Welcome to my third and last installment of my 3-part series on resting metabolic rate. Int he previous two installments I explained:
So, in this blog post I give you seven strategies to increase your basal metabolic rate. I talk about "reverse dieting" - as a strategy - if you've been eating a very low-calorie diet for a while.
Yes, you've read that right:
Seven strategies to actually support your resting metabolic rate, no matter where you are in life - overweight, underweight, obese, or at a normal body weight.
This variable is enormously important, and yet, hardly emphasized in most health advice today.
Observe that the recommendation to "eat less and exercise more" does not imply in any way that sleep is important--"eat less and exercise more" implies that burning more calories is sufficient for fat loss.
In other words, "eat less and exercise more" hints that your daily burned calories fully explains weight loss, while your other behaviors in life don't matter.
I wholeheartedly disagree with "eat less and exercise more".
For the following reason:
Your body follows a ~24-hour rhythm. That rhythm is influenced by the light in your environment.[126; 127; 128] The light in your environment thus directly affects your sleep quality.
That 24-hour rhythm is called the "circadian rhythm".
Let's explore precisely how light affects sleep quality.
I'll first consider the different types of light that can be found on the earth:
As you can see, 1) ultraviolet; 2) visible and 3) infrared exist:
All three types of light influence the biology of your body, and thus health.
So what does that circadian rhythm have to do with fat loss?
Let's find out:
When light enters your eye during the daytime - specifically the blue and green part of the visible light spectrum - your circadian rhythm is influenced.[129; 130; 131; 132; 133; 134; 135; 136; 137; 138]
Observe that blue and green light can be found in the visible light spectrum.
Sunlight was the source of that blue and green light for millions of years (but also yields ultraviolet, infrared, and the other colors of the light spectrum.)
That light influences your circadian rhythm because it tells your body it's daytime. How well you maintain your circadian rhythm is closely tied to your your sleep quality.
Sleep quality, in turn, directly affects basal metabolic rate.
While that basal metabolic rate is slightly increased after a night of sleep deprivation, that increase mainly occurs because of higher stress hormone levels.[130; 131; 132; 133; 134; 135; 136; 137; 138] Circulating stress hormones such as adrenaline or cortisol thus temporarily increase basal metabolic rate.
And although some conflicting evidence can be found, poor sleep quality lowers basal metabolic rate in the long run - a huge problem.
Let's explore why I start my list of strategies with sleep:
Most people's sleep is horrific, even in developed countries. Loss of sleep is not a side issue--sleep deprivation has devastating long-term health consequences.
Losing a night of sleep due to partying, or sleeping poorly for two month straight because you've just become a parent?
Losing sleep for years or decades, because you're snoring, drinking alcohol, or partying until 4 AM?
What's even scarier is that a colossal 45% of Americans experience low sleep quality every single night.
Could poor sleep be a massive problem that drives the obesity epidemic?
So independent of the food you eat, poor sleep can lower your basal metabolic rate.
You may think: "how to optimize your circadian rhythm then?"
Thought you'd never ask:
And I'm not done yet:
Sleep deprivation has many additional indirect negative health effects that make it harder to lose fat, such as:
Lesson: Steer clear from poor sleep...
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Please keep in mind that fixing your circadian rhythm is not a short-term strategy. You'll have to stick to a good circadian rhythm for the rest of your life for the advantage to persist.
No quick fixes...
As soon as you'll transition back to staying up until 2 AM, sleeping in on weekend, and then going to bed early on Monday night, you'll set yourself up for more weight (read: fat) gain again.
And remember the hunger-gatherer societies I talked about earlier? These societies don't have huge disruptions in their circadian rhythm, even though they may stay up late once in a while.
Diet is thus not the only explanatory reason why hunter-gatherer societies do better.
You can stay up until 1 AM for once in a while as long as you tightly regulate the light cycle. Thus make sure to wear your blue blocking glasses if it's New Year's Eve, so that the circadian rhythm in your head keeps following the pattern of the sun.
No need for a Spartan lifestyle...
Too many concessions to your sleep quality, however, will certainly have negative consequences.
If every one of your nights is like New Year's Eve, your health and fat loss will suffer...
I cannot (re-)emphasize this point enough: there is no cop out on having a good circadian rhythm if you want to promote long-term fat loss.
What's interesting is that the supreme importance of the circadian rhythm is hardly emphasized in fat loss books.
Recent books such as Fat Loss Forever: How to Lose Fat and KEEP it Off by Layne Norton and Peter Baker only mention melatonin supplementation as an afterthought, after discussing the importance of diet for 4/5th of the book.
Circadian rhythms themselves are not treated in great detail, unfortunately. Instead, melatonin supplements are suggested as a proper solution, rather than fixing the light you're expose yourself to.
(In most cases, using melatonin supplements is analogous to injecting steroids because you've got poor hormone levels for athletic performance - both do not fix the underlying problem.)
A great book on food palatability by Stephan Guyenet, The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat, does dedicate a chapter to circadian rhythms but fat loss is not centered around that topic--overconsumption of hyperpalatable foods takes main stage.
One of the only books that does justice to the relationship between fat loss and circadian rhythms is Ari Whitten's Forever Fat Loss: Escape the Low Calorie and Low Carb Diet Traps and Achieve Effortless and Permanent Fat Loss by Working with Your Biology Instead of Against It.
You'd better have blackout curtains if you're trying to sleep here
The thyroid organ is located at the front of your neck, and responsible for your daily energy production. If you've got thyroid issues, your basal metabolic rate will be lower.[86; 87; 158; 159; 160; 161; 162; 169]
On a very low-calorie diet, an important thyroid hormone called "T3" decreases. T3 is the active thyroid hormone that can be taken up by your cells and is central to your body's energy production. Your liver converts lots of T4 (the inactive form of thyroid hormone in your body) into T3.
The higher you can keep your thyroid levels (while dieting), the more weight you'll lose.
In general, thyroid hormone levels are higher on a diet that contains more carbohydrates. Thyroid levels often tank on a lower carbohydrate diet--although a counterargument is that this decline is mostly observed on low-calorie low carbohydrate diets.
Many people who follow a low carbohydrate diet automatically start eating (much) less, which then sets them up for thyroid issues down the road. I'm thus not convinced that a low carbohydrate diets are detrimental to thyroid health by themselves.
Eating sufficient calories should thus improve thyroid health all by itself, whether you're on a Paleo or a higher carbohydrate diet.
For optimal thyroid function, I therefore do recommend including carbohydrates at least seasonally if you don't have any food intolerance.
Even if you're following a carnivore diet for countering food intolerances, I recommend testing safer carbohydrate sources such as ripe fruit or honey during the summertime (which should be least problematic).
(Yes, I know you're no longer following a carnivore diet if you're adding in carbohydrates into the mix...)
Advanced explanation: While the topic of thyroid health is complex, I do recommend lab testing your thyroid levels if you suspect "hypothyroidism" or another thyroid problem.
Hypothyroid problems are most common, and (proper) lab testing is the only way to found out whether you've got an issue. Depression or lower well-being, fatigue, insomnia, brain fog, weakness, cold intolerance, weight gain, inflammation, and poor skin quality are all symptoms of hypothyroidism. If you've followed diets of extreme caloric restriction you're more at risk for hypothyroidism.
Lab testing your thyroid levels should not only include the commonly used TSH test, but also at least T4 and T3 (in both bound and free form), and thyroid antibodies. To place the outcome of the thyroid lab test in context, you'd also need to know your cortisol levels throughout the day, DHEA, vitamin D (as a proxy for the amount of sunlight you get), etcetera.
While the topic of thyroid testing lies beyond the scope of my argument in this blog post, I do recommend consulting your physician if you suspect an issue.)
Analogy: energy is not only in physics of massive importance, but also
in you as a biological organism. Your thyroid is central to your body's energy production
I know, I know...
Easier said than done.
I do hope by now you're becoming convinced that preventing being overweight or obese is the best thing you can do for your health.[161; 162; 163; 164; 165; 166]
Being obese is a like becoming an alcohol addict: if you've been addicted to alcohol, you may have a disadvantage in dealing with alcohol for the rest of your life.
(You may also not have a disadvantage, but it's best not to test your luck)
In the area of dieting, being overweight or obese may confer a disadvantage for keeping the weight off.
Again, if lose a lot of weight you can end up with a lower resting metabolic rate. Fortunately, the analogy is incorrect in the sense that the lower resting metabolic rate has to stay permanently low if you have been obese.
The underlying problem can thus be fixed in case of obesity...
Let's explore that statement:
Remember: if you become obese your basal metabolic rate increases. After losing weight, however, you'll end up with a lower basal metabolic rate than people who didn't become overweight - all other variables being equal.
That the lower basal metabolic rate cannot be just explained by lower levels of fat-free mass. Phrased differently, if you were formerly obese, your resting metabolic rate may be lower despite fat-free mass recovery.[163; 171]
Lower resting metabolic rates are also a risk factor in weight regain.[169; 170]
Of course, the grass is not only greener on the other side. With higher resting metabolic rates, you do have stronger hunger sensations - but you can also eat more.[167; 168]
The best way of preventing basal metabolic rate problems is thus to avoid getting fat in the first place. The second best way it to keep reading this post to help solve the problem.
The effect of minerals on your health is deceptively simple: if you're either deficient in minerals or have an overload, your basal metabolic rate takes a hit.
Let's consider a couple of minerals, starting with zinc:
Not only is zinc necessary for thyroid functioning, but the mineral also directly boosts your basal metabolic rate.[174; 175; 176] Unfortunately, more research is needed to confirm the relationship between adequate zinc levels and basal metabolic rate.
Iron deficiency, secondly, can also lower thyroid function and thereby lower basal metabolic rate.[177; 178; 179; 180; 181] The same is true for magnesium deficiency.[182; 183; 184; 185]
(I've written extensive blog posts about zinc, iron, and magnesium.)
It's easy to see, moreover, why mineral status can be a big problem for people on the Standard American Diet: about 80% of Americans have sub-optimal magnesium levels. For zinc, that number approximates 60%. Both iron an deficiency or overload are also more common than you'd assume.
The Standard American Diet is hugely problematic because it doesn't contain many foods that have highly absorbable levels of minerals. Instead, vegetable oils, refined grains, and processed food make up the bulk of this devastating diet - eventually trickling down to resting metabolic rate problems.
Keep in mind that many other minerals matter as well, such as iodine (which is important for thyroid function), selenium, and calcium.
The widespread mineral deficiencies due to following a poor diet will certainly lower your basal metabolic rate.
Oysters: they keep coming back on this blog
As a side note, the "calories in, calories out" model is often attacked with a "strawman argument" regarding minerals.
(In a strawman argument, you incorrectly display the claim of your opponent, and then "successfully" attack that incorrectly attributed claim.)
The strawman argument entails that the quality of food doesn't matter - only the caloric input of foods do. This section on minerals demonstrates should demonstrate that this is not necessarily the case.
The influence of minerals on resting metabolic rate can still be explained from a "calories in, calories out" perspective: mineral deficiencies lower your metabolic rate and thus set you up for weight gain.
Diets such as "If It Fits Your Macros" (IIFYM) - where exclusively caloric intake and proteins, fats, and carbohydrates count - are thus very shortsighted, simply because the role of the circadian rhythm and minerals are not included into the equation.
The same is true for "eat less, exercise more".
In addition to minerals, it's very probable that vitamin deficiencies have the same effect.
Although no cause and effect relationship has been established (yet), vitamin D levels do, for example, predict your resting metabolic rate.[234; 235]
Another reason to get your sunlight...
And with higher quality evidence, I suspect many vitamin and mineral deficiencies will be proven to have an effect on basal metabolic rate.
Endocrine disruptors?[88; 89; 90]
You may know Bisphenol A (BPA), a material that's often contained in plastics. BPA is an endocrine disruptor. In plain English, that means your hormone functioning is negatively affected if BPA enters your body.
BPA may affect hormones such as "testosterone" and your thyroid hormones, although evidence is thin (right now).[82; 83] Looking at BPA studies in more susceptible populations - such as children, negative effects can reasonably be expected for adults as well.
So let's explore these hormones:
Testosterone is a sex hormone that can be found in much higher levels in males and stimulates your basal metabolic rate.[84; 85] Remember that thyroid hormone is not only responsible for overall energy production in your body, but also increases basal metabolic rate.[86; 87]
Endocrine disruptors such as BPA are thus double trouble. Testosterone may even directly influence how much body fat you carry.
Many other endocrine disruptors exist, such as phthalates that can be found in perfumes, flame retardants in furniture, and so forth. All of these substances affect hormonal function--the problem is that studies have not yet investigated the effects of these substances on basal metabolic rate.
How does endocrine disruption work?
Well, one theory is that if you do consume excess calories, these calories will be more prone to be stored as body fat instead of muscle tissue. Remember that muscle tissue is metabolically active, while the same is not true for (white) body fat.
(But because you can theoretically also gain fat while losing muscle on a caloric deficit, endocrine disruptor avoidance is always recommended.)
Over time, endocrine disruptions may thus have a negative effect on your body composition. Body composition is the relationship between the amount of muscle mass and body fat you've got.
When you carry less muscle mass, you'll also have a lower basal metabolic rate, simply because muscle mass massively increases your fat-free mass.
All plastic may be problematic, but BPA is especially so.
The endocrine disruptor problem is worse than you think though:
Many toxins in your environment can contribute to you gaining body fat. Getting exposed to lots of air pollution such as particulate matter will, for example, already set you up for greater obesity risk.
I've written a guide on air pollution in general, and particulate matter specifically, which help you reduce your exposure by up to 90% - even if you're living in the city...
Overall, thousands of toxins probably have an effect on either your body composition or your basal metabolic rate...
Removing toxins from your life is thus always a smart choice.
Movement is extremely important, not for your basal metabolic rate but for caloric expenditure outside that domain.
I even consider movement more important than exercise.
Exercise alone has a very poor track record of combating obesity.[91; 92; 93; 94] You thus need to implement many more strategies to overcome the problem than just going to the gym.
The issue with exercise is that it may increase hunger if you're overweight, which makes you consume more calories to compensate for the increase in energy expenditure. On the contrary, exercise may also help to keep the pounds off - especially if you adhere to it.[99; 100]
Another reason to opt for exercise is due to the greater fat-free mass levels you'll gain.[103; 104; 105; 106] Due to fat-free mass increases, exercise thus indirectly improving your basal metabolic rate, which helps you keep the pounds off.
Surprise, surprise: getting exposed to cold independently builds your resting metabolic rate.[220; 221; 222; 223; 224; 225; 226]
Well, you've got several types of fat in your body: white, beige, and brown. Beige and brown fat are "metabolically active", meaning that it takes energy to support these structures in your body. White fat, on the contrary, does not seem to have the metabolic activity of its beige and brown counterparts.
The result of that distinction is that beige and brown fat can actually burn white fat, and thereby increase your daily caloric expenditure. Brown and beige fat actually contain lots of mitochondria, which helps them burn the white body fat.
Building your brown and beige fat through cold showers or ice baths can thus indirectly increase basal metabolic rate. Read my guide on that topic to get started, but be careful with cold if you're in poor general health.
Besides using energy, brown and beige fat also increase insulin sensitivity - a big plus. If you do consume carbohydrates, they will be more prone to be taken up in your muscles for energy creation, instead of being used to create body fat.
Seven strategies to build your basal metabolic rate.
Circling back to the topic of toxins: in addition to these seven strategies, I also presume that toxins such as heavy metals or pesticides influence your basic metabolic rate.
No empirical evidence can yet be found for these claims (yet), however. For that reason, I have not included the strategy of toxin reduction as a means to boost basal metabolic rate.
Nevertheless, because toxins such as heavy metals or pesticides undermine the health of so many systems in the human body, an basal metabolic rate lowering effect can reasonably be expected.
While my claims are speculative, they are not irrational...
As other toxins such as BPA have already been demonstrated to have indirect effects on fat loss, so I'm recommending you to steer clear from as many toxins as possible - especially if you're in poor health.
And there's more:
Inferior gut function, poor dietary fat makeup, improper breathing, and excessive exercise (overtraining), have already been demonstrated to have an effect on your basal metabolic rate.[238; 239; 240; 241; 242; 243]
Almost everything you do can thus build your basal metabolic rate or break it down over time...
I suspect many other variables to have an effect on building your basal metabolic rate over time, such as your overall stress levels or your social life. Hopefully scientists will research these domains in more detail in the coming decade(s).
That's it... 7 strategies for long-term fat loss. In the next section I'll explore how to make your dieting efforts sustainable in the long-run. Let's move on to an important related topic:
In this section I've got two goals:
Firstly, I'll mainly explore the concepts of "reverse dieting". Reverse dieting means increasing caloric intake to boost your basal metabolic rate. Reverse diets are often used after an intense weight loss period.
Secondly, I'll also explore the concept of a "body fat setpoint". The body fat set point is an equilibrium at which your body feels comfortable holding fat.
A body fat set point at a fat percentage of 20% thus entails that your body will defend that equilibrium, preventing fat gain or loss from that 20%. Depending on your circumstances, that set point can be good or bad.
The goal of reverse dieting is to prevent (negative) metabolic adaptations, i.e. a lower resting metabolic rate.
First of all, even though it's not fully known what causes metabolic adaptations during obesity and subsequent fat loss (i.e., the metabolic slowdown), you can avoid strategies proven to do damage.
Hence: yo-yo dieting and quick weight loss solutions are thrown out the window.
Slow weight loss generally gives you the best results because you'll retain most of your muscle mass.[122; 123]
An argument for quicker weight loss can nonetheless be made in case you're really stressed out by dieting. In that instance, make sure to lose the weight quickly and double down on your efforts to maintain that weight loss afterward.
For the long-term solutions, nutritional habits always enter the picture. You'll thus want to develop sustainable eating habits that are sustainable for years. Food quality matters enormously.
One swallow does not make a summer:
Habits are king.
Any time you make dietary changes you'll have to ask yourself: "can I keep eating this way in one or five years?
If the answer is "no", then the diet is unsustainable.
Assume you're going to lose weight by only eating rice and beans - for every one of your three daily meals. You'll then ask: "can I keep eating that way for a couple of years?"
The answer is a resounding "no".
Not only will you get sick and tired of eating beans and rice every day, but you'll also severely limit your social life and nutritional profile.
On a social level, it becomes almost impossible to go out with friends because you might end up at a steak or sushi restaurant. That diet is also horrendous because you'll miss out on important nutrients such as vitamin K2, B12, minerals such as zinc, and healthy fatty acids.
Diets should additionally support your basal metabolic rate in the long run - living off very few food types or calories rarely achieves that goal. I say rarely because thousands of people live on a carnivore diet nowadays, having done so successfully for years.
One strategy is to lose weight first, which leads to a metabolic slowdown, and to then slowly increase your caloric intake over time to increase your metabolism again (without adding too much body fat).[210; 212]
Reverse dieting slowly is the key to preventing body fat re-gain. I cannot emphasize the point of slowly increasing calories enough...
So let's say you've lost 60 pounds. In that case, you can slowly add 100 calories of high-quality foods every week until you're somewhat closer to your previous caloric intake.
If you stay at the very low caloric intake that helped you lose the weight, you'll feel very much off.
If you used lots of exercise during to lose your weight, you can also slowly decrease the amount of exercise you do instead of adding in more calories.
Removing part of your (intense) exercise routine combined with the addition of calories frequently leads to more fat gains. That scenario simulates why people re-gain lots of weight after a diet: they make one mistake, think "d*** it", eat tons of food again and gain weight faster than the speed of light.
You're thus actively trying to prevent yourself from rebounding, as you'll recall that high fat percentage levels and obesity are causing lots of health problems.
Again: slower is better in this case.
During that process, I strongly recommend abstaining from eating many processed food--i.e. always continue eating healthy foods.
Foods that have an extremely high "palatability" - i.e., are extremely rewarding - will make you much more prone to over-consume. Highly palatable foods often combine fatty acid with carbohydrates and different kinds of (artificial) flavors.
Examples are fast food or candy that you can buy in the supermarket - it's very hard for most people to eat just a few of these pieces.
Very rarely can people consume one donut...
That highly palatable food is additionally low in vitamins and minerals--and I've mentioned before that these micronutrients may be a very important prerequisite for high basal metabolic rate.
That's double trouble...
Then there's another question: what diet should you follow?
Paleo, carnivore, high-carb low-fat, keto, the Bulletproof diet, or something else?
I'm somewhat agnostic towards whether higher carbohydrate or fat diets are better. Focus on choosing highly nutritious foods instead.
If a carnivore diet prevents you from over-consuming on food, that's great. If a low carb diet with lots of seafood, meat, and vegetables does the trick, that's amazing too. If you do better on a higher carbohydrate diet with lots of fruit, more power to you.
Pick whatever habit works to keep the weight off while you're eating mostly whole foods at the same time.
It's thus essential to develop habits that you can maintain for years (not 8 or 16 weeks) in which you will not chronically over-consume food.
One thing is certain: highly palatable foods are impossible to resist for many people. So let's further explore how eating junk food indirectly lead to a metabolic slowdown in time.
A quick detour:
The dopamine system in your brain - which is centrally occupied with reward and motivation - is tied to how your brain values food. Highly palatable foods are much more rewarding and drive you to eat an excess of poorly nutritional calories.
The more different foods you combine into a meal or day, the more prone you're to overeat as well. So if you've had two Big Macs you may not be able to eat the third one, but consuming a dessert with the same number of calories will still be possible.
That's easier said than done for most people.
The problem is that the brain may be sensitized by that food, which leads to an ever-expanding increase in caloric intake over time - and thus obesity. You'll end up consuming lots of calories while consuming food that's essentially deprived of vitamins and minerals.
Before you engage in any dieting, I'd thus recommend getting off all processed food and consuming foods that contain a single ingredient.
Oysters? That's one ingredient. Ground beef? Single ingredient. Spinach? Again, one ingredient.
Pizza? A multi-ingredient food. Same for hot dogs, frozen paella, or other processed food.
Yes, even paella can contain crap if it's store bought. If you want to make that dish, build it from scratch with single ingredients. Stay on such a diet for half a year, and you'll probably lose fat automatically.
Eating junk food or processed is similar to addictive behaviors: your brain registers these foods as very highly rewarding, directly causing you to overeat.
Of course, many other variables play a role for successful fat loss, such as impulse control, but let's assume for now that there is good scientific evidence that processed foods - even meals with refined grains with lots of fat and salt - will alter brain structure in negative fashion over time.
Winding off processed food thus becomes like winding off cigarettes: your brain will protest, and yet, by doing so, you may habituate yourself to consuming primarily whole foods (and even enjoy them).
Rome was not built in a day, so winding of crappy foods will take you a few months.
From that day onward, you will have more control over the food you consume. If you consume a diet with high-quality foods, you'll be far less likely to experience cravings.
Relying on processed food can negatively affect your basal metabolic rate because overeating contributes to obesity, and through that mechanism, metabolic slowdown after you've lost the weight through dieting.
But let's say you've lost a lot of weight by developing a habit of eating healthy foods. In that case, let's explore how to exactly reverse diet.
Assume that you're eating 1,400 calories per day after successful weight loss, and you weigh 150 pounds now.
Also assume that you're eating about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. In that case, you'll be eating 100 grams of protein per day, equaling 400 calories.
(Higher levels of protein are almost always recommended due to protein giving you higher satiety levels.[187; 188; 189; 190])
You'll now have 1,000 calories left. Lastly, assume that you're following a high-fat diet, and eating 100 grams of fat (900 calories), which leaves you with 25 grams of carbohydrates (100 calories).
Before dieting, you may have been able to eat 1,800 calories per day as your baseline, while not gaining or losing weight. But now you can only eat 1,400 calories without the scale budging.
If you'd eat 2,500 calories for a few days, due to extreme hunger levels that are present now, your weight would re-bound like crazy - while your resting metabolic rate would still be slower on a relative basis.
Quickly bumping calories is thus dangerous...
Again: to restore your resting metabolic rate, add about 100 calories per week to your diet.
100 calories equal about 1.5 egg, or 2 ounces (66 grams) of steak eaten every day. As a result, you may gain a bit of fat, but it will not be too much.
Yes, you'll need to learn to calculate calories to accomplish this feat. While I may seem crazy for being so detailed with these numbers, they do matter.
Depending on the context, losing (lots) of weight can be a precision science and you're much more prone to succeed if you control all that can be controlled - that's my main argument in favor of the "calories in, calories out" model.
Let me explain:
Losing fat long-term is harder than many people assume - you'll want all the advantages you can get to increase your chances. The reason for calorie counting is that most people are simply not aware of the amount (or even type) of food they're taking in.
Hence using an online calorie tracker gives you additional data - Chronometer is a great place to start. When you become aware of your intake, calorie counting can be discarded.
The best method to reverse diet is to increase both your carbohydrate and fat intake by a few percents per week.
How do I know this approach works?
Studies have demonstrated that while resting metabolic rate may be lower a 6 months after weight loss, but after a period of 2 years that resting metabolic rate can recover.
What's the gain of "reverse dieting" and increasing your resting metabolic rate?
Feeling and performing better.
Remember that many people simply don't feel like themselves when eating very little.
Your mood may be lower, your libido non-existent, sleep quality suffers, and you're not performing so well anymore.
How you'll feel after successfully restoring
your basal metabolic rate AND keeping the weight off.
The best (and cheapest) way to measure whether reverse dieting is working is to combine a scale with tape measurement around your buttocks or waist (wherever you're prone to hold on weight).
Slow the process down if you're gaining weight too quickly or at the wrong places.
If your weight goes up, and the weight gain cannot be traced back to your waist or buttocks, then you're gaining some muscle - a very good sign.
Realize that you'll need lots of self-control on the reverse dieting process well.
After dieting for 12 or 16 weeks, many people gorge on tremendous amounts of fast foods because they've "deserved it".
Again, that method inevitably leads to fat gain and may set you back even further. If you do increase your fat stores a lot after dieting, you may end up with the same amount of fat as before while having a slow metabolic rate simultaneously.
You'll also end up depressed and really disappointed in your body.
The explanation is simple: your body is primed for fat (re-)gain after you've lost lots of fat.
After losing that 60 pounds your body now thinks its starving.
To protect itself against future starvation, your body puts on fat at a quicker pace than you normally would - in part because your basal metabolic rate is slow after fat loss.
Any junk food you consume thus makes you gain fat much faster than when you were still overweight. Reverse dieting is absolutely essential for that reason.
Don't be the person who undoes months of dieting by one or two weeks of eating lots of food - even though your body's hunger impulse says you should eat that way.
Following the hunger impulse is dangerous in this case...
It's difficult to reverse diet purely based on gut instinct or intuition - most people have big trouble estimating their daily calorie needs, and tend to overeat without being consciously aware of doing so.[204; 205; 206; 207]
The goal is to keep you lean while having a high metabolic rate at the same time - like Alex Fergus!
With lean, I mean that you're neither overweight or obese--no need to venture into the other direction of having extremely low levels of body fat.
If you've lost your weight with exercise, especially interval-like sports such as sprinting, Crossfit, weightlifting, football, etcetera, then I do not recommend cutting out exercise. Exercise will help you maintain muscle mass during a reverse diet.
A second way to increase your basal metabolic rate is increasing high-quality caloric intake to lose weight.
Lots of anecdotal evidence of hundreds if not of thousands of individuals exists that eating a healthy diet at (or just above) your daily caloric expenditure heals your metabolism over time.
(I do have to say this option is more speculative.)
And because you're eating healthy foods your hunger levels automatically regulate themselves.
An example of a book that takes such an approach are How to Heal Your Metabolism: Learn How the Right Foods, Sleep, the Right Amount of Exercise and Happiness Can Increase Your Metabolic Rate and Help Heal Your Broken Metabolism.
That method includes making better food choices, managing stress, and increasing calories at or slightly above your daily expenditure. The goal is to train your body to increase basal metabolic rate over time.
Caveat: only ever experiment with increasing your food intake if you're already eating high-quality foods. Never increase your intake of junk or processed food as an excuse to boost metabolic rate.
The slight caloric increase method seems to work best in people who have a pattern of too much dieting and exercising - because they need calories to recover their metabolism.
Too much exercise and dieting closely mimic starvation conditions--which is something many people are unaware of.
Some people consume enormous numbers of calories to increase their basal metabolic rate.
The problem with an extreme approach is that you'll not only increase your basal metabolic rate but also gain tons of fat. Fat gain above a certain amount, again, has many negative health consequences.
The gradual approach works much better as there are only so many calories your metabolism can generally handle before body fat is gained. Gaining lots of fat in the process thus entails that you're going too quick.
Your resting metabolic rate only moves up very slowly - consuming many more calories above your daily need does not speed up that progress.
Some studies suggest that increasing carbohydrate periodically can increase resting metabolic rate more so than reverse dieting with proteins or fats. Fortunately, you'll probably increasing your caloric intake through carbohydrates in the case you're starting to eat more anyway.[216; 217; 218; 219]
People who have been "chronic dieters" may especially benefit from keeping food quality high while very slowly increasing caloric intake over time.
With "chronic dieters" I refer to people who've tried many different diets in their lifetimes, such as Atkins, Paleo, the South Beach diet, a juice fast diet, heavy exercise, intermittent fasting, but never kept the weight off for good.
Chronic dieters tend to experiment with a new diet every season - chronic dieting is thus similar to yo-yo dieting.
Don't think for a second that increasing caloric intake is easy to do though: most yo-yo dieters have cycles of extreme caloric restriction followed by periods of binge eating to make up for the restriction.
Again: managing your caloric intake after heavy dieting takes tons of discipline.
Finally: it may precisely be the cycle of extreme underfeeding and overfeeding is a big piece of the puzzle in the obesity epidemic.
50 or 100 years ago, people didn't have such an extreme relationship with food.
You didn't consume extreme amounts of calories from processed food back then, but you didn't diet either.
That last statement is, to me, is just as important puzzle piece to understanding the obesity epidemic as is overeating. Of course, our circadian rhythms have also changed for the worse, and are horribly underestimated as an explanatory factor for why obesity exists.
Both factors are under-emphasized in the obesity epidemic discourse ...
So let's conclude:
I've called basal metabolic rate the "holy grail" of fat loss, simply because disruptions in that metabolic rate are so central in both obesity and starvation.
Once you reverse such a condition, your basal metabolic rate has already taken a hit. The solution to that problem is to avoid extremes as much as possible: yes, lose your body fat but also make sure to regain your health afterward.
Use strategies such as boosting your mineral intake, optimizing your circadian rhythm, and reverse dieting for restoring your basal metabolic rate.
Losing body fat does not have to be an eternal struggle. So what are the implications of my argument here? Simple: chronic caloric over-consumption and caloric restriction may be equally dangerous.
People who are engaging in heavy exercise 5 times a week combined with a weekly 2-day fast will almost certainly slow their metabolism down over time.
The same is true if you massively overeat: you're adding so much energy to your body that your body cannot burn that energy off quickly - leading to increased fat stores.
Focusing on just calories, however, is equally dangerous. The "calories in, calories out" model thus has dangerous implications.
Your circadian rhythm, the minerals you ingest, and the toxins you're exposed to, all influence that "calories in, calories out" equation very indirectly.
Those influences are commonly not accounted for by "calories in, calories out" proponents. If you see food just as energy while not seeing the bigger picture, you're thus going to misunderstand the calories in, calories out equation.
Extreme dieting, exercise, or weight gain can all beget structural changes to the body which lower your overall health, set you up with new health problems, and make you worse off than before.
The current "calories in, calories out" formula looks a lot like the Aristotelian worldview in during the Scientific Revolution - more and more ad hoc adjustments to the theory need to be added to keep the model consistent with current data.
A last surprise?
Even I have been part of that tradition, exercising 1.5-2 hours a day, 6 days a week, to develop a maximally muscular physique:
At least I ate enough during that process, as otherwise I'd had done gotten into big problems with metabolic slowdown.
So I know all about exercising more and using stress to develop "the perfect physique". You don't have to make mistakes.
Let me explain:
Coming back to the topic of evolution: it's time to question the message of glorifying athletes with extremely low body fat (which I did not yet achieve, fortunately).
Semi-starvation should not be exalted.
Having a normal body weight in good health, with great sleep, thinking ability, and mood should be praised instead.
Instead of honoring models who achieve very low levels of body fat, celebrate the person with an average weight who thinks and sleeps perfectly instead.
Yes, I know that's a shocking change in philosophy - and in fact, it may take society 50 or 100 years to adapt to that change.
By 2100, hopefully, you're glorifying people with perfect sleep and brain power...
Getting back on topic:
The bright side of my message is that obesity is not always your fault.
You've been led to believe that restriction on food will work in the long term--in reality, that process leads to dangerous metabolic adaptations, which set you up for further fat gains.
But now you can do it, with a more balanced approach.
If you ever start a diet, please use a strategy to build yourself up again afterward. By understanding your resting metabolic rate you can control that obesity now.
Your body will thank you.
Your health will thank you.
And you will thank you...
This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - with distinction), and Clinical Health Science (MS), has had training in functional medicine, and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com.
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