Does Calorie Cycling Work? The Zig Zag Diet Explained

There are many different approaches to losing weight, but most weight-loss diets have one thing in common: caloric restriction.

In other words, whether you are following the keto diet, Paleo diet, some other low-carb diet, a low-fat diet, or a “fad weight loss diet,” you likely have to cut calories from your diet.

A zig zag diet or calorie cycling can be an alternative approach to losing weight that many people find to be more sustainable and appealing and often more effective than constant caloric restriction.

In this calorie cycling diet guide, we will discuss what calorie cycling for weight loss entails, what a zigzag diet plan looks like, how to do zig zag dieting for weight loss, and tips for losing weight calorie cycling or zig zag dieting.

We will cover: 

  • What Is a Zig Zag Diet Plan?
  • How Do You Do Calorie Cycling Weight Loss Diet Plans?
  • Does The Zig Zag Diet Work for Weight Loss?
  • What Are the Benefits of Calorie Cycling Diets?
  • Tips for Calorie Cycling for Weight Loss

Let’s dive in!

A plate with a piece of paper in the center that says calories.

What Is a Zig Zag Diet Plan?

Zig zag dieting, or calorie cycling, is a viable alternative to traditional caloric restriction dieting for weight loss wherein you alternate between cutting your calories and then increasing your caloric intake in a cyclical pattern rather than having to constantly limit how many calories you are eating every day.

How Do You Do Calorie Cycling Weight Loss Diet Plans?

There isn’t a specific, regimented way to do a zig zag diet plan or how to follow a calorie cycling meal plan. 

Rather than being a strict, defined meal plan, calorie cycling is just an approach to structuring your dietary intake over the course of a week.

You can modify a zig zag diet meal plan to meet your caloric needs, food preferences, and even meal timing.

A person eating and looking at their phone.

For example, you can do calorie cycling on a low-carb diet, vegan diet, Mediterranean Diet, on any other diet you follow day to day.

There are no rules about the specific foods you can eat on a zig zag diet meal plan.

Similarly, you can organize your eating pattern during the day in any way that you want.

Some people do calorie cycling weight loss plans with intermittent fasting—eating just a couple of meals a day—or you can eat three meals and multiple snacks.

You might even play around with a mix of different approaches to meal timing on different days of the zig zag diet plan.

On the days you zig or zag down in calories, you might try intermittent fasting (perhaps 16/8 intermittent fasting or 18/6 intermittent fasting) as a way to naturally limit the calories you eat. 

Then, when you zig or zag back up in your calorie cycling with the higher calorie day, you might have regularly spaced meals and snacks like breakfast, lunch, dinner, and small snacks in between each meal.

A person making a smoothie, looking at their phone.

Finally, the number of calories that you eat per day when you are calorie cycling is also customizable based on your body size, caloric needs, physical activity levels, and weight goals.

There are no rules about how many fewer calories to eat per day when calorie cycling down and up; in other words, there isn’t a magic number of calories that you have to vacillate between on a calorie cycling meal plan.

Most people who follow zig-zag dieting for weight loss drop up and down about 400 to 600 calories per day. 

For example, if you eat 2000 calories one day, you might eat 1500 cal the next day and then go back up to 2000 or even 2200 calories, and then down to 1500 calories for the next day, etc.

You don’t have to keep your high-calorie and low-calorie zigzag diet plan days the same every time you zig or zag.

This means your calorie cycling plan calories per day on the “up” days don’t always have to be 2000 calories, for example, and 1500 calories on the low days.

A nutritionist shwing a client a calorie app.

However, many people who want to do calorie cycling for weight loss find that keeping structure in the number of calories you eat on a zigzag dieting plan makes it easier to see progress.

Plus, requiring yourself to stay consistent with your calorie limits can make it more likely that you will stick with the diet plan rather than allow a high-calorie day to become a full-blown “cheat day“ where you go off the rails and eat a ton of calories, potentially sabotaging your weight loss goals.

In fact, although calorie cycling diets are generally followed for weight loss, some people find that beyond calorie cycling for weight loss, there are benefits of the zigzag diet meal plan approach to everyday weight maintenance.

Calorie cycling can help prevent boredom in your diet while still providing some structure in terms of how many calories you should be eating per day to stay within your overall targets for a healthy body weight.

All of these flexible factors for calorie cycling diet plans mean that any two individuals can follow zigzag weight loss diet plans with very different resultant calorie cycling meal plans.

A calorie counting app.

Does The Zig Zag Diet Work for Weight Loss?

There is some evidence to suggest that calorie cycling diets for weight loss can be effective and potentially better for weight loss than even regular caloric restriction weight loss diets. 

One study found that metabolic rate increased when participants followed three weeks of a restrictive, low-calorie diet and then had a week of higher-calorie intake.

Another older study found that a calorie cycling diet plus caffeine intake resulted in more weight loss, a higher metabolic rate, and greater satisfaction than the control weight loss diet.

However, caffeine can also increase metabolic rate, so with this particular study, there may be some degree of confounding variables to consider.

What Are the Benefits of Calorie Cycling Diets?

Here are some of the main zig-zag diet benefits:

A calorie counting app.

Zig Zag Diet Plans Can Be More Sustainable

A major challenge of trying to lose weight is constantly restricting your caloric intake.

This not only gets emotionally exhausting and can leave you feeling physically deprived and hungry, but it can also impact your metabolic rate and potentially compromise your weight loss results. 

Calorie cycling dieting for weight loss can break up the monotony and give you alternate days where you feel fully fed from both the physical and emotional standpoints.

Plus, because of the variability in the calories you can eat per day, you can have more latitude in your food choices and zig zag diet meal plan across the week.

This can help you feel less deprived of some of your favorite foods and can prevent palate fatigue or boredom with a rigid weight loss diet plan.

Finally, the overall flexibility in terms of your freedom of food choices makes this an attractive approach to dieting while still providing some structure.

Studies have reinforced these points, finding adherence to calorie cycling diets may result in greater adherence rates than constant caloric restriction.

A calorie counting app surrounded by foods.

Calorie Cycling Diet Plans Can Prevent Weight Loss Plateaus

Chronic caloric restriction can slow down your metabolic rate via a biological survival mechanism known as adaptive thermogenesis.

By engaging in calorie cycling you circumvent this problem by giving your body enough calories several times per week so that your metabolism stays humming, which will help you preserve lean body mass and continue to lose weight while eating more calories.

Tips for Calorie Cycling for Weight Loss

Here are some tips for following zig zag dieting for weight loss:

#1: Plan Ahead

Studies suggest that meal planning is associated with lower risks of obesity.

Particularly when you are following such a loosely defined weight loss diet, such as a zigzag meal plan, planning your meals as well as how many calories you will eat each day will provide more of a regimented structure to help you achieve your weight loss goals.

A weekly meal plan report.

#2: Choose Healthy Foods

Make sure to choose healthy, nutritious foods that support optimal body weight and energy levels. Focus on clean eating.

Stay away from processed foods, excess sugar, fried foods, etc., and focus on whole, unprocessed natural foods such as vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, eggs, low-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and healthy fats.

#3: Know Your Caloric Needs

Make sure that you understand how many calories you should be eating per week when you are deciding how to structure your calorie cycling diet.

To do so accurately, learn about calculating your total daily energy expenditure here.

Meals for 5 days of the week.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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