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What Is Reverse Dieting and Is It Healthy?

When Melissa Alcantara first started weight training, she used the internet to teach herself how to work out. Now the trainer, who works with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, shares her insights with other people who are looking for help and inspiration. Most recently, Alcantara revealed that she’s on a reverse diet and spelled out the why and how for her followers.

“Abs are great, but I’m over it, I’m done being lean for Instagram,” Alcantara captioned a recent post. “I’m done being lean for abs. Yes, I want to look good but I don’t want to live my life thinking about my next meal as I’m eating my current meal. I want to feel good and strong and fed lol.”

To get to a place where she feels more free with her diet without letting her hard-earned figure fall by the wayside, she says she decided to go on a reverse diet, upping the calories she eats in a day with the end goal of becoming and staying lean at this higher calorie intake. So looking the same, but eating and likely weighing more? Sound too good to be true? Keep reading.

First, what is reverse dieting?

A reverse diet is a “diet” in the sense that it involves controlling what you eat. But unlike a conventional diet, which inherently makes you think of weight loss, here, you’re eating more calories instead of restricting them. In her caption, Alcantara explained that she’s taught her body “to always be hungry, to always be in a deficit without any breaks.”

This might sound counterintuitive, but not eating enough can stand in the way of your weight loss. If you cut your calories, after a while your metabolism can slow down and you start to burn fewer calories thanks to a process called adaptive thermogenesis. Even if you maintain your training and lowered calorie count, it becomes harder to lose weight. (Learn more about why eating more might actually be the secret to losing weight.)

The goal with reverse dieting is to gain weight without rapidly gaining fat and allow your metabolism to gradually improve and adjust to the higher intake of calories.

The effect that cutting and adding calories can have on metabolism is generally accepted, but reverse dieting hasn’t been studied thoroughly. According to a 2014 review of studies on metabolism, “while anecdotal reports of successful reverse dieting have led to an increase in its popularity, research is needed to evaluate its efficacy.” That’s basically to say that just because you heard that a friend of a friend lost weight via reverse dieting, that doesn’t mean it would work for you.

How is reverse dieting supposed to work?

If you start reverse dieting by dramatically increasing your intake and eating only low-nutrient foods, you’ve missed the point. Reverse dieting is controlled and very gradual. If a refeeding day is a sprint, reverse dieting is a marathon. Take Alcantara’s plan, which she spelled out to her Instagram followers: When she started, she was eating 1,750 calories a day. She quickly gained 3 1/2 pounds, and her weight held steady for three weeks. On the fourth week, she lost 1 1/2 pounds. According to Alcantara, she lost the weight because her body was “adjusting to the calories well,” so she increased her daily calories to 1,850. She wrote that she plans to add another 100 calories every few weeks until she reaches 2,300 calories a day. At that point, she’ll cut her calories to lean out until her calorie intake settles at around 1,900.

But is reverse dieting actually healthy?

Anyone who’s reached a weight-loss plateau can likely benefit. “In order to combat the physiological plateau, that’s actually a pretty good idea to up intake,” says Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. Just make sure you’re gradually increasing how much you’re eating, rather than flip-flopping between eating a lot and a little, says Moreno. “Chronic [i.e., yo-yo] dieters can mess up their metabolism almost permanently,” she says.It also can have a negative impact on your insulin levels, she says. “If some days you’re eating a lot of bread and a lot of carbs, and then some days you’re not, you’re going to have one very confused pancreas.” The cycling triggers your pancreas to stop making enough insulin to keep your blood sugar in a normal range, which is referred to as insulin resistance.

Moreno also warns that becoming exact about tracking your calories can have ramifications. “That’ll make you food-obsessed and more likely to overindulge and crave food,” she says. Rather than adding a specific number of calories every so often, she suggests adding more food intuitively, increasing resistance training, and making sure to consume adequate protein to build muscle. (Here’s a list of muscle-building foods to eat for more definition.)

With these caveats in mind, there really aren’t any risks involved with reverse dieting, says Moreno. So, if you want to try it, consider consulting a dietitian who can work with you to make sure you don’t damage your metabolism along the way.

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