Calorie cycling is yet another diet plan based on varying your calorie intake from day to day to include high and low calorie days. Whilst some followers swear by this method for continuing weight loss and to break through weight loss plateaus, is there any evidence that it works and what are the disadvantages of such a diet?
What is calorie cycling?
Calorie cycling involves varying the calories you consume on a day to day basis so that you have lower and higher calorie days. The usual method for determining the cycle is to calculate your calorie requirements for weight maintenance, then subtract around 3500 calories for a weight loss of one pound per week. You can subtract more if you wish to lose faster, but one pound per week is a healthy rate to lose at.
This final total is your calorie allowance for the week. Remember to that if you are increasing exercise, you may not need to reduce your calories so much to get the desired weight loss.
Then comes the cycling part. You need to spread your total calories over the week without going over your total allowance, but not in an equal manner. A simple way to do this is to divide your total to get calories per day and then take around 300 calories off this amount for low calories days and add 300 calories for higher days.
You can also leave a day or two at the original amount. The choice as to which days are your high calorie days and which are lower is yours. Some people choose weekends as their higher days, allowing for social activities; whilst others tend to vary with the days they exercise, eating more on work out days and less on rest days.
What is the idea behind it?
The theory behind the calorie cycling diet is that it helps to deal with the problem of the body adapting to a lower calorie diet, which is thought to result in a plateau in weight loss. The idea is that the body has a tendency towards homeostasis, and the metabolism slows down to conserve fuel for the body when less calories are consumed over a period of time. (See also: Natural ways to speed up metabolism)
If you want to lose weight, you need to consume less calories than you are burning off through normal body functions, day to day activity or exercise. Followers of the calorie cycling diet believe that a conventional low calorie diet with the same intake of calories each day may result in weight loss to begin with, but this will drop off as the body adapts to the new lower calorie intake.
With a calorie cycling diet however, you are trying to trick your body so that it does not slow down the rate of metabolism to conserve fat by including some higher calorie days.
A calorie cycling diet is also believed by some to prevent catabolism of lean tissue that can occur when a low calorie diet is followed for a long period, theoretically preserving muscle whilst still encouraging fat loss.
Is there any evidence?
There have been very few scientific studies into the effect of cycling calories on weight loss. Many followers of the diet claim it is very effective for weight loss, but without controlled studies it is impossible to say whether it is any more effective than a more conventional reduced calorie diet or as to if your metabolism is really being ‘tricked’. It is also unknown as to whether there are any other health risks or benefits associated with such a diet.
What are the benefits?
There are some benefits of this type of diet, the first being that as long as you are consuming less calories overall, it is likely to result in weight loss. Many followers also find the diet easier to stick to than other low calorie diets as they have days when they can relax a little and eat more, which can be incorporated into social events and be less of a psychological strain than following a strict diet every day.
It also forces followers to focus on their calorie intake and is therefore likely to result in more awareness of what they are eating and how many calories they are consuming. This is turn is often beneficial for weight loss.
A further benefit of this diet is that it is flexible as to the type of food eaten and does not restrict or eliminate food groups as is commonly seen in other fad diets. If the diet is followed well and attention is paid to getting a wide range of nutrients and covering all food groups, there is no reason why this cannot be a healthy diet.
What are the drawbacks?
The calorie cycling diet may not be for everyone as there are certain disadvantages that may make it difficult to follow or stick to. For some, the lower calorie days will seem too low and may result in fatigue, mood changes and lack of energy, particularly if the person is active that day. For such people, a slightly higher intake may be more appropriate spread evenly over the week.
The diet also puts a lot of emphasis on counting calories and calculating how many calories you are consuming and burning which can be time consuming, anti-social and take the pleasure out of eating and occasions that are focussed around eating.
Finally, if food intake is underestimated or the higher calorie days are seen as an excuse to eat a lot more than usual, this type of diet may not result in weight loss. The diet must be followed correctly to achieve the desired calorie deficit and an initial consultation with a dietician would be preferable to learn how to obtain maximum nutrition and reduce risk of deficiencies whilst consuming less calories.
Will you lose weight?
If your total calorie intake over the course of the week is less than required to maintain weight you are likely to lose weight with this diet. Whether it is more effective than a conventional calorie reduced diet is questionable, but if it suits you personally and you find it successful there is no reason why it shouldn’t be followed.
When starting any diet it is wise to discuss your plans with a health practitioner to determine healthy rates of weight loss, how big a calorie deficit you need to achieve this and how to get the most nutrition out of what you are eating.