Calorie Cycling: Cheating Your Way to Fat Loss
When it comes to getting lean there are some basic principles that you must adhere to. The first principle that you must adhere to is getting into a negative energy balance. In other words, you must be expending more energy than you consume through your food.
The second principle that you must keep in mind is your macronutrient ratios (percentage of protein, percentage of carbs, percentage of fats). Getting these right will help ensure optimal performance and recovery while in a state of negative energy balance.
The final principles to consider are the principles of timing and type (quality) of calories. These two principles will optimize satiety and proper micronutrient intake. You must adhere to these fundamental principles in order to get lean.
Before we get into the specifics of calorie cycling and utilizing cheat meals to accomplish your fat loss goals, we must go over if you should be performing this practice at all.
Who should employ cheat meals and calorie cycling? Anyone that is looking to maximize fat loss and also consistently applies the basic principles listed above for getting lean. If you do not have the necessary habits in place to apply these main principles you should not be implementing calorie cycling and cheat meals. Instead, you should be focusing on bringing your calories down and getting your macros in check, not worrying about calorie cycling and cheat meals.
If you have made great success so far with lowering your calorie intake and keeping your macros in check, but have stalled on fat loss, then calorie cycling might be an approach worth investigating. When you implement cheat meals and high calorie days, you trick your body into continuing to burn fat while you have are still in an overall negative energy balance. In addition, you get to enjoy some higher calorie foods that you don’t really get to eat while on a stricter diet.
MTS Nutrition CEO Marc Lobliner takes a detailed look at carb cycling.
Planned Weekly Re-feeds (AKA Cheat Meal)
Now that we have established the fundamentals of fat loss and who should and should not try calorie cycling, let’s talk about the practice of calorie cycling. This will be your ace in the hole for getting super lean.
So how does one calorie cycle? Perhaps the easiest way is to set a baseline of calorie needs and then pick one day a week where you double or triple your daily calories. For example, if your baseline calorie needs for fat-loss are 2000kcal a day you would take in between 4000-6000 calories for that day.
You increase your calories for that day with whatever type of food you like just don’t go crazy and end up over your calorie limits. To put things in perspective, a Five Guys bacon cheese burger with Cajun fries is around 1800kcal and small Brownie Batter Blizzard from Dairy Queen is almost 700kcal. So a high calorie day would have three or four regular meals and a 2000ish kcal cheat meal thrown in.
Of course you don’t have to have a cheat meal and you could attempt to take in an additional 2000-4000 kcal from your normal diet foods but, you would soon find out that you would be eating all day and most likely not enjoy it nearly as much. This is because the type of food you eat on a calorie restricted diet is lower in calorie density to help you stay fuller longer which, can make it difficult to get enough calories when you are trying to double or triple your calorie intake for a single day.
Multiple Small Weekly Re-feeds
Another option for calorie cycling for those that are against eating “junk” food would be to incorporate multiple high days during the week that don’t have quite as large of a calorie spike. When your week has many smaller calorie spikes you can simply increase your portion sizes at each meal with your normal dietary foods.
This is a viable option for those of us that can’t have a cheat meal without turning it into a cheat day or cheat weekend. A week of calorie cycling in this fashion might have two to three higher calorie days.
To determine your upper limit on your high calorie days multiply your baseline calories by 1.5. That is 3000kcals on your high calorie days with a baseline of 2000kcals per day.
The final method for calorie cycling is the most difficult and is less objective than the other two methods because you must rely on your own body’s feedback to determine when you should have a dramatic increase in calories. A great example of this is Scott Abel’s Cycle Diet.
To determine when you should have a re-feed/cheat meal with this method you must track your body’s levels of hunger, how much energy you have during the day and during workouts, and finally the level of cravings you are having day in and day out.
A great way keep track of your bio-feedback is to monitor your HEC (Hunger, Energy, Cravings) daily which will determine when you will need a high calorie day. If your hunger is through the roof, your workouts are suffering, and your cravings are becoming stronger you will know it’s time for a calorie spike. If just one part of your HEC is not optimal than you should look at other areas of your life beside your nutrition for answers, for example, did you sleep poorly that night?
Is it a high stress time at work or school? Are you bored and just looking in the refrigerator to kill time? When all three categories of your HEC are suboptimal it’s time for a high calorie day. When you use this method it is not uncommon to go up to three weeks without a high calorie day, it all depends on your training intensity and how active your lifestyle is outside of the gym.
In summary, calorie cycling can be a very powerful tool when it comes to getting super lean. There are several ways to apply calorie cycling into your fat-loss diet so start with one and stick to it for a while and see if you are getting results.
Pick one of these three methods for calorie cycling:
- Planned weekly re-feeds
- Multiple smaller re-feeds a week
- Bio-feedback monitoring
After you have tried a specific strategy long enough you can attempt another and see which method works best for you within the context of your life style and your experiences. Remember, if you are not applying the fundamentals of fat-loss nutrition do not calorie cycle.
Fat loss is a skill that you must practice and, just like in training, you must master the basics before applying any advanced techniques. Get as far as you can with the fundamentals of fat-loss before jumping into calorie cycling.