This article is a little complicated, so only dig into this if you are ready to BRING IT on the nutrition! Whatever your goals, this culmination of my research over the past few months may take your (and my) nutrition to the next level! It’s long, but it’s a good read (and I’m not just saying that because I wrote it!)
What is Zig Zag Dieting, and is it a good thing? It’s something I’ve been studying a lot lately, and I’m actually using this technique myself right now as I prepare for the upcoming P90X2 video shoot on March 9th. I have one month to lose some body fat, but I want to keep every ounce of muscle mass that I’ve gained, and I need to stay strong and fully energized to work out at my peak potential. I can’t afford to run a large calorie deficit like I did in Round 1 — sure that would burn body fat, but it will leave me fatigued and less than my best.
Now before I get too far into explaining the Zig Zag diet technique and how you can use it to meet your goals, it’s important that you already have a solid understanding of the P90X nutrition guide, your calorie goals, how to track your nutrition, and what foods will make up your diet. If you don’t have those fundamentals, you won’t be able to effectively use zig zag dieting. So if that’s you, start here with my summary of THE NUTRITION GUIDE. Also read my article about NUTRITION TRACKING and the “related articles” as well.
From what I’ve studied about the zig zag technique, it actually allows a person to lose body fat as quickly (if not more so) than a straight calorie deficit. Yet it preserves muscle mass better and keeps the metabolism higher. These are all very good things! And I’m actually very high on this technique (I wish I would have found out about it sooner!)
And for those of you in a plateau on your weight loss, this could be the perfect remedy for you. Even if you’re successful at losing a few pounds when you first start the program, your body often reacts by adjusting your energy expenditure in order to revert to your previous weight, known as your “setpoint.” Basically, you metabolism shifts –at a lower weight, you will burn less energy throughout the day, while at a higher weight you will burn more in an effort by your body to return to that setpoint. When your body wants to return to your setpoint, you jolt it with a surplus of calories to surprise it and alter it’s response. Try using this strategy and see what happens with your body fat and weight. I suspect you will break out of that plateau! This is like muscle confusion for your metabolism!
So how exactly does Zig Zagging work?
1) First, you need to determine your target calorie level. For my round 1, this would have been about 2,000 (since I was looking to lose a lot of body fat and run a calorie deficit). For subsequent weight maintenance, this would be 3,000 calories in my case (I know this because for 6 months — Round 2 and 3 — I consumed 3,000 calories per day and my weight remained constant). So each of you needs to pick your calorie target to either lose, maintain, or gain weight.
2) Second, you need to plan your meals. You need to eat at least 5-6 meals per day. Always eat at least 5 meals a day (preferably 6). Two or three meals simply isn’t often enough. Your blood sugar levels will be controlled (and thus your cravings), you’ll get protein in small amounts throughout the day to support growth and recovery, and (most important) the enzymes that store fat will be produced in far smaller amounts, making your body far less capable of storing fat!
Simply, by providing your body with a consistent and frequent supply of calories, its need to store fat is significantly reduced. Conversely, when you eat infrequently, your body’s enzymes are produced in large quantities to hoard every calorie you consume in those big, infrequent meals (in order to “tide you over” until you eat again several hours later). This is not the scenario we want!
3) Determine your zig zag strategy. No, your “high day” is not a CHEAT DAY!!! No, you can’t have a cheat meal and call it good!! The higher calorie days MUST be accomplished by eating the same super clean, super healthy foods, just in slightly higher portions, evenly distributed throughout the day. Usually the range for high and low days is plus or minus 300-500. In other words, if your calorie target is 2,000, you can use 1700 calories for your “low days” and 2300 for your “high days”, or you can go with 1500 for your low days and 2500 for your high days. Don’t go beyond a 500 calorie swing from your target calorie level. And if you are running on a +300 calorie swing for your high day, that means each meal and snack will be roughly 50 more calories. It does NOT mean you get to eat a huge dinner! That’s not the point! For my zig zag month, I will be running a 200 calorie deficit on my low days and a 300 calorie surplus on my high days.
4) Determine your zig zag schedule. There are lots of variations here. Some do 3 low days, then 1 high. Some do 5 low days, then 2 high. Some switch it up and do 3 low days, 1 high for a couple weeks, then go 5 low, 2 high for a couple weeks, and so forth. For my 1 month trial with this, I will be using 3 low, 2 high (since I’m wanting to stay balanced on overall weight — I will be at a 200 calorie deficit for 3 days, then a 300 calorie surplus for 2 days — thus they equal each other out and I stay on my 3,000 average).
If you are looking to use the zig zag technique as part of losing body fat, here’s some rules of thumb:
- Select a calorie target that will help you lose body fat (anywhere from 600 – 1000 below your daily caloric requirement). This will be your baseline.
- You will do more “low days” than “high days” (perhaps 3 low and 1 high, or 5 low and 2 high).
- This caloric reduction should be applied to all of your 5-6 meals; NEVER skip meals!
- For example, assuming that you weight 150 pounds, you choose a 300 calorie zig zag reduction from your target calorie level, and you’re eating 5 meals per day = on your low day you should reduce each meal by 60 calories (total of 300 calories reduction over a full day).
- And of course remember to ensure that you’re getting enough calories to put on lean muscle, and that upward BMR adjustments are being made (called “zigzag dieting”).
Also, you will not gain any weight on the high calorie days as long as you keep doing cardio workouts. This zig zag approach keeps your metabolism revved up at all times. Before your metabolism slows down in response to the low calorie days, you go right back to the high calorie day to rev it back up again, and you have constant fat loss and muscle maintenance. Your muscles will still have glycogen in them through out the “low” days, which is the main key factor when it comes to maintaining muscle.
If you are looking to use the zig zag technique as part of gaining muscle mass, here’s some rules of thumb:
- Select a calorie target that will help you gain mass (anywhere from 300-600 calories above your daily caloric needs). This target will be your baseline.
- You will do more high days than low days (perhaps 3 high, 1 low, or 5 high, 2 low).
- Spread these added calories equally among 5-6 meals per day.
- For example, a 150 pound person with a 300 calorie zig zag strategy and 5 meals per day will add about a 60 calorie increase per meal.
- The additional 300 calories will, with intense weight training, result in lean muscle gains, but not gains in body fat.
- The “low days” will ensure that excess fat is being removed, even while you are building muscle mass.
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