One of the more recent diet offerings is called the zig-zag diet.
Today, we’ll take a look at precisely what the zig-zag diet is and what, if any, benefits it has to offer.
What is the Zig Zag Diet?
The zig-zag diet is a form of calorie cycling or calorie “shifting”.
Calorie cycling involves alternating between days of higher calorie intakes and lower calorie intakes.
Unlike other fad diets, there are no absurd food restrictions or strict guidelines when zig-zag dieting. Your only constraint is to stick to the number of calories you are supposed to eat that particular day.
What’s more, some research indicates that cycling your calories throughout the week (a.k.a. zig-zagging) may lead to greater weight loss than following a consistent calorie deficit each day.[1,2,3]
How Does the Zig Zag Diet Work?
The theory behind why the zig-zag diet “works better” than all other diets all centers around metabolic adaptation.
You see, the human body craves homeostasis, which means it likes the way it is and will fight like hell to say that way. This is part of the reason why it is so difficult to build muscle and lose fat.
When the body is presented with a stressor, such as a calorie deficit you adopt when trying to diet for weight loss, the body deals with this energy deficit for a time by running off of its own energy stores.
However, after a certain period of time (usually a couple of weeks), the body responds to this prolonged deficit by downregulating your metabolism, whereby you burn fewer calories per day than you normally would.
This metabolic slowing is a life-preserving mechanism enacted by your body to keep you living longer. At the same time, this lowering of metabolism also leads to weight loss plateaus, and to restart fat loss, you would either need to further reduce your calorie intake and/or increase your energy output (e.g. doing more exercise).
The rationale behind zig-zag dieting is that by alternating back and forth between high-calorie days and low-calorie days, your body never really gets adapted to one calorie intake. Right when it’s ready to downshift your metabolism to combat the chronic energy deficit, you “shock” it was a higher calorie day or two and prevent it from adapting.
Rotating between these higher and lower calorie days is believed to also help offset many of the other unwanted side effects of prolonged calorie deficits, such as:
- Decreased thyroid hormone
- Decreased testosterone levels
- Increased hunger hormones (ghrelin)
- Increased cortisol
These types of adaptation are precisely what you don’t want to occur when dieting, as they will lead to weight loss plateaus.
Now, it’s important to realize that these adaptations will eventually occur the longer you are in an energy deficit. Zig zagging your calories may just help to slow how quickly they take effect.
Are There Any Benefits to the Zig Zag Diet?
As we mentioned above, calorie cycling can help slow down the rate at which certain unwanted side effects can occur when dieting for fat loss.
It can’t prevent them entirely from happening, but you may be able to diet for a few extra weeks before these changes start occurring.
For example, one study found that having a one-week diet break (return to eating maintenance) after 8 weeks of intense diet and training helped boost testosterone levels back to normal.
Another study found that individuals who were allowed to have a 3-day refeed after 11 days of low-calorie intakes, lost more weight and experienced less metabolic adaptation than individuals who were in a continuous calorie deficit for the duration of the trial.
Essentially, the research to date shows that both continuous calorie restriction (regular dieting) and calorie cycling can be effective for losing weight. However, individuals who choose to cycle their calories may experience less metabolic adaptations, preserve more lean mass, and demonstrate better adherence.
How to Zig Zag Diet
To follow The Zig Zag Diet, you first need to know your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure), which you can do right HERE.
The second thing you need to do is figure out how aggressive of a fat loss cycle you would like to run, which basically translates to how much of a weekly energy deficit you want to follow.
Remember, the overarching principle of weight loss is that you have to be in an energy deficit long-term in order to burn excess body fat and lose weight. No amount of zig-zagging, calorie cycling, or eating magical “detox” foods will make you lose weight if you aren’t in an energy deficit.
So, while on certain days of the week you might be at maintenance, and others are less than maintenance the overarching principle is that when you take a macro view of your nutrition plan, you are consuming less energy than your body requires.
To help illustrate our point, let’s use an example where Jill Smith wants to lose one pound per week.
In order to lose one pound per week, Jill needs to have a weekly deficit of 3500 calories. Now, if Jill were following an ordinary fat loss diet, she would simply eat 500 calories less than her maintenance calories each day of the week (7 days X 500 calories = 3500 calories per week deficit).
However, Jill has tried conventional dieting in the past, and it just wasn’t her thing.
So, she wants to try the zig-zag diet.
How would her week of dieting look?
Well, that’s part of the beauty of zig-zag dieting, there are no hard and fast rules about where your high or low days go throughout the week, or how many of each you get to have. That being said, if you’re hoping to avoid ravenous hunger pangs, wild energy swings in energy, or excessive muscle loss, you’ll want to keep a couple of these tips in mind:
Perform your hardest workouts on your high-calorie days, or in the morning immediately after your higher calorie days (this way your glycogen stores are topped off, and you have ample energy for your workouts).
Make sure to consume at least 1-1.25 grams per pound of body weight of protein every day (this helps protect against excessive muscle breakdown when dieting).
The following example is a “3 on, 1 off” zig-zag diet where Jill does 3 days of lower calories followed by one day of higher calories.
So, a typical week would look a little something like this:
- Monday - Low calories
- Tuesday - Low calories
- Wednesday - Low calories
- Thursday - High calories
- Friday - Low calories
- Saturday - low calories
- Sunday - low calories
- Monday - high calories
- Etc, etc, etc
You could also experiment with a 5:2 schedule where you eat lower calorie during the five weekdays (Monday - Friday) and have two higher calories “refeed” days on the weekend.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that this zig-zag approach requires diligence on the part of the dieter as quite frequently, having higher calorie days on the weekend can result in binges where you wipe out five days of good dieting with two days of poor food choices.
Additionally, having 5 straight days of low calories may impair performance during higher-intensity workouts that take place during the week. Of course, the workaround here is to place your hardest workouts (leg day) on Saturday or Sunday when you’ve got extra fuel in your system.
However, how you choose to structure your zig-zag diet is ultimately up to you and your personal preferences. Just remember that in order to lose weight with the zig-zag diet, you must have a calorie deficit in the end.
- Davoodi SH, Ajami M, Ayatollahi SA, Dowlatshahi K, Javedan G, Pazoki-Toroudi HR. Calorie shifting diet versus calorie restriction diet: a comparative clinical trial study. Int J Prev Med. 2014;5(4):447–456.
- Muller, M. J., Enderle, J., Pourhassan, M., Braun, W., Eggeling, B., Lagerpusch, M., … Bosy-Westphal, A. (2015). Metabolic adaptation to caloric restriction and subsequent refeeding: the Minnesota Starvation Experiment revisited. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102(4), 807–819. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.109173
- Friedl, K. E., Moore, R. J., Hoyt, R. W., Marchitelli, L. J., Martinez-Lopez, L. E., & Askew, E. W. (2000). Endocrine markers of semistarvation in healthy lean men in a multistressor environment. Journal of Applied Physiology, 88(5), 1820–1830. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.2000.88.5.1820
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- Strauss, R. H., Lanese, R. R., & Malarkey, W. B. (1985). Weight loss in amateur wrestlers and its effect on serum testosterone levels. JAMA, 254(23), 3337–3338.
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- Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Vinas D, Hunger JM, Dejager J, Taylor SE. Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosom Med. 2010;72(4):357–364. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c