For years, experts believed that abruptly increasing calorie intake after cutting would lead to rapid fat gain.
The rationale was that dieting decreases your basal metabolic rate. Therefore, if you increase your calorie intake too quickly at the end of your diet, you’ll overwhelm your bogged-down metabolism and regain much of the fat you’d worked hard to lose.
To combat this, they recommended a strategy known as “reverse dieting.” This involves gradually increasing your calorie intake over the post-cut period to “mend” any metabolic slowdown you’d suffered while dieting.
We now know that reverse dieting is unnecessary and even counterproductive. You can safely swap cutting for bulking, provided it doesn’t spur frenzied overeating, and dragging this process out with reverse dieting simply prolongs your cut and the negative side effects that come with calorie restriction.
Some folks have also claimed that by gradually reducing your calorie intake over time, you can delay the inevitable side effects that result from low-calorie dieting.
Is this true?
Should you slowly reduce calorie intake when moving from a bulk to a cut?
And will doing so ease you into dieting, help you stay the course, and prevent the dip in performance that often accompanies a calorie deficit?
That’s what scientists at the University of Málaga sought to investigate when they had 14 experienced female weightlifters do an 8-week bulk, immediately followed by an 8-week cut.
During the cut, half of the weightlifters ate ~1,400 calories per day, while the other half gradually reduced their calorie intake from ~1,700 calories per day at the beginning of the study to ~1,100 calories per day at the end.
Throughout the study, both groups ate a similar total number of calories, and the same amount of protein (~1.2 grams per pound of fat-free mass per day) and fat (~0.5 grams per pound of fat-free mass per day).
The results showed that both groups lost a similar amount of fat (~3 pounds) and experienced a similar, trivial dip in performance. That said, the gradual-diet group tended to lose slightly more fat than the immediate-diet group, possibly because the dieters in the gradual-diet group found sticking to their diet slightly easier.
Does this mean gradual cutting is better?
For one thing, both groups lost very little fat (about a third of a pound of fat per week). This is particularly odd when you consider that their average calorie intake was, allegedly, just 1,400 calories per day. This tells me that these weightlifters probably were eating more than their meal plans indicated, which muddles the results somewhat.
Still, I think we can draw some useful conclusions.
First of all, there wasn’t a significant difference between groups, which indicates that gradually tapering down your calorie intake over time probably isn’t any better than simply sticking to a set calorie deficit from the beginning of your cut.
Still, could there be some behavioral benefits associated with this “tapering” approach? I think not.
Most diets fail due to a lack of motivation, and one of the biggest drains on motivation is a lack of results. Most of us can stomach a calorie deficit so long as your diet is set up correctly and you’re losing weight at a reasonable pace (about 1 lb. per week for most people, or 0.5-to-1% of body weight).
Aside from psychological factors, biological changes can also make it harder to lose weight and sap your motivation to maintain a calorie deficit. And while these side effects—hunger, fatigue, lethargy, and so on—are made worse the more you restrict your calories, the only way to get rid of them entirely is to get out of a calorie deficit.
In other words, a daily deficit of 800 calories is harder on your body than a 500-calorie deficit, but both are unpleasant.
Thus, my general preference is to cut at a rate of around 0.5-to-1% per week for most people, which is significantly faster than the participants in this study but still quite manageable for most. This is enough to see rapid changes in your appearance and weight, without draining your motivation to train, energy levels, or enjoyment of your diet.
If you want more diet and exercise advice that’ll help you lose weight like clockwork and get fitter and healthier than ever, check out my fitness books for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger.
Takeaway: Don’t bother gradually reducing your calorie intake at the beginning of a cut. Estimate roughly how many calories you should eat to lose about 0.5-to-1% of your body weight per week (about 1-to-2 lb. for most), and start eating that many calories per day.
This article is part of our weekly Research Roundup series, which explores a scientific study on diet, exercise, supplementation, mindset, or lifestyle that will help you gain muscle and strength, lose fat, perform and feel better, live longer, and get and stay healthier.
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+ Scientific References
- Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
- Vargas-Molina, S., Bonilla, D. A., Petro, J. L., Carbone, L., García-Sillero, M., Jurado-Castro, J. M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Benítez-Porres, J. (2023). Efficacy of progressive versus severe energy restriction on body composition and strength in concurrent trained women. European Journal of Applied Physiology. https://doi.org/10.1007/S00421-023-05158-8