Reverse dieting requires a strategic increase in calories, but can we accomplish this without being a slave to calorie counting?
It’s possible to reverse diet without counting calories, but it relies on carefully monitoring your bodyweight and increasing your calories week-to-week by keeping consistent food portions, overestimating how much protein you’re eating, and underestimating how much carbs and fats you’re eating.
Reverse dieting without counting calories can be just as effective as reverse dieting while calorie counting, but there is a larger margin for error so we have to know how to do it properly.
After reading this article you’ll learn:
- If reverse dieting without calorie counting is effective
- How to reverse diet without counting calories step-by-step
- 5 tips to reverse diet without counting calories
- What could go wrong with this method of reverse dieting
Is Reverse Dieting Without Counting Calories Effective?
Reverse dieting is possible without counting calories and it can be very effective if executed correctly. The reason that it can be effective is that as long as we have a method for gauging our current caloric intake then we can use that same method to increase our intake gradually overtime to reverse diet.
Reverse dieting is a gradual increase in calories over time to increase the number of calories we burn so that we can consume more daily calories while maintaining our current body weight.
Therefore, as long as we have a frame of reference for how much much we’re consuming to the point that we can see if our intake increases or stays the same, then we can reverse diet without counting calories.
We will be able to make decisions on whether to increase our intake further or to keep it the same based on how our weight is changing.
A general rule of thumb is: If our weight is going up more than 1lb per week, then we should probably slow our intake. If we’re maintaining or losing weight then we can likely increase our intake.
How To Reverse Diet Without Counting Calories (6 Steps)
If we were reverse dieting by counting calories we would:
- Determine our current caloric intake and the amount of each macronutrient (protein, carb, and fat) that is contributing to these calories.
- Monitor our bodyweight to determine the effect that these calories have.
- Increase our calories by a set amount on a weekly basis (either 50, 100, or 150 calories per day) based on how much weight we’re gaining during our refeed.
While we are counting calories, we can be a bit more precise with these caloric increases and ensure we’re being consistent each day. However, we can still achieve similar results by replicating this process above even if we aren’t counting calories.
The 6 steps for reverse dieting without counting calories are:
Step 1 – Record Current Food Intake
Before we can make any changes, we first need to know how much we’re currently consuming so that future increases in intake make sense based on our starting point.
To determine our current intake I suggest using a food journal for a week to identify how much we’re consuming daily. In this food journal, we should record everything we’re consuming including the portion sizes for each item.
While this is still a form of “food tracking”, it is not “calorie tracking”.
For portion sizes, I recommend using the hand portion method, which allows us to estimate portion sizes based on the size of our hands.
A serving of protein is equal to the size of our palm, a serving of carbs is equal to the amount we could fit in a cupped handful, a serving of fruits or vegetables is equal to the size of a fist, and a serving of fat is equal to the size of our thumb.
- Chicken Stirfry
- 1 serving of chicken (protein), 2 servings of mixed vegetables (veg), 1 serving of avocado oil (fat), 1 serving of sweet potato(carb).
Step 2 – Quantify Food Intake To Develop A Frame Of Reference
Once we’ve gathered enough data in our food journal (about 1-week should be enough), we should go through and determine how many servings of each macronutrient we are consuming daily. Then we can find the average for each macronutrient over the week to see on average how much of each nutrient we have been consuming.
For example, let’s say that the average daily intake for each macronutrient is the following:
- Protein – 5 servings
- Carbs – 4 servings
- Fats – 6 servings
- Fruits/Vegetables – 6 servings
Step 3 – Determine Average Bodyweight
Since we’re determining our starting point, we’ll also need to determine our current average bodyweight. This requires us to weigh in at least 3 times in one week so that we can take the average of these measurements.
Our weight fluctuates day-to-day so to get a more accurate measure of our true bodyweight, we need to take the average. To take the average we need to find the sum of each measurement and divide this by the number of measures we’re including.
- Day 1: 152.5lbs
- Day 2: 154lbs
- Day 3: 153.5lbs
- Average weight = (152.5 + 154 + 153.5) divided by 3
Average weight = 153.3
Step 4 – Decide On Fat Gain Tolerance
We also need to assess our tolerance for fat gain because based on our tolerance we will determine how aggressive to be with the reverse diet.
If we want little to no fat gain and we’re willing to be patient with the process, then we will have a low tolerance for fat gain and only increase our intake by ½ a serving at a time.
If we want to stay relatively lean, but we want to speed up the reverse dieting process then we will have a moderate fat gain tolerance and we will increase our intake by 1 full serving at a time.
If we want to reverse diet as fast as possible because we have trouble sticking to this kind of structure for long periods or our body fat is dangerously low, then we will have a high fat gain tolerance and we will increase our intake by 1 ½ servings at a time.
Step 5 – Increase Intake By Adding Servings Of Food
Based on our current average intake and our fat gain tolerance, we will increase our intake accordingly.
When we’re increasing our intake our priority should be to increase our protein intake so that our intake is equal to 1 gram per pound of our body weight. To figure this out, we need to know that 1 palm-sized serving of protein is roughly equal to 30 grams of protein.
- So If my average body weight is 153lbs, I need roughly 153 grams of protein.
- 1 serving of protein = 30 grams
- 153 grams divided by 30 grams = 5.1 grams
- So roughly 5 servings of protein (5 palm sizes) will give us the 1g/lb of protein.
Based on this, I’ve already been consuming enough protein, so I can allocate the increase in my intake to carbs or fats. However, if my protein intake was too low based on my current intake, I would instead allocate the increased serving to protein.
Once protein intake is sufficient, it is generally recommended to alternate between increasing servings of carbs and fats. So if we increase carbs this week, then next week if another increase in intake is necessary fats will be increased.
- Starting intake: Protein – 5 servings, Carbs – 4 servings, Fat – 6 servings, Fruits & vegetables – 6 servings
- Fat gain tolerance: ½ serving increase
- New intake: Protein – 5 servings, Carbs – 4.5 servings, Fats – 6 servings, Fruits & vegetables – 6 servings
Step 6 – Monitor Weight Trend & Adjust If Necessary
Now that we have our increase sorted, we should execute this for one week and continue to monitor our weight to measure the effect that the increased intake has on our average body weight.
If our average bodyweight stays the same or decreases, then we can increase our intake again based on our fat gain tolerance.
If our average body weight increases by 1lb or more, then we should keep intake the same for the next week (mod-high fat gain tolerance) or decrease intake by a ½ serving of carbs or fats (low fat gain tolerance).
This will continue until we are satisfied with our food intake or we cannot increase our intake anymore without gaining unwanted additional mass.
5 Tips For Reverse Dieting Without Tracking Calories
1. It’s Better To Overestimate Protein & Fruit/Vegetable Intake
When we’re reverse dieting without counting calories and tracking our intake, we are going to be estimating our serving sizes and with “best guesses”, so there is also a larger margin of error. If we’re unsure about whether our serving size for protein or fruits/vegetables is accurate, it is best to overestimate than underestimate.
This is because, with protein, we want to make sure that we’re getting enough so that we’re retaining our muscle mass and encouraging our body to burn more calories. With protein it is best to overdo it, then underdo it.
With fruits and vegetables being so low calorie and incredibly good for our health, it is also bet to overestimate than underestimate if we’re unsure. Additionally, we may want the volume that fruits/vegetables provide because we will still be coming out of deficit and therefore hunger may be higher than normal.
2. It’s Better To Underestimate Carbs & Fats When Fat Tolerance Is Low
When in doubt when estimating carbs and fat serving sizes, it is best to underestimate than overestimate because carbs and fats are easy to overdo and the calories from these macronutrients are more likely to be converted to fat when overconsumed (especially fats).
Carbs and fats are still very important while refeeding to help us burn calories at a faster rate over time, but eating too much of them too soon can be counterproductive so it’s best to er on the side of caution.
3. Use A Food Journal To Keep Track Of Intake
Although we’re not tracking our intake in a calorie/macro counting app, we should still keep track of how much we’re consuming so that we’re being systematic about our choices to increase calories or not.
If we’re not recording our food intake in some way, then we would have no idea how much we’re actually consuming and therefore would not be able to reverse diet effectively.
For this reason, I suggest keeping a food journal where we write our food choices and serving sizes based on the hand measurement portions.
This will allow us to take note of how much we’re consuming without being so number-focused as we would be if we counted calories.
4. Monitor Activity Along With Intake
Along with tracking our intake, we should also take note of how much weekly activity we’re doing because the activity will play a role in reverse dieting because it does burn calories and we’re trying to monitor and adjust our calories every week.
Keeping track of our activity will help us notice trends in how active we are week-to-week so we can get a better understanding of how our activity is impacting our reverse diet.
5. Stay The Course
The most important tip of all is to stay the course because reverse dieting won’t work unless we do, and there may be times when we want to give up – especially if our fat tolerance is low because it will take more time.
If we stick with the process and do our best to adhere to our reverse dieting plan, then we will be successful. But if we give up and throw in the towel after one “bad day”, then we won’t achieve our goals.
- Read our complete guide: How To Count Calories Without Labels (4 Ways)
Where Can Things Go Wrong When Reverse Dieting Without Tracking
Reverse dieting without counting calories or tracking macros can go wrong if we’re not consistent.
When we’re reverse dieting by visually estimating serving sizes and adjusting our intake using this method, it is less precise and it is supposed to be less meticulous than counting calories but we still have to try to be as accurate as possible.
This requires us to adhere to our target servings of each macronutrient so that we continue to consume the number of calories that we need to successfully reverse diet.
If we go off the rails and top keeping track of our intake then we will likely put on more fat than we want because we won’t be burning calories at the rate that we would want.
Reverse dieting does require some consistent effort but we don’t have to be a slave to calorie counting and macro tracking to be successful, we can choose to estimate our serving sizes as best as we can and trust that the results will come with time!
Other Reverse Dieting Resources
- Reverse Diet Weight Gain: What Can You Expect?
- When Should I Stop Reverse Dieting? (5 Signs)
- Gaining Muscle Without Counting Calories or Macros (7 Tips)
Bray GA, Smith SR, de Jonge L, et al. Effect of Dietary Protein Content on Weight Gain, Energy Expenditure, and Body Composition During Overeating: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 2012;307(1):47–55. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1918
Woodside, J., Young, I., & McKinley, M. (2013). Fruits and vegetables: Measuring intake and encouraging increased consumption. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 72(2), 236-245. doi:10.1017/S0029665112003059
Martin, C.K., Heilbronn, L.K., de Jonge, L., DeLany, J.P., Volaufova, J., Anton, S.D., Redman, L.M., Smith, S.R. and Ravussin, E. (2007), Effect of Calorie Restriction on Resting Metabolic Rate and Spontaneous Physical Activity. Obesity, 15: 2964-2973. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2007.354
About The Author
Amanda Parker is an author, nutrition coach, and Certified Naturopath. She works with bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters to increase performance through nutrition and lifestyle coaching.
Why Trust Our Content
On Staff at FeastGood.com, we have Registered Dietitians, coaches with PhDs in Human Nutrition, and internationally ranked athletes who contribute to our editorial process. This includes research, writing, editing, fact-checking, and product testing/reviews. At a bare minimum, all authors must be certified nutrition coaches by either the National Academy of Sports Medicine, International Sport Sciences Association, or Precision Nutrition. Learn more about our team here.
Have a Question?
If you have any questions or feedback about what you’ve read, you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We respond to every email within 1 business day.