On another journey into the darkest recesses of the Internet, I came across something called the metabolic confusion diet. It’s an eating plan that claims to confuse your metabolism and keep it running faster than normal. This in turn will lead to more calories being burned and more fat being lost.
What is metabolic confusion all about? And is it really going to help you lose fat faster?
What Is Metabolic Confusion?
The metabolic confusion diet involves alternating between high- and low-calorie days. On a low day, for example, you might consume 1200 calories. On a high day, it might be somewhere in the region of 2000 calories.
The idea is that by varying your calorie intake (AKA calorie cycling), you’ll increase your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories your body burns at rest just to keep you alive), and stop yourself hitting a weight loss plateau.
From what I can tell, there are no rules for the metabolic confusion diet. You might do three high-calorie days every couple of weeks. You might have two weeks of higher calories and two weeks of lower calories. Or you might have one high-calorie day each week.
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Does Metabolic Confusion Work?
Your metabolism can certainly adapt to changes in your diet. Sensing a reduction in the availability of food, your body turns down the rate of heat production in order to conserve energy.
However, the idea that you can confuse your metabolism is complete nonsense.
In fact, research comparing continuous calorie restriction with diets that involve alternating between higher and lower calorie intakes show little difference in weight loss between the two.
In one study, a group of overweight or obese young women was assigned to either a standard or an intermittent fasting diet .
Twice a week, the fasting group reduced calories to just 25% of their daily calorie needs. On the other five days, they increased their calorie intake to the level required to maintain their weight.
Continuous dieters, on the other hand, followed a regular diet that involved restricting calories by the same amount each day.
If switching between high and low calorie intakes somehow led to metabolic confusion and a faster metabolism, you’d expect to see a faster rate of fat loss in the calorie cycling group.
But that isn’t what happened.
After six months, there was no significant difference in the amount of fat lost between the two groups.
In a follow-up trial, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared a continuous diet with one that involved cycling between high and low calorie days .
After six months, both groups of dieters had lost roughly the same amount of fat. Going from a high calorie day, to a low calorie day, to a high calorie day and so on, was no better for fat loss than continuous dieting.
The Benefits of Calorie Cycling
That’s not to say there are no benefits to calorie cycling. But the way it helps you lose weight has a lot more to do with an increase in dietary compliance than it does metabolic confusion.
For example, there was a trial published back in 2014, which compared regular calorie restriction with a calorie shifting diet .
Calorie shifting is just another term for calorie cycling. This particular variation involved 11 days of calorie restriction, followed by three days where participants were allowed to eat what they wanted.
After six weeks of dieting, there was no significant difference in the amount of fat lost between the two groups. Whether they cycled their calories or followed a regular diet, the end result was much the same.
For the next four weeks, participants were told to eat a slightly higher level of calories. The aim here was to maintain their weight. There was no calorie cycling, and both groups were told to eat the same amount each day.
During this month-long weight maintenance phase, the calorie cycling group managed to keep the weight off. Regular dieters, on the other hand, gained back 50% of the fat they’d lost.
The results also show a bigger drop in resting metabolic rate in the regular dieters compared to the calorie cycling group, which is why this study is often used to support the idea that calorie cycling protects your metabolism during weight loss.
However, the difference in resting metabolism between the two groups of dieters wasn’t sufficient to explain the lower rate of fat regain in the calorie cycling group.
Instead, it likely had more to do with improved dietary compliance than any metabolic magic.
The calorie cycling group reported feeling less hungry and more satisfied than the calorie restriction group. In addition, 14 of the 37 women in the calorie restriction group dropped out of the study. That’s more than twice the number who dropped out of the calorie cycling group.
This goes a long way towards explaining why the regular dieters gained back more of the lost weight. Being told that you can eat just 1200 calories a day for six weeks, when you’re used to eating double that amount, will invariably lead to some kind of backlash once the diet is over.
Calorie cycling, particularly when it involves ramping up your carb intake, does have a number of benefits. It gives you a mental break from the grind of dieting, you have more energy, you perform better in the gym, and you just feel a whole lot better.
However, there’s very little evidence to show that calorie cycling has any significant impact on your resting metabolism. And even if it did, the extent to which changes in metabolic rate contribute to fat loss is relatively small.
While you might find it easier to stick with a diet that involves some kind of calorie cycling, don’t expect your metabolism to change dramatically as a result.
See Also: The Flat Belly Cheat Sheet
If you want less flab and more muscle when you look down at your abs (or where they should be), check out The Flat Belly Cheat Sheet.
It's a “cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to lose your gut and get back in shape. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please enter your email address in the box below, and hit the “send it now” button.
About the Author
Christian Finn is an exercise scientist and former “trainer to the trainers” based in the UK. He holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.