Spur Weight Loss With the (Super Easy) Zig Zag Diet Technique
The name of the game when it comes to human survival is adaptation. When you do a hard workout program or a low-calorie diet, your body doesn’t know you’re doing it on purpose and it doesn’t know how long this new stress will continue. So, it adapts to survive the new situation with minimal breakdown — and that can lead to weight loss plateaus. One way to overcome that is by doing a zig zag diet.
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What Is the Zig Zag Diet?
Also referred to as “calorie cycling” or “refeeding,” zig zag dieting a powerful nutrition technique that involves changing the number of calories you eat per day throughout the week. The general practice is four days of change and three days of remaining the same — some people prefer five days of change and two days of the same, or even changing daily as shown in the graph below.
When you follow the zig zag diet, you’ll eat the same number of calories you usually would on two to three days of the week. Then, on the remaining four to five days, eat more or less calories.
Why should you follow the zig zag diet?
Zig zag dieting can be a great plateau-busting tool. It can also be modified to fit your personal caloric needs. Your caloric baseline will be whatever you’re eating when that plateau kicked in. You may be an endurance athlete eating 3,500 calories a day and struggling to perform, or someone trying to lose weight at 1,200 calories.
Just keep in mind that if you’re down at 1,200 calories and not losing weight, in all likelihood you’re not eating enough, so don’t go below 1,200 when you do calorie cycling.
No matter which plan you follow, your body will tell you if it was a good idea. Your workouts should improve almost immediately and/or the scale should move within the week.
How a Zig Zag Diet Can Help with Weight Loss and Break a Plateau
Say, for example, you’re eating 1,500 calories a day and you’ve lost weight. But now your weight loss has stagnated. That’s because the new, fitter you has a different body composition than the former you. You have more muscle and a higher basal metabolic rate (BMR) — the calories you burn in a day just by existing.
If you haven’t hit your healthy goal weight and want to continue your weight loss, you need to eat more. That’s because 1,500 calories isn’t enough, causing your body to react in a number of ways, including slowing down your metabolism and actually reducing the amount you fidget. (Yes, fidgeting burns calories.)
Let’s say you run a calorie calculation and determine that you need to 1,500 calories per day. You don’t want to jump straight up to 2,500 calories. First, it would cause some shock to your system and second, calculators — even sophisticated ones like the Mifflin St. Jeor equation — only give ballpark figures. So if you’re not 100 percent sure of the first number, you can’t be certain of the second one, either.
The most effective thing to do is to subtly zig zag your caloric intake, basically shifting calories in small amounts that don’t overshoot your needs, but are still dramatic enough so that you can observe if they’re helping.
In this instance, I would recommend eating 1,800 calories per day three to four a week and 1,500 calories on the other days. Note how your body responds. My expectation is you’d feel good on the higher calorie days and famished on the lower calorie days.
If I’m wrong about feeling famished and it’s working, stick with it. If you are famished, after a week or two, bump up your calories to around 2,200 calories for four to five days and 1,500 calories on two days. Do this for about a week. If you’re still starving on the low days, try bumping them up to 2,000 and see how you respond.
You can tell when you’re eating too many calories because you feel full and you’ll feel more lethargic at the beginning of workouts. You want to be energized, but not hungry and not stuffed. In other words, once you get it down, you should be getting results while feeling great. Sounds like a good plan to me!
How Do You Do a Calorie Shift for the Zig Zag Diet?
The bigger and more active you are, the higher number of calories you should add or subtract. Most people move in a 200 to 500 calories per day range (or more, as you can see in the image above, though that’s more of a deficit than I’d use unless I was well versed in it). Most people will stay in the 200- to 300-calorie range. For others, such as serious athletes, 400+ calories comes into play — but don’t get too caught up in the numbers.
For the most part, calorie cycling is fine over long periods of time. However, when it comes to weight loss, once you’ve reached your goal, you’ll want to push your overall daily calories more toward the higher side of the zag.
Also, your body can also get wise to the tactic and resume your plateau. When this happens, increase your diet on all days by 200 to 300 calories.
How Is the Zig Zag Diet Different From Intermittent Fasting and Yo-Yo Dieting?
Unlike yo-yo dieting, zig zagging won’t negatively affect your metabolism. Yo-yo dieting means eating at an unhealthily low calorie count for weeks at a time — and then binging all the hard-lost pounds back. Eating like this puts your body into a stress state for a prolonged period, which can wreak havoc on your stress hormones.
On the other hand, calorie cycling has you eating different amounts each day in a controlled, sensible fashion, which is more of a natural way to eat. If anything, it has the opposite effect on your hormones, convincing your body that you’re in less of a stress situation, so it’s less inclined to hold onto emergency fuel stores (body fat) or slow down energy systems.
As for intermittent fasting, they’re two entirely different things. With intermittent fasting, you don’t eat at all for long stretches ranging from 15 to 24 hours, using the stress state to force physiological changes.
With zig zag dieting, you continue to eat the whole time, just in different amounts — and you’re trying to minimize the stress state. While neither is backed by overwhelming scientific research, both have decades of anecdotal evidence in fitness circles backing them up, so I recommend trying both.