Calorie Cycling: What Is It and How to Get Started

Whether you’re trying to lose some weight or build muscle, calorie cycling is an eating approach that could be beneficial, and we’ll tell you why and how!

Calorie Cycling: What Is It and How to Get Started
María Rubio María Rubio
9 min read

More often than not, dieting methods and different eating approaches take a negative toll on your body, usually because they’re too restrictive. Your body needs enough complex carbs, proteins, and healthy fats to properly function, and the calories that these foods give you to get you through the day. By heavily restricting one or more of these macronutrients you might start seeing unpleasant side effects because your body is just trying to get by with what you give it, which may not be enough.

Tracking your calories and macronutrients is one way to ensure you're getting enough of the nutrients you need, but this can be overwhelming for those who find dieting extremely difficult. This is where calorie cycling can help! This is a flexible eating approach that lets your body rest after a couple of days of either eating more calories than you burn, or fewer calories than you burn. This depends on whether you’re focusing on losing weight or building muscle, so we’ll guide you through these two main focuses and how you can implement calorie cycling to reach your goals. But first, let’s talk about what calorie cycling is exactly...

What is calorie cycling?

Calorie cycling, also referred to as calorie shifting or the zig-zag diet, is an eating approach that consists of alternating between high and low (and sometimes even medium) calorie days. There are no food restrictions in calorie cycling, only keeping track of the calories and macronutrients that you consume weekly or monthly, which is why it’s not a conventional “diet”. Because of that, this approach can work for everyone, since you can implement it however it works best for you and your goals without following a strict guideline that may not be as good for your health. Instead, you’ll be mindful of the calories that you eat according to what you want to achieve by prioritizing low-calorie days (when you eat fewer calories than you burn) or high-calorie days (when you eat more calories than you burn). Medium-calorie days are days where you eat as many calories as you burn to keep a balance, and they can be implemented between high and low-calorie days for a smoother transition.

Whether you’re working towards fat loss or muscle building, calorie cycling can be modified according to your specific fitness goal. For those looking to lose some weight, prioritizing low-calorie days over high-calorie days is the way to get rid of that extra belly fat without going on an extreme diet plan or heavily restricting what you eat. On the other hand, for those looking to bulk up and gain muscle, prioritizing higher calorie days is key to making your muscles grow. However, calorie cycling isn't a magical weight loss or muscle-building technique. It's simply a great way to give yourself a bit of a break from your deficit or surplus. And remember, you should focus on getting calories from nutrient-dense foods that provide you with essential macronutrients, along with a good workout plan to effectively get you toward your goals!

Calorie cycling for weight loss

As you now know, calorie cycling is an effective method used by those who are looking to lose body fat. This is because any eating approach that involves maintaining a calorie deficit over an extended period will cause weight loss, but the key is knowing which method to follow for a better weight loss journey and not just limiting your calories and the food that you eat. The reason why calorie cycling can be better for you than other weight-loss diets that heavily restrict calories is that it is sustainable. This has been proven by several studies, such as one made by the International Journal of Preventive Medicine which compared calorie cycling vs. calorie restricting, proving that calorie cycling is more effective for weight loss and easier to stick with. [1] But... What makes it easier?

When you start following a diet, particularly one that needs you to maintain a calorie deficit for a prolonged period, your body starts undergoing metabolic and hormonal changes that are triggered by the lack of calories. Even though social media and some dieting blogs may put calories in a bad light, they’re still needed by your body to perform efficiently! They provide your body with energy to get through the day, and they help regulate your metabolism. Without enough calories and macronutrients, your metabolic rate might slow down and the lack of energy will decrease your motivation to work out or even do your daily chores, aside from making you more irritable. The idea behind calorie cycling and alternating between low and high-calorie days is to prevent the downsides of calorie restriction by giving your body a couple of days to replenish itself, a period known as “refeed” so that you can still have the benefits of a low-calorie dieting approach without the negative effects, which can be both physical and emotional. Additionally, there’s a hormone called leptin that’s in charge of regulating your fat storage by sending signals to your brain when you’ve eaten enough food. When you eat larger meals, which you’ll typically be doing on high-calorie days when you’re resting from your calorie deficit, your body increases leptin production for up to 24 hours, helping you keep satisfied for longer. This may help your body feel less hungry on your next low-calorie day, making the transition easier on your body.

How to implement it

Calorie cycling for weight loss is an approach that will take a little more time if you want to reach your goal than a traditional weight loss diet because you’ll be taking breaks from the low-calorie days. By stopping and eating more calories than you burn for a couple of days, you stop your progress, which is something that many people might not be willing to do. On the other hand, this helps you relax a little bit and feel better about your diet because you take a break from your calorie deficit, but you still need to be careful not to overindulge on your rest days. The specific approach that you take will depend on you, but the main thing that you need to know about calorie cycling is that you need to be patient so that you can reach your goals sustainably and not burn yourself up in the process, especially if you’ve tried dieting in the past and had a hard time sticking to it.

You can try the classic 5 low-calorie days and 2 high-calorie days method in which you control your portions during the first 5 days of the week and make sure to burn more than what you eat and then go higher during the other two days (usually the weekend). Now, remember medium-calorie days? This is something that you can implement on your weekends, replacing both high-calorie days so that you’re never at a calorie surplus or risking weight gain. This can help you keep progressing slowly while still taking a small break, but it’s up to you how you set this up!

Aside from that, here are two rules you should follow when implementing this method:

  1. Cycle your carbs so that you're getting most of your extra calories from them on higher-calorie days. Carb cycling involves focusing on your carb intake instead of only calories. This method seems to work better for fat loss because you'll need more carbohydrates on your training days than your non-training days. Plus, it's the macronutrients that positively affect hormone levels and ease the adverse effects of calorie restriction.
  2. Eat at maintenance for 2-3 days per week. This will help your body adjust to the shift in calories and nutrients. A single high calorie, high carb day isn't going to have a huge impact on your hormone levels. It'll take time for your brain to recognize what's happening and adapt to the changes.

Calorie cycling for muscle gain

While calorie cycling can be beneficial for muscle gain, it’s not the best option for those who are just starting their muscle-building journey compared to those who are looking to lose body weight and can do calorie cycling regardless of how much progress they’ve made. This is because it’s easier for beginners to build muscle at first since there’s still a long way to go, so alternating between high and low-calorie days might actually slow down your progress on your lower-calorie days. By keeping a healthy diet with a high protein and carb intake, as well as a moderate intake of healthy fats, you can make quick progress with the right workout routine.

Now, if you’re already in an advanced bodybuilding stage and your progress starts to slow down because you’re already reaching most of the strength and size possible for your body, then calorie cycling might be a great option for you. The idea behind calorie cycling for muscle mass gain is bulking up with a minimal fat gain by introducing a low-calorie phase to your diet since you don’t need as many calories to make progress when you’re already at an advanced stage of your physical fitness. This allows you to stay relatively lean and build muscle at the same time without going through a cutting phase to manage your body fat levels – at least not for a while! For women, staying lean while bulking means having around 20-22% body fat, while for men this looks like 10-12% body fat that you’re working to maintain.

How to implement it

If you’re an advanced weightlifter looking to lean bulk, then the usual recommendation is to maintain a slight calorie surplus of around 10% more than what you burn daily. With a calorie cycling approach, this can look like 5 high-calorie days and two low-calorie or medium-calorie days as a resting phase. Since weightlifters usually work out 5 days a week and then rest for the weekend, indulging in those two resting days is common, and that might be hard if you need to watch your caloric intake on those days too. This can make your calorie cycling difficult and even frustrating, but you can modify this to better fit your schedule by doing 6 high-calorie days and just one low-calorie day in which you’re mindful of what you eat, for example, so that you still get to enjoy your weekends.

You can even go the other way and try 4 high-calorie days and 3 low-calorie days if you want to prioritize the lean part a little bit more since you’ve already bulked up a lot by now. Now, this is not to say that you can’t try this calorie-shifting diet if you’re a beginner, but as we previously said, taking a break from your high-calorie diet isn’t necessary when you’re first starting to build muscle. You can still try this approach if you want to build muscle slowly while watching your weight, but keep in mind that you usually need to pick between bulking and cutting if you want to actually make progress, so try to prioritize one or the other, at least in the beginning. Muscle growth takes place over a few days, not just at the moment of your workout, so you need to focus on a healthy calorie-dense diet that is high in protein and carbs if you want to make sure that you’re giving your body what it needs to build your desired muscle.

Something to keep in mind when calorie cycling for both muscle gain and weight loss is that you need to pay close attention to your daily calorie intake for it to work effectively. If you’ve never been on a diet or kept track of your calories before, calorie cycling might be a little confusing and complex at first, but it’s not impossible! To make it easier for you, in the long run, make sure to have a meal plan ready for your week instead of trying to think of what you’re going to eat on the spot every day. This will help you organize yourself and make the process more enjoyable since you won’t be struggling to burn those last few calories or reach a calorie surplus at the very end of the day.

This information can help you get on track to reach your goals, but don’t forget that everyone’s different and we all have different bodies! Just because other dieters eat X calories and burn Y calories in one day doesn’t mean that that’s the exact number for you since it varies from person to person. Eating approaches are not universal, so make sure you understand your body composition and needs first! If you want to know the number of calories and macros you should eat daily for your goals, use our Fit With Iulia Macro Calculator. By answering a few questions about yourself, such as your age, physical activity level, and weight, we can give you nearly perfect target macros that will help you reach your goals effectively and improve your overall health and wellness since you'll be focusing on macronutrients on top of calories!

And if you want help keeping track of your food intake as well as your workouts, check out the Fit With Iulia app! The app has a Kitchen feature that lets you keep a record of your daily meals, allowing you to pick from an expansive food library the quantities that you’re eating so that you can get an accurate amount of calories and make sure that you’re either burning more or less than that, depending on your current goals. You can download the Fit With Iulia app and complete a 5-day assessment in which you log all your meals so we can calculate your calories and macros for you, or just enter your Macro Calculator results so you can start tracking right away!