Athletes have used carb cycling for years to lose weight with success. It involves alternating your diet between high-carb and low-carb days, so you create an anabolic environment conducive to muscle growth when you need it and starve your fat stores of glucose on days when you need less fuel.
Carb cycling does not have to be complicated. If you find meal planning to be stressful, have a registered dietician create your meal plans for you. If you find cooking tedious, cook your meals in bulk so you only have to cook once or twice per week. Whatever you need to do to be successful, enjoy the benefits of lifelong, sustainable weight loss and maintenance while feeling better physically and emotionally.
What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a weight loss strategy that involves alternating days of eating high carbs and low carbs. The most popular school of thought involves fat intake increasing on low-carb days, the argument being that fat keeps you fuller than protein. Another school of thought argues that you should keep your protein and fat intake steady day to day, only cutting your carbohydrates and consuming fewer calories on low-carb days.
What to Eat
It is essential to get plenty of high quality nutrients in your diet even if you are on a low-carb day. To do this, choose quality slow carbs rich in fiber and other nutrients. Such foods include sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, low-sugar berries such as blackberries, strawberries and blueberries, plantains, carrots and roasted butternut squash.
Oatmeal is great for low-carb days because it provides your body with adequate fiber and nutrients to keep you satiated for a minimum of four hours thanks to its beta-glucan. Start your day with half a cup of old-fashioned oats cooked with a cup of whole milk and a side of low-carb fruit like an avocado. For lunch, have a spinach salad with lots of grilled poultry, cheese and a balsamic vinegarette. If you prefer to eat most of your carbs at night, skip the strawberries. For dinner, have four to six ounces of grilled chicken breast, 1.5 cups of roasted or grilled asparagus, and a cup of butternut squash or zucchini. If possible, buy fresh, local, seasonal organic produce from your local farmer’s market. Your total calorie count without snacks will be around 1,011 for the day.
On a high-carb day, enjoy a whole-wheat English muffin with all-natural peanut butter and a banana for breakfast. For lunch, have a large whole-wheat tortilla stuffed with tomatoes, Vidalia onions, an ounce of grated cheese, fresh salsa and lettuce. Pair this with a high-carb fruit such as grapes or half of a mango. For dinner, indulge in an 8-inch whole-wheat pizza loaded with veggies such as bell peppers, mushrooms and olives. You can also pair tge pizza with two tablespoons of hummus, some carrots, and celery. Your total calorie count will be around 1,428 for the day.
Do not develop a transactional relationship with food and exercise. For example, do not run 43 minutes because you ate two slices of a large pizza. This can lead to the development of eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa where people binge on food and then purge the calories from their bodies through excessive exercise. Do not be surprised if you see a temporary weight gain the day after your high-carb day. Your body stores three to four grams of water for every gram of carbohydrates. Furthermore, vigorous exercise such as lifting heavy weights causes your muscles to store extra water as they repair themselves after the workout.
Listen to your body. If you measure your macros, including your carbs, and you begin to feel ill or experience symptoms of hypoglycemia, consume more carbs. Before starting any diet, speak to your general health practitioner. They may refer you to a registered dietician to work you through any special needs you may have. For the greatest chance of success, increase your protein intake during low-carb days. This will keep you fuller than only increasing your fat intake. Also, try to drink at least four ounces of water per hour. Many of us mistake dehydration for hunger pangs and binge on high-sodium snacks which help our bodies retain the water in our bodies.
Do not make low-carb days low calorie days as well, and do not equate high-carb days with high calorie days. We have enough going on in our lives between work, family, and maintaining a household — there is no need to juggle complicated calorie calculations as well. Determine how many calories you need to consume daily to lose weight at your desired rate based on your activity level, then stick to it.
There are many benefits to carb cycling. They include limitless energy on high-carb days and laser-sharp focus on low-carb days. Carb cycling promotes efficient fat burning, suppresses your appetite, and helps your body build muscle.
Carb cycling results in a 22 percent decrease in insulin resistance. Low insulin resistance, or high insulin sensitivity, enhances fat loss because your body is able to consume stored energy more effectively. Reducing insulin resistance clears up many skin conditions including androgenetic alopecia, acanthosis nigricans, and acne. Researchers call Alzheimer’s disease type 3 diabetes because higher insulin resistance leads to the development of Alzheimer’s. Key causes of the disease, brought about by high insulin resistance, are oxidative stress and cognitive decline. Improving your insulin sensitivity also mitigates your risk of developing other diseases including type 2 diabetes, blood clot disorders, thyroid conditions, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Finally, decreasing your insulin resistance prevents you from experiencing mood or energy swings caused by sugar crashes.
Low-carb diets are great for weight loss, but they are not the most sustainable solution for permanent weight loss. If you exercise or work a physically demanding job, your body may need more fuel on certain days. Benefits of carb cycling for weight loss while improving fitness include:
- Bolstering training intensity by replenishing glycogen stores
- Temporarily spiking of insulin levels to preserve muscle tissue
- Increasing hormones related to faster metabolism and muscle protein metabolism
High-carb days are essential for sustainability of the carb cycling diet. They allow you to cheat within your calorie limit so you do not feel restricted and are less likely to binge. If you want a calorie-laden slice of chocolate cake, compensate by eating healthier foods rich in fiber to keep you full and fuel your body. Do not compensate for your treats through extra exercise.
Does It Work for Weight Loss
Carb cycling does work for weight loss. For adults who are 19 and older, experts recommend that 45% to 65% of your calories should come from carbohydrates depending on your activity level. When cycling your carbohydrate intake for weight loss, aim to have 30% to 50% of your calories come from carbohydrates on low-carb days. If you are aiming for 1,500 calories per day, aim for 675 to 975 calories to come from carbohydrates on your high-carb days. Aim for 450 to 750 of your calories to come from carbohydrates on low-carb days. There are four calories per gram of carbohydrates, so aim to consume around 113 to 244 grams of carbohydrates on any given day.
There is no need to measure and calculate every gram of food you eat. This practice may not be sustainable for you. Instead, eliminate a couple servings of carbohydrates from your diet. For example, if you usually eat a turkey club wrap on for lunch on Fridays, replace this meal with a turkey and cheese spinach salad with tomato.
If you struggle with portion control, measure your food while you get used to appropriate portion sizes. If you exercise vigorously four days a week and rest three days a week, prepare your food in bulk ahead of time. Make three servings of oatmeal for your three low-carb days. Make 1.5 cups of brown rice and portion it out into three separate containers. Package five ounces of lean fish or poultry and one to two cups of vegetables in each of these containers so all you have to do in the mornings is grab your lunch and go. Use an app to help you with your math. If you eat out for lunch, certain apps can tell you what you should eat for dinner to successfully carb cycle. After 21 days of honestly tracking your food choices, your intentional choices will become habitual and eventually you will no longer need an app to track your macros.
Carb cycling is an excellent option for those looking to improve fitness or build muscle while simultaneously losing fat. Carb cycling involves eating more carbs on days your body needs more fuel and fewer carbs on days when your body needs less fuel. Carb cycling has been used by athletes, especially bodybuilders, for years because it works. Carb cycling includes all the benefits of the ketogenesis diet without the keto flu and unsustainability. Benefits include reducing the risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease and other health conditions such as hypertension and hyperglycemia. The diet helps prevent mood swings and allows you to focus better. Furthermore, carb cycling promotes healthy metabolism and muscle protein metabolism. Remember, always consult your general health practitioner before significantly altering your diet. Listen to your body and seek advice from a registered dietician if you need help. Tracking your macros may be difficult at first, but once you grow accustomed to portion sizes, this new, sustainable lifestyle will become second nature to you.