Zigzagging is the most powerful tool in your nutrition arsenal for adjusting your diet as your fitness or your goals change.
Whether you want to lose weight, gain weight, or just eat so that you perform at your best, the most effective tool to figure out how much you should be eating is known as zigzag dieting. Also referred to as “refeeding” in bodybuilding circles, it’s a technique I’ve been using for years.
Here’s how to zigzag diet: On 2-3 days of the week, eat the same number of calories you usually would. On the remaining 4-5 days, eat more (or less) calories. 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 as shown in the graph below. No matter which plan you follow, your body will tell you if it was a good idea by responding better (or worse) to your workouts. While it’s generally used to add calories (hence, “refeeding”), it works the same in both directions. Continue zigzagging up and/or down until you feel like you’re performing at your best.
How many more (or fewer) calories should you eat while zigzagging?
The bigger and more active you are, the higher number of calories you should add or subtract. Most people move in a 200-500 calories per day range (or more, as you can see in the image above, though that’s more of a deficit than I’d use unless I was well versed in it). Don’t get too caught up in the number. There’s nothing wrong with going too low, and then zigzagging again. Unlike yo-yo dieting, zigzagging won’t negatively affect your metabolism. Instead, if you pay attention to your workouts, and keep zigzagging until you’re nailing every workout, your body will respond by raising your metabolism to handle the stress and gaining or losing weight will become easier.
How zigzag dieting can break a plateau
Say, for example, you’re eating 1500 calories a day and you’ve lost weight. But, now your weight loss has stagnated. That’s 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 and your body is reacting by slowing down your metabolism and releasing cortisol in a protective response (this is often called starvation mode because this is how your body would respond to being starved).
For the sake of this example, let’s say your run a calorie calculation and determine that you need to 2500 calories per day. You don’t want to jump straight to 2500 calories. First, it would cause some shock to your system and, second, it might be inaccurate, as those calculators only give ballpark figures. The most effective thing to do is to zigzag your caloric intake. In this instance, I would recommend eating 2000 calories per day 3-4 days per week and 1500 calories on the other days. Note how your body responds. My expectation is you’d feel good on the higher calorie days and famished on the lower calorie days.
You want to be energized but not hungry and not full. So, after a week or two, bump up your calories to around 2200 calories for 4-5 days and 1500 calories on 2 days. Do this for about a week. If I’m still starving on the low days, try bumping them up to 2000 and see how you respond. 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.