Counting calories can be one of the most tedious approaches for weight loss because it just requires so much extra work (free food tracking apps definitely help). It can also get boring and be difficult to stick to eating such a restricted amount of calories per day.
This is where the calorie zig-zag diet can be super helpful. Since you vary your calories per day, you naturally work in higher calorie days which makes it feel like you’re not always “on a diet”.
It’s also a more natural approach to eating, as many people don’t eat the same amounts on a day to day basis. It’s also arguably more how our ancestors ate when you think of a hunter/gatherer lifestyle. There were days where food was plentiful, and others where it was in short supply.
What is calorie zig-zagging?
In the simplest terms, this is used to describe a way of eating for weight loss where you divide your calories up throughout the week, so you can eat more some days and fewer others, while still saying in a caloric deficit. This approach can also be used to maintain weight.
Calorie Zig Zagging is also referred to as calorie shifting or metabolic confusion
You may have heard the terms calorie shifting or metabolic confusion, and from everything I could gather, they’re all in reference to this same idea of switching up your calories.
There’s not really a set method or strict “diet” to follow, it’s more so just a general term to describe a varied calorie approach.
This works the same way as a basic calorie-restricted diet would – you just reduce your overall calorie intake to lose weight.
The difference is, instead of eating a set amount of calories each day, you’d divide your calories throughout the week so you could eat more on some days, and less on others.
How to calculate calories for the zig-zag diet
In order to do this, you’ll need to know a few things:
- How many calories you burn normally
- How fast you want to lose weight (.5 – 2 lbs per week)
- How many calories you should eat per day to lose weight
Luckily, there are so many calorie calculators you can use for free on the internet you don’t need to worry about doing any complex math to figure this out.
Just go here: calculator.net/calorie-calculator
The reason why this one is cool is it even calculates calorie zig-zagging for you, so you don’t have to figure it out yourself. Of course, you can switch it up however you like, but it gives you a baseline from which to follow.
If you’re unsure of your activity level, I’d use sedentary just to be on the safe side (unless you are an extremely active person).
It’s better to underestimate than overestimate. If you find you’re losing too much weight and aren’t eating enough, you can always adjust it.
Let’s do an example…
So you know how to figure this out with the calculator, but let’s go through an example so you can see how it works.
Let’s say you calculate that you need to eat 1,800 calories to lose 2 lbs per week.
That’s 12,600 calories per week. (1,800 x 7 days = 12,600 calories)
Since weight loss is about an overall calorie deficit, you could theoretically divide up those calories throughout the week however you want and still lose weight.
The best approach to take with this is to structure it in a way that fits your lifestyle.
If you work Monday – Friday and have a set schedule, but tend to let loose on the weekends, you could eat lower calorie throughout the week and raise up your calories on weekends to give you wiggle room.
So taking that 12,600 per week and dividing it up could look like:
Your higher calorie days could be whatever your “weekend” is. Really, you can mix this up HOWEVER you want. You could even do every other day high and lows, or just one high-calorie day per week.
You could even cycle through many days of lower-calories followed by a few days of much higher calories in between.
The idea is the calories at the end of the week equal your weekly amount for weight loss (or maintenance), even if that means eating 3,000 calories one day and 0 the next to balance out (extreme, but effective).
How to track your calories
You can get out a pen and paper, pay attention to labels, and track the old-fashioned way.
…But you probably don’t want to, that’s A LOT of work!
Fortunately, there are a ton of free apps for tracking your food – like MyFitnesspal, Loseit!, iTrackbites, SparkPeople, etc.
The unfortunate part is, you can’t really set custom daily calorie goals with free apps.
You can still use any free food tracking app you want to do this, you just have to put in the work to make sure you’re following the schedule you set. It makes it a little bit harder to keep track, but not impossible.
This is a scenario in which it may be worth investing in the premium version of MyFitnesspal since you can set specific daily calorie goals. If you wanted to make it as easy as possible to follow this approach to weight loss, it might be helpful.
The best scientific study that was done to date, compared calorie shifting to a more traditional calorie-restricted diet. You can examine the study here.
Participants on the calorie shifting diet followed an 11 day, 3-day cycle approach where participants ate lower calories for 11 days, followed by 3 days of higher calories.
This found that people who ate a calorie shifting diet were more likely to stick with the diet and be satisfied with it in comparison to the restricted calorie group.
Another interesting finding was the RMR (resting metabolic rate) of the calorie shifting group remained unchanged after the diet, whereas a significant decrease was seen in the group that followed a standard calorie-restricted diet.
The calorie shifting group also experienced sustained weight and fat loss within the 4 weeks follow up period after the diet, unlike the calorie-restricted group who experienced immediate weight re-gain.
This suggests that perhaps the claims are true that shifting calories, or eating in a zig-zag diet pattern, really does help keep your metabolism from slowing down.
But the research is rather limited
However, despite the promising results of this study, it was rather small at only 74 participants. The truth is, it just hasn’t been extensively studied.
However, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence it works.
For example, I lost my first 40 lbs with this very approach. You may also find it encouraging to know I wasn’t super strict or scheduled about it.
Really I just ate more naturally while watching my calories. This meant some days I ate more than others, but I always made sure to be in an overall deficit.
The Bottom Line
While it hasn’t been extensively studied, the calorie zig zagging approach can be a great weight loss tool for some. I personally like this method because it feels less restrictive, but it does require persistence and some planning.
If the idea of eating the same calories every single day bores you, perhaps you’ll find this works better. It’s almost like it includes naturally built-in “cheat days” and assures you can eat more without going over your calorie deficit, as long as you plan accordingly.
Even very popular diets like Weight Watchers include a similar approach, which includes built-in “extras” to allow for higher eating days, while still putting you in an overall energy deficit. And some forms of intermittent fasting are in line with this approach as well, like the 5:2 method or Eat Stop Eat.