What is Carb Cycling and How to Use It to Your Advantage 1


Low-carb for long periods of time can be a bad thing. Important hormones that help our bodies perform at an optimal level can suffer if they are not fed the right nutrients. Extremely low carbs or calories is not sustainable. But neither is overeating.

So what is the other option?

By now, you know a few things.

  1. Not all carbs are created equal
  2. Carbs are not inherently bad
  3. Quality carb sources provide needed fuel for your body
  4. The wrong carbs are the problem

The next step is understanding how much to eat and when to eat them. Although the answer to those questions depends on the individual and their objective, there are certain principles of carb cycling that make it worth a read.

This article will talk about the benefits of carb cycling and how it can be a great eating lifestyle for longevity. The goal is to build a lifestyle around enjoying and eating things that make you happy.

Is carb cycling the solution? If used correctly, the variation of carbohydrates can be effective for getting us closer to finding our optimal energy balance which will help achieve your goals.

What is carb cycling?

Carb cycling is known as a flexible, short-term nutrition method that varies the amount of carbohydrate consumption per day or week. It is commonly used to lose fat while maintaining muscle, maintain physical performance while dieting, or overcome a weight loss plateau.

By building in higher and lower carb days into your diet, it can provide many benefits to strictly high and low carb periods including:

  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Increased fat burning
  • Improved cholesterol
  • Improved metabolic health (1)

Carb cycling focuses carbohydrate intake to when it provides maximum benefit and excludes carbs when they’re not needed throughout the day. Put simpler, consuming carbs that better reflect activity level and lifestyle. This method can be beneficial due to its adaptability to different lifestyles.

Is carb cycling the answer to fat loss?

No, eating fewer carbs on some days and more on others isn’t going to significantly impact your fat loss. However, neither is eating less and exercising more…all of the time.

The two major factors that will help your fat loss goals are protein intake and total energy balance.

Total energy balance is one of the major factors affecting body weight.

  • If we take in more energy than we use, we gain weight (positive energy balance)
  • If we take in less energy than we use, we lose weight (negative energy balance)

But, it’s important to note that despite eating less one day and possibly overeating the next, if your body is still in a positive energy balance, you will likely continue to gain weight.

Like everything else in nutrition, energy balance isn’t always this simple. For example, if you look at a two day period of eating, if you are low on one day and high on the other in terms of calorie intake, the amount of energy spent in those two days is part of the determining factor for whether you lose or gain weight.

But, well save that for another time.

Remember again why you need carbs to perform and burn fat

It is well understood that carbohydrates fuel your muscles during times of stress and exercise. This is what gives you the energy and jump start the recovery process.

Weight/fat loss is only temporary if you continually lose all of the muscle you need to burn fat.

A few of the reasons carbohydrates are needed are:

  • They are the preferred form of energy
  • They constantly need to be replaced, causing a craving that must be satisfied
  • Parts of the central nervous system rely exclusively on carbohydrate
  • Our physiology needs the energy to function (hormones)
  • They help you burn and use fat and protein
  • Spare protein for building muscle

Additionally, without carbohydrates, it would be very challenging to build muscle because glycogen is essential for muscle repair and growth. Without muscle, you would not burn as many calories throughout the day.

And if you aren’t burning fat, you have the potential to gain more weight over the long term.

But constant low-carb can become a problem

In a weight or fat loss plateau, your metabolism adapts to a consistent low-carb diet and losing weight becomes harder. And if the diet is switched instantly to a consistent strand of higher carb days, many people balloon up gaining more weight than they may have previously.

Repeated days of strenuous exercise take a toll on an individual’s glycogen stores. When the body is consistently in a low-carb state on top of an active lifestyle, it starts to lose energy and other bodily functions may lack. The nervous system becomes taxed and hormonal processes become less efficient.

Add in stress from daily life and you just lit yourself on fire.

This is part of the reason why high-carbohydrate “re-feeds” are necessary to help replenish the body when it is being overtaxed from an “eat less exercise more approach.” So if your sluggish and feel awful doing this, maybe it’s time to reconsider.

Science has shown that the most beneficial exercise in a constant low carb state is seen in exercise performed at a relatively low intensity. This means that it can be more beneficial to do light exercise on lower carb days and more strenuous exercise on higher carb days. Thus, carb cycling.

carb cycling

However, if you are overtaxing your body on high-intensity workout days you need fuel to help keep your body functioning well. Thus, matching your carb intake to your level of activity.

The takeaway is that consistently relying on low carb might be an effective strategy if you understand your body’s energy balance. Calories in and calories out is still relevant, just not something to live and die by.  But when the exercise intensity goes up, without the right amount of fuel, the body pays the price and muscle begins to catabolize. And you will probably notice a drop in performance and recovery.

Plus, you will probably notice a drop in performance and recovery.

Then what the hell are we talking about here?

We are talking about a flexible nutritional lifestyle that helps to better match carbohydrate consumption to our levels of activity. We are talking about maintaining muscle to burn fat. And being conscious of over-consuming calories that results in unwanted body fat and ensuring we are trying to better understand our energy balance to ensure were not overconsuming carbohydrates.

I addressed in a previous article what happens to our bodies when we consume simple carbs. Constant spikes in blood sugar are no good for our hunger, energy, and cravings. These spikes cause energy dips and can negatively work against weight loss goals.

While carb cycling may not be a bulletproof solution, it does do a great job illustrating diet flexibility which is important for any healthy lifestyle.

Instead of adhering to the “strict rules” of carb cycling (or any diet), there are principles of carb cycling that are consistent with a healthy lifestyle diet. A few of these principles are:

  • Using your daily/weekly schedule as a determining factor of what you eat
  • Getting more protein to help build muscle
  • Building muscle to enable you to lose fat
  • Capitalize on nutrient timing to manage your ability to help control your hunger, energy, and cravings
  • Better carbohydrate timing

Ok, how do I carb cycle?

In a nutshell, this strategy follows two basic guidelines.

  • Low carb, higher proteins and fats = Less active days
  • High carb, high proteins and low fats = More active days

The same logic applies to entire days, weeks, months and years. Here is an example of what this might look like for someone trying to lose weight or fat.

Day Activity Carb intake Fat Protein Carbs (Gs)
Monday Weight lifting High Low High 150
Tuesday Rest Low High Moderate 50-100
Wednesday Weight lifting High low High 150
Thursday Rest Low High Moderate 50-100
Friday Weight lifting High Low High 150
Saturday Cardio Moderate Moderate Moderate 100
Sunday Rest Low High Moderate 60

When we cycle carbs between low, moderate, and high days, we can use them to our advantage to aid in recovery. This allows the body to operate on a more targeted number of carbs to be used as fuel without becoming an excessive amount.

However, it is important to ensure you are meeting your caloric needs. And of course, adjust the levels of food intake to your own body.

Carb cycling may become advantageous when people reach a fat burning plateau. Cycling carbs provide an opportunity to “shock” the body and has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, which is your body’s response to carbs.

In practice

Say you are on a business trip or you are traveling. This presents a great opportunity to try hard for a lower carb day with higher fats. Chances are, you may be sitting for the majority of the day at a conference or through meetings. You also may not have a chance to work out later.

Instead of loading up on carbohydrates, your body would be better suited to use fat and protein for energy.

Now, if you are planning on doing a big walk in the morning, afternoon, and weightlifting or HIIT training in the evening, your body needs more fuel than just 50gs of carbs. When the body does not have fuel through carbs, fats, and proteins to run on, it has trouble building muscle.

For most, you can rely on fats and proteins in times of inactivity because you are likely not using much energy. Remember, this does not mean not eating. You still need fuel.

Take it one step even further

Higher carb days on the highest output days. And concentrate them around your workouts.

Squats, deadlifts and other major compound exercises tax the nervous system which makes it crucial to provide the fuel on these days to get the body back to optimal operating speed.

Carb Cycling

Tip: Eat your biggest meal of the day after your workout

However, if you sit all day, you are less likely to need carbs as fuel in the morning. In fact, it may even make you hungrier and cause spikes in energy followed by crashes and hunger.

When you need carbs the most is before and after your workouts.

Instead, experiment with focusing your carbs around your workouts. You can eat the majority of your carbs before and after. For example, an hour or two before your workout, you might eat 30-40gs of carbs 20gs of proteins and a low amount of fat. Then, you might eat the same right after your workout.

Don’t want to get too full? Try consuming these pre-workout calories through liquid form for quicker digestion.

Important note: If you eat too close to your workout, assuming your goal is fat loss, your body will only burn off that banana you just ate. Not your fat storages. Not to mention that our bodies digestion basically shuts down during an exercise so depending on which foods you ate, it could affect your performance.

Keep in mind the scientific evidence that shows that the post-workout window of opportunity. That is ingestion of protein and carbohydrates within 90 minutes of a workout will increase recovery and protein synthesis, maximizing gains.

Use higher protein on low carb days…And every day

When a lower calorie diet (IMPORTANT NOTE: low calorie should never below 1200 calories) is happening, your glycogen stores get depleted quicker and the body starts to rely on proteins. When this happens, it needs more proteins to function properly because it has become the primary fuel by default instead of carbohydrates.

To reduce this breakdown of lean muscle, more protein can be used for tissue repair and synthesis as well as for energy. Because when carbs are lower, protein and fats need to be raised to make up for this difference to help you meet your caloric needs.

Not only does your body naturally shift to using proteins in place of carbohydrates, exercise also increases the rate of protein turnover in lean body mass during recovery. Which means exercise burns more of the protein which is why you need more after workouts to help repair muscle tissue.

Research suggests that sedentary adults need about .5g of protein per pound of body weight each day. And anywhere from .6-1g for strength and endurance athletes. So for an average 160lbs person, it is “recommended” that you eat roughly 80gs of protein.

For those seeking muscle building gains, this means a 150 lbs person needs about 100-150gs of protein per day to optimally build muscle. For some research based information on protein intake, check out this site.

It’s unnecessary to stress about the getting at least 100gs of protein per day. Instead, think about it differently. Assuming that you are eating 4-5 meals a day, ask yourself, how can I get roughly 20gs of protein at each meal?

Nevertheless, understand that the more protein you get (assuming you are pretty active), the easier muscle will be to maintain and stay lean.

Takeaway

Of course, in nutrition there is no one size fits all solution. Some people respond better to slightly higher or lower carb, fats, and protein intakes. The level of activity also plays a huge role. If someone is highly active 7 days a week, their caloric and carb needs will greatly differ than more sedentary middle-aged man or woman.

Instead of adhering to the “strict rules” of carb cycling (or any diet), there are principles of carb cycling that are consistent with a healthy lifestyle diet. A few of these principles are:

  • Using your daily/weekly schedule as a determining factor of what you eat
  • Getting more protein to help build muscle
  • Building muscle to enable you to lose fat
  • Capitalize on nutrient timing to manage your ability to help control your hunger, energy, and cravings
  • Better carbohydrate timing

Regardless of whether carb cycling is a bulletproof solution for you, understanding when and how much carbs to eat throughout your day is important. Where do you go from here? Understanding your energy balance to ensure you are doing the right things to achieve your goals.

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One thought on “What is Carb Cycling and How to Use It to Your Advantage

  • Joel

    Thanks for taking the time to set carbs straight Kyle. Far too many people get hooked on the notion of cutting carbs out and they think that this is the solution to weight loss. When, as science proves, it is not the solution. Smart, strategic, diet and exercise is the solution.