriented to performance based.
Instead of being fixated with how you look, start focusing on your strength progressions in the gym.
For most people, they just need to build muscle mass everywhere, so here’s what you need to do.
Pick 2-3 exercises from each of the following categories that you can perform safely and with perfect technique: upper body press, upper body pull, quad dominant and posterior chain.
In each category you may choose the following exercises:
Upper body press:
– Incline Barbelll Press
– Military Press
Upper body pull:
– Bent Over Row
– Chin Up
– One Arm Row
– Front Squat
– Split Squat
– Leg Press
– Lying Leg Curl
– Romanian Deadlift
– Hip Thrust
Test out your 6-10 rep maxes on each and over the next 12 months aim to progressively push these as high as you can while maintaining perfect form.
Keep a logbook, track your lifts and make sure that each month you look back you’re seeing progress.
To make it more focused, you should break it down into 6 to 12 week blocks and set yourself some targets to achieve. I wouldn’t do this immediately, and would instead wait till you’ve had the 5-7 day break 4-6 weeks after the diet that we mentioned earlier.
To learn more about goal setting for different people after dieting, check out this article here.
Even if you don’t want to enter a ‘bulking phase’, and are just looking to maintain, having this performance mindset can help tremendously.
Can Fat Regain Really Be Avoided?
After years of helping people of all different backgrounds successfully get into the shape of their lives and maintain it thereafter, these tips really do work.
The hardest bit is implementation, but with the right education, accountability and mindset, it’ll allow you transition to ‘normal life’ while maintaining your gains.
To finish with, here’s an example of a ‘reverse diet’ nailed to perfection by our client Tom.
He wanted to stay lean as he moved to America over the summer for work, so crept his calories up slowly (if you look at the graph, his calories are almost double at roughly the same bodyweight), tracked data and applied all the tools discussed in this article – which includes living life to the max!
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