Whether you want to lose weight, gain weight, or just eat so that you perform your best, the most effective tool to figure out how much you should be eating is zig zag dieting. Also referred to as “refeeding” in bodybuilding circles, it’s a technique I’ve been using for years. I’ve written about it a ton but, since this is a weight loss series, I’m giving it a bump to ensure it’s in the line-up.
To zig-zag, you add or subtract calories a certain number of days per week, while eating the same as you’re currently eating on the others. The general practice is 4 days of change and 3 days of remaining the same, but some prefer 5 and 2, or even changing daily (image). No matter which protocol is used, your body will pretty much tell you if it was a good idea by responding better, or worse, to your workouts. While it’s generally used to add calories (thus “refeeding”), it works the same in both directions. You can continue zig-zagging up and/or down until you feel like things are right. It pretty much guarantees success.
Most people move in a 200-500 calories per day range (or more, noted by the example I picked (image) from the Internet, which is more of a deficit than I’d use unless I was well versed in it). This is both size and activity related. The bigger and more active you are, the higher number of calories you should add or subtract. Don’t get too caught up in the number. There’s nothing wrong with going too low, and then zig-zagging again. Unlike yo-yo dieting, which is binge eating/not eating, zig-zagging moves in small increments and you run no risk of negatively altering your metabolism. If you pay attention to your workouts, however, and keep trying until you’re nailing every workout, your body will respond by raising your metabolism to handle the stress and, voila!, it makes gaining or losing weight much easier.
Here’s an example of how it might work that I pulled from an old article I wrote.
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.