Reverse Dieting: Gain Muscle and Lose Fat

What reverse dieting is, my before and after story, and how you can do it too.

Have you been dieting for a while and your weight loss has stalled?

Have you restricted your calorie intake so much that you think you’ve killed your metabolism?

Do you bloat up big time whenever you eat carbs?

Reverse dieting may be the solution you’ve been searching (ahem... Googling) for.

Rather listen than read? Scroll to the bottom of this page to listen to the Reverse Dieting call recording.

What is a Reverse Diet?

A reverse diet is a way of slowly increasing calories, carbs, and fat while keeping protein intake relatively consistent over an extended period of time through tracking and counting macros. The goal is to wean yourself off of a diet, revitalizing your metabolism with minimal fat gain, safely bringing your calorie intake back up to your maintenance level.

The purposes of a reverse diet is to:

  • Restore metabolism
  • Restore hormonal health
  • Build muscle
  • Minimize fat gain
  • Prime the body for easier fat loss later down the road

For someone that has been dieting for a long time, eating at “maintenance level” and being able to actually maintain their weight sounds like a dream come true.

I’ve talked to so many people (women especially) that are operating in an ongoing state of severe calorie restriction, often combined with super sweaty cardio workouts that, even with a large calorie deficit, are not seeing the results they want.

They can't figure out why they aren't losing weight and they don't know what to do, so they just keep restricting and try pushing harder in an effort to break through the plateau. This is where reverse dieting can come into play.


I first learned about reverse dieting last year when I stumbled upon Dr. Layne Norton Ph.D. and his brilliant YouTube videos on how to repair metabolic damage.

Dr. Norton has a lot of experience working with female figure competitors that have dieted down to 800-1100 calories a day, who are often doing many hours of cardio a week just to maintain (not even lose) weight. He helps these women, using this reverse diet approach, to revive their metabolism (and their spirit).

Why Does the Body Stop Responding to a Calorie Deficit?

There are a bunch of reasons, ranging from hormonal issues to binges (paired with super low-calorie days), but for the most part what typically happens is that the body goes into survival mode.

Dieting for long periods of time confuses the body and puts it into a state of extreme stress. Of course, it’s going to fight back and do whatever it needs to do to survive and protect itself, right? So it signals cravings, hunger, and slows down all processes related to metabolism and digestion.

And this physical stress is not the only stress we are under. The body also needs to deal with emotional stressors from life in general related to work, relationship, and finances too, so imagine the toll that also adds to the mix. The body can only handle so much stress before it begins to breakdown.

It’s so common these days for people to have problems like food sensitivities or an underachieving thyroid, for example. Do you think there could be a correlation between years of physical and emotional stress and these physical ailments popping up?

My Reverse Dieting Story

In April 2015 my lifestyle was changing.

You can read my full emotional health and weight loss story if you want to understand the whole scoop on how I healed my body and found balance with intuitive eating.

Back in my dieting heyday, I would restrict food and increase my cardio as much as possible so I could get skinny and see how low I could get my measurements to go. I was totally motivated by what I saw on the cover of magazines and thought that smaller/thinner equaled beautiful.

I’m so glad I worked through all that and have gotten to where I am now with my mindset around what it means to rock my dream body and dream life! It’s no longer about the number on the scale for me, but about feeling amazing in my skin.

While I do talk about the scale as a form of measurement in this article, I want to explain the difference between my relationship with the scale then versus now.

Back then, it would make or break my day. It had power over me. Now, it’s just one of several tools (scale, measurements, pictures, and how I feel) that I use to track progress on this fun experiment of self-discovery.

So, getting back to my story. Up until last year, intuitive eating had changed my life and was my preferred style of eating. It made sense and worked well for me.

I had a pretty typical daily routine. I’d go out to eat sometimes, but for the most part, I made most of my meals at home. I didn’t travel much. Life was pretty basic. Then, things changed. I went through a divorce, started dating, traveling, entertaining, and things were everything BUT routine.

This whole new lifestyle was an adventure, one that I was excited about, but I knew I was going to have to do something different with how I was eating, because what I had been doing just wasn’t working for me in this new chapter.

I was trying to balance out the highs of the vacations, travel, and entertaining with lows of eating mostly protein, veggies, and fruit and it just didn’t feel like balance.

I had also really cut back on my workouts, opting for long runs or at-home bodyweight circuits and was noticing that I wasn’t as strong as I wanted to be and my body felt flatter than I liked.

It was time to amp things up and begin a new adventure with my body, food, and fitness too. I have shown myself in more ways than one that the human body is an amazing machine, and when you learn how to support it well and help it feel safe, it will support you right back. And I was excited to find out what this “next level balance” looked like for me.

I thought to myself, WHAT IF I could boost my metabolism so high that (even though I primarily eat healthy foods) I could eat whatever I wanted and stay super lean, and have an amazing body (and booty) that feels alive and full of energy, and radiant whether I am in a swimsuit, yoga pants, or a tight red dress?

Boom. Nailed it. This was my new goal, and it felt so exciting and fun!

That’s when I discovered reverse dieting and started putting my plan into action. Not because I hated my body, but rather because it felt thrilling to see if I could step up to this new challenge.

My Reverse Diet Plan

Now I will lay out the overview of the steps I took. For more info on the specific details, check out my Metabolic Reset course where I have created done-for-you spreadsheets and videos that make all of this easy breezy.

Two Things To Note

  1. I definitely encourage doing the emotional work alongside (or before) any science-based metabolic jumpstart program you embark upon because the emotional work is what heals the mental games and self-sabotage we play with ourselves and allows any progress you make to stick for the long-term.
  2. If you are dealing with symptoms of severe malnutrition or disordered eating, do NOT attempt to undertake the process of re-feeding on your own. Re-feeding can be dangerous, even life-threatening, if your body is in a state of starvation. Medical supervision can be necessary and it’s up to you to be the expert of your own body and know if you need additional support.

Step 1: Find Your Starting Point

In order to begin slowly increasing your calorie intake, you have to understand realistically what you have been eating up to this point.

In order to understand my own starting point, I averaged out my macros (calories in the form of protein, carbs, and fat) for one week of my “low-cal” days (meaning, days at home, not traveling).

This was my average:

  • 1250 Calories
  • 109g Protein
  • 144g Carbs
  • 33g Fat

Granted, the weeks on vacation, entertaining, and traveling were higher, but I was still surprised that this is what the numbers worked out to be.

Step 2: Slowly and Consistently Increase Macros

The focus with reverse dieting is on macros, not on calories. Tracking macros is a form of tracking calories, but more specific, so the calorie total is an estimate. The macros are what I paid attention to most.

I started my reverse diet here:

  • 1550 Calories
  • 130g Protein
  • 162g Carbs
  • 43g Fat

This was approximately an increase of about 12% in carbs and fats from the average. (I wanted to start with an increase between 10-15%.)

For example:

144g carbs x 12% = 18g increase per day

144g + 18g = 162g carbs

From what I learned from Dr. Norton, I kept my protein (in grams) at around my ideal body weight (130-135) in pounds.

From April 2015 to January 2016, I basically added 10 grams of carbs and 1-2 grams fat each week as long as my body weight didn’t fluctuate upwards too much.

My goal each day was to be within 5 grams of these target macros (+/-).

Weekly Progress Check-ins

If I saw an increase in body weight I would hold steady at the same macros for the following week.

Some weeks I actually dropped body weight, showing that my body was responding well. In those weeks, I increased a little more aggressively, by say 20g carbs and 2-5g fat per day.

That said, beyond weighing myself each week, I would also take my measurements, and take front, side, and back pictures. This would allow me to measure progress objectively and from multiple data points. The scale would fluctuate sometimes due to hormones, etc too so that alone was not a great way to gauge progress. The proof is really in the pictures honestly, because that's where I could see my body transforming.

Gaining Muscle

In order to gain muscle, you have to challenge your muscles. It makes sense, right? The way the body builds muscle is through the repair process when muscle fibers tear through strength training.

In the beginning of this adventure, I started lifting heavier in the gym, but wasn’t following a consistent plan.

I knew I wanted help in creating a training program geared toward the results I was looking for, i.e. build the booty but not necessarily go for the powerlifting look. Since I myself am not a trainer, in July I hired Katie Anne Rutherford, an online training coach, to help me set up a training program and also to support me with the reverse diet.

It’s always good to have a second opinion from someone that has already traveled the path when experimenting with new things, and I am a huge proponent of coaching (even coaches need coaches).

We set up a training program that changed every 8 weeks. Our program started with 2 lower body days, 3 upper body days, 3 HIIT days.

About 16 weeks in, I noticed that my upper body was growing quickly and my lower body was moving along a bit slower, so we then flipped the strength training to 3 lower body, 2 upper body days per week.

Some Notes on HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)

I started with 10 intervals each HIIT session: 20 second sprint, 1:40 recover. So each interval was 2 minutes total.

I would do 5 minutes of warm-up walking or on the elliptical and a 5 minutes of cool down, of the same, after. Sometimes I would do HIIT on the bike and sometimes on the treadmill or outside, sprinting flat or hills.

Our goal with the training program was to reduce cardio over time. Our starting point for HIIT was based again on how much cardio I was doing weekly previously. By the time I completed my reverse diet in January, I was down to one HIIT day per week, 8 intervals.

My Reserve Diet Results

So you want to know where I ended up?

I ended my reverse diet on January 22, 2016 at:

  • 2600 Calories
  • 135g Protein
  • 325g Carbs
  • 86g Fat

From April to January (9 months) I gained 11 pounds, on average 1.2 pounds per month.

I had increased my total intake by:

  • 1350 Calories
  • 26g Protein
  • 181g Carbs
  • 53g Fat

My body was actually maintaining at this level. Wowee, right?

I never did body fat testing. Part of me wishes I did, the other part of me doesn't really care. Some of it was muscle, but certainly not all of it, which is to be expected. Some of it was fat, and also some of it is more water and food in my system too.

I felt good about this because my coach had told me to expect to gain about 1 pound per month with a reverse diet and our particular goal of adding muscle.

I Didn’t Do It Perfectly

I will tell you, I didn’t follow the plan 100% perfectly. I went on vacation to Las Vegas, San Diego, and to Australia and Fiji for 2-1/2 weeks!

It’s tough to measure and track everything (at home I used a food scale), especially when you are traveling and there were definitely times where I didn’t plan well enough and I either went over or didn’t hit my exact target macros.

But I did the best I could and kept my focus on consistency and the long-term goal instead of perfection.

My goal was freedom and flexibility, so to me, all of this was forward progress.

What Did I Eat?

I will tell you it is tough to eat that much food by only eating low-calorie veggies, fruits, and lean meats. It was easy to hit these target macros when I would go out to eat, because I would usually have bread, a couple cocktails, chips and guacamole, etc.

At home I ate a lot of Ezekiel English muffins or tortillas, peanut butter, Greek yogurt, avocados, and I experimented with a lot of “fun” foods like healthy desserts and ice cream, honey, and cream cheese too.

Through most of the process, I had 1-2 of my favorite meal replacement shakes or bars a day to make sure I was absolutely getting my nutrients in and fueling my workouts properly. Want to learn more? Let's chat.

Of course I had fruits and veggies too, but I found that I had to keep my fiber below 55g per day otherwise I had some digestive upset. Yes, it is possible to have too much fiber!

How did I increase my macros 1350 calories a day without gaining a ton of fat?!

Again, consistency is the name of the game. Had I been even more on point I probably would have gained even less fat, but I’m just not into being super meticulous at this stage in my life. Using a food scale was meticulous enough!

Also, the more muscle you have, the more calorically “expensive” your body becomes to run. Meaning, your body will naturally burn more fuel/calories even at rest. So, the more muscle you have, the more you can eat.

Step 3: My Leaning Out Phase

I knew I really didn’t have much leaning out to do, but I just want to see if I could get serious abs and lean out my legs and arms a bit.

This is the phase I am in now. Once I complete this phase, most likely this summer, the final phase would be to boost my macros back up to the 2600 calorie range and then maintain.

Current macros:

  • 2000 Calories
  • 135g Protein
  • 225g Carbs
  • 66g Fat

I have also consistently added one cellular cleanse day (learn more here) balanced with two higher volume/calorie days (2300 calorie range) to keep my metabolism firing.

Results So Far

I am about 2 months into this phase and I am down 6 pounds, but here’s the coolest part of all:

My measurements are pretty much the same as my measurements from April 2015!

Do you know what that means? It means that I am taking up the same amount of space, but weigh more. Muscle weighs more than fat. I have more muscle and less fat. Which means that my body composition has changed.

Also, my back is more muscular, my legs are more defined, and my abs too.

Training is pretty much the same layout with 3 lower body days, 2 upper body, and now 2 HIIT days with 10 intervals each.

I take a day completely off when I need to or sometimes I just don’t push so hard during a workout. It’s recommended to reduce carbs and fat macros by 20% on a complete rest day, but I have to be honest, I did this during the reverse diet but I haven’t been on point with it during the leaning out phase.

Why? Because I am not in a big rush. I feel my body tightening up, I love the way it looks and feels, so I am leaning back and going with the flow, focusing on enjoying life and stressing less.

Top 6 Reverse Dieting Questions Answered

Now I'd like to cover some of the most common questions people ask me about reverse dieting.

1. How Long Should I Reverse Diet?

This is not a quick fix approach. A reverse diet takes time, patience, and a willingness to let go of your weight loss goals for a period of time so that you can heal any metabolic damage.

With a reverse diet, the initial focus is not weight change but rather stabilization. Once you work through the reverse dieting process and are able to maintain your body weight at maintenance, then you can revisit fat loss from this much higher/healthier vantage point.

Some people stabilize in a few weeks, others take months, much is dependent on your history, starting point, and health. The more extreme your dieting history, and the more unstable your health, the longer it may take and/or the more likely it is that you may need to work with a coach or treatment team.

2. But I HATE Tracking Calories and Macros. Is This for Me?

If you hate counting calories and macros (I use an online program like fitday, MyFitnessPal, or Macros+) and using a food scale, than this approach is probably not for you. It’s definitely not for everyone!

Reverse dieting is a very analytical approach. You must be committed to tracking calories and macros daily and consistently in order to raise them in the optimal manner.

You must be willing to plan ahead too, so that you’re not scrambling last minute to hit your macro targets at the end of the day.

Also, here’s a reframe: Think of tracking macros, in this sort of a setting, from the mindset of nourishment and fuel versus restriction. This is about repair and healing, not getting to a number on the scale. It’s no fun when you track from a mindset of restriction and looking at how little you get to eat. It’s a lot more fun when you track from a mindset of fueling your body toward your goals!

3. Is Reverse Dieting Extreme?

Reverse dieting is not extreme, in fact it’s quite the opposite. It can be the first step in the healing process for someone that feels trapped by years of calorie counting and extreme restriction.

Extremes are not sustainable. If you’ve been stuck in a mindset of extremes for a while, the reality is that at some point, you’re going to have to do something different. You might as well start now.

The goal with reverse dieting is to get out of the deprivation mindset and to stabilize your eating habits. Meaning, getting you to the place where you can eat at or even slightly above your maintenance calories and probably a lot more carbs without gaining weight and bloating up.

This is another mindset shift: A lot of people think that they cannot eat carbs, when in reality, it may just be that they have been restricting carbs for so long that their body just doesn’t know how to process them when they do eat (or binge on) them.

4. Do I Need To Reverse Diet?

Only you really know that answer. If you are eating very little and maintaining or gaining weight, then it may be time to focus on metabolic repair instead of weight/fat loss.

If you are scared to reverse diet because there’s a possibility that you may gain weight, my question is this:

What will it cost you if you continue to do what you’ve been doing?

The stakes may be higher than you think.

Some more questions to ask yourself might be:

  • Is what I am currently doing healthy?
  • Am I seeing progress?
  • Is what I am doing right now causing me to miss out of certain things I want to experience in life?
  • What could my life be like if I made some changes?
  • What is my body telling me, what signals, am I ignoring?

One of the biggest ways that we sabotage our long-term dream body success is that we don’t listen to our bodies.

Under-eating and then binging is what’s at the root of most of the body-image issues that women are facing these days. And it’s really not their fault.

They have been inundating with mixed messages about what they should and shouldn’t be eating, and there is so much shame attached to whether or not they are “doing it right” that they truly end up not knowing what to do because they are so confused, physically and emotionally exhausted, and shame-filled.

We have to consciously make the decision to switch gears and take our power back. It’s not about measuring up, it’s about feeling good in our skin.

Yes, it’s true that there is a chance that your metabolism has slowed down because your body is smart and can learn to function very efficiently on lower and lower calorie intake. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that your metabolism is messed up beyond repair.

For the vast majority of women, a slow metabolism is fixable. But the answer is NOT through restricting calories further and doing even more cardio.

In order to create sustainable positive chance, we have to stop the train of restriction and focus on nourishment and health above all else.

5. Will Lifting Weights Make Me Bulky?

Sometimes women avoid doing strength training because they believe lifting heavy weights will make them look “bulky” and less feminine. The truth is, it could... depending on what your definition of "bulky" is and what your personal physique goals are.

But, here's the important thing to note: Increasing muscle mass actually increases metabolism as I mentioned, because a muscular system is an “expensive” system to maintain. It also helps to build bone mass and even out any imbalances in the structure of the body.

Plus it can be so empowering to show yourself how physically strong you truly are. I totally feel feminine when I am deadlifting heavy weights and building a perky booty!

When it comes to weight lifting it's not "power lifting, body building physique" or nothing. Meaning, you can find a training regimen that fits your own unique goals.

If you don’t know how to train for the goals or physique you want to achieve, get help from someone that does. Find a coach that has already achieved what you want and hire them to guide and support you in creating similar results for yourself.

I actually think that this is where most of the misinformation about “getting bulky” comes from — improper training and technique.

6. But Isn’t Reverse Dieting Not Listening to Your Body? Should I Focus on Intuitive Eating Instead?

Sometimes we can get so disconnected from our body that we need a reset. And sometimes that reset requires more structure or as I like to say, thicker guardrails, to start. Meaning, on the scale of structure+freedom, we need to lean towards a bit more structure.

This is where a more scientific, numbers-based approach can be beneficial to jumpstart us back on track.

Being intuitive and listening to your body is absolutely still an important part of the equation for sure, but in this particular case with resetting the metabolism, it can require a bit more analysis and tracking to maximize results and minimize fat gain.

That's not to say that you can't do it with intuitive eating, I personally just see value in adding a bit more structure to optimize success.

Need further guidance? Let's chat about your goals, challenges, and how I can help.

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