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The Reverse Yo-Yo Diet: How To Reset Your Set-point (Reverse Diet)

I am coming off of a month of travel where I essentially took the entire month off from any training.  Prior to this trip, I had not been training much either.  I would skip entire weeks of exercise and then do a few workouts the next week.  I probably averaged one workout a week over the last three months. That is sort of insane for a fitness guy right?

Would you be surprised to know this is all on purpose? Or at least being done fully conscious and aware of what I am doing?  I want to explain to you why.

Take a look at this picture below.  This is me at 39 (I will be 43 in November of this year).  I was 247 pounds in this picture at 5’10.  The day before I took this picture I benched 315 for 5 and squatted 405 for 10.  In other words, I was training on the regular and was strong as a gorilla.

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I can tell you I felt like shit in this picture and distinctly remember the feeling I had inside when I took it.  I was actually not that concerned with how my body looked; I just felt like shit and wanted to feel better.

It may surprise you to know that during this time I was attempting to eat a strict Paleo based diet. I was low carb strict Paleo, or at least trying to be, and that was the problem. I would forgo healthy carbs like bananas because, well, they had too many carbs.

As a result, I would end up eating worse, higher calorie and carb foods later.  There were times when I was perfect on my diet. But because of this behavior, there were more times I was not.  I was making the classic mistake I had been teaching my clients about for years helping them achieve great success.  Isn’t it ironic that we humans can give the best advice to another, yet completely think it does not apply to us?  Yeah, that was me.

I have since given this strange quirk of nutritional nonsense a name.  I call it the “banana effect.”  I have seen it in so many people over the years, and I consider it one of the major blocks to achieving success in health, fitness and weight loss.  It illustrates a mindset that is stuck in the “dieter mentality” and has yet to create a program and approach that fits the unique metabolism, psychology and preferences of the person.

Extreme dieting leads to extreme diets

And that is why the last few months have been somewhat intentional.  What I have learned for myself, and seen in many others, is that perfect nutrition can be the enemy. Going to extremes with dieting leads to extremes in your diet.  It is one of the essential laws of metabolism that takes into account your psychology and the natural compensatory nature of metabolism.

Psychologically declare a food off limits, and it becomes the only thing you want.  It may not happen right away or even in the first few weeks, but eventually, your psychology will demand you think, want, and obsess about the object you have declared off limits.  It is the psychological equivalent of the old thought experiment “don’t think of a white elephant.”  As soon as I say that, you can’t help but think of a white elephant.

Likewise, push too hard on the metabolism, and you will be rewarded with increased hunger, unpredictable and unstable energy, elevated cravings, low mood, lack of motivation, and a declining metabolic rate that will assure weight regain (often more than you lost in the first place.)

So at 39, standing in front of that mirror feeling like shit, I finally decided to take my own advice.  No more extremes, no more pretending the rules of metabolism did not apply to me.  No more acting like a nutritional jackass.  I would honor what works for me, and I would slowly but surely get the weight off.

The reverse Yo-Yo Diet

Take a look at the pictures below.  The one on the left was taken on my 41st birthday.  The one on the right was taken on my 42nd birthday.  On the left I am 220 pounds with a size 37 waist and 15% body fat. On the right I am 225 pounds, my waist is 36.5 and my body fat is close to 12%.

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At 40 years old I decided I was going to start a tradition of doing a birthday progress selfie. This was not just about “looks,” but also how I felt, and my health measures.  My subjective measures of health, and my objective vitals and blood labs made similar improvements as did my body.

Here is what is not shown in these pictures. Through early winter, I slowly let myself gain weight again.  I trained in more of an eat what I want and train for size type of approach.  And then when the weather started to get warm again in late spring I slowly tightened up and started to train more.

This was intentional.  I was basically going up about 5-7% in body fat and then coming back down.  For example, I was 220 and 15% body fat in the picture on the right.  Six months later I was 235 and 20% body fat.  Then I lost again and came down to 225 and 12% body fat.

This “reverse yo-yo approach” is what works for me.  It is also done intentionally given what I believe I understand about the metabolism and set-points.  It is VERY difficult to change the body’s set point.  It fights to maintain a certain weight and body fat percent.  For a time, my set point was 245.  It was where my body wanted to fight back to every year.  Now I have changed that and my set point is now between 230 and 235.

The only way I was able to do this was to avoid extremes and allow my body its natural propensity to fluctuate in weight.  Most people miss this entirely because they can’t stand or tolerate the idea of gaining any weight at all.

Through my work with people with so-called “metabolic damage,”  I realized weight gain was a requirement of the body to heal and be convinced it was not in “starvation mode.”  Hence, I have adopted this process for myself.

Where I am today

I am just getting ready to begin my third phase of resetting my set point.  My goal is to eventually get to a new low set point of below 210 and a new high set point of 220.  Or more accurately a new low set point of 10% body fat and a new high of 15% body fat.  I am far less concerned with what I weigh.

I also would like a new low waist measure of 34 and a new high waist measure of 36. As an aside I have always had a thick muscular waist and I hold all my fat in my love handles.  The lowest I can ever remember my waist was 34 when I was in high school.

So today I took my pics to illustrate where I am in this reverse yo-yo approach.  Today I am 236 pounds.  My waist is 39.5 inches and my body fat % is 22. Truthfully these numbers are I think not exactly accurate as I have been on a bit of a carb binge the last two weeks and they reflect a lot of water. Never the less this is where I am.

For the sake of what this looks like, check the pictures below. My body fat was measured on a standing impedance machine so if you think I look like I could not possibly be 22% body fat (or I am much more); these things are notoriously inaccurate.  However, I will say this, I think it is close to accurate.  Over the years I have measured a lot of body fat with skin calipers, and people dramatically underestimate their body fat.

Whenever I see someone claim a body fat % I typically add 5% to what they think. The important thing is to have a measure of progress, not accuracy.  If you still get caught up and emotional about what a number says, you have way bigger problems than this blog can help you with.

Final thoughts

The reverse yo-yo diet is the best thing I have found to reset people’s set points.  I have had to coach many people through this approach over the years of allowing their body to go through this natural process.  Unlike most diet approaches, this approach is slow and steady and NOT extreme.  It takes 3 months for me to slowly get down to my low point and then 6 months for me to slowly raise to my high point again.  So most of the year I stay at or near my new low.

This is in sharp contrast to those who go on a 21-day sugar detox and lose 20 pounds in a month only to gain back 25 within the next three weeks.  That type of yo-yo is extreme and in the wrong direction.  The reverse yo-yo is slow, steady and in the right direction.

For those trying to get their metabolism back to a healthy, fit, and vibrant state this approach works well, but takes time, patience and a focus on health and wellbeing over vanity concerns.

Progress Update November 19th 2016

This article was originally written August 8th 2016. Almost 4 months later I just took my birthday selfie.  Here is the progress from the year. The plan now is to very slowly ease up a bit through through the winter and early spring before getting back at it.

This may not be feasible given I have video projects scheduled for February, but the point is to live a cyclical lifestyle that allows for these fluctuations with each upward phase getting less high and each downward phase improving to reset the set point.

The first pic is this morning, my 3rd birthday selfie at 43.  The second pic is a comparison of the last three years of this experiment.