What is Carb Cycling?
Hey fit friend. Back to learning about carbs, are we? Fantastic. Recall that we’ve dispelled the myth that ALL carbs are bad here, but is there a benefit to reducing carb-intake? You’ve heard people say “carb cycling” but do you know what it means?
The purpose of carb-restriction or carb cycling is to reduce the ‘fluff’.
You know, the love handles, muffin top, spare tire……? If you aren’t ready for that jelly, then carb cycling might be the answer.
So what is carb cycling?
It’s pretty simple in theory, you consume reduced carbs on some consecutive days of the week and increase carb intake on other days of the week to expedite fat loss.
It can get pretty complex if you don’t like math, and there are a ton of studies out there on whether or not carb cycling is effective.
And guess what? We read them for you to bring you everything you ever wanted to know about carb cycling.
Ready? Sweet, let’s start with the basics of carb cycling and work our way into the science behind it.
How Do I Start Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling schedules vary by goal, but the most common fat loss cycle is three low carb days followed by one high carb day.
Some recommend a ‘cheat day’ on the 7th day, however, we’re fans of consistency.
Your carb cycling week may look something like this:
Monday: Low Carb
Tuesday: Low Carb
Wednesday: Low Carb
Thursday: High Carb
Friday: Low Carb
Saturday: Low Carb
Sunday: Low Carb
Monday: High Carb
It’s not THAT simple, though.
We have to do a little math to figure out how many calories should be derived from fat, protein and carbs.
One gram of:
Protein= 4 calories
Carbs= 4 calories
Fat = 9 calories
Protein fuels your formula because there is a set recommendation based on weight that you will use to drive your math. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is .36 grams of protein per pound. However, some trainers will recommend 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (or more).
Protein can easily be the most important part of carb cycling because the body expends the most energy, or calories, just to break protein down and digest it. It can expend more than one-third of its daily energy just on the consumption and absorption of protein. So you’re burning more calories to digest it.
This energy expenditure is referred to as the thermic effect of food, which is also called ‘thermogenic foods’. Studies show high-protein diets are extremely effective for fat loss for this very reason.
So, how much protein do I eat?
To help you with your carb cycling calculations, visit the USDA’s site to use the RDA calculator for recommended intake on macronutrients based on age, height, weight and gender. We’ll do a formula with both the RDA and 1 gram per pound of body weight to help you target your intake.
Remember—you’re reducing your carb intake so you should increase your fat and protein intake to ensure your body has the fuel to train.
To balance your energy the following general recommendations for intake are:
Low carb days = 20 percent or fewer calories from carbs. (read on to see the science on #grams for ketosis triggering).
High carb days = 50 percent of caloric intake from carbs.
After calculating protein and carbs, balance all days with the remainder of calories coming from fat (the good kind–keep reading.)
How to Calculate Carbs, Fat and Protein Calories
To target your total macro intake, you’ll need to use your weight, choose RDA or 1 gram per day for targeted protein intake and BMR to get your goal of daily calories.
As an example, let’s say you’re a 200 pound man targeting a daily intake of 2,000 calories per day based on your BMR and training goals:
Low Carb Days:
Low carb days you’ll eat 20% of your calories, or 400 calories of carbs (100 grams), 72 grams of protein (if you go with the RDA of protein) which equals 288 calories (each gram of protein has 4 calories).
Thus, the remaining 1312 would come from fat. 1 gram of fat = 9 calories, so you would target 145.7 grams of fat. That sounds like a lot of fat….
Now if you don’t go with the RDA, and you shoot for 1 gram of protein per pound, you’ll be at 800 calories derived from protein (200 grams), 400 from carbs (100 grams), leaving 800 calories from fat or 88.88 grams of fat.
High Carb Days:
High carb days you’ll consume 1,000 calories from carbs (250g) and then balance the remaining calories between targeted protein intake and then fat.
Types of Carbohydrate Sources
Now, a little more info on high-carb days. Should you go hit up Olive Garden for the entire taste of Italy? Negative, Ghost rider.
Carb sources matter. Complex carbs should be your focus. Whole grains, beans, fruits and even your protein shake can get you the good carbs that will fuel your fat loss through your cycling. Oatmeal, whole-grain pasta, sweet taters, can satiate your cravings without destroying your progress. In other words, skip the donuts, bronuts.
Types of Protein Sources
Your protein should be from quality sources such as chicken, eggs, fish, soy, veggies and lean-beef.
Types of Fat Sources
Remember when we went over fat sources here? To reiterate, omega-3 fatty acids are good. They support heart health and lower cholesterol levels. Fish, veggie oils, eggs, and some nuts like walnuts contain this good fat.
Monosaturated fats help improve cholesterol and promote heart health, too. nuts, peanut butter, avocados and oils are great sources of good fat.
Almonds, dark chocolate, cheeses, coconuts and yogurt are all great sources to get your fat from, too.
The USDA recommends 10 percent of total fat be saturated. If you stick to the good fats you should be able to stick to that 10 percent threshold.
Ok, now that we know how to schedule it, what macros to target and what food sources to target, let’s get back to science. Mmmmm, science.
The Science Behind Carb Cycling: WHY IT WORKS
Cyclic Ketogenic Diet
Carb cycling is also called a cyclic ketogenic diet. It is theorized to expedite fat loss by forcing it into a state of ketosis.
Ketosis is when the body turns to burning fat rather than glucose for fuel because it doesn’t have enough carbs supplying glycogen storage. Studies show that your body turns to burning fat when carbs are between 0-50 grams per day, with the majority of meals containing protein and fats. It takes 2-3 days of reduced carb intake for your body to switch to ketosis.
During this period of adaptation your body realizes it blew through its glycogen bank account and starts dipping into its ‘savings’ in the form of fat. Read more about the keto diet here.
Carb Cycling: Insulin Resistance and Glycemic Control
Studies show low-carb diets and carb cycling improves insulin resistance and glycemic control which leads to weight loss, and improved cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health. This is due to changes in insulin and glucagon concentrations due to lowered carb intake which leads the body toward fat oxidation rather than storage.
Insulin inhibits the breakdown of fat cells and stimulates the creation of body fat by telling the body to use food as energy instead of stored fat. Glycemic control and insulin resistance are complemented by ketosis.
While all food spikes insulin response, simple carbs are processed quickly causing a very quick rise in blood sugar because they contain simple sugars like fructose and glucose. Complex carbs are digested more slowly and the rise is more gradual.
The glycemic index was developed to track how quickly certain carbs are digested by the body and given a rating based on its chemical structure and impact.
The higher the number, the less healthy foods like white breads, waffles, soda and soft pretzels are for your body and health.
Avoiding higher glycemic carbs and consuming complex healthy carbs help keep your insulin levels regulated without unhealthy spikes in insulin.
Ketosis: The Adaptation Period of Carb Cycling
You may think if you cut out pasta, croissants and Texas toast that within a day or two you’ll see results. Slow down, hot rod. It takes the body a few days to adapt before it enters ketosis.
Ketosis is a state the body enters into when it is fueled nearly completely by stored fat. The body will produce fuel called ketones to adapt to the lacking glucose one usually gets from carbohydrates.
The liver produces ketones from fat and then supplies the body and brain with fuel to keep going without biscuits and gravy.
So the body doesn’t technically run on fat, it runs on ketones made from fat when your body lacks the glucose made from carbs. Smart lil’ body you got there, isn’t it?
How Carb Cycling and the Restriction of Carbs Works
Studies show reduced carb intake leads to a metabolic change. As we mentioned, the body goes from glucose dependent to ketone and fatty acid dependent as fuel sources.
The result is a mimicking of starvation by the body, but when you consume enough protein you can combat lean mass loss because the liver and kidneys can still produce sufficient amounts of glycogen to stop the body from becoming catabolic (muscle munching) with protein.
The body’s resilient ability to maintain glucose concentrations without feasting on muscles is the critical difference between starvation and low-carb diets. But again, you must eat enough fats and proteins to equip your body with the tools to generate enough fuel in the absence of carbs.
However, there is a carb threshold shown in these studies that support a carb intake of more than 50g per day will not spark ketosis.
In other words, it argues with the common recommended percentage of carb intake. The studies state only a diet with less than 50g per day on low carb days during cycling will trigger ketosis. Consider this as you plan your carb-cycling meal plans—and whether or not this type of meal plan is right for you and your goals.
The Science Behind Refeeding
While the proteins and fat you’re eating help you feel fuller on low carb days, your hormones and mind adjusts to the new energy sources.
Just as your body adapts, you enter your ‘refeed’ period, aka the high-carb day.
The goals of refeeding include:
- Awaken thyroid and hormones that were suppressed during the low carb period.
- Restore glycogen reserves directly in liver and muscles (rather than in saddlebags).
- Reward yourself and get your mind right so you can get that body tight, aight?
Complex carbs galore fills your plates and then go directly to your liver and muscles since they’ve been depleted.
In other words, where these carbs would usually be applied to hips and thighs, they head to muscles to provide energy.
Be careful though, many people erroneously refeed at large doses and can’t believe they’ve ‘gained weight’.
First and foremost, if you consume more than necessary to replenish the storage, you know where it’s headed—hips, thighs, gut—you know all the places we don’t want it to go.
Also, like we discussed above, the types of carbs will impact you, too. If you go grab 3 dozen donuts filled to the brim with simple carbs to refeed, you’re slimming down your wallet and fattening up your bum. Be smart, yeah?
If you don’t consume too many carbs, but you notice a weight gain, it’s typically water and can be reduced within a few days.
Once your body receives replenished glycogen it is then used as energy during training and fuel by muscles.
It’s important to note without a refeed, or on a pure keto diet, your body would munch on muscles to fuel your workouts. That’s not healthy. So if you’re loving your results from low carbs, don’t fall for the idea that skipping high-carb days will expedite results, it will impede them. While carbs have been villainized, we still need them to survive.
Verdict: Is Carb Cycling Right For You?
As always, it depends. It depends on your health, diet, goals and training. Talk to a doctor, especially if you have health concerns, before changing up your diet. If you’re healthy and dedicated, the science says yes, it will help with your fat loss goals.
If carb cycling isn’t up your alley, take the information from the glycemic index and complex carbs versus simple carbs and make smarter decisions when eating.
If you’re trying to get rid of some fluff, or ward off winter weight, get a scientifically backed natural supplement that attacks multiple reasons for weight gain, and helps you burn calories, block carbs and burn fat. Get it here.
Finally, if your diet is clean and you want to fuel strength and training results, go here.
Now that you’ve buffed up that big ol’ brain of yours–go do the same with your muscles, fit friend! The gym is calling–pick up.