Reverse Diet: How It Works

Reverse Dieting

As an online health coach, I see a common repeating pattern. Executives resolve to lose weight and get stronger and make great progress for 6 months. And more often than not, they meet or exceed their weight and strength goals in that time. Yet 12 months later, 95% of those that don’t use a health coach are more or less back to where they started.

So what gives?

The answer is simple.

In virtually every case, even very smart people don’t have a post-goal plan to transition to sustaining mode. Most men maintain their car better than their body because at least their car comes with a written maintenance schedule.

Reverse dieting is a simple way to make sure you are in the 5% that succeed in sustaining your results.

Let me show you how this works.

But before I do, I want to mention you that you will see I document a lot of numbers and measurements as evidence for what works and what doesn’t. Further on in this post I explain exactly how and why people who measure succeed and those who don’t fail. You won’t want to miss this.

Recently I finished a 4-week ketogenic nutrition experiment and was able to hit my weight, body-fat, and strength targets. And prior to that I had lost 25 lbs and quadrupled my strength in a 12 week experiment called Dogfood.

So I’m ready to relax a little and go into long-term sustaining mode. But therein lies a problem. I don’t exactly know for sure what is required to maintain my strength and weight.

So my transition plan is:
 1. Reverse diet for 4 weeks
 2. Assess my results
 3. Fine-tune my plan for long-term sustainability

Based on my age, weight, and activity levels I arrived at maintenance calorie estimate of 2,020 kcal/day. (There are many reputable online calculators available: I chose to use MyFitnessPal).

Coming off strict ketogenic nutrition, I expected to regain some water weight as the result of increasing my carbs (each gram of glyocogen holds 4 grams of water). And I hypothesized that my increased calories might lead to additional strength gains, albeit with some attendant increase in body-fat.

My best guesstimate of my reverse diet outcome looked like this:

1/3 water + 1/3 muscle + 1/3 fat

So What Are My Actual Results?

According to MyFitnessPal logs, my gross calorie intake was 69,889 over 4 weeks, and according to RunKeeper my gross calorie burn was 13,300. I burned the vast majority of my calories simply walking because it is easy to incorporate into my schedule AND it works the largest muscle groups in the body. For those keeping score at home, 475 calories a day works out to about 10,000 steps a day.

The forgoing resulted in a actual net calorie balance of 56,589 over 4 weeks or 2,021 kcal per day (versus a reverse diet estimate of 2,020 kcal to maintain strength and weight).

Reverse Diet Assessment

Lean body mass (muscle) increased 4 lbs (from 151.7 to 155.7). This is corroborated by my measured average strength increases of 17%.

Water gain was 2.3 lbs (1kg). [2] To subsequently verify my water gain, I went on a strenuous 3 day hike which fully depleted my glycogen stores. Correspondingly my weight dropped 2.6 lbs (from 176.2 to 173.6).

Body fat increased 2% (from 9.7 to 11.7) which works out to 3.3 lbs (1.5kg).

So my guesstimate of reverse diet body composition changes of 1/3 water, 1/3 muscle, 1/3 fat turned out to be reasonably close.

Fine Tuning Sustainability

  • I was expecting to gain a little bit of water coming off a ketogenic cycle, so no problem there.
  • Gaining 4 lbs of muscle and increasing my strength 17% was a nice bonus.
  • So what’s going on with the 3.3 lbs of fat? This works out to be 11,550 calories total or 413 kcal per day. I don’t have time to walk an extra 4 miles a day to burn it off (I’m already averaging 10,000 steps).

The problem and answer are in my macronutrients. 413 calories a day works out to 103g of carbohydrates ( 1g carbs = 4 kcal).

If you look carefully at the Reverse Diet Macronutrients table above, you will notice that this very closely matches my increased carb consumption under the Reverse Diet (from 28g to 125g). But if I simply cut out an extra 100g carbs a day, I will merely wind up reverting back to ketogenic nutrition.

A more sustainable solution will be to scale back my carbs 50g a day which means a reduction of 200 kcal. My new fine-tuned sustainability target now becomes:

  • 1,800 kcal a day
  • 75g of daily carbs

These fine-tuned targets should result in an easy to maintain diet, sustain my current strength levels, and drop my bodyfat to a 10.5% level (2 lb fat loss).

What Gets Measured Gets Done

Businesses grow and profit based on measurements. For a basic business this could be simple ledger accounting. For a sophisticated business this could real-time big data.

The same principle applies to our personal health and fitness. Many of my clients track their progress in a simple spreadsheets. A select few quantify themselves using biometric sensors. The top 1% in pursuit of self-mastery use either an in-person or a virtual coach.

So how and why does measurement work?

Here is what systems engineers and process control experts say about it:

  1. Measurement is the first step that leads to control.
  2. Control eventually leads to improvement.
  3. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it.
  4. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it.
  5. If you can’t control it, you cannot improve it.

An important factor in the psychology of self-mastery is that measurements and health coaches help raise one’s overall level of awareness and mindfulness which in turn helps create long-term sustainable habits.

Health & Fitness App Update

A convenient option for busy people is smartphones health and fitness apps as I’ve posted about before.

I am always on the lookout out for new apps to make my nutrition and exercise simpler and more effective. After extensively reviewing what’s out there, here are some new ones I am evaluating firsthand:

  • Basis Peak: I chose the Peak because it automatically switches between sitting, walking, running , biking, measurements as well as sleep and habit analysis. It also incorporates a heart-rate monitor as well as galvanic skin response and temperature. I’ve also become addicted to getting my text messages and emails on my wrist. This is incredibly handy when traveling by boat, plane, or motorcycle.
  • Strong: I used to use Excel and Evernote to track my workouts. But I found data entry and trend reports cumbersome. Enter Strong, an app that makes data entry and trend reporting 10x easier, especially in the gym. I especially like the fact that it can report separate workout routines (in my case I evaluate my strength, high intensity, and 6-week progress separately).
  • Fitbit: Many of my digitial coaching clients use Fitbits. I use the ‘Friends’ feature to monitor their daily activity levels and provide feedback and encouragement in-between our weekly coaching calls.

Borrow My Brain #AMA

Do you have questions about health, nutrition, or fitness?

I live to give evidence-based answers. And I’ve struggled and made all the mistakes. Ask me anything! (#AMA). Send me your vote or suggestions to I read every email and respond to as many as I can.

Some health and fitness topics my readers and clients have asked me to blog about include:

  • I have no time to exercise
  • I can’t get motivated or stay motivated
  • I hate the gym
  • Diets don’t work for me

  1. Do You Read Fast Enough To Be Successful?, Forbes
  2. Calculated as follows: 176.2 lbs (reverse diet) — 166.6 lbs (ketogenic baseline) — 4 lbs (muscle) — 2.3 lbs (fat)

Photo credits: All photos and graphics ©The Healthy Executive 2015. Any other app screenshots or trademarks or logos are property of their respective owners.

Originally published at The Healthy Executive.