A Flexible Approach to Weight Loss: ZigZag Calorie Cycling

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I know you’re thinking this is another diet article, but I’m not going to get all preachy about the latest weight loss “miracle.”

We all know diets don’t work.

Instead let’s talk about an old-fashioned way of eating that can help you lose weight: zigzag calorie cycling.

This approach to weight loss has been shown to be just as effective for losing weight as a traditional diet.

And it has none of the downsides like hunger pangs, cravings, mood swings and feeling deprived (not to mention boredom).

bright colored picture of healthy food on the right side with green background and unhealthy food on the left side with a bright pink background

If the idea of eating the same exact thing every day with little to no flexibility makes you want to cringe, zigzag calorie cycling may be the solution you’ve been looking for.

Almost every dieter has heard it before, “just eat less and exercise more.”

But what if you can’t?

What if the thought of eating fewer calories makes you feel anxious, or like your stomach is tying itself in knots?

Or what if working out for hours a day to burn off those pesky calories just seems impossible and daunting?

The advice that we’ve all grown up with doesn’t work for everyone.

It’s time to reevaluate how we think about food, weight loss, and healthy living.

Zigzag calorie counting is an excellent solution for people who love food and hate dieting.

In the world of zigzag dieting, you have more flexibility to eat the foods you enjoy by balancing your calories over an extended period of time rather than focusing on meeting daily calorie goals.

In theory it sounds easy enough but, is it really magic?

Let’s dive in and find out of zig zagging your calories will help you reach your body weight goals.

Why Most Conventional Diets Don’t Work

If dieting worked, then why have many of tried every diet under the sun only to be left where we started?

Most conventional diets are too extreme promising quick, often unsustainable, results.

They often restrict essential nutrients the body needs for optimal function…(hello Keto diet) making them impossible to adhere to for an extended period of time.

Learning how to balance calories in a way that allows more food freedom without cycling through periods of deprivation then binging is a skill that takes time, practice and patience but it can be done!

If you are going to do any type of food restriction, let’s make sure it is just calories and not your favorite foods or essential nutrients.

infographic of why diets don't work

Related: 58 Best Weight Loss Tips Specifically for Moms

What Are Calories Anyway?

In order to understand zig zag dieting, we need to understand exactly what a calorie is and why it matters in your efforts to lose fat or maintain your current weight.

A calorie is simply a measurement of the amount of energy needed to raise one kilogram (or liter) of water by one degree Celsius.

Essentially, it’s the measure of how much energy you get from food.

The calories you consume through food are used for energy or stored as fat depending on whether they’re needed at the time.

The problem is that many people end up consuming more calories (energy) than their body burns because they have not learned about energy balance.

This is what leads to weight gain or inability to lose weight.

How our bodies burn and store these calories gets a little too complicated for this post.

However, it is very important to understand that if your body burns more calories than you consume, weight loss is possible.

On the flip side, if your body continually burns fewer calories than consumed, weight gain is inevitable.

a green apple and donut with calorie information

How Many Calories Per Day Do I Need To Lose Weight?

If your goal is to lose weight, you simply cannot avoid monitoring your calorie intake in one way or another to ensure you are in a caloric deficit, at least in the beginning.

But how many calories does your body actually need in order to be healthy and lose weight?

There are many factors that affect how many calories your body needs but the general rule of thumb for weight loss and maintenance is that the number of calories eaten per day should match or be less than your TDEE- total daily energy expenditure.

The number of calories YOUR body needs is highly dependent on:

  • Age
  • Weight
  • Height
  • Physical activity level- this includes exercise as well as your day-to-day activity level.
  • Gender
  • Muscle mass

For example, if someone lives an active lifestyle, exercises often and has higher muscle mass, they would most likely need to consume slightly more calories per week.

However, if you are trying to lose weight, have a less active lifestyle and a higher body fat percentage, then you must consume fewer calories than your body burns so that it forces your body to burn stored calories as fuel.

There are many calorie calculators available. Here is one that I like and recommend.

infographic to show how to determine how many calories to eat every day

Related: 7 HIIT Treadmill Workouts For Serious Fat Loss – Tips And Tricks

Is Calorie Counting Really Necessary For Weight Loss?

Okay, I get it, not everyone wants to track the calories because it can be stressful, overwhelming and even feel constricting or suffocating.

However, research shows that people significantly underestimate their calories by as much as 30-50%.

This creates a HUGE barrier to why it may be difficult to lose weight.

You may think, “I’m only eating 1200 calories a day and can’t lose weight.”

When in reality, you are really eating 2000 calories or more.

infographic to show misleading portion sizes

This is why it is so important to understand the concept of energy balance, portion sizes and how many calories are in the foods you eat.

As tedious and stressful as it can feel, counting calories in some form is necessary for weight loss, whether it be through learning portion control, counting points or counting macros.

Aside from being a reliable method for losing weight, calorie counting can also help increase nutritional awareness in the foods you eat, which in my experience, may people need.

Once you have a better understanding of how many calories are actually in a candy bar or bag of chips, you will find it easier to avoid foods that contain a lot of calories but don’t do much for your hunger or satiety.

Think of calorie counting as a tool to help you learn portion sizes to help you reach your weight loss goals.

And once you feel like you have a good grasp on what portion sizes look like for you, then you can lighten up onto tracking your calories and move toward more intuitive eating.

What is ZigZag Calorie Cycling?

Zig zag dieting is an eating pattern in which you cycle your calories between high and low days in order to maintain an average calorie deficit needed to lose or maintain your weight.

Rather than consuming a set amount of calories daily, your intake alternates between high days and lower days.

This approach is the perfect alternative to traditional dieting for those looking for more flexible, sustainable and realistic weight loss options because it doesn’t require you to constantly deprive yourself of your favorite foods.

Some research has shown that the benefits of calorie cycling include:

But be warned, while this method of eating is helpful to allow more flexibility in your diet, you still need to consume fewer calories than your body burns in order to avoid weight gain or prevent weight loss.

And while zig zag dieting allows for more flexibility, it is not the green light to overindulge in unhealthy foods.

Instead, think of it as a technique to teach moderation without overconsumption.

infographic for calorie cycling for weight loss

Why Calorie Cycling Vs. Dieting?

Most diets rely on meeting daily food and calorie goals.

Each day, you eat a specific meal plan, leaving less flexibility for days when you want to enjoy different foods.

With calorie cycling, you learn to balance your food intake to accommodate those days when you may consume more calories than normal or are less active.

Think about your food intake less like a daily project and more like a weekly goal you need to meet.

Your total number of calories for weight loss is not a daily allotment that needs to be achieved by 11:59 pm then restarts the next day.

It is the total number of calories consumed over time that leads to weight loss or weight gain.

Therefore, with zig zag calorie cycling, we do not need to fixate on meeting daily calorie goals but rather weekly or even monthly totals.

Cycling your calories throughout the week allows for much more flexibility, less restriction and less deprivation than traditional dieting where you are expected to meet daily calorie goals.

Does ZigZag Calorie Counting For Weight Loss Work?

Any eating pattern that keeps you in a caloric deficit will favor weight loss.

For some, zigzag calorie counting is an excellent way to lose or maintain weight because it is much more sustainable than strict daily meal plans.

Let’s say you need an average of 1,500 calories a day on your current fat loss diet.

That’s 10,500 calories a week you get to “spend”.

Knowing this, you now have the option to be more flexible in when you chose to consume your calories.

You have the flexibility to eat more on some days if you’re feeling hungrier or had a bigger workout, and less on other days where maybe you weren’t quite as active.

Just make sure the overall weekly caloric intake hits your weekly goal.

three scales showing how to balance calories for weight loss

Won’t Skipping Meals Damage My Metabolism?

Current research shows that metabolic damage due to skipping meals is not really “a thing”. (Source)

For example. As an eating disorder survivor, I am proof that skipping meals will not damage your metabolism.

I reached unhealthy low weights by literally skipping meals.

Some people may experience metobolic adaptions to weight loss that make them slightly more resistant to fat loss.

However, current research has debunked the the starvation mode myth numerous times.

The Best Apps For Tracking Caloric Intake

It is important to note that the Food and Drug Administration allows inaccuracies of up to 20% on food labels and calorie counters.

And research shows that nutritional information for restaurants can be off my 100-300 calories per food item.

This is a HUGE discrepancy and can lead to weight gain over time or an inability to lose weight due to inaccurate calorie counting.

So what can you do?

I recommend logging your food in an app on your smartphone to give you a baseline of the types of foods you are consuming.

If you are not losing weight, then make adjustments based off of what you have been eating and see where you can reduce portion sizes.

I personally like the app “Lose It” (no affiliation) because it keeps track of your calories over the week.

Not an actual representation of the calories I eat, just an example.

Precautions to Calorie Cycling

Zig zag calorie cycling can be difficult for some, and it may not work as well if you have a history of disordered eating.

It is not an excuse to starve yourself Monday through Friday then binge on the weekends.

This is not a sustainable way of living.

Instead, it should be used as a tool to help you learn balance.

The Best Approach To Calorie Cycling For Weight Loss

There is no one definitive rule for implementing calorie cycling.

Think about your food intake less like a daily project and more like an entire week.

With that said, here are tips to help get you started.

  1. Determine how many calories you should be eating daily using the calculator above then multiply by 7 to get your weekly target.
  2. Log this information into an app on your smartphone device (I use the app “Lose It”).
  3. Start tracking your calories and monitoring your weekly status.

Some people prefer to alternate high/low-calorie days weekly.

Others prefer to lower their calories for a few weeks, then implement a few higher-calorie days for a week or two.

The best approach will be the one that fits best into YOUR lifestyle and will give you the greatest chance of sustainability.

Example Zig Zag Diet Plans

Here are two common examples of how to cycle your calories.

Keep in mind, the higher calorie days are still not an excuse for an all out binge. You still need to be mindful of how many calories you are consuming so that you can reduce calories the other days of the week.

  • Example 1
    • This accounts for higher calories on days that you are more active or days that you know you will overindulge at an event.
  • Example 2
    • This accounts for eating higher calories on the weekends. It reduces calories during the week to allow more flexibility during the weekend.
three different zigzag calorie cycles for weight loss

Is Calorie Cycling Right For you?

I personally find zig zag calorie cycling to be succesful because it feels less restrictive and stressful.

When combined with an exercise routine, calorie counting and calorie cycling is an excellent way to reach your weight loss goals.

It teaches you what works best for YOU and YOUR body without participating in crash-and-burn diets.

To get the most out of any weight loss protocol, you still need to focus on the basics including proper hydration, sleep, eating enough protein and reducing stress.

Have you tried calorie cycling before? I would love to hear how it worked for you!



Struggles of a Fit Mom uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within it’s articles. Read my  editorial process to learn more about how I fact-check and keep my content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

What is Basal Metabolic Rate. (2018, November 12). Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-basal-metabolic-rate

Normal weight men and women overestimate exercise energy expenditure. (2010, December). PubMed.Gov. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21178922/

Berardi, PhD, CSCS. (n.d.). Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The debate is finally over. Here’s who won. Precision Nutrition. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.precisionnutrition.com/calories-in-calories-out

Pierre, MS, RD. (n.d.). Can eating too little actually damage your metabolism? Precision Nutrition. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://www.precisionnutrition.com/metabolic-damage

Meal timing during alternate day fasting: Impact on body weight and cardiovascular disease risk in obese adults. (2014, September 24). Wiley Online Library. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/oby.20909

Trabulsi, Shoeller. (2001, November 1). Evaluation of dietary assessment instruments against doubly labeled water, a biomarker of habitual energy intake. Journals.Physiology. https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/ajpendo.2001.281.5.E891?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&

Calorie shifting diet versus calorie restriction diet: a comparative clinical trial study. (2014, April). Pubmed.Gov. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24829732/

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