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“…If you decrease your calories, your metabolism adapts and slows down. But the opposite is true too!”
  • Liz Keller

Reverse Dieting

Is it time for a metabolic reset?

Reverse dieting is the process of slowly increasing your caloric intake in order to increase your metabolism. When this approach is done correctly, you can eat more, increase muscle mass, have more energy, and lose weight. Sounds too good to be true? Let me first explain why you might need this, and then I’ll tell you how to do it. 

 What causes your metabolism to slow down?

The first answer that first comes to mind for most people is age. However, a recent international study found that metabolism does not change between the ages of 20 and 60. So if it’s not simply getting older that causes your metabolism to slow down, what is the cause? While the answer might not be the same for everyone, one reason could be chronic dieting. 

Traditionally a diet would consist of figuring out how many calories you burn in a day and then aiming to eat at least 500 calories less than what you are burning. When you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight, and when you consume fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight. Pretty simple to understand, but why is it so hard in real life? This is known as “calories in vs. calories out,” or what I will refer to as the “energy balance equation” throughout this article.

Most people assume the main issue with the energy balance equation is that, on average, people are eating more calories than they think. While, of course, this does happen, this is not always the case. How many times have you over-estimated in a calorie tracking app “just to be safe” and still not seen significant weight loss after painstakingly measuring and taking note of every morsel of food that goes into your mouth? Or better yet, the calorie app you are using told you to eat a certain amount of calories, and that just seemed too high, so “just to be safe,” you always make sure to be a little bit under the set goal. Now if “calories in” was the main problem, then overestimating when tracking or going under your target goal should theoretically equal weight loss. This might work at first, but how long does the weight stay off, and how deprived did you have to feel to get there?

Step Back

So let’s take two steps back and question how your caloric output is determined. This is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR). BMR is the number of calories your body burns at rest and is not set in stone as many people might wish to believe. There are free BMR calculators all over the internet, and it’s also what every dieting app ever created is using to determine your caloric need. I, too, use this equation when making meal plans for clients; however, this is just an estimate because BMR can change based on things like dieting history, hormonal status, and sleep quality. 

When you diet and decrease your caloric intake, your body will slow down your metabolic rate. This can happen because when you weigh less, your BMR will be lower due to the caloric restriction. This is called metabolic adaptation. 

 Metabolic adaptation doesn’t have to be a bad thing!

A basic idea I try to work on with clients is that undereating can be just as bad (if not worse) than overeating. Reducing your calories too much or even for too long of a period can decrease your BMR. Some people tell me that they hear this, tell me that they are really just not that hungry, and the amount of food I am telling them is too much. This could be a sign that their BMR has slowed down, and their digestion has slowed down in order for the body to get better at absorbing every nutrient possible. This is why when you have a “great” week tracking your super low caloric goal all week and then eating one slice of pizza on a Saturday causes the scale goes right back to where it started. So if you decrease your calories, your metabolism adapts and slows down. But the opposite is true too! If you gradually increase your calories, your body will experience something known as adaptive thermogenesis, in which your BMR will rise, your workouts will get better, and you’ll have more energy. 

If you’ve been consistently dieting for years and feel like your metabolism is “broken” or only extreme diets will work for you, you’re probably a good candidate for reverse dieting. Keep in mind chronic dieting, and under-eating are common problems I see with clients, and an individualized approach is the best technique for reaching your fitness and health goals. 

 Contact me at if you want to start working toward your optimal health!

About the Author

Liz Keller

Liz Keller

Liz Keller is a personal trainer, nutritionist, group fitness instructor, and health coach. She runs the Eat Smart program at Fitness Incentive.

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