we looked at popular diets, discussed in detail the body’s requirements in terms of energy and macronutrients, and we’ve looked at the hormones that play a role in your fitness journey. Now, it’s time to dig a little deeper into your nutrition habits with something called carb cycling. Carb cycling is the practice of increasing and decreasing your carbohydrates according to your goals and hormones.
We know that carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in the blood, which increases your blood sugar and gives a message to your brain to start releasing insulin. Insulin grabs the glucose in the blood and brings it to the right organs, for muscle storage, energy, and fat storage.
Read: Guide to Hormones Part I
In weight loss, the most important aspect of nutrition lies in creating a caloric deficit by decreasing your calorie intake. This drop in calories will affect your hormones, such as leptin, ghrelin, and thyroid; staying in a caloric deficit for too long can lead to a plateau, as your body craves more calories and your glycogen levels deplete, thus decreasing the rate at which you gain lean muscle mass.
This can become frustrating for many, as we all want to see continuous results in our weight loss journey. This is where carb cycling comes in to help. Carb cycling requires you to strategically increase and decrease your carbohydrate intake throughout the week. The idea to help alleviate the strain of dieting, mentally and physically, thus helping you lose more body fat while keeping your lean mass.
NOTE: carb cycling is not a magic, quick fix. Playing around with carbohydrates helps rebalance your hormones and resting energy expenditure (REE) so that you can continue in a caloric deficit without sabotaging.
How does carb cycling work?
We know we need carbohydrates to build muscle and increase strength. Therefore, when we cut carbs during a weight loss phase, training can become harder as the strength drops and the muscle pump decreases. The goal of carb cycling is to mainly replenish your glycogen stores, by increasing your carbohydrate intake on days where you train a little harder. This helps you burn more calories during your training, as you increase your glycogen stores on training day. It also helps you build more lean mass, as your body thirsts for glycogen and directs most (if not all) your extra carbohydrates to your glycogen stores.
More glycogen stores = more gains.
On a high carb day, you’re usually required to push your limits in your trainings, to utilize the extra carbs as much as possible. That increase in carbs also creates an increase in daily calorie intake, boosting your metabolism for a day. This helps for the low carb days following the high carb days.
After a high carb day, you drop your carbs back to normal for 3-4 days. With your metabolism boosters, glycogen replenished, and hormones rebalanced to help in protein synthesis and discipline, you’re able to bust through a plateau and shed more fat while maintaining and gaining lean mass.
Who should practice carb cycling?
Anybody can try carb cycling when trying to lose weight. Carb cycling isn’t a magical formula to lose weight; it’s about optimizing your caloric deficit by having lower than usual calorie days mixed in with higher calorie days. At the end of the day, you’re still in a caloric deficit. You’re just helping your body go through the journey more easily by giving it more energy when the deficit becomes too much of a strain.
If you have insulin resistance or a hard time sticking to your low calories, carb cycling might be the best option for you. It will allow you to have a weekly caloric deficit without driving you crazy. You will be able to see more lean mass gains and fat loss as you’re able to sustain your diet for a longer time.
Example of a carb cycling week:
The example above is following 3/1 low carb/high carb plan. This means that for three days straight, you have your usual low calories and carbs. On the fourth day, you increase your carbohydrates only by 15-25% (depending on what your coach suggests). You go back to your usual calories on the fifth day, restarting the three day low carb period.
Tried carb cycling? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below!