Misinformation about diets abounds in the media, so it’s common to be confused about what actually works for weight loss. Some sources suggest a specific type of confusion may be good—aka a metabolic confusion diet—but others doubt whether “tricking your metabolism” really works.
Hungry for the truth? Keep reading to discover the details about a metabolism confusion diet, including healthful tips for using metabolic confusion for weight loss and creating a well-balanced metabolic confusion meal plan.
What Is Metabolic Confusion?
As the name suggests, metabolic confusion is based on the idea that you can “trick” or “confuse” your metabolism to become faster. Those with quicker metabolisms, such as athletes, may be able to lose weight (and keep it off) more easily. In essence, proponents of this diet claim it kicks your metabolism into a higher gear.
The metabolic confusion diet is an eating pattern or style where the amount of calories eaten alternates, meaning there are high- and low-calorie intake days. It’s also known as calorie cycling or calorie shifting, names more commonly used in scientific studies.
Cycling or shifting the number of calories is thought to confuse the body just enough to skip the typical slowing of the metabolism seen in other types of low-calorie diets.
Metabolic Confusion Diet: The Details
Although the metabolic confusion diet can look different for everyone, the basic pattern remains the same. There are days of low-caloric intake followed by high-calorie days or your regular intake. It’s similar to many intermittent fasting or alternate-day fasting diets, where a normal number of calories is eaten for a period of time, followed by a few days of severe restriction (fasting).
Although formal guidelines lack, many metabolic confusion meal plans suggest having a 1,200-1,400 calorie limit on lower days and a 1,500-2000 calorie limit on higher days. At first glance, this may make sense and seem like a sort of “magic combination” for weight loss. However, upon closer inspection, this eating pattern is technically still a type of calorie restriction diet that won’t be right for everyone.
The metabolic confusion diet is often aimed at people experiencing weight loss plateaus or periods where it seems like weight won’t budge, even though weight loss efforts—like proper diet and exercise—are kept consistent. It’s often suggested for individuals who have difficulty losing weight after trying other methods, but its safety and efficacy have yet to be proven.
Benefits of the Metabolism Confusion Diet
Although “confusion” doesn’t usually have a positive connotation, the metabolic confusion diet has perks.
Leaves Room for Flexibility
No strict guidelines exist, making this diet hard to study in a scientific setting or difficult to follow for some individuals who prefer more stringent diet rules. However, this lack of guidelines is a clear advantage for many, allowing for more flexibility. In fact, its flexibility is thought to be a key part of the reported successes.
The metabolic confusion diet mimics their natural eating style for some individuals—where more is eaten on some days and less food on others—due to various factors, including busy schedules and exercise patterns. And since eating the same number of calories daily can be challenging, this sort of flexibility makes sense.
Since aspects of the diet (like meal timing) are left up to the dieter’s discretion, the metabolic confusion diet may help an avid dieter avoid the feelings of failure that follow a typical diet. It’s also well-liked from a social standpoint since the eating pattern has no “rules” regarding what or how to eat in a social situation.
Even the diet setup is flexible since the individual can choose to alternate calorie amounts from day to day, week to week, month by month, or any interval in between. Some dieters try an every-other-day eating pattern, while others embrace two weeks of high-calorie eating followed by two weeks of low-calorie eating.
There are even more relaxed approaches—like letting activity levels determine calorie intake or simply limiting oneself to one or two “cheat meal days” where you can eat what you want before returning to a low-calorie eating pattern the other days of the week.
Less Restrictive Than Typical Diets
Calorie-shifting diets may be less restrictive than typical diets, which primarily recommend calorie restriction (low-calorie diets). This is considered one of the main perks and tenets of the diet since it allows the body “breaks” between periods of relative deprivation, which can be a key mental and emotional factor for many people. For example, the diet makes room for a high-carb day if that feels right for you at the moment.
For this reason, some experts argue it’s actually more sustainable in the long term than other popular low-calorie diets. Some studies even suggest increased adherence, which is a fancier way of saying that dieters may be more likely to “stick with it” in the long run.
Another reason the metabolic confusion diet may be worth considering is that, unlike some strict diets, it doesn’t actually eliminate certain foods or entire food groups. It also doesn’t heavily rely on a handful of specific foods to provide nutrition. This opens it up to eaters with different food preferences or needs, such as individuals who need to eat gluten-free. In short,
May Make You More Mindful
For some food favorites (like fried foods or sweets), it’s easy to overindulge. Tracking calories on a metabolic confusion diet may help make you more mindful of how many calories you consume and principles like portion control.
With a more lenient plan, it’s believed that the metabolic confusion pattern may also promote intuitive eating. This type of mindful eating encourages individuals to pay attention to internal hunger cues to guide intake. If you’re letting your body’s “messages” determine which days are high-calorie and which days are low, metabolic confusion may actually be a way to honor your innate sense of hunger, fullness, and cravings.
It’s important to note that this approach only works if it promotes a healthy relationship with your body and food. While some people genuinely claim to feel more full or satisfied with less food while following a metabolic confusion eating pattern, it may not be the right fit for others (especially those prone to eating disorders or deprivation).
So instead of trying to fit the mold of a metabolic confusion diet, you may want to work from an intuitive eating standpoint first to ensure you’re listening to your body.
Risks of the Metabolism Confusion Diet
Like other diet plans that involve periods of deprivation, metabolic confusion does come with significant risks. The biggest red flag? There isn’t much evidence to back it up.
The Science Isn’t There Yet
As mentioned above, there aren’t enough studies to prove that a metabolic confusion diet works or if it is safe to recommend to certain populations. In other words, there really isn’t a scientific basis for suggesting alternating high- and low-calorie periods for weight loss.
In fact, existing studies suggest that long term (around a year of following this diet), there aren’t significant drops in weight. Basically, the metabolic confusion diet is considered no more effective than any other diet from a weight loss standpoint in the long run.
Restriction May Lead to a Slower Metabolism
Periods of caloric restriction can make the body’s metabolism prone to slowing down, especially if the calorie restriction is drastic and long-lasting. This phenomenon is often called the body going into “survival mode,” a status when weight loss isn’t the body’s top priority and it’s simply using the calories for energy to carry out critical functions.
This diet can still be considered dangerous even if you alternate very low-calorie days with higher-calorie days. Beyond ultimately slowing metabolism and making weight loss more difficult, depriving your body of needed calories can impact the body negatively, such as affecting hormonal health and brain function.
May Promote Disordered Eating Patterns
The low-to-high pattern of metabolic confusion can be a sort of “gateway” diet for those prone to yo-yo dieting, a type of weight cycling where the weight goes up and down (like a yo-yo). In other words, weight is lost and regained, whether unintentionally or intentionally, over and over again. It’s a dangerous cycle that has even been tied to increasing the risk of serious conditions like heart disease.
Since the metabolic confusion follows a sort of back-and-forth style, it’s easy to see how it could get out of hand. With a lack of long-term studies, some experts suggest that this eating pattern could ultimately be linked to a poor quality of life.
It’s also all too easy to take metabolic confusion to the extreme. Eating fewer than 1,200 calories per day as an adult could have serious consequences for body function, especially if the foods you select aren’t nutrient-dense. Since everybody is different, if the meal plan isn’t designed by a dietitian who has taken personalized measurements and health histories, it may not contain the necessary number of calories and nutrients that you need.
May Not Be Predictable or Sustainable
While metabolic confusion is generally considered more sustainable than severe calorie restriction, it’s still not a sustainable eating pattern. As mentioned, there’s a severe lack of scientific evidence on the subject, which makes it difficult to predict possible health outcomes. And since everyone’s body is different, it’s impossible to envision exactly how the body will respond in a given situation.
All this to say, the metabolic confusion diet may backfire on you. If you try metabolic confusion expecting weight loss, your body may not “adapt” as you expect. If the deprivation on your low-calorie days is enough to send your body into “survival mode,” you could actually gain weight!
Dangerous for Diabetics and Other Special Populations
Speaking of predictability, the metabolic confusion diet may be dangerous for those with diabetes (a metabolic disease). Shifting the number of calories and the intake of nutrients each day can disrupt blood sugar in a bad way, making it difficult to administer life-saving medications like insulin properly.
This type of diet can also be dangerous for other special vulnerable or other populations. For example, shifting calories in an extreme way may not be appropriate for children, pregnant women, or older adults.
Doesn’t Focus on Nutrition
One of the most concerning aspects of this eating pattern is that it doesn’t necessarily focus on nutrients. Instead, it focuses on the amount of calories, meaning the emphasis on healthy eating may be shifted from quality to quantity.
Under the guise of metabolic confusion, one could justify eating nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods on a high-calorie day because they fit into their overall eating schedule. This eating pattern also doesn’t protect against nutrient deficiencies, which can impact health in a big way.
Metabolic Confusion for Weight Loss
The question remains: does metabolic confusion work if you want to burn more calories? Most studies looking into metabolic confusion suggest that there aren’t significant changes to resting metabolic rate (the number of calories burned at rest).
Essentially, following a metabolic confusion diet doesn’t guarantee that your metabolism will “reset” or that you will lose weight from changing your diet alone. Most restrictive diets don’t work in the long term, and individuals who follow these fad diets ultimately regain weight.
However, some principles of the metabolic confusion diet may help contribute to your fat loss efforts. For example, on a calorie-shifting diet, you may experience less hunger and increased meal satisfaction, even on lower-calorie days. It’s important to be patient if you’re expecting these effects— it’s often reported that this occurs after the 4-week mark.
Additionally, some studies show that a calorie-shifting diet may benefit related health markers and weight. For example, reducing total cholesterol and lowering triglycerides on a calorie-shifting diet may be possible. Without many studies to ensure this outcome, eating a well-balanced diet and exercising regularly is still considered the best way to promote healthy weight loss.
Metabolic Confusion Meal Plan
After weighing the risks and benefits, you may want to try out a metabolic confusion diet plan. The good news is that there is a way to embrace the principles of this diet in a healthy way.
First Step: Pick Your Plan & Individualize It
As a first step, you’ll want to decide on a pattern that works for your lifestyle. Two common patterns are the every-other-day approach (Monday low, Tuesday high, Wednesday low, and so on) and the 5:2 approach (5 weekdays low, 2 weekend days high). Lots of different patterns exist, so you can play around with a few potential options until you find one that fits factors like your lifestyle and activity levels.
During this step, it’s important to establish some level of flexibility for when things go “wrong.” It’s okay if every day doesn’t go as planned, especially if you’re eating intuitively, which honors your body’s natural hunger and satiety signals. On these days, missing the mark on your initial goals can still be seen as a win! Try to measure the success of this plan by looking at how it ultimately makes you feel about your relationship with food and your body, and aim to be especially intentional about the food you’re using to increase calories on the high-calorie days.
You’ll also want to select a plan that considers realistic calorie amounts. Many plans cite 1,200 calories as the maximum on low-calorie days, which may not even be enough calories to sustain a moderately active toddler. The 2,000-calorie maximum on high-calorie days is also based on the national average, which may also not be enough for you personally.
Generally, it’s recommended that you work with an expert to estimate your individual needs. Then, subtract 300-500 calories at a time if you’re aiming for weight loss. For example, a more realistic metabolic confusion plan for you may be 2,000 calories on high-calorie days and 1,500 calories on low-calorie days. This approach can be a healthier, more appropriate way to create a calorie deficit.
Next Step: Focus on Quality of Foods, Not Just Quantity
As you build your diet, focus on the food quality, and don’t become obsessed with exact numbers for calories. Metabolic confusion is thought to be more effective when macronutrient distributions (amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) are considered. There are plenty of nutrient-rich foods that also promote weight loss.
Final Step: Check in With Your Dietitian
As you continue this eating pattern, it’s crucial that you work closely with your dietitian to make sure you’re getting enough of the nutrients your body needs. If the diet doesn’t feel right for you at any point or is causing unwanted symptoms, it’s always a good idea to consult your healthcare team to make sure what you are doing is actually serving your overall health and wellness.
A certain level of weight loss can actually cause more harm to the body than good, and it’s helpful to have experts around you who can empower you to recognize true progress beyond the scale. Remember, you’re not alone in your efforts, and your healthcare team is here to help!
Metabolic Confusion Diet: Final Bites
While the metabolic confusion diet may not be right for everyone, its flexibility is the root of its appeal for many people. It’s debatable if this diet can really “confuse” your metabolism, but there are some redeeming qualities—it may make you more mindful about what you eat.
Until more science is available to prove the somewhat confusing theories of this duet, aiming for balanced, nutritious meals and snacks—along with regular exercise—is still your best bet for weight loss.