Zig Zag Diet – How To Cycle Your Calories For Weight Loss

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Almost anyone, especially trainers, who have spent anytime around the fitness world have heard the many complaints regarding weight loss. These are complaints like, “I tried everything but it doesn’t work” or ” I barely eat” or better yet, “I don’t eat at all” or “I will never be like you, it’s genetics”.

First, let me say this. Yes, genetically the women in my family tend to be smaller, however, they all watch what they eat. I have taken myself further, breaking through my supposed genetic barrier and have increased my muscle mass, lost body fat and have done it all naturally with vitamins, supplements and food.

Too often when a person seems stuck in a rut, they are closed minded and believe that weight loss is not for them. Whenever I find myself faced with this type of client, I suggest the zig zag diet approach. There still tends to be a tug-of-war. Since I am asking them to increase calorie intake (with quality food mind you) for a short time followed by a drop in calorie intake. This is called the zig zag approach. It seems these people who have claimed to have tried everything are scared to death when I tell them that they have to increase their calorie intake for a short time. They have been conditioned to believe that starvation and less food will create a lean body. Well, in actuality, it will create a flaccid body which means less lean body mass and in turn, results in a slower metabolism which aids in additional weight gain. This can carrying through teen years, young adult years and then adult hood, where as we all know, it becomes harder and harder to shed the excess weight and then the health issues start to come rushing in.

To help shed some light and look at this approach in a more scientific way, I have broken it down in the best way I can. Hopefully a better understanding will be accepted and if just one person changes their ways, then this article is not in vain.

Try This One On For Size
zig-zag-dietIn layman’s terms, low calorie diets bring about serious health issues. A low calorie diet leads to muscle breakdown, which will slow your metabolism down, and a slower metabolism will burn fat slower.

Another major issue one should consider, is during the process of muscle breakdown, due to your low calorie diet, your heart can become especially vulnerable. Your heart is a muscle, and when your body turns on itself and breaks muscle down for energy, nothing is spared, not even your heart.

Another side effect of the low calorie diet is malnourishment. Your vital organs and body systems require and rely on you to provide the necessary calories for them to function well.

How Do You Do a Zig Zag Diet?
It’s simple. You will still be eating quality foods. You just alter your calorie intake up and then down. For example:

  • Monday: 1,300 calories
  • Tuesday: 1,600 calories
  • Wednesday: 1,300 calories
  • Thursday: 1,200 calories
  • Friday: 1,600 calories
  • Saturday: 1,300 calories
  • Sunday: 1,600 calories

You can also zig zag your carbohydrate intake. One day is low carbs, the next day is moderate carbs, then the next day is high carbs. Make sure its always quality carbs though. You can add additional days to this type of zig zagging, 1-7 high and 1-3 low, however, I do not recommend you continue your low days for longer than three days. This can provoke a starvation mode, and then your body would turn on itself, break down muscle for protein and amino acids, lower your metabolism rate, and this would start a vicious cycle.

With this program (the additional days of highs and low), the concept is to prepare your metabolism, and get it speeding up, which when you start on your low days, will encourage fat loss. The advice to not go beyond the 3 low carbs days, is due to the lack of carbs. This deficit carb intake can cause your body to begin searching for energy, protein, amino acids, and will find it in the last place you wish it would, which is your lean muscle tissue!

Another approach could be changing the intensity of your workouts. Zig Zag your training. Your food intake should reflect your training. Don’t eat like a horse, if you trained like a mouse. Our bodies can only metabolize so much. Then the rest is simply stored as fat.

As you can see, when many say they have tried it all, 9 times out a 10, they simply have not. I understand the frustration. But we all need to know we are individuals and different things work for different people. The important thing is to never give up. You were not made to walk around with excess energy and that is exactly what that body fat is, excess energy. Just find a way to burn it. Turn up the notch, add an extra day, play with your calories (while still eating quality foods). Just don’t settle for “this is the way I am” because I do not believe that for one second. I have had 4 children and have been left with weight to lose, and I can say at the age of 39, I look better than when I was 25. It’s a matter of finding what works for you. Give the zig zag diet approach a try.

If you have any questions, or need help getting it started or understanding concepts better, I will whole heartily offer every bit of knowledge I have locked up in my brain. Just make sure you don’t give up. I didn’t, and let me tell you, I am happy I didn’t.

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About Author

Diane Mohlman

I'm a ISSA certified fitness trainer, specialist in performance nutrition, fitness therapy and youth fitness. I continue to educate myself on the topics of health and fitness. This industry is ever changing and new discoveries are made constantly. I have such a love for this field, and also helping people better their lives! See my profile page for more information.

19 Comments

  1. I would like to start this zig zag approach. I’ve worked out my daily consumption numbers which should be 2,400 a day. How many calories should I consume on my low and high days?

    • shapefit

      Jean – You should alter your calories by 300 under/over your daily requirement of 2,400 calories per day. So, alternate your days like this: Monday (2,100) Tuesday (2,700) and so forth. If you still have trouble losing weight after 12 weeks, then try increasing your low days to 500 calorie deficits (1,900) and see if it helps trigger weight loss.

      • Brooke Forler on

        I am 5’2″ and 115 pounds. I had a really hard time getting under 120 pounds. Now I have plateaued again. I would like to lose 5 more pounds and tone up. I have a wedding in June. I have been eating 1,200 to 1,400 calories per day. I have been working out and just started P90X two weeks ago. What would you recommend as far as calories go for a zig zag diet?

  2. I’ve been eating 1,200-1,400 calories a day and burning close to 2,100 with my calorie tracker. This has been going on for about 2 years. Initially, I lost about 25 pounds, but have put back on about 10 pounds. I am trying to re-lose that 10 pounds, but I seem to have hit a plateau and even with a low calorie diet and high exercise lifestyle I cannot seem to lose weight. I am 21, 5’7” and weigh about 145 pounds. Would it be helpful for me to start the Zig Zag approach? I am scared I will just gain weight.

    • shapefit

      Hi Caroline – I think your calorie tracker is way off if it’s reading a total of 2,100 calories burned in a single day. You will only burn about 400 calories if you’re jogging for 1 hour so you would basically need to be working out all day long in order to burn over 2,000 calories which is definitely not recommended. At your height and weight, you should be eating more than 1,400 calories per day especially if you’re working out hard. Shoot for 1,600-1,800 calories per day and try to burn about 500 calories with weight training and cardio per day. These extra calories will help jump-start your metabolism but make sure the calories come from clean food and not junk.

      • The 2,100 is a number from the calories I burn all day including sleep, so my base metabolic rate plus any extra calories burned from daily activity and exercise. Does that seem still way off?

        • shapefit

          Gotcha, that number sounds more realistic and is what is referred to as your “TDEE” (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). I ran your numbers and it looks like for your stats (age, sex, height, weight) your maintenance calories are 2,335 calories per day (moderate exercise 3-5 days per week) and 2,599 calories per day (heavy exercise 6-7 days per week). I think you should be eating more calories as recommended and make sure the quality of calories is spot-on because 100 calories of chicken breast is very different than 100 calories of chocolate cake.

  3. Thanks for writing this. I’m studying the ISSA CFT course and was curious as to what people thought about this approach and if they themselves or clients have had any success. It’s not a concept I thought a lot about until now. I’ve gone over it several times in the book and it sounds fairly simple and straight forward. I want to try it myself to get over this plateau I’ve been on for a while now. Plus, succeeding in this will give me the confidence to recommend this approach to future clients. As I’ve said, I’m just searching around to see how people feel about this approach and their success rate. So far I’ve found a couple of things that say positive things. I have yet to come across anything negative. So, that makes me feel good and confident because it does seem to be a lot for a person to eat. I can’t argue with science though and I doubt the ISSA would recommend anything less. One more question: for someone looking to lose weight and build muscle it recommends higher calories on heavier days for 2-3 days and lower calories on light and off days for 4-5 days. For example, if a client is working out 6 days a week alternating weight training days and cardio days, how would the diet work then? Would they eat higher calories on the weight training days and lower calories on cardio days or vise-versa? Your article really helped to make more sense out of this subject for me. Thanks again 🙂

    • shapefit

      Hi Bo – Thanks for your feedback and questions. Yes, your client will want to increase their overall calories on weight training days and then lower the calorie count on cardio days. It’s always better to saturate the muscles with more nutrients and calories on strength training days when muscle building and then cut back on leaner cardio days. Best of luck passing the ISSA CFT course examination.

  4. This was so helpful and informative! I just heard about the Zig Zag diet today and would like to give it a try! I started off weighing 178 pounds and I’m now weighing 167. It took me about 5 months of going to the gym and trying to lower my calories and carbohydrate intake to do so. I had to really get strict on my diet and exercise program. I put my information in on my diet tracking app and it said I should consume 1,200 calories per day. I am 25 years old, 5’6″ and 167 pounds. It once changed my calories to 1,400 and I freaked out because I didn’t understand why it went up and I’m scared to gain weight so I changed it back to 1,200 calories. Should I consume 1,200 calories per day and increase/decrease it by 300 calories? I usually workout 4-5 times a week and do 60 minutes of cardio (stairs or treadmill) and sometimes weight train although it’s been a while since I stopped and focused on cardio as I thought that would get me to burn fat quicker. I burn between 500-700 calories on the machines (per the machine’s calculations). I don’t always consume the 1,200 calories suggested by my diet tracking app.

    • ShapeFit

      Hi Kathy – First off, we recommend checking your calorie requirements using our Calories Per Day Calculator and see what it recommends for you. Take that number and focus on creating a 500 calorie deficit per day (for losing weight) which will equal 1 pound lost per week (3,500 calories in a pound). Break this 500 calorie deficit up between your food intake and exercise output (250 calorie restriction and 250 calories burned via exercise). You should also really focus more on getting your weight training workouts in along with doing cardio. Instead of 60 minutes on the cardio machine, try doing a weight lifting workout for 30 minutes and follow it up with 30 minutes of cardio. Building lean muscle mass is the key and you won’t be able to do that with cardio alone.

  5. I’m 40 and weigh 150 pounds. I want to lose 25 pounds. I was 160 and just lost 10 eating under 1,500 calories per day. I workout by running about 2 miles, 5 times a week and I also do weights and HIIT (total of 6 days per week). I want to lose at least 1.5 pounds a week which I know should be more close to 1 pound realistically because of my weight. My maintenance calories are about 2,021 per day. Can you tell me what my high and low calorie amount per day should be?

    • ShapeFit

      Hi Daysha – Your high and low calorie target numbers will be 500 over/under your maintenance calories. Since your maintenance calories are 2,021 then your high/low will be 2,521 and 1,521.

  6. I’m a bit confused with your Zig Zag calorie calculator. My maintenance calories are 1,853 per day and my goal is to lose fat. There are 3 columns: Maintain, Fat Loss and Extreme Fat Loss. If I concentrate only on fat loss, how many calories should I eat?

    • ShapeFit

      Hi Liz – When using our Zig Zag Diet Calculator and choosing the “Fat Loss” option, you will basically adjust your calories up and down during the week while not going over your maintenance calorie level of 1,853 per day. By going up and down with your calories, your body will not get used to a continuous low calorie diet which can wreak havoc on your metabolism when followed for too long. That’s why the zig zag approach works so well for a lot of people since they can go low on certain days and then increase the calories back up around their maintenance level on other days. It’s recommended to use your higher calorie days for your heavy weight training workout days (when doing legs or back) when you need those extra calories to push you through a hard workout. If you have an off day, plan on eating your lowest calories on that day since you’re not exerting yourself that much on days where you’re not working out.

      • Great! I will maintain my muscle mass zig zagging the calories through the week. I just want to burn fat and maintain mass for now. When I achieve my goal, I presume I will consume more calories over maintenance level for building muscle and then lower them below my maintenance level while keeping my metabolism going. Is this true?

        • ShapeFit

          Hi Liz – Yes, as you build more muscle your baseline calories will increase slightly due to the added lean muscle tissue you add to your physique. You can increase your calories slightly over your current maintenance level. Then you can zig zag your calories based on this new number.

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