You Found Your Abs. Now What?
Dieting is a challenge, but the next phase is even tougher. If you're not careful, things can get pretty ugly, pretty fast. Some call it "reverse dieting." It's the post-diet, post-caloric restriction phase. Reversing it means you start to add calories back into your diet gradually. Seems easy, but your body is working against you.
The Metabolism Problem
After a fat-loss diet, the goal is to find a new maintenance intake. That intake will be the amount of calories required to maintain general leanness and body weight. How do you find it? By slowly increasing calories from where they were during the diet. But there's a big problem.
Data shows that your metabolism slows after restricting calories for an extended period of time. Because of this reduced metabolic rate, your body's physiology favors a "fat-storing" state. Not good. If you suddenly slam your body with the same amount of calories you were eating before your diet, you're going to pile on the body fat.
It's easy to decide on specific calories and macros to shoot for as you end your diet, but hunger can end up getting the best of you. One spoonful of ice cream may turn into the whole pint. If this scenario plays out habitually, you'll experience rapid fat gain, a softer physique, digestive issues, poor energy, and decreased motivation.
The Hunger Game
Caloric restriction over an extended period of time will lead to increased hunger, decreased metabolic rate (REE – resting energy expenditure) and a decrease in activity (NREE – non-resting energy expenditure).
A lot of this is due to physiological hormonal responses such as increases in ghrelin, known as the hunger hormone, and decreases in metabolic hormones, like T3 and T4. Researchers have observed this among males and females of all ages and body types, as well as bodybuilders during their contest preparation.
Dr. David Ludwig states, "Something has triggered our fat cells to go on calorie storage overdrive, so they start sucking in too many calories. And therefore, there are too few calories in the bloodstream... So the brain does what it's supposed to do: it makes you hungry."
After dieting, a lot of people claim to be much hungrier than they were during the actual diet. The figure below shows that as you lose weight, your hunger increases and your energy expenditure from non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) decreases.
The opposite is true when your weight is above its "set point" and you're consuming a surplus of calories for an extended period of time: your appetite decreases and your thermogenic activity increases.
What Can We Do About It?
First, eat foods that help minimize the hunger. After a diet, people overlook the food sources they choose and the cascade of hormones those foods cause. The glycemic load of a meal has an effect on hunger. (Note: Glycemic load describes the quantity AND quality of carbohydrate in a food or meal. For example, a piece of watermelon and a donut have the same glycemic index, but a very different glycemic load.)
Think about it. During the diet, as people are en route to Shredsville, they'll choose higher quality, minimally processed foods, rich in fiber and high in volume. They opt for lower glycemic carbs (i.e. sweet potato, oats, green veggies) and make an effort to stay full on fewer calories and high micronutrient foods.
But after eating like this, the dieter seems to forget what helped him achieve his physique in the first place, and he may even feel entitled to the foods he's skipped during the diet.
And although the dieter's fat and carb macros have been intentionally increased to come off the strict diet, this attempt to "normalize" himself can actually cause him to experience more hunger than before! This is, in part, why eating highly processed foods, which cause a rapid spike in insulin, will lead to increased fat storage and more hunger after the meal.
To understand this, take a closer look at your hormones. A crucial aspect of your body's response to a meal is what happens with the hormones insulin and glucagon. Insulin is often deemed anabolic. It delivers nutrients into liver, muscle, and unfortunately fat. Glucagon is deemed catabolic. It helps the body break down and use stored nutrients like glycogen and fat.
A study conducted by Dr. Ludwig examined the effects of glycemic index and hunger responses. The three sub-groups were each given a meal containing the same amount of calories. But one group consumed a low-glycemic load meal, one consumed a medium-glycemic load meal, and the third, a high-glycemic load meal.
The high GI group had the largest spike in insulin followed by a crash. They also had the smallest response in regards to glucagon. This is a recipe for fat-storage.
Another important finding was the significant increase in adrenaline with the high GI meal compared to the medium and low GI meals. This adrenaline response is a huge contributor to increased hunger. It actually mimics a starvation response.
The coolest thing about this study is that it tells us why people exceed their caloric and macronutrient goals, despite all their good intentions to stick with a specific plan. Check out the figure below. The group consuming high glycemic carbs were given free access to food and ended up consuming many more calories (600-700) in their next meal. Maintaining good dietary habits at one meal can drastically improve your likelihood to stay on track for your next meal.
Another study showed very similar results. It was a double blind, cross-over feeding study that had the same total macros for each group, except they compared higher GI to lower GI carbs. The group consuming high GI carbs reported greater hunger than the low GI group.
The most astounding finding is that the group consuming high GI carbs significantly increased activity of the nucleus accumbens. This part of your brain is actually related to addiction. It's where your brain releases dopamine, so it's often called the brain's pleasure center. This data gives us insight as to why people feel like they can't resist the urge to eat more.
So if you were told "a carb is a carb," whether it comes from a sweet potato or a donut, remember that calories aside, your body will respond differently to them.
How to Fight the Fat Rebound
Eat meals with a lower glycemic load. Select fibrous green vegetables, low glycemic carbs, and stick to a well-balanced diet. This will optimize the hormonal cascade following a meal and it'll reduce your cravings so that you're satiated longer. Working with your body, and not against it, is going to make staying on track a breeze rather than a chore.
If you're going to "fit" highly processed foods into your daily macronutrients, have them pre-workout. This may not be optimal for performance, but it will enable your body to utilize that glucose while you're training, and it'll decrease the likelihood of it being stored as body fat. This offsets some of the negative responses you'd see otherwise.
Another tip: Various supplements like chromium picolinate, cinnamon extract, and even turmeric have been shown to help normalize blood glucose. This can improve how those additional carbs in your diet are being processed and utilized while minimizing the chance to store fat.
How to Increase Your Calories
You need to get yourself out of a caloric deficit and try to find what your new maintenance truly is. The best approach will vary depending on how lean you're trying to stay and how your body responds to the increased calories. For some, increasing daily caloric intake by 500 or more will be fine, while others will need to be more conservative.
What makes this phase difficult is that you can gain several pounds on the scale without gaining any body fat. This is often just the result of replenishing glycogen stores and also intramuscular triglycerides. Just be aware of that.
And remember, although you may know how important it is to "hit your macros" it's just as important to make smart food choices that'll minimize hunger so that you stay on track.
What About Cardio?
The best way to do it will vary from person to person based on many factors: how much you were doing before, what type, the intensity, etc. Using high intensity interval training (HIIT) as your primary form of cardio after a strict diet is a great choice.
HIIT will significantly increase post-exercise oxygen consumption, also called "EPOC" which means it'll shift your metabolism from its impaired state into overdrive. You'll burn more calories the rest of the day and handle the additional calories you're consuming much better.
HIIT also won't negatively affect your strength adaptations to weight-training since it's been shown to have a reduced interference effect when compared to low intensity exercise. If you've experienced a decrease in strength during your diet, then the last thing you want to do is prolong this strength deficit with too much of the wrong cardio.
HIIT can also help you maintain muscle mass and has even shown hypertrophic responses in some studies, whereas low intensity steady state (LISS) may blunt the protein synthesis (muscle growth) response to lifting.
Overtime, as your metabolism makes a comeback, you should reduce the number of sessions and the duration of cardio you're doing.
Related: Control Carbs to Build Muscle
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