Metabolic Confusion: What Is It and How Does It Work?

It seems like there’s always a new, trendy way to manipulate the diet that claims to help you lose weight, build muscle, and perform better in the gym. 


The problem is, it’s difficult to navigate which ones actually work. Some trends fizzle out after a couple of years, while others stick around for the long haul. 


Metabolic confusion is one diet trend that has some promising benefits. But is it too good to be true? 


In this article, we’ll go over the details of metabolic confusion, if it’s safe, and if it actually works. 

What Is Metabolic Confusion? 


To put it simply, metabolic confusion is a diet. But it’s not like typical diets that restrict calories for days or weeks at a time. This diet, which is sometimes also called “calorie shifting,” alternates the level of restriction.


On a typical diet, you stick to one calorie deficit goal over a long period of time. At some point, your metabolism adjusts and your weight loss may slow or stop. Although it’s natural, it’s also frustrating. To break this plateau, you have to adjust your diet or exercise routine so you can start losing weight again. 


In theory, metabolic confusion works kind of like intermittent fasting, keeping your metabolism on it’s toes so it doesn’t get used to your calorie deficit. “Tricking” your metabolism makes your weight loss less likely to plateau. 

Calorie Cycling


The most popular metabolic confusion strategy is to cycle your calorie deficit. Some people eat a limited amount of calories one day, followed by a day of less restriction. Others alternate the number of calories they eat on a week-by-week basis. 


Aside from keeping your metabolism guessing, there is one other major potential benefit to calorie cycling. This type of diet could be more sustainable for a lot of people. 


Why? Because you’re not feeling deprived for days on end. You have relief every other day, or every other week to keep you motivated to stick with it.  


Calorie Cycling Example:  

  • Day 1: 2000 calories
  • Day 2: 1200 calories
  • Day 3: 2000 calories
  • Day 4: 1200 calories
  • Day 6: 2000 calories
  • Day 7: 1200 calories 

Carb Cycling


Cycling carbohydrates, rather than calories, is becoming increasingly popular. The overall idea is the same, alternating “high carb” days with “moderate” and “low carb” days, with the intention of losing fat and pushing through a weight loss plateau. The downside for many people is the amount of planning that goes into it. 


Carb Cycling Schedule Example

  • Day 1: high carb
  • Day 2: high carb
  • Day 3: moderate carb
  • Day 4: moderate carb
  • Day 5: low carb
  • Day 6: low carb
  • Day 7: low carb

Usually, people eat more fat on low carb days and less fat on high carb days. Protein intake is consistent throughout the week. However, there are several methods for carb cycling depending on your training and body composition goals. You can cycle carbs daily, weekly, or even monthly.

  

Can Metabolic Confusion Help You Break A Dieting Plateau?  

It depends. 


Following a metabolic confusion diet appropriately also requires adequate exercise, and you still need to be conscious of your food choices. 


There’s no way around the fact that an overall calorie deficit determines the outcome of any diet, including this one. If you’re still consuming more calories than you burn over time, you won’t lose weight.


However, some studies do support the claim that metabolic confusion can keep your metabolism from slowing to cause a weight loss plateau. 


In one study, one group of people followed consistent calorie restriction for 42 days, while another group followed a pattern of 11 restricted days followed by 3 unrestricted days.  


The resting metabolic rate (RMR) of the calorie cycling group remained unchanged, while the group who restricted calories for 42 days experienced decreased RMR. The calorie shifting group also lost more weight. Finally, this group reported feeling less hungry and more likely to sustain the diet over a longer period of time. 


Although this study sounds promising, there is far more research that shows any kind of diet is more likely to fail than succeed in the long run. More research is needed to determine how effective metabolic confusion is to break a diet plateau. 

Other Possible Benefits


Typical diets that require endless restriction usually results in cravings and lack of satiety. Cycling your calories could help you avoid these feelings. As long as you’re not over restricting on lower calorie days, you could feel more satiated and less likely to binge.  


If you want to try a diet but need flexibility to make it work, then metabolic confusion might work for you. Having days with more leniency allows you to enjoy social gatherings and other events with less stress, since you have more freedom in your food choices. 

Things to Consider Before You Try


There’s not much research about metabolic confusion. In fact, there’s more research that suggests your metabolism is actually smarter than this method assumes.  


There isn’t any solid guidance for how to implement it either. One of the most common recommendations is to eat 2000 calories one day, and 1200 the next, which is likely too low for many people. 


There are downsides to being restrictive with your diet, even if it’s only certain days. You need to be careful with this and pay attention to how it affects your mood and energy levels. You might experience lower energy in the gym if you aren’t getting enough calories or carbs to create energy for your workouts. If you don’t get enough protein, muscle growth may slow. 


To put it simply, this is still a diet. Although you may see results, you have to take sustainability into account too. 


How likely are you to stick to something that requires tracking what you eat each day to be sure you’re cycling properly? If it’s sustainable for you, then maybe it’s worth a try. If not, it’s probably not worth the stress.