Reverse Dieting vs Calorie Deficit: 3 Differences

Reverse dieting and calorie deficits are both nutrition strategies used to help individuals reach their goals, but they do not accomplish the same results and cannot be implemented at the same time.

What’s the difference between a calorie deficit vs reverse dieting? A calorie deficit is used to decrease the amount of food you’re eating for weight loss but can result in a decrease in the number of calories your body burns over time. A reverse diet is used to speed up the body’s ability to burn calories by introducing more food over time.

Knowing how reverse dieting and calorie deficits can complement one another is beneficial for being successful at losing weight and also for maintaining weight at a lower body fat percentage.

After reading this article you’ll learn:

  • What a calorie deficit is and how to accomplish it
  • What a reverse diet is and how to accomplish it
  • The differences between a reverse diet and a calorie deficit

Overview: Reverse Diet vs Calorie Deficit

Reverse dieting and a calorie deficit are not the same thing and cannot be implemented at the same time because they are opposing forces. 

When we’re in a calorie deficit, we’re eating less than our body requires so that we will lose weight. This happens because we will have to use our body’s resources (preferably fat) to provide us with the energy that we’re not getting from food.

When pursuing weight loss with a calorie deficit, our metabolism will naturally slow down because our body will slowly start to try and preserve its energy for basic bodily functions. Therefore, it won’t burn calories as readily and weight loss will get harder the further into a weight loss phase you get.

If we’re reaching the point of dieting where progress is slim to none despite decreasing our calories as much as is realistic, then we should probably start reverse dieting instead of trying to work towards a calorie deficit.

With reverse dieting, we are actively trying to bring ourselves out of a calorie deficit by gradually increasing our calories to a maintenance level (the number of calories it takes to maintain our weight). 

The goal of reverse dieting is to get out of a constant calorie deficit to speed our metabolism back up so that our body is burning calories at a faster rate the next time we choose to enter a weight loss phase. 

Takeaway: Ultimately a calorie deficit and a reverse diet compensate for one another so that we’re getting the best results possible.

Reverse Dieting

A reverse diet is an incremental increase in calories with the goal of speeding up our metabolism so that we can eat more food while maintaining our body weight and minimising fat gain.

Reverse dieting is an exciting prospect for those who are at a place where they’ve dieted for a while and have slowed down their body’s ability to burn calories at a fast rate and are just fatigued from the lack of nutrition.

Reverse dieting can help by gradually increasing our calories over time which provides us with more energy to be more active and live our lives. 

The only negative aspects of reverse dieting are that it does have more potential for fat gain than a calorie deficit would, but we can set our parameters for how much fat we’re wanting to gain based on the reverse dieting approach that we choose.

In addition, reverse dieting hasn’t been studied enough thus far for us to concretely say that it works as well as everyone says. The only real evidence right now is anecdotal (based on personal observation), but I’m positive that there will be more research done soon.

How To Reverse Diet: 4 Steps

How to reverse diet :4 steps

Step 1: Determine Current Food Intake

Before we can make adjustments we need to know our current calorie baseline so that we are making strategic increases that will cause us to reverse our diet. 

If we don’t find our baseline we could not increase enough and still be in a deficit, or we could increase too much and increase our potential for fat gain beyond our comfort level.

Finding our current intake is easier if we’ve already been logging our food into a tracking app like MacroFactor. If we haven’t been logging up to this point, we can begin tracking our intake or we can try reverse dieting without counting calories by food journaling.

It is best to collect a week’s worth of data to get the best information about our current intake. At a minimum, I would suggest 4 days of tracking or journaling to find our baseline.

Step 2: Calculate Average Body Weight

Next, we need to determine our current average body weight, which is calculated by using multiple weigh-ins over a week and finding the average. 

Weighing in every day for a week and finding the average of the 7 measurements will give us the best data but at minimum, we would need 3 measurements per week.

For example:

  • Weigh-in #1: 175lbs
  • Weigh-in #2: 176.2lbs
  • Weigh-in #3: 175.7lbs

To find the average we would add each measurement (175 + 176.2 + 175.7 = 526.9), then we would divide that number by the number of measurements that we took (3), which gives us our average (526.8 divided by 3 = 175.6lbs)

Step 3: Determine Fat Gain Tolerance

Then we must decide on our fat gain tolerance, which reflects the amount of fat we are comfortable gaining while reverse dieting. Our fat gain tolerance will impact the aggressiveness at which we increase our calories week-to-week.

If we want to gain as little fat as possible and we are comfortable with the process being much slower, then we will have a low fat gain tolerance and will only increase our calories by 50 calories at a time.

If we are comfortable with gaining some fat but still maintaining most of our muscle definition then we will have a moderate fat gain tolerance and we will increase our calories by 100 calories at a time.

If we are not concerned about gaining fat and we want to speed up the process as much as possible, then we will have a high fat gain tolerance and we will increase our calories by 150 calories at a time.

Our estimated weekly body weight fluctuations based on fat gain tolerance are the following:

  • Low fat gain tolerance: under ½ lb per week
  • Moderate fat gain tolerance: ½ lb – 1 lb per week
  • High fat gain tolerance: 1lb – 1 ½ lb per week

Step 4: Adjust Food Intake

Once we’ve determined our current intake, current average body weight, and fat gain tolerance all that’s left to do is make the adjustments for the upcoming week.

If our currency intake is 1500 calories and we have a low fat gain tolerance, then we will increase our calories to 1550 for the upcoming week.

If our body weight changes within the range we would expect based on our fat gain tolerance, then we are on the right track.

If our body weight changes within the range we would expect based on our fat gain tolerance, then we are on the right track

If we lose weight then we may need to increase our calories by larger increments week to week. 

If we gain more weight than expected we could decrease our caloric increments or only adjust calories on a bi-weekly basis to give our body more time to adjust to the increases.

Pros vs Cons of reverse dieting

Pros of Reverse Dieting

The pros of reverse dieting are:

  • Burning More Calories
  • Increased Food Intake
  • Increased Energy

Cons of Reverse Dieting

The cons of reverse dieting are:

  • Increased Potential for Fat Gain
  • Only Anecdotal Evidence Supporting Its Effectiveness

Who Should Reverse Diet?

A reverse diet is for those who have a hard time losing weight even when they eat a low-calorie diet, or for those who have achieved their weight loss goal and are ready to start eating more foods again.

Calorie Deficit

A calorie deficit simply means that we are eating fewer calories than our body needs to maintain our weight. 

A calorie deficit is required for weight loss to occur and can be accomplished by eating fewer calories or burning more calories through activity; however, the best approach is to do both.

A calorie deficit is beneficial for those who are looking for fat loss to improve self-esteem, improve health outcomes, and feel better in their body!

However, we will reach a point where the number of calories that equated to a calorie deficit in the beginning may no longer be creating a calorie deficit because our body adjusts to the lower intake over time.

This is related to the fact that our metabolism will slow down over time as we continue to diet because our bodies will want to preserve energy for bodily functions. We may also notice that we’re more tired because of the lower intake, making it difficult to continue burning calories through activity.

Prolonged calorie deficits can be really taxing on us mentally and physically, so it’s important to know when enough is enough.

How To Do A Calorie Deficit: 4 Steps

How to do a calorie deficit: 4 steps

Step 1: Determine Current Food Intake

Before you can start dieting, we need to estimate your current caloric intake so that we have a better idea of your maintenance calories (the number of calories you need to maintain your weight). 

Without knowing your maintenance calories it becomes harder to set up a calorie deficit because we won’t know how many calories equates to a calorie deficit.

If we’ve already been food journaling then we probably already know our maintenance calories. If we haven’t been tracking our food intake then we will need to start tracking our intake to figure out how much we’re currently eating and how this is affecting our weight.

If we’re maintaining weight based on what we’re eating, then we know we are eating at maintenance.

It is recommended to track for a week to get a better weekly average for our intake, but at minimum, we should track for 3 days.

Step 2: Calculate Average Body Weight

We also need to determine our average body weight to find our starting point. Based on our starting point we will be able to determine if progress is being made and we are in fact in a calorie deficit.

To find our average body weight, we need to take the average of multiple measures over the week by adding them all together and then dividing the sum by the number of measurements.

Ideally, we would have 7 measurements for each day of the week, but if that’s not possible then 3 is sufficient.

For example:

  • Weigh-in #1: 185lbs
  • Weigh-in #2: 184.8lbs
  • Weigh-in #3: 185.6lbs

You add up each of these weights (185 + 184.8 + 185.6 = 555.4) and then divide by 3 (555.4  / 3) to get your average body weight (185.1lbs)

Step 3: Determine Rate Of Progress

Next, we need to determine how quickly we want to lose weight based on our timeline and our overall goals.

If we want to lose weight as fast as possible and we aren’t concerned about losing muscle because we’re on a strict timeline, then we will take a more aggressive approach. With an aggressive approach, we would decrease our calories by 300 from our maintenance intake.

If we want to retain most of our muscle mass but also want to speed along the process, then we can take a moderate approach. With a moderate approach, we would decrease our calories by 200 from our maintenance intake.

If we want to retain as much muscle as possible so that we keep our metabolism as high as possible and look our best and we’re willing to put in the time, then we can take a slow and steady approach. With a slow and steady approach, we would decrease our calories by 100 from our maintenance level.

For example:

  • If my maintenance was 2200 and I wanted to take a moderate approach, I would set my deficit calories at 2000 calories for the week and monitor for progress.

Step 4: Adjust Food Intake

If after adjusting our food intake we are noticing changes in our average body weight or how our clothes are fitting, then we can determine that we are in fact in a calorie deficit and weight loss is happening.

If we’re satisfied with the rate of progress, then we can continue with this intake. If we aren’t losing weight quickly enough we could decrease calories again for the upcoming week. If we are losing weight too quickly and are concerned about losing too much muscle, then we can add some calories back in.

Pros vs Cons of calorie deficit

Pros of Calorie Deficit

The pros of a calorie deficit are:

  • Fat Loss
  • Potential For Better Health Outcomes
  • Could Increase Self-Esteem

Cons of Calorie Deficit

The cons of a calorie deficit are:

  • Decreases Metabolism
  • Low Energy Availability
  • Can Be Physically & Mentally Taxing

Who Should Do A Calorie Deficit?

A calorie deficit is suitable for those who want to lower their body fat percentage to become healthier and feel better in their body.

It is also suitable for those who wish to compete in bodybuilding or sports that require us to be in a certain weight range.

A calorie deficit is not appropriate for those who are already at an unhealthy body fat percentage (below 10% for men, and below 15-18% for women).

Differences Between Reverse Dieting vs Calorie Deficit 

differences between reverse dieting vs calorie deficit

The 3 main differences between reverse dieting and a calorie deficit are:

  • Calorie Trends Over Time
  • Overall Results
  • Effect On Metabolism

1. Calorie Trends Over Time

One difference between reverse dieting and a calorie deficit is the way that calories will be adjusted over time to support each goal. 

With a reverse diet, calories will gradually increase over time. Whereas with a calorie deficit, calories will gradually decrease over time.

2. Overall Results

Another difference between reverse dieting and a calorie deficit is that the result of a calorie deficit is weight loss due to a decrease in intake, and the result of reverse dieting is maintaining or slightly gaining weight due to an increase in intake.

3. Effect On Metabolism

One of the most important differences between reverse dieting and a calorie deficit is that a reverse diet speeds up our metabolism by showing our body that more food is coming in and it no longer needs to preserve calories for bodily functions.

A calorie deficit is the opposite and actually slows down our metabolism over time because less food is coming in so the body feels that it needs to preserve its energy for bodily functions so it stops expending energy as readily.

With a reverse diet, we can eat more calories without gaining heaps of weight because our metabolism is speedy. With a calorie deficit, our metabolism will decrease over time making it harder to continue to be in a deficit and forcing us to consume fewer and fewer calories to continue to see progress.

Final Thoughts

A reverse diet and calorie deficit are very different nutrition strategies but they do complement one another. Without a calorie deficit, we wouldn’t need a reverse diet, and without a reverse diet, it would be very difficult to be in a true calorie deficit.

Other Reverse Dieting Resources

About The Author

Amanda Parker
Amanda Parker

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.