Reverse Diets

Reverse Diets

You may have heard the term before and might be wondering what it is, why and when its needed?

What is it? Essentially it’s the process of going from calorie restriction back to maintenance calories in a gradual way.

Why is it needed?

There are many sports where an athlete is required to ‘make weight’ boxing and martial arts for example and athletes competing in all categories of bodybuilding and fitness competitions are required to reach varying levels of conditioning or ‘leanness’ where we go through many weeks of prep diets- usually going into progressively more severe calorie restriction to achieve the required look- how severe depends on start position and diet history and the more severe the diet- the more chance of negative rebound affects happening afterwards!.

When someone decides to compete in a bodybuilding or fitness show- there is loads of information out there (not all good) and many coaches to choose from and it’s not hard to get the information or coaching you need to reach your competing goal… but there isn’t much information out there about what to do after the competition and this is a big problem as many women compete and literally have no advice or information as to what to do next and this can cause many problems. If the post competition phase is not managed well, it can lead to two quite different problems.


Most people at some point in their life have gone on a diet- or know someone who has. You go on a ‘diet for a set period of time to hit a goal- a holiday, wedding etc- you  hit your goal – or give up because it was too severe to adhere to for any length of time, only to return to your old habits as soon as ‘hit weight’. Once you go back to your old diet, your weight inevitably goes back up and usually goes up higher than it was before as your body is using its survival mode to protect you by increasing your fat stores to cope with a future ‘famine’.

So what is going on? When you start a diet, the body is very clever and when it thinks it’s being starved, it economises and uses the least energy possible to do anything, lots of chemical and hormonal changes happen that basically means your body wants to store food as fat – not use it, so you plateau and should go a bit stricter to get the diet moving again. So you gradually diet down to the point you hit your goal. At this point the body in most people’s cases, has such an economy of effort now that the metabolism is rock bottom, and the problem is this, if you increase back up to your normal diet too quickly, the body will want to store all the energy it consumes as it’s now so economical it doesn’t need all those calories any more.

Women are very good at blaming ourselves for piling the weight back on and its likely at some point we will try another diet and the cycle of weight loss and weight regain goes on and on getting harder each time. And here is the problem- Bodybuilding is basically an extreme yoyo diet. We set a date, go into ‘prep’ and diet down to the level of conditioning required and then most people immediately binge on the foods we craved, go straight back to ‘normal eating’ or go on a forced ‘bulking’ phase and pile on fat in the same way as any other woman who has been on a diet- except the effect is often more extreme because we dieted to a more extreme point. Bodybuilders tell us its ok as we are ‘off season’ or in ‘bulking phase’ but when it comes to the next competition, the weight often won’t come off the same as it did the last time, so the diet gets stricter and the yoyo cycle starts again. But how does this affect our body image? Most of us are so proud of the work we did to get in shape- that when a rebound happens it is pretty depressing and can lead to body image issues and disordered eating patterns. If you are experiencing this- you aren’t alone, and it’s important to seek help- don’t suffer or struggle in silence.

Never coming off ‘the diet’

The other situation that can occur is that we diet for a competition, but are now too scared to eat more food again for fear of gaining weight, rebounding or losing that figure we worked so hard for, so some end up staying on their competition diet indefinitely which is unsustainable, unhealthy, and can bring on disordered eating and mental health issues. Staying on low calories or trying to maintain the stage look too long can be very damaging – and if you aim to compete again you won’t make any improvements and also get to the start of the next ‘prep’ on already low calories and possibly over training – meaning the next diet will have to be even more strict and can spiral to more problems.

It’s not wise, for women especially, to stay at low bodyfat levels all year round, or to stay calorie restricted for prolonged periods of time. Why? Because when your body fat is low, you can suffer metabolic issues, your hormone levels can be affected, hormone imbalances can lead to the female athlete triad (loss of periods, bone density problems) and restricted calories can lead to malnutrition which in turn can lead to deficiencies in vital vitamins and minerals and therefore other health issues.  So it’s really important not to stay restricted or at low body fat levels for too long. Most women lose their periods at about 12-14% body fat, at this point your body is basically protecting itself as the body is clever and knows that you don’t have enough body fat for reproduction and health, so it starts to shut down your ability to reproduce. This can cause psychological effects including depression, further disordered eating and body image issues.

With the huge increase in women competing in bodybuilding competitions in the last few years, I think we are really only seeing the tip of the iceberg of how this cycle of extremes is going to affect women who compete. What starts out as a positive goal and a healthy adventure is for many women turning into a very negative experience with potentially long term physical and psychological problems afterwards.

So what can be done? Well, this is where reverse diets come in, to prevent post competition rebound weight gain, to prevent women staying in calorie deficit too long after comp and also for general health.

Reversing your diet gradually back up to a maintenance level post competition (or after any diet) can help you stay at a healthy body composition and improve your metabolism so you are less likely to store extra calories in a rebound fat gain. As your metabolism is restored, you should be able to cope with more calories while maintaining weight. Some weight gain is inevitable and healthy and if your goal is to gain muscle, you would continue to increase calories until you are consuming a little more than you expend, so your body just stores a little more fat but not excessive amounts.

So how do we reverse diet?

In simple terms,

  1. post competition you return to close to final prep diet.
  2. then gradually increase calories over a number of weeks, assessing weekly how much fat – if any, you are gaining. Many women actually continue to get leaner at the start of a reverse diet. If your weight drops, stays stable, or is increasing slowly, you increase calories – if you gain too much – you hold steady for another week, if still gaining, maybe pull back a bit until weight / fat stabilises.
  3. How far do you reverse to? Well this depends on your goals, if want to gain muscle you would want to be in a slight calorie excess, if just want to maintain a healthy offseason figure, then you increase until you hit a healthy long-term body fat % and maintain there.

In all honesty- some people find reversing the diet harder than the comp prep itself! Yes Really!!! Well that Big Goal that was keeping you on track has now gone so many people find it hard to remain focussed. So be prepared to remain fairly strict for a few weeks post comp! Reversing can take a lot of will power, you may have been dieting for so long that you don’t want to carry on any longer, but after a few days of eating junk food, you may find it a relief to have some structure back in your diet- I personally find the reverse diet easier than prepping, I think it’s because I know I can have the odd treat and just knowing that means I don’t want it so much… whereas on prep, I just want that biscuit because I can’t have it.

So if your competition season is coming to an end, seriously consider a reverse diet, try and have something in place ready for as soon as the competition is over to help you stay on track. If you are struggling with your post competition diet, please seek help from a coach or nutrition professional. Most of us employ a coach during the ‘prep’ but then go it alone afterwards and without some guidance and with no imminent goals, it’s very easy to lose your way. The off season is where you can make improvements for next year’s comps and during the reverse diet your body is very receptive, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to improve -make the most of it! Look after your body – be kind to it – it’s the only one you have to live in!