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Does metabolic confusion work?

Medically reviewed on August 1, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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Whether you’re trying to lose weight or build muscle, you’ll find countless methods online that promise results for your fitness goals. One of these more recent ones is metabolic confusion.

At its core, the metabolic confusion diet involves alternating your caloric intake to “trick” your metabolism into working faster. Proponents of this metabolic diet swear by its benefits in helping stave off metabolic disorders. But is this strategy backed by scientific evidence? Does the metabolic confusion diet work? What differentiates it from other conventional diets, or is this another trendy fad diet?

Here, we’ll take a closer look at how the metabolic confusion meal plan works to see if it can help you meet your health and wellness goals.

What is metabolic confusion?

Metabolic confusion—also called calorie shifting diet or calorie cycling—is a restrictive diet. Two guidelines play a role in metabolic confusion:

  • Some days are “low-calorie days.” During a low calorie day, you’ll eat fewer calories than you typically do. On these days, most plans suggest limiting your caloric intake to 1,200 per day (roughly half of what you’d consume on a typical day). During a low calorie day, you create a calorie deficit by taking in less and burning more.
  • Other days are “high-calorie days.” During a high calorie day, you’ll consume a typical day’s worth of calories or more. Here, your suggested intake is at least 2,000 calories each day.

Supposedly, the cycling between high calorie intake and low calorie days will induce metabolic confusion. However, there is no consensus on how often one should switch between the two. While some plans recommend switching every few days, others advise switching between high and low intakes every other week.

Regardless of how often you switch, advocates for metabolic confusion diet plan recommend sticking to a regular schedule in order to achieve the diet’s desired effects.

How is metabolic confusion supposed to work?

The logic of metabolic confusion is that by jumping between high- and low-calorie days, adherents will “keep their metabolism on its toes.”

Theoretically, when your body is unsure of what energy and nutrients any given day will bring, it will maintain a higher resting metabolic rate (RMR). Because a higher RMR tends to burn more calories throughout the day, keeping it elevated is seen as a way to promote weight loss and fat loss.

How does metabolic confusion differ from intermittent fasting?

If you’ve researched other ways to alter your metabolism, you may be familiar with the idea of intermittent fasting (IF).

IF is similar to metabolic confusion in that it tries to reprogram your metabolism. However, most IF diets include periods of fasting (abstaining from food entirely), while metabolic confusion only encourages you to eat less on certain days.

Pros and cons of metabolic confusion

As with all diets and weight loss methods, metabolic fasting comes with its share of pros and cons. Let’s take a look at the benefits and disadvantages of trying this type of diet.

Advantages

There are two primary advantages to metabolic confusion:

  • Mindful eating – Perhaps the clearest advantage is the concept of tracking what you’re eating. Although there’s some debate about the effects of calorie counting, cultivating awareness of the food you consume can help you develop greater awareness of your body and its needs.
  • Flexibility – Unlike other restrictive diets, metabolic confusion doesn’t eliminate or limit specific macronutrients (e.g., carbohydrates) or food groups. Instead, adherents may eat whatever types of food appeal to their appetites. This flexibility may make it easier for some people to stick to the diet.

Drawbacks

The downfalls of metabolic confusion include:

  • Quantity over quality – The metabolic confusion meal plan limits the number of calories you should consume on low-calorie days, but it doesn’t specify which food groups to focus on. Because of this, metabolic confusion may not promote nourishing and holistic eating habits—it only encourages calorie restriction.
  • Focus on the short-term – Metabolic confusion is primarily geared towards weight loss, which may make it unsustainable for long-term use. In theory, to keep off any weight you lose from metabolic confusion, you’d have to keep eating in cycles for the rest of your life, which may interfere with some dieters’ daily lives.

Can metabolic confusion help with weight loss?

Like many other diets like sirtfood diet, metabolic reset diet, paleo, and the likes, metabolic confusion has its share of fans and detractors. But does the metabolic confusion diet work as intended?

Experts in the field of nutrition and metabolic studies are conflicted:

  • One 2014 study on calorie shifting from the International Journal of Preventive Medicine showed short-term weight loss in most subjects. [1]
  • Another 2017 report in Perspectives on Psychological Science noted that decreasing caloric intake alone (as metabolic confusion does) may not lead to lasting weight loss. [2]
  • That same year, another randomized trial showed that alternating between low- and high-calorie days did not provide any more benefits than other diets. [3]

In the end, all this metabolic confusion, calorie confusion, and metabolic flexibility may not pay off since you're unlikely to sustain the plan in the long term.

Today’s scientific literature suggests metabolic confusion may not accomplish what it says it does: keeping weight off by “confusing” your metabolism. Metabolism is a highly complex internal process; whatever your fitness goals are, it’s usually better to learn how to work with it rather than against it.

Get to know your metabolism with Everlywell

Ultimately, healthful living takes some work—there’s no magic wand to wave. Whether you have a naturally high or low resting metabolic rate, you’ll likely need to combine diet changes with exercise, quality sleep, and a knowledge of your unique traits to reach your goals.

To develop a diet plan you love—and that lasts—learn where your metabolic health stands with an at-home Metabolism Test from Everlywell. With this easy-to-use test kit, you can measure the levels of three hormones that are integral to your metabolic processes: free testosterone, cortisol, and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).

Within days, Everlywell delivers a clearer picture of your metabolism—no confusion necessary.

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References

  1. Calorie Shifting Diet Versus Calorie Restriction Diet: A Comparative Clinical Trial Study. National Institutes of Health. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  2. Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight. National Institutes of Health. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  3. Effect of Alternate-Day Fasting on Weight Loss, Weight Maintenance, and Cardioprotection Among Metabolically Healthy Obese Adults. National Institutes of Health. URL. Accessed August 1, 2022.
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