Calorie Cycling For Fat Loss

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You crush your fat loss diet during the week, hit your macros, and hit all of your workouts.

Then the weekend comes around and you are out of your routine and all hell breaks loose.

One thing I have picked up on in my experience coaching clients with their nutrition is that the weekends are an absolute fat loss progress killer.

It makes sense, you are out of your normal routine, you are tired from the week, you have parties, you have friends to see, so the last thing you want to think about is your nutrition.

While you need to enjoy these things, if you have a certain goal, then you still need to have some structure on the weekends in order to reach those goals. Those times where you just “let loose” are what destroy your progress.

One strategy that I have been implementing with online clients is calorie cycling.

Calorie cycling is a style of dieting that calls for some lower days and higher days for calories.

At the end of the day, what you do on a week-long time scale is more important than what you do day to day.

What I mean by that is if your average calories over 7 days puts you at a deficit, then you are good to go.

Maybe one day you overate slightly, then one day during the week maybe you eat a little less.

Sometimes clients focus too much on the day to day.

The cool thing about fat loss is that you can have some variability in your calorie intake from day to day, so long as the average for the week puts you into an energy deficit, as I mentioned earlier.

Building phases don’t offer as much flexibility, and having each day look fairly similar calorie wise is more important during this phase.

What this means is that when you are in a maintenance phase or a fat loss phase you can have a good amount of flexibility day to day in your caloric intake.

This can be helpful if you like to go out and do things from time to time (which who doesnt?).

A study by Campbell had 2 groups of trained men and women cut for 7 weeks with the same weekly average energy deficit and macros, either with a continuous daily 25% energy deficit or 5 days of a 35% energy deficit followed by 2 days of maintenance energy intake. During the 2 higher calorie days, all extra energy intake was instructed to come from carbs.

They found that there was no difference in body composition between the groups and they both saw the same amount of fat loss.

This shows that taking 1-2 days at a higher calorie amount yields the same results as keeping your calories the same so long as the weekly average caloric amount is the same.

Lets dive into how to set up calorie cycling.

How to calorie cycle

Lets say 2,000 calories puts you into a deficit, but you are struggling with overeating on the weekend or a particular night of the week.

There are few different strategies that we would implement with clients:

6/1 approach: 6 days lower/one day high.

2,000x 7 = 14,000 calories for the week. This means your overall caloric intake for the week is 14,000.

Let’s say on Saturday you want to have more wiggle room because you go out on date night with your significant other and you don’t want to skip it.

You decide 2,600 calories is plenty.

Then you would subtract 2,600 from 14,000 which = 11,400.

Then you would do 11,400/6= 1,900 calories 6 days per week.

Therefore you could do something like this:

Mon-Friday: 1,900 calories
Sat: 2,600 calories
Sun: 1,900 calories

An extra 700 calories can be a big difference when you go out, not to mention if you manage your day leading up you can really enjoy a night out.

You could do a 5/2 approach as well:

A 5/2 approach would be 5 low days, and 2 high days.

2,600 both weekend days (or any other day of the week) = 5,200 . 14,000 -5,200 = 8,800.

8,800/5= 1,760 calories 5 days per week.

This gives you even more flexibility on the week.

It would look something like this:

Monday-Thursday: 1,760 calories
Friday: 2,600 calories
Saturday: 1,760 calories
Sunday: 2,600 calories

Potentially a 4/3 approach:

One that isn’t as popular and would be much tougher to pull off is the 4/3 approach. However, you can still make this work.

In saying that, if you need 3 days off of your diet then maybe fat loss isn’t the greatest goal for you at the time.

Maybe you want to do 2,400 3x per week.

2,400 x3 = 7,200 calories.

7,200 – 14,000= 6,800.

6,800/ 4= 1,700 for 4 days.

So it may look like this:

Mon-Wed: 1,700 calories
Thur: 2,400 calories
Friday: 1,700 calories
Sat-Sun: 2,400 calories

These are the 3 strategies you could implement.

Now lets go over some important things to keep in mind when setting up calorie cycling.

  1. Make sure your protein stays the same all 7 days. Aim for around 1g per lb of bodyweight.

During fat loss we risk losing lean body mass, particularly muscle, therefore we want to do whatever we can to maintain it, and a higher protein intake is one way.

On your low calorie days it will be tempting to want to go lower protein, however its very important you keep protein intake stable throughout the week Not only for maintenance of muscle, but it also helps with satiety.

  1. Pay attention to hunger/cravings following the higher days.

One downside to this method is that it may cause in increase in hunger and cravings the following day. Especially if you eat a little more calorie dense type foods on you higher calorie days.

Pay attention to this the following day. If you find that your hunger and cravings are just too much too handle then calorie cycling may not be for you and you would be much better keeping calories stable throughout the week during your fat loss phase.

  1. Keep activity levels high throughout. Aim for around 10k per day.

Being more active not only burns more calories throughout the day, but those who are more active tend to regulate their appetite better than those who are sedentary. Therefore one way to mitigate the potential hunger and cravings the following day is to increase your activity levels through something like a step tracker.

There is no magic step number, but aiming for around 10k seems to be best for fat loss.

  1. There are no special fat loss benefits to this. Having 1-2 higher days can be great mentally during a fat loss phase.

As mentioned earlier, there are no special fat loss benefits to calorie cycling other than it may provide better adherence for some people. There might be some minor physiological benefits, but these have yet to be proven by the research, whereas the research mostly shows psychological benefits.

  1. Might be best to have tough training sessions on higher calorie days.

Lastly, it might be wise to have your higher calorie days on your tough weight training sessions, as this will give you more energy to perform well in your workouts, which during a fat loss phase performance can suffer due to less energy being consumed.

Extra Credit

To really nail this down read over this blog that goes over how to manage a night out and still stay on track.

If you need more help setting up a calorie cycling plan or you just need more structure/accountability then fill out the link here to find out more about our online coaching service.

References:

Campbell et al. 2020. Intermittent Energy Restriction Attenuates the Loss of Fat Free Mass in Resistance Trained Individuals. A Randomized Controlled Trial. J. Funct. Morphol. Kinesiol. 2020, 5(1), 19; https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk5010019

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