Calorie cycling is a dieting technique that involves cycling between lower calorie and higher calorie periods. Our bodies are designed to protect us from losing the vital nutrients they need. So, when you reduce your calories your metabolism slows down, as the body sees the reduction in calories as a threat against its survival. This is your body’s way of protecting itself from starvation, and which is the reason why many will start to lose weight on a low-calorie diet but then plateau.
When calorie cycling you will alternate between high, medium, and low-calorie days. The basic principles are as follows:
- On high calorie days you consume more calories than you burn (around 10% surplus above maintenance)
- On medium calorie days you consume as many calories as you burn (maintenance)
- On low calorie days you consume fewer calories than you burn (around 20% below maintenance)
Calorie cycling is not only helpful in overcoming the weight-loss plateau, but increases your ability to stick to a diet, as you’re less likely to feel restricted and binge. It gives you a mental break and allows for more flexibility when dieting. Calorie cycling should result in less hunger and a reduction in the negative hormonal adaptations surrounding a traditional weight-loss diet.
It is thought that hunter-gatherers may have had a similar eating pattern, as food was not always available, depending on the season and success of their hunting efforts. If the body goes for long periods of calorie restriction, it will metabolically adapt to preserve energy. These adaptations include a decrease in thyroid hormone, increased cortisol (the stress hormone) and a decrease in leptin (the hunger hormone that tells your brain when you are full and to stop eating).
On a day-to-day basis, leptin rises and falls depending on your calorie intake. However, in the long term, leptin changes based on your body fat percentage. When your body fat percentage is high, so are your leptin levels, and your brain responds to this by boosting fullness after eating, metabolic rate and physical activity.
There are many ways of calorie cycling. If your goal is to lose fat, you could maintain a calorie deficit for five days a week, and then have two maintenance higher calorie days, known as ‘refeed days.’ This can also help with muscle retention when dieting. However, if your goal is solely to gain muscle you could reverse this, with the lower calorie days helping to combat any fat gain. You can adjust the balance between higher and lower calorie days dependent on what works best for you.