May 24, 2010 posted by

Zig Zag Dieting and Listening To Your Body

This is a reference post, which I’m creating because I couldn’t find this info for what I was planning on writing today. Given that we dish this advice all the time I thought we must have an FAQ about it on the Message Boards. Alas, we don’t. So instead of writing the information down over and over I’m creating a post to reference each time anyone at Beachbody refers to zig zag dieting. You hear the phase “listen to your body” all the time. Zig zag dieting actually teaches your body how to have a conversation with you.

Not to be confused with yo-yo dieting, zig zag is a technique that should be used any time you want to increase or decrease your daily caloric intake and can be used to find out what your caloric intake should be. Instead of moving straight to a new daily caloric number you move in smaller increments on a staggered schedule. Here’s an example of how it works:

Say, for example, you’re eating 1500 calories a day and have been for a period of time where you’ve lost weight. Now your weight loss has stagnated. This is one of our most common scenarios because the new, fitter you has a different body composition than the former you. You have more muscle and a higher basal metabolic rate (BMR). In order to continue your weight loss you need to eat more because 1500 calories isn’t enough—even though it once was—and now your body is reacting by slowing its metabolism and releasing cortisol in a protective response (often called starvation mode because this is how your body would respond to being starved).

At times this could be a lot more because huge caloric reductions can work in the initial stages of a program for deconditioned people. Let’s say that the individual in question runs a caloric calculation and figures they need 2,500 calories per day.

Weight times 10, plus 10-30% for daily activity depending on how active you are, plus the estimated caloric burn of your exercise, or just go here.

You don’t want to jump straight to 2500 calories. First, it would create some shock to your system and, second, it may be wrong as those calculators only give ballpark figures. The most effective thing to do is to zig zag your caloric intake. In this instance I would recommend eating 2000 calories per day for 3-4 days per week and 1500 calories the other days. Then you note how your body responds, which I would expect to be positively on the higher caloric days and by feeling famished on the low-cal days.

You want to be energized but not hungry, so after a week or two of this I would bump up to around 2200 cals for 4 or 5 days and 1500 cals on 2 days for, maybe one week. If I’m still starving on the low days try bumping them up to 2000 and see how you respond. Use this tactic until you regulate, which means that you’re energized but not hungry and also not full. You can tell when you’re eating too many calories because you’ll begin to feel full, you won’t digest your food between meals, and you’ll feel more lethargic at the beginning of workouts.

Zig zag dieting works whether you need to reduce or increase your caloric intake, and whether you need a subtle change or dramatic change. There is no numbers formula except to increase/decrease in small increments between 200 and 500 calories a day and to zig zag your caloric intake two to four times per week. Then you just listen and let your body tell you how much you should eat.


  • This is really good information, and I wish I would have had it about a week ago. I just took my calories from 1,900 (way under eating) to 2,400 and now up to 2,700 trying to find the balance between losing weight and not feeling so flat during exercises.

  • One of our first major success stories lost a bunch of weight eating 1,200cals/day. We had a very hard time convincing him to add calories but after he'd stagnated a while we got him to start zig zagging. At first he kept losing more and more weight as he added cals until he was way below his goal. He ended up getting to around 3,000 cals before he stabilized, then zig zagged to a bit above this to raise his weight to where he wanted it and to maintain it.

  • I have to admit to being very confused on this issue of caloric intake. I am a 42 year old woman with about 70 pounds to lose (I've already lost 35 with P90X). I'm eating 5-6 small meals per day and using the LiveStrong calorie counter to help keep track of what I'm eating. When I use an online calorie calculator, they always tell me I need to eat ~2400 calories just to maintain my weight! That seems a HUGE amount of calories to me. I've been eating about 1400-1500. I've never felt lethargic, never felt full, but I've also been told that I'm not eating enough. On those days that I try to eat more, I feel overfull. In fact I find it challenging to eat that much in one sitting. 2 eggs and 1/3 cup of oatmeal is a great breakfast, 3 eggs and 1/2 cup is way too much food and I feel stuffed). I'm losing weight slowly, (1 pound per week), but would like to take that to 1.5 or even 2 pounds. Is eating more really the way to go?

  • Not if you feel good and results are happening. That should always be the barometer. Once your workouts start to suffer or your results plateau it's time to re-think you diet. Not until.

  • Just when I think I start to get it all worked out I read this! :))So yeah…I have lost about 46 lbs and have just a bit left in the tank to make my midsection lean….I am at about 1,800 calories a day and starting month 2 of round 2 of Insanity. I eat 6 times a day and those meals range from 200 – 500 calories, with breakfast and dinner probably the largest meals.So if I read this right….bump it up by a couple of hundred and the fat should start falling off again right? I find myself having to force myself to eat since my stomach has shrunk I assume right?I thought I was hitting a fitness plateau, not a food plateau.

  • exactly. diet is always a moving target as your metabolic rate is always affected by your lifestyle as well as time.

  • Thanks! So is this the reason why I am having the issue of waking up after being asleep for about 3 hours hungry? I usually will go eat a banana, orange or some kind of fruit…then go back to bed and then once again I wake up hungry in about 3 hours or so….and do the same routine over. I am an early morning workout person. I am up at 5:30 hitting play with Shaun T, and usually eat around 7:30 a.m. and eat every 3 hours on average….I appreciate the response and post…I think I am getting close to figuring this out!David

  • This is obviously my biggest hurdle. I am an avid fitness enthusiast, prepping for the P90x…but the caloirc intake FREAKs ME OUT! I try very hard to maintain 1300… but do not lose weight. Very interested in thoughts. I am a female and want to remove 50 + lbs of body fat.thanks

  • Very interesting topics.I am looking this type of topics, I need more informations because everyone knows "Health is wealth" is very much known to all and everyone wants good health. That means no one wants to leave this wealth. So, Let us build a food habit discipline, keep pace with work, rest and or exercise to Achieve good health, The ultimate wealth.Our Healthier Living

  • Thanks for this post, you explained the concept really well. I will have to do that the next time I'm coming off of a diet.

  • If I'm not mistaken, I believe you are referring to the process of intermittent fasting ( I like this idea – it's like interval training your digestive system. Thanks for the info!

  • fitchica, check out our message boards where we can analyze your diet. you could be undereating leading to a state where your body is releasing corisol regularly, which is bad.

  • intermittent fasting is a different concept but also bears some merit. it's more along the lines of the abcde diet because your greatly undereating for periods. in the zag zag approach your never too far off your caloric idea unless you've done something wrong.

  • Hi Steve,Thanks for the useful article.How long can I use the zig zag dieting? Can I use it "forever" and still effective?Or should I get the average of calories per week and stick with it? e.g.: if 4 days 2500, 3 days 2250:2500×4=100002250×3=6750(10000+6750)/7=2393 or 2400 calories per day.

  • The doesn't seem to be any downside to zig zagging all the time. You should eat based on your activity level, which often changes day to day, and not just a certain number of calories anyway.

  • Steve-When I stumbled upon your blog, I was dumb founded. What you wrote about zig zagging made so much sense to me. For the last month I have increased the intensity (added Insanity to my workouts) and duration (usually do a total of 75-90 mins of exercise a day) in order to lose just 10 more lbs! The result? My scale didn't budge one single pound. So… I started zig zagging my calories the day I read this blog entry, so a week ago and the result? up 4lbs 🙁 That was doing 3 days of 2000 calories and 4 days of 1500. What the hell went wrong? I'm beyond frustrated.

  • This doesn't make any sense! Don't listen to this advice unless you wanna gain weight and fat again that you just lost!!! I always read that to lose weight you gotta eat less and less as your body gets smaller cause it needs less calories to survive, so if you aren't losing weight on 1500 calories anymore, you would try to go down to 1200 calories etc. Never heard of what you are talking about! I have to barely eat anything or like starve myself to be able to lose any weight!!

  • Shannon, Ask on the boards and we can get back to you and sort our your issue. Zig zagging is just a caloric technique and, of course, there's a lot more to your diet than calories.Pandy, I think you need to read this again because, um, I'm actually not sure what you think it's about from your response. It's about how to add or subract calories when you need to add or subtract calories. It's not about eating more unless you need to. It is certainly not making any kind of individual assessment.

  • This article addresses a problem that I haven't been able to figure out through my entire first round of P90X. Calorie calculators tell me that I need to eat about 2,800 calories to lose weight, but I've only been eating about 2,300. I thought that this problem wouldn't affect me because as a guy I eat a lot of food in a day. I've eaten the same way, 2,300 calories and a p/c/f ratio of 50/30/20 for all 90 days. Should I switch it up?

  • Caloric calculations should not be considered accurate. They should be a ballpark figure for you to start with, after which time you need to adjust based on performance and desired results. It is important not to change too often and randomly because there is some time it takes your body to adjust to any new regimen. In short, performance is the best way to gauge a diet and it's easier to do this if you're training. As long as your energized and your workouts continually get better than you're doing something right. As soon as performance falls off in any direction something needs to change.

  • I was trying to find a place to get more specific information for myself for zigzag dieting from a previous post you replied to fitchica, but I didn't have much luck .. I'm 25 years old, 148 pounds, currently doing turbofire program (week 11). I'm eating 1300 calories a day .. I am struggling trying to find how much I'm supposed to be eating exactly .. I'm guessing I'm below recommended, but there's a range of 1400-1900 which is a huge difference .. I need some help! Been stuck at about 148 for a month now.

  • Cassie, go to the nutrition area on the Message Boards (link on right) where we can get some info from you. We can set you up no problem.

  • What a great web log. I spend hours on the net reading blogs, about tons of various subjects. I have to first of all give praise to whoever created your theme and second of all to you for writing what i can only describe as an fabulous article. I honestly believe there is a skill to writing articles that only very few posses and honestly you got it. The combining of demonstrative and upper-class content is by all odds super rare with the astronomic amount of blogs on the cyberspace.

  • I am just starting this diet. It sounds very interesting. I have hit a plateau in my weight loss. I am 5'9 and weigh 135 pounds. I only want to lose five to ten more pounds. I am consuming the calories from the extreme weight loss column. I work out 4-5 times a week for an hour each time. When should this diet start working for me?

  • Hey Steve, thanks for the info. I am an avid exerciser, Insantiy mixed with some Crossfit and Kettlebell workouts. My biggest problem is finding a diet that works for me. I've tried "Slow carb" and "17 day diet" but my weight loss plateus or trampolines back up to starting weight. I currently weigh 190lbs, with a target weight of 175. I"m not great at counting calories (theres an app for that) but I'm willing to in order to lose weight. I am on the muscluar side with about 15% body fat and it just seems that my body wont lose the weight I want it too. Do you recommend this diet for someone like me ?

  • I recommend this strategy from anyone. No matter who you are it's a great way–the best the I've found, to figure out where your current caloric level should be. Plus, there are many other benefits you get by eating less at times, but that's another subject…

  • Hi!I am a 28 year old female and I'm about 5'8 and 123 pounds. I've been a "health nut" since high school (eating fresh veggies and fruits, lean protein, nonfat dairy, whole grains, and healthy fats [MUFAs]. I work out six days a week with cardio (usually rebounding on a ReboundAIR or using an elliptical) and strength straining (free weights and elastic bands).I'm happy with my current weight and feel healthy and toned. BUT, anytime I eat even SLIGHTLY above my normal caloric intake (at a special occasion, etc.), I immediately gain weight and it takes at least two weeks to get it back off (which shows that it's not just the extra food in my system for a day). I am concerned that my metabolism may have slowed and I am interested in trying the zig zag diet. However, although I keep myself well-toned, since I'm not a bodybuilder, I'm not sure what calorie range to start with? I currently eat 1600 calories per day, with four meals every four hours. I used to eat about 1700 a day and ate every 3 hours, six meals a day, BUT then a family member died and I fell out of my healthy habits for about a month and put on some weight. A friend loaned me the book "The Flat Belly Diet" and so that is what I have been using currently (hence the 1600 calories, 4 meals a day). I love the healthy fats I get to enjoy with this diet/lifestyle…but I don't know if eating every 4 hours and only 4 meals a day at 1600 calories has slowed my metabolism? I know that before when I ate six meals a day I never had a problem with gaining weight if I went out to eat once in a blue moon. I'm sorry for the wordy post! I guess to put it simply: I would like to build extra muscle tone, but don't want to gain fat by increasing my calories too much too fast. What zigzag "range" do you suggest? Thanks for any and all suggestions!

  • We should probably do a little q and a,since there are always variables. If you ask at: can do this. You can repost this but add your goals. Do you want to change weight or just change your metabolism so that you can cheat without consequences? I would recommend changing your exercise program when you begin to start zig zagging. The will help the process move quicker since your body is a creature of habit and always resists change at first. I think you zig zags are going to be pretty small but if you can create some new muscle breakdown you increase the odds of adding calories and raising your metabolism.

  • Very interesting technique.. hope to implement this zig zag dieting right away with my daily diet. Thanks

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