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Reverse Dieting and Metabolism Restoration

I’ve been reluctant to reveal this to anyone lately – I’ve been eating A LOT. We’re talking 1000 extra calories per day. Why you ask? Well, because I’d essentially trained my metabolism to be too efficient.

Let me explain. I’ve been consciously trying to keep my body as lean as possible for the last 5 years. For those of you that don’t know me, I have been a group fitness instructor for several years. When I first starting teaching group fitness, I experienced an initial lean-out that comes with increasing your calorie expenditure. But, I progressively added more and more classes to my schedule; at one point I was teaching 17 classes per week, and I was participating in all of them! Since I can remember, I’ve done at least 5 hours of intense cardio per week.

Until the past year and a half, I had never prioritized weight training, primarily because I was reluctant to eat enough to actually put on some muscle mass.  If I only had an hour to work out, you’d better believe I’d choose a form of exercise that got my heart rate up and left me drenched in sweat.

And with all of this activity came efficiency. My body was able to carry me through 2-3 spin classes without feeling exhausted, and I was able to do this multiple days per week. As my body adapted to my exercise, I was less and less able to mitigate weight gain. My cardio wasn’t doing the trick in keeping me lean.

So, rather than up my exercise (which would have been damn near impossible), I chose to start cutting my calories. Weight loss is simple: you need to burn more calories than you consume. However, what’s not so simple is that your body is adapts.

Here’s how it works: the mitochondria in our cells produce ATP, which is the energy that our bodies use to carry out all functions. Calories are a unit of energy, and all calories are converted to ATP. Unused calories are stored in our body as fat or as glycogen in our muscles and liver (these stores are limited, by the way!). So, if we eat fewer calories than we need to produce the ATP we need to live, our bodies must tap into energy stores (body fat and stored glycogen).

When our bodies are in a deficit for any prolonged period of time, they adapt. The mitochondria become more efficient in their ability to create ATP. This means that our body can create more energy, despite falling energy input levels! After all, our bodies are programmed to survive above all else. So, if you feed your body 1000 calories per day, it will eventually get really efficient at maintaining your basic functions with this low calorie intake.

This is referred to as the basal metabolic rate or BMR, and it essentially refers to the number of calories needed to perform basic functions – think: heart beating, breathing and temperature regulation.  Now a lot of you may be thinking that having more muscle mass keeps your BMR high. And while that’s true,  it’s been demonstrated in research that BMR drops with a reduction in energy intake, even if you maintain your lean body mass (i.e. you don’t lose muscle mass). But the beautiful thing is that this process also works in reverse.

And, I knew all of this. I relay this information to clients all the time. But, I still had two strikes against me: I didn’t have a lot of muscle mass, and my metabolism had become very efficient. So, I tried to combat this by starting to focus on strength training, but I wasn’t yet ready to really increase my calorie intake. I upped my protein intake and strategically ate carbohydrates before and after my workouts. But, I still wasn’t giving my body what it really needed.

It wasn’t until I hurt myself that I really got the message. Last May, I was lifting heavy 5-6 days and teaching 5 spin classes per week while trying to keep my daily calorie intake below 1800. I had just gotten some professional photos taken (which turned out beautifully) and found myself disappointed by my persistent lack of muscle. So, I upped my weight. And guess what? I was exhausted, lost my form on a deadlift and bulged a disc in my back.

I quickly took stock of what I was doing – the first thing to change was the frequency and intensity of my exercise until I healed. But with my drop in exercise (calorie output), I felt the need to make up for this by decreasing my calorie intake.

And of course, my body didn’t change, although it did heal (thank goodness!). As I gradually resumed my exercise, I continued to feel like I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted, despite my diligence with my regimen. All along, I knew what I needed to do. It was time for a metabolism reset.

So, starting in September, I started increasing my calorie intake. Now mind you, this was gradual and controlled (I tracked my macros for the first 6 weeks). I focused on upping my calorie intake by increasing the amount of carbs I was eating. My protein intake had already been high, so most of these extra calories were coming in the form of carbohydrates (and fat, to a lesser extent). And let me tell you, amazing things happened! I started sleeping better at night, I was less sore from my workouts and I finally started to add some muscle mass to my frame. Now, I am eating an extra 1000 calories per day and have been able to maintain my weight at this current intake.

Was I scared to increase my calorie intake? You bet! Have I gotten comfortable with this calorie intake? Heck no! I still catch myself feeling guilty about eating as much as I am. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t plan on leaning out again in the near future.

My point in sharing my journey is to demonstrate that our bodies are SO much more adaptable than we give them credit for. If you’re not seeing the results you want, take a long hard look at how long you’ve been doing what you’re doing. Perhaps you too would benefit from a reverse diet!

And what better time to do it?!?  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to enjoy the holidays and all of those extra calories that come with them!

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