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A Complete Guide To Calorie Cycling: What It Is, How To Do It, And Why You Should

First things first: if you want to figure out your own caloric needs, be sure to check out my FREE Calorie Calculator. Note that this will give you your maintenance calories, so if you have specific weight loss or weight gain goals, you’ll need to make some adjustments.

Okay, now let’s get into it…


What is Calorie Cycling?

Calorie cycling, sometimes called a zig zag diet or calorie shifting, is not really a diet at all.

Put simply, it’s a way of eating fewer calories some days, and more calories other days.

When most people set a calorie goal for themselves, they aim to eat consume the same amount of calories every single day.

With calorie cycling, you aim to hit that same calorie goal, but as your daily average. In other words: some days can be higher in calories and other days can be lower in calories, but it averages out throughout the week.

Example of calorie cycling

A calorie cycling diet has you looking at an overall week vs daily intake, giving you more leeway with your caloric intake. Think of it as a slightly more advanced way of counting calories.

It’s important to note that there is no specific weight loss benefit to calorie cycling; it’s simply a way to switch things up. At the end of the day, you will still need to be in an overall calorie deficit if you want to lose weight.

Calorie cycling alone will not provide that for you.


What’s the benefit of Calorie Cycling?

Why would you want to switch up your daily calorie intake? Well, a few reasons…


1) You find yourself getting stressed out trying to hit a specific calorie goal every day and want more flexibility.

Hitting your caloric goals perfectly

Most people end up getting really fixated on trying to hit specific calories. If they know they need to consume 2,500 calories to be in a calorie deficit, a day ending with 2,700 calories feels like a failure.

We seem to forget that calories don’t reset overnight.

That’s not to say that they necessarily “reset” after a week, but looking at the big picture of a full week makes things much, much easier. This is why I always recommend setting ranges for macronutrient goals as well!


2) You are hungrier on days when you work out.

A lot of people end up being very hungry after they exercise. If you have an intense strength training session first thing in the morning, odds are that you are going to be very hungry as the day progresses.

When you cycle your calories, you can plan to consume higher calories on a workout day and fewer calories on your rest days.


3) You want flexibility on weekends.

One of the biggest problems that people face when dieting is overeating on weekends. They “stay on track” all week long, but then the weekend hits and things change.

Between going out to dinner, hanging out with friends, parties, holidays, and more, weekends tend to come with extra calories.

Cycling your calories to be higher on weekends sets you up to be able to live your life with less stress over the weekend knowing that you are staying perfectly on track.


These are just a few reasons why you might try calorie cycling, but it doesn’t cover all of the possible reasons.

No matter what your reasoning is, it’s clear that the major benefit of cycling your calories is the flexibility it provides!


How should you cycle your calories?

Should you plan your calories ahead of time? Should you only have higher calorie days on days when you exercise? Should you be carb cycling? What about intermittent fasting?

Don’t worry, there is truly is no right or wrong way to cycle your calories, so don’t overthink it!

What is calorie cycling


Planned vs unplanned calorie cycling

So far we’ve talked about different scenarios when you might want to cycle your calories. You may want to consume more food on training days or leave yourself higher calorie days on the weekend.

But your calorie amounts don’t need to be planned ahead of time.

Personally, I love calorie cycling, but I don’t plan it out.

First, set a daily calorie goal for yourself. For example’s sake, let’s say that your goal is 2,500 calories per day.

Spread that out over a week, that means your total calorie goal for the week is 17,500 calories.

At that point, you can just go with the flow of things! If you’re not very hungry on Monday, maybe you only eat 2,000 calories. Then on Tuesday, you find yourself a bit hungrier after some exercise, so you end up eating closer to 2,700 calories.

You can keep going through the week playing it by ear, aiming to hit your total calorie goal by the end of the week.

You can overeat and still be in a deficit

When you don’t plan ahead of time, just keep in mind that you may find yourself way off when the end of the week rolls around. If you’re way under your total calorie goal, you don’t need to force-feed yourself to hit your calories. On the flip side, if you’ve gone over for the week, please don’t starve yourself when the weekend rolls around! It’s absolutely okay.

Don’t expect perfection. Caloric cycling is all about flexibility, so if the week didn’t go exactly as planned, just aim to hit those goals more accurately next week.


Carb Cycling

I often see carb cycling touted as an effective fat loss method, but it’s simply a way to calorie cycle.

Carbohydrates have caloric value (every gram of carb contains 4 calories) so when you carb cycle, you’re calorie cycling!

On a low calorie day, you’ll need to consume fewer calories overall, and those calories need to come from somewhere! Many people find that it’s easiest to remove those calories in the form of carbohydrates.

Technically speaking, carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that are non-essential. They are extremely beneficial for providing energy, but many people thrive on a ketogenic diet without any carbs at all.

Because they’re not essential, many people choose to cycle their calories in the form of carbs.

Personally, if I have any kind of calorie restriction, I remove calories in the forms of carbs. For my goals, I try to keep my protein and fat intake high, so I do not want to jeopardize those. For that reason, it’s easiest for me to cycle carbs, but it’s not necessary!

How you choose to cycle calories is up to you, and it certainly does not need to be in for the form of carbs.


Calorie cycling and intermittent fasting

What is intermittent fasting

These two methods of dieting often go hand-in-hand, so it’s worth talking about.

Now, I will admit that I do not recommend intermittent fasting for the average person. Many people find great success with it, but it’s not for everyone.

If you do choose to intermittent fast, it can work very well with calorie cycling.

To keep it simple, intermittent fasting means you fast for the majority of the day, then limit your daily calorie consumption to a small window of the day. By doing this, many people find it is harder to consume a large amount of calories, which leads them into an overall calorie deficit.

This can work well with calorie cycling by changing up your method of fasting based on the day. In other words, on a high calorie day, you may plan for a longer window of eating, and on a low calorie day, you may plan for a shorter window.


Summary: Should you cycle calories?

At the end of the day, I think most people could benefit from calorie cycling.

If you’re not into calorie counting, then certainly the idea of cycling your calories will not be appealing.

But for everyone else, specifically those on a low calorie diet hoping to lose some body fat, calorie cycling can be hugely beneficial.

Don’t get it twisted: calorie cycling is not some magical diet that will transform your body weight on its own. If you’ve been in a weight loss plateau for a while, cycling your calories is not suddenly going to provide a fix for you.

But if you find yourself getting stressed about hitting a specific calorie goal every day, or you want to be able to have a bit more flexibility in your diet, calorie cycling can be a huge help!

I talked a lot about weight loss throughout this post, but calorie cycling can be very beneficial if you’re trying to maintain your current weight or add muscle mass– it’s not exclusive to weight loss!

Personally, I apply this idea no matter what my goals are, and I find it has really helped improve my overall relationship with dieting.


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About Matt Rosenman

With over 15 years of experience in health and fitness, Matt Rosenman is the expert voice behind Matt’s philosophy is simple: no foods are off-limits, and a healthy lifestyle shouldn't be complicated or restrictive. As a former certified personal trainer with a bachelor’s degree in Health Behavioral Sciences, Matt brings well-rounded expertise to his blog. From revamping classic recipes with a nutritious twist to breaking down fast food menus, his goal is make healthy living less confusing for everyone. Featured in major publications and with a strong following on social media, Matt is committed to making “healthy” uncomplicated—no matter where you are in your health journey. Join Matt on his mission to simplify health without sacrificing flavor. Learn More