There are thousands of diets out there, and to some extent, they can all work. A diet is nothing more than a calorie deficit. Eat less food than your body requires, and you will lose weight. However, the type of weight loss you experience can be dependent on what you eat, not just how much you eat! Diets that cycle carbohydrates are common among fitness athletes for very good reason. Carb cycling can not only help maintain and build muscle, but it can also help you efficiently burn off fat. If you have ever wondered what exactly a carb cycle is, how to perform one and how it can benefit you, keep reading!
What is a Carb Cycling Diet?
A carb cycling diet is a nutritional approach that switches between periods of low and high carbohydrate intake. Carb cycling diets focus on carbohydrate intake due to its primary role in metabolic processes that are related to burning fat and building muscle.
The primary goal of a carb cycling diet is to deplete and refill muscle glycogen stores, help up-regulate fat burning and muscle building hormones, increase thyroid activity and even support one’s psychological state by not requiring hard to endure, long periods of low carbohydrates.
High carbohydrate consumption causes the stimulation and release of insulin in the blood, which helps to shuttle nutrients into your muscles replenishing lost muscle glycogen, aid in recovery and stimulate protein synthesis. High carbohydrate days can top up energy levels and prepare your body for intense training days.
Low carbohydrate days promote fat metabolism by causing your body to switch from carbohydrates to fat as its fuel source. Specifically, on low carb days, your body will burn through the glycogen you have stored from your high carb days and then dip into fat stores for energy. This process can help keep your body be more receptive to the insulin response, thus improving fuel utilization efficiency and your ability to trigger muscle building.
How to Perform a Carb Cycling Diet
There are many ways to perform a carb cycling diet. One way to do it is to align high and low carb days with your workouts. On the days you lift heavy weights (e.g., leg day), have a high carbohydrate day. On the days you are performing just cardio, lower intensity weights (e.g., arms or abs) or have a day off from the gym, stick to low carbs. Ideally, aim for 3 to 4 high carb days and 3 to 4 low carb days, depending on your workout schedule and your sensitivity to eating carbohydrates. For maximum fat burning, if you are getting ready for a competition or leaning out for a vacation, have fewer high carbohydrate days: 2 to 3 in a 7-day period. This will allow for less muscle building, but quicker fat loss.
How Much Carbohydrates?
On low carbohydrate days, aim for a minimum intake of 50 grams to a maximum of 1 gram per pound of body weight. This will allow the body to efficiently use up existing glycogen stores and switch over to using up fat as fuel. At 50 grams, you can also ensure you are sparing lean muscle protein from being used as fuel.
On high carbohydrate days, generally, you can go as high as 2 to 3 grams per pound of body weight. For example, if you weigh 120 lbs, on low carb days you can eat anywhere from 50 to 120 grams of carbohydrates and on high carb days you can eat 240 to 360 grams of carbohydrates. Again, the amounts are all dependent on your response to carbohydrates and how efficiently you use up the carbs you put into your body! Most women, fair better on low carbohydrate diets, so on first attempt, try sticking to the lower end of the scale and then work your way up.
For a great carb cycling diet example, check out the FitRx Jumpstart Meal Plan.
What Type of Carbs?
Like any other healthy diet, you should stick with eating “good for you,” nutrient dense foods! Choose from complex carbohydrates like root, cruciferous green vegetables, oatmeal, whole grains and brown rice.
What about Proteins & Fats?
Protein should be consistent no matter how much carbohydrate you are taking in, but your fat intake will change with along with the carbs. Aim for 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, eaten over 5 to 7 meals per day. Be sure to get your protein from high quality sources such as whey protein, egg whites, lean red meat, non-fat dairy and poultry. Fats will make up the balance of your calories—about 10% (high carbohydrate day) to 40% (low carbohydrate day) of your calories depending on whether you are on a low or high carbohydrate day.
Can I have a ‘Cheat Day’ on a Carb Cycling Diet?
One of the benefits of the carb cycling diet is that your cravings for crappy food tend to decrease. Yes, cheat foods are high in carbs, but they are not “good for you” carbs. In addition, most are loaded in sugar and “bad for you” fats. The result can cause high insulin response and even decreased insulin sensitivity in the long run, which causes greater storage of glycogen in fat stores instead of muscle. Although we all crave dessert once in a while, its way better to feed your body complex, carbohydrates that are high in fiber than to gorge on simple sugars!
How Long Can I Follow A Carb Cycling Diet?
There really is no reason to go off a carb cycling diet. The carb cycling approach is easy to maintain, and because you cycle on and off carbs, the body does not plateau like it would on a prolonged low carbohydrate diet. Carb cycling kick-starts metabolism and gets your body to efficiently use up fuel while sustaining lean muscle and burning off body fat! Use a carb cycling diet for at least 8 to 12-weeks to see results, along with a consistent workout plan!
McDonald, L. (1998). The ketogenic diet. Austin, TX: Body Recomposition.