Health and Fitness Series
What is carb cycling? If you are keeping up with this blog, you are likely understanding a lot more about carbohydrates in our diets. For this blog, we are adding another health and fitness weapon to your arsenal.
Carb Cycling is a planned alteration of your carbohydrate consumption over a chosen time period, or an enjoyable and capable lifestyle habit.
Carb Cycling is considered by some to be an aggressive and high level nutrition strategy in order to prevent a fat loss plateau, plus help maintain a good metabolism without hindering workout performance. This last sentence is obviously pretty loaded, so I'm going to break everything down for you. Yes, carb cycling is a nutritional strategy, one in my opinion is GREAT! I LOVE it and utilize it often. I don't feel it is "aggressive", but rather easier to use since it gives you some wiggle room and is not as difficult. I will say that I don't think carb cycling is for beginners trying to figure out how to lose body fat while making positive lifestyle changes. If you are just learning how to count calories and macros while trying to incorporate exercise, keep at it my friend and keep making those changes to your lifestyle. Now, if this isn't your first rodeo and you understand the macro stuff, carb cycling may be something you can throw into the mix.
The Benefits of Carb Cycling
The basic idea behind Carb Cycling is to plan a certain amount of days when you eat higher carbs verses lower carbs. There are MANY different varieties and ways to cycle. Some people will try to sell you plans saying one way is better for fat loss, another is better for muscle gain, etc etc. Personally, I go with what my body tells me. I have structured my carb cycling based mostly on my workouts and water retention.
After spending a lot of time discussing the Keto diet last post, I am hoping I left you with an understanding that carbs are NOT bad. To revisit for a brief moment, Carbs are needed as a fuel source for your workouts. Carbs replenish glucose and glycogen to prevent fatigue and help repair tissues. When in ketosis, you use fatty acids (fat) as a fuel to live and even workout, but you will not have much success in building muscle without glucose (carbs). Those carbs aid significantly in recovery and support of muscle growth, cause the body to burn more calories, and provides you with ENERGY. One of the biggest fallacies is that eating carbohydrates makes you fat and even eating carbohydrates at the wrong time will make you fat.
Eating too many CALORIES makes you fat.
Insulin has unfortunately been thrown under the bus A LOT the last few years. Once again, Insulin does not make you fat, overeating does. Revisiting the job description of Insulin and why people presume it's bad:
high carbs = high insulin = burn less fat = store more fat = fatter & Fatter & fatter
low carb = low insulin = burn more fat = store less fat = stay lean
HOWEVER, this completely violates the principles of energy balance, which is how much energy you eat and how much energy you burn.
Weight gain results in a surplus of energy stored as fat. You cannot lose weight without an energy deficit.
For those into building and maintaining muscle mass (that should be all of you since muscles increase metabolism), insulin actually decreases catabolism.
Muscle growth = increase in carbohydrate diet = increase in glycogen: which improves performance = more strength & energy for workouts = helps progressively overload muscle fibers = muscle growth
Research shows that low carb/low glycogen levels post workout reduce cell signaling related to muscle growth. Also, resting cortisol levels rise and testosterone decreases with the lack of glucose/glycogen.
So how do you carb cycle? Lets talk about ways to match lifestyles and activity levels. Another reminder here, go ahead and read this post, but if you are still working on your macro counting and trying out other things like intermittent fasting, don't rush to jump into this until you are ready. It's easy to bombard yourself too early with everything without enough time to make the other changes habitual and a lifestyle. Come back to this when you are ready and want to try it out.
For carb cycling, you are going to continue to follow your calories and macro that we already calculated (see macro post here). Those macros will now fluctuate with carb cycling. As I said earlier, there are many different "cycles" you can use and I'll give you examples. Basically you are going to increase and decrease your carbohydrate intake depending on the day. Some people will tell you to stick with a pretty strict cycle of maybe a 1:1 ratio of a high carb day followed by a low carb day. Others use a 3:1 ratio of three low carb days followed by 1 high carb day. Another possibility is a fluctuated carb cycle of low, moderate, and high carb days throughout the week. Lastly, there are those that like to live on the wild side and decide to put no carb days into the mix. The other macros are not going to change significantly. The idea is that the lower carb days, are days that you caloric intake will be lower, even lower than maybe what you have calculated for your daily caloric needs. An important factor is not to decrease your protein consumption. So yes, you will still macro count or go back to macro counting for a little while until your food choices become natural and you just "know" what you are eating.
Planning your personal cycle...it's all about your personal needs. If you are getting to the point of trying this, then I am assuming you are pretty disciplined with your workouts plus you know your caloric needs. Nobody is going to tell you what is right for you, only you will know that with experimentation. For me personally, I know I need high carb days thrown in when I have a hard workout planned. I don't have a particular "plan", I base my cycle on my activity. My leg days are ALWAYS high carb days. My gym days that I do a mixture of Olympic lifting/powerlifting/crossfit are also high carb days. Days that I run, bike, kayak, and weight train are moderate carb days. My rest days are no carb days (unless its a cheat day). Honestly thought, cheat days are not to much of a "cheat" day if you are putting yourself through a killer hard workout.
Here are a few examples below:
As you can see from this picture, the plans are put together differently with different end goals. Both of these cycles are for the individual that is in training. By that I mean you that is exercising. If you are working out, it also means you are training. You don't have to be "training" for anything other than staying alive and healthy longer. The top example is this chart, for me, is more favorable. One of the reasons I enjoy cycling besides using it to keep myself in check with macros, is to have the ability to manage my water retention. If I cycle 2-3 days on lower carbs, I will lose a lot of water that I am retaining. I'm going to go down the personal road for myself here, so forgive me please. If I have something that I want to where that is very fitting, or I want to look more cut for an event, I'll carb cycle for 3-4 days before the date. The carbs get low, water drops, you look and feel less bloated. Keep that little side note in your brain for a later date.
The above chart is maybe the easiest to follow and I think I like this one the best. I don't think you necessarily need it to have a day of the week mapped out for you, but it may help. I also wouldn't binge on the "high fat" aspect of the chart, just stick with your macros remembering to keep your proteins up. The fats can fill some of the caloric needs without all of the carb calories, but it's okay to fall under a little too. Remember that fats are 9 calories per gram instead of the 4 calories like carbs and proteins, so they add up much faster. Also with the above, you can switch out any of those rest days for aerobic exercise. Get a extra run/walk/hike/paddle in...it's summer and you should be enjoying all the time you can outside! Please try to remember to keep those carbs lower and in check on those days with less activity, it's a pretty important key. Also, hitting back to making this a lifestyle and not a "diet", try not to be too hard on yourself. Make this easy by learning how this works for you and easily use it every day. If you know that you are going to be sitting in meetings all day next Tuesday, try to grab a salad instead of a sandwich, walnuts instead of m&m's, beef jerky instead of crackers. Things do start to become second nature, I promise. As I mentioned earlier, you activities will easily start to dictate you eating. For me, when my cycling is on point, I can't go longer than three days without watching my weightlifting struggle, or my mileage decrease. That is for me though and may not be for everyone. You will know when your body NEEDS to refuel and recover. Lastly on the csrb cycling, after a few weeks or even a couple of months, hit the reset button. Throw your entire system off by having 3- 4 high carb days, or maybe absolutely no carbs for 3-4 days. Our bodies adapt so fast, and our brains need to make sure we mix things up. Your metabolism needs breaks and mix-ups to keep it burning healthy.
Nutrient timing is planning your food intake at a particular time centered mostly on your workout schedule. Some make sure to have certain nutrients upon waking and going to bed also, but I'm only going to briefly hit on the nutrient timing around workouts. The research has shown that there is a pretty significant importance in planning to digest particular nutrients pre and port workouts. Most importantly the "window of gains" post workout that you will likely hear from the muscle building world. They used to believe that you only had about 30 minutes to make sure your body would optimally uptake all the nutrients it could post workout from whatever you were trying to feed it. Now they are getting a little bit more relaxed and saying you don't need to rush. My thoughts, you absolutely DO benefit from a nutritious post workout meal/shake. Physiologically, if you just finished a pretty intense workout, your cells are depleted of nutrients, particularly glucose, and need to refuel for repair, which lead to growth and strength. I don't feel however, that you need to pack a full meal to the gym and eat it as soon as you finish your last rep. Refuel with healthy carbs and protein on those hard days, your body needs it! In relation to the intermittent fasting post, when you come out of your fast make sure you are not instantly hitting the carbs. Put a meal together with healthy proteins, fibrous carbs, and some fat first. Save those yummy carbs for after your workouts. The most optimal time to consume your carbohydrates is after your workouts. The key to understanding Nutrient Timing is understanding when your body is in need of particular nutrients.
Soon I hope to start putting together a few workout ideas for everyone to help you get started, if you haven't already, on your fitness journey.
Dr. MJ Wegmann,