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No matter how many inspirational before and after photos you may come across on social media, losing weight in a healthy way that works can seem like an impossible feat. Sure, there’s no shortage of fad diets out there, but almost all of them are not only impossible to stick with long-term but they’re pretty miserable to follow in the short-term too.
If you’re searching for a healthy way to lose weight, you might have come across the term metabolic confusion—a way of eating that “tricks” metabolism into working in your favor. Could this be the solution you’re looking for, or is it too good to be true? Before giving it a try, there’s some important information health experts want you to know.
Dr. Brian Fertig, MD, an associate professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the author of Metabolism and Medicine, explains that metabolic confusion is a diet that uses cycled days or weeks of calorie restriction. “For example, someone may eat 1,200 calories one day or every day in a week, with a non-restricted diet on alternate days or weeks,” he says.
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Dr. Fertig explains that this is meant to confuse the body’s metabolic rate. “The notion of body weight set points are recognized by most endocrinologists, whereby weight loss by any method, diet or exercise, or both, but especially diet alone, accompanies a phenomenon of metabolic decompensation,” he says. “Metabolic compensation is a slowing of metabolic rate with the teleological purpose to maintain sufficient energy stores of fat. Ultimately, the diet seeks to trick or ‘confuse’ the body’s weight set point.”
Fitness nutrition specialist, trainer, and Fast Metabolism Weight Loss Diet Plan author Dr. Megan Johnson McCullough, EdD, explains that metabolism is a key factor when it comes to weight loss. “Having an efficient and quality metabolism is not only helpful for one’s physique, but it is an influential factor in many bodily functions that demand energy,” she says. “Metabolism controls how the body uses energy and therefore it can be considered high, low, fast, or slow.”
McCullough explains that metabolic confusion has a similar effect as fasting. “Very similar to fasting, the body goes through periods of little to draw energy from to having an excess to gather energy from,” she says. “However, the fasting position, such as 1,200 calories, would be much higher than a normal fast intake of little to nothing at all except for liquids.”
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In terms of if metabolic confusion actually works for weight loss, it hasn’t been proven just yet. McCullough says that how effective metabolic confusion is will vary from person to person. She says that when the periods of low-calorie intake are coupled with exercise, this would put someone in a calorie deficit, which could result in weight loss. “The confusion, per se, would really only benefit someone seeking weight loss during those low-calorie periods,” she adds. “This would be when the body is enduring a type of stress to draw energy from stored resources.”
Integrative nurse practitioner Allie Burch, NP, says the science just isn’t there to support metabolic confusion for weight loss. “Our metabolism definitely doesn’t get ‘confused,’ and our metabolism is actually quite complicated,” she says. “Many other factors play a role in metabolism from our gut microbiome to insulin resistance, how well we sleep and even how much muscle mass we have.”
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Dr. Fertig agrees, saying that ultimately, you can’t “trick” the body. “It adapts and predicts patterns of behavior,” he says. He also adds that calorie-restrictive diets are rarely sustainable without exercise. “Calorie restriction is typically the most effective way to lose weight while exercise is the most effective way to keep it off,” he says.
Additionally, any time calories are restricted, there’s a risk of not getting all the nutrients the body needs. Dr. Fertig says that no matter what eating plan or diet you’re following, it’s important to get enough macronutrients (including protein, carbs, and fat), micronutrients and water. “The calorie restriction [of metabolic confusion] is quite low at 1,200 calories a day and could lead to macro and micronutrient deficiencies, as well as fatty acid and amino acid deficiencies leading to chronic illnesses or worsening ones that are already present. This can also speed up the aging process,” Burch adds.
Okay, so metabolic confusion doesn’t seem like the silver bullet for weight loss. So, what do the experts recommend? Instead of looking for a quick solution, Burch recommends building your diet around nutrient-dense foods while minimizing high-calorie inflammatory foods. A plant-based diet or the Mediterranean diet are two eating plans that put this into practice.
McCullough’s advice is to eat nutrient-rich foods 80 percent of the time, which still leaves room for little indulgences. “This typically keeps people in a sustainable position to keep their body’s metabolism functioning efficiently,” she says. If there’s one thing most people can agree on, it’s that restriction isn’t fun—and as the experts pointed out, it may not even be healthy. There’s certainly no confusion about that!
Next up, find out how to lose weight safely and effectively.
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