One of the most frustrating parts of any health journey is when you hit a weight-loss plateau, and the scale won’t budge no matter how much you cut calories or get out and exercise. Researchers and dieters alike have wondered if eating more can help break through a weight loss plateau that was caused by eating less. Over the last few years, scientists have studied this ‘eat less and then eat more’ approach and many folks have experimented with it themselves.
What have they discovered? It turns out that rigid dieting pushes the body into a rut, explains Harvard-educated physician Ian K. Smith, M.D., former host of the syndicated television show The Doctors and author of the The Met Flex Diet. “The body’s number one goal is to be efficient, so it learns how to adjust to every scenario you throw at it,” he says. Knowing exactly how much energy it needs to perform its daily functions, the body burns just enough calories to keep it going and stores the rest as fat for a possible emergency. The thinking is that if you have some days where you eat a lot, you essentially trick the body into feeling secure enough to keep burning calories at a high rate.
What’s emerged from Dr. Smith’s investigations as well as from a growing body of research into ‘carb cycling’ is a new way of eating dubbed ‘reverse dieting.’ The thinking here is that by eating a little one day and a lot the next, you essentially fool your metabolism into burning faster every day. This approach to food has doctors excited thanks to research that shows reverse dieting can help accelerate fat burn. And it makes people who want to lose weight happy because who doesn’t want to have a few mandated cheat days?
To explore how reverse dieting works and the kinds of benefits it can deliver, we turned to Paula Briner, who lost a startling amount of weight—207 lbs to be exact—at age 64. Read on for her story and learn how reverse dieting may help you reach you happy weight.
How Paula discovered reverse dieting
After carrying extra pounds on her petite frame for years, Indiana grandmother Paula Briner started to have constant knee and foot trouble. “My knee was replaced. My arch fell, and I had to have it rebuilt with five screws,” she recalls. Doctors warned she might lose her foot. Terrified, she turned to food for comfort and her weight crept up and up. At 351 pounds and on medications for arthritis, high blood pressure, pain and more, “my husband had to tie my shoes because bending over would wear me out,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to live the rest of my life that way.”
Then few weeks after her 62nd birthday, Paula decided to give Weight Watchers another try. She’d been successful in the past, but there was always something that caused the program to stop working. This time, she walked into her first meeting with a goal of losing just 10 pounds, figuring that was manageable and should help with her pain.
Paula learned foods were still assigned a point value based on their calories and nutrients; the program would allow her over 40 points a day. Veggies had always been freebies; now fruit, corn and lean protein also had zero points and could be eaten without tracking. Her first week, she exceeded her goal and lost 11 pounds. “It was so exciting to see the scale go down that fast,” she says. Before she knew it, she was in the 200s. But that’s when things started to slow down, and it’s also when she discovered reverse dieting.
What is reverse dieting?
Like keto cycling, reverse dieting involves shifting between eating low-calorie on some days and high-calorie on others. While there are no official rules on how to use reverse dieting, Paula knew she ate so many freebie foods that she often didn’t use all her weekly points. So instead of cutting back of calories, she decided to treat herself to some of her favorites and see if she could break through the plateau.
To start reverse dieting, Paula used all her extra points on pepperoni pizza or Mexican food. At her next weigh-in, Paula stepped on the scale—and it turned out she was losing again. She left her plateau in the dust and continued to alternate between days when she ate mostly zero-point foods and days when she splurged. (She only counted points, but her intake was roughly 1,200 calories some days and 2,400 on others.) Another trick: She stopped eating after dinner and didn’t eat until she feels hungry the next day, advice she got from the Fast, Feast, Repeat podcast.
“The huge meals didn’t shut down my weight loss. They boosted my metabolism and got me where I am today!” says Paula, down 207 pounds and maintaining for three years. Gone are her pain meds, antidepressants and cane. At 68, she takes long hikes and even went parasailing with her grandkids. “I’ve been given my life back!”
The science behind reverse dieting
Like Paula, many ‘reverse dieters’ flip between 1,200-calorie days and 2,400-calorie days. “It might not sound like enough to make a difference, but continuously switching up your calorie intake throws the body off-kilter in a way that stimulates extra fat burning,” shares Met Flex Diet author Dr. Ian Smith.
In fact, researchers reporting in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that reverse dieting may double fat loss and boost overall health compared to eating low-calorie every single day. And a study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that alternating between high- and low-calorie days may trigger biochemical changes that slash risk of diabetes and boost belly-fat burn by up to 60%.
How reverse dieting can boost overall health
Higher-calorie days offer relief from feelings of deprivation, making low-cal (or low “point”) days sustainable. And turns out, low-cal days do for your cells what exercise does for your muscles — challenging them in a way that leads to healing and renewal. This alternation between eating a little and eating a lot “makes cells stronger,” says Johns Hopkins nutrition researcher Mark Mattson, Ph.D., author of The Intermittent Fasting Revolution.
Research shows stronger cells improve appetite, blood sugar, immunity and even help lower blood pressure significantly more than a typical diet. And reverse dieting feels easy. “If you’ve struggled on other plans, this strategy could change everything,” notes Dr. Smith, whose devotees report shedding up to 11 pounds a week.
How to make reverse dieting work for you
One simple option for reverse dieting is to eat about 1,200 calories a day for a few days in a row, then allow yourself a 2,400-calorie day. That’s it! Figuring out what to eat on splurge days is easy, so we’re sharing fun ideas for your low-cal days.
- BREAKFAST Simply scramble eggs (78 calories each) and/or egg whites (17 calories each) with veggies in cooking spray. Enjoy with fruit.
- LUNCH Top 1 low-carb tortilla with 1/4 cup fat-free marinara, 1/4 fat-free or part-skim mozzarella and optional toppings like red onion, ham, pineapple and oregano. Bake at 425°F until melted and golden (about 85 calories total).
- SNACK Spread lean deli meat (30 calories each) with fat-free cream cheese (15 calories per Tbs.). Roll with veggies and/or pickle spears
- DINNER Warm reduced-fat turkey meatballs (such as Kroger brand, 27 calories each) in fat-free marinara. Serve over zucchini “noodles.”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.