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What Is The Metabolic Confusion Diet And How Does It Work?

Wondering about the Metabolic Confusion Diet? Here are the pros and cons, plus whether it actually works for weight loss.

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The metabolic confusion diet is a diet plan that aims to keep your metabolism on its toes by changing up your daily calorie consumption. Proponents claim cycling between lower and higher calorie intake can reduce metabolic adaptations that occur with typical weight loss from calorie restriction

Also known as calorie cycling or calorie shifting, the metabolic confusion diet is slightly different from a typical calorie-restricted diet. Instead of following a low-calorie diet day after day, metabolic confusion alternates between higher and lower calories, either daily or weekly. Total calories for each day varies based on a person's nutritional needs but usually end up around 1200 to 1400 calories on low-calorie days and 2000-2400 on high-calorie days.

It may sound like an interesting approach and possibly work for some. Those in favor say that it helps reduce metabolic adaptations that can happen with weight loss (more on this later). It also may help someone feel less deprived on low-calorie days knowing there are days without restriction ahead.

But for many people, it's still a low-calorie diet packaged as a metabolic-boosting solution that can be difficult to maintain over a long period. And there aren't many studies specifically examining whether metabolic confusion affects metabolism at all.

Let's examine the pros and cons and what a typical plan looks like for the metabolic confusion diet.

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Does Metabolic Confusion Work For Weight Loss?

Calorie restriction will (usually) support weight loss for most people, but keeping it off is the hard part.¹ With the metabolic confusion diet, overall total caloric usually decreases. So it's likely to lead to weight loss—but will it last?

The premise behind metabolic confusion is that it "confuses" your metabolism to avoid the physiological adaptations that often accompany calorie restriction that can lead to weight regain.²

To protect itself from starvation (even if you aren't exactly starving), the body will turn certain hormones on or off that control hunger and satiety. The more weight is lost, or the lower the calories, the hungrier you feel as these hormones tap your brain and say, "Hey, you need to eat something so you don't starve. We might be in a famine." Even resting metabolic rate can slow down (how many calories you burn at rest to power organs and other essential functions) to conserve energy.³

Metabolic confusion diet proponents claim that calorie cycling helps to prevent these changes from happening because you'll never be in a long-term state of deprivation. One study from 2014 found calorie shifting supported weight and fat loss, and also helped people adhere to their diet.⁴

Unfortunately, there isn't much research beyond this study and little to suggest that someone's metabolism is "confused" by metabolic confusion. It's more likely that metabolic confusion works for weight loss because of the calorie restriction, and we don't know how well it works for long-term weight loss maintenance.

What Is A Metabolic Confusion Diet Plan?

There isn't a strict diet plan you must follow with metabolic confusion. It can include any foods you like, although it's ideal to focus on nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, protein, and healthy fats while following any diet pattern. Meal timing is also up to you as long as they fit into the calorie guidelines.

A metabolic confusion diet plan can involve a few days of low-calorie eating (around 1200-1400 calories per day) followed by several days of higher calorie intake (about 1500-2000 calories). This cycle can repeat itself with any number of low or higher-calorie eating days. 

Some people may follow a week or two of low-calorie intake, then up the calorie intake for two to three days, and then back to low-calorie. Others may follow a pattern similar to the 5:2 intermittent fasting plan, where you eat low calories for two days, followed by a five-day cycle of higher-calorie eating.⁵

Since calorie needs vary from person to person depending on age, gender, activity levels, and more, the plan may look different from one individual to another. Any diet you follow should be personalized to your needs, especially when cutting calories (going too low can backfire and put the body in a state of stress).

Check out this article for Metabolic Conditioning for Better Health.

Pros And Cons Of The Metabolic Confusion Diet

If you choose to follow any diet, metabolic confusion included, it's essential to look at the pros and cons. What works for one person may not work for another. 

Pros:

  • Intentional eating: Most people find calorie counting challenging to stick with long-term, but it may work for some people. Metabolic confusion may help people who want to count calories to stay accountable. Also, metabolic confusion requires you to plan ahead and consider what meals you'll have each day, depending on the calorie guidelines.
  • Adaptable to food preferences: No foods are off limits with metabolic confusion, so you don't have to eliminate any specific food group. As long as you stick to the metabolic cycle guidelines, you can choose to make any type of meal. Of course, food quality still matters for overall health, but metabolic confusion can be tailored to any food type you like.
  • Possibly fewer feelings of deprivation: As mentioned earlier, people who follow metabolic confusion may be less likely to overeat, as often seen with low-calorie diets, because higher-calorie days are part of the plan.

Cons:

  • Encourages calorie restriction: Since metabolic confusion requires you to cut calories for a few days, it's still a low-calorie diet. Research overwhelmingly shows that diets that only emphasize calorie restriction without working on other food or lifestyle habits can be unsustainable and lead to metabolic adaptations.⁶
  • Sustainability: Metabolic confusion works for some people in the short term, but there isn't much research to suggest metabolic confusion is sustainable long-term. It's packaged as a different kind of diet, but in reality, metabolic confusion is just another type of calorie restriction.
  • Lack of research: The only study on metabolic confusion was limited in scope. There haven't been any studies to see how long-term metabolic confusion affects weight loss or overall health, especially long-term.
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Learn More About Fitness and Healthy Habits with Signos' Expert Advice

The million-dollar question for weight loss is not just how to lose it but how to keep it off in a sustainable, non-restrictive way. 

Generally, diets that require long-term calorie counting aren't sustainable for people because calorie restriction can be challenging to maintain. Plus, it doesn't address reasons we overeat in the first place or all the emotional behaviors that may be tied to diet and food choices. 

That said, some people like a black-and-white approach. If calorie counting works for you, metabolic confusion could work as long as you don't drop calories too low for your body and (perhaps most importantly) you don't become overly obsessed with counting calories.

More than anything, achieving a healthy weight requires a plan that works for you. It's not just about your diet but your whole lifestyle, including fitness, sleep, stress levels, and more. Signos can help you find all the pieces of the puzzle to create a personalized, sustainable plan for health and fitness.

Signos uses a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to provide real-time metabolic feedback. Your CGM data helps you better understand how food, exercise, and other lifestyle factors impact your metabolic health and weight. With Signos' feedback, you can make more informed decisions about your health and fitness to remove metabolic roadblocks and reach your goals. 

Curious to learn more? Find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking this quick quiz.

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References

  1. Maclean, P. S., Bergouignan, A., Cornier, M. A., & Jackman, M. R. (2011). Biology's response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology, 301(3), R581–R600. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00755.2010
  2. Greenway F. L. (2015). Physiological adaptations to weight loss and factors favouring weight regain. International journal of obesity (2005), 39(8), 1188–1196. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2015.59
  3. Maclean, P. S., Bergouignan, A., Cornier, M. A., & Jackman, M. R. (2011). Biology's response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology, 301(3), R581–R600. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00755.2010
  4. Davoodi, S. H., Ajami, M., Ayatollahi, S. A., Dowlatshahi, K., Javedan, G., & Pazoki-Toroudi, H. R. (2014). Calorie shifting diet versus calorie restriction diet: a comparative clinical trial study. International journal of preventive medicine, 5(4), 447–456.
  5. Hajek, P., Przulj, D., Pesola, F., McRobbie, H., Peerbux, S., Phillips-Waller, A., Bisal, N., & Myers Smith, K. (2021). A randomised controlled trial of the 5:2 diet. PloS one, 16(11), e0258853. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0258853
  6. Benton, D., & Young, H. A. (2017). Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 12(5), 703–714. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617690878

About the Author

Caitlin Beale is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in acute care, integrative wellness, and clinical nutrition.
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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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