Carbs are good for you

By now, you should know that we love our carbs over here. You need carbs for energy, hormone production and function, promote digestive health and just are needed by your body to function properly. And they are absolutely something that you shouldn’t be afraid of when losing weight! It’s all about finding the right portion for you and your goals but not fearing this very important macronutrient. 

There, sometimes, can come a time when on your weight loss journey you’d hit a plateau and the scale wouldn’t budge. So, instead of throwing your calories down even more and being on a very low calorie diet (you really shouldn’t do that) a great tool that can work and help is Carb Cycling. 

Healthy products sources of carbohydrates.

Which brings us to the question-what is carb cycling?

I wish it wasn’t as obvious as it sounds, and I could come in with some cool definition and explanation. Carb cycling is when you go back and forth between low-carb and high-carb days. High-carb days, usually being associated with the days when you train really hard and need that extra energy. 

Initially, this diet was primarily by athletes and bodybuilders who needed to cut down on fat while building muscle mass or have extra energy for long distance events like marathons. In the more recent years, this diet gained popularity and became more mainstream within regular people just trying to lose some weight. 

There are many ways different methodologies break down how much of each macronutrient you should eat each day, however a good amount of them do keep carbs on the 40%+ side. 

There are many different ways that you can set up your carb cycle. Some people use a breakdown of high, low and medium days, others just stick to high and low. Just like a lot of things, it all depends on your body, metabolism, how well your body digests carbs. 

You can do high-carb higher-calorie on workout days and low-carb lower-calorie on rest days. 

You can carb cycle within a single day by eating high carbs around your workout and skipping them for the remainder of the day. 

You can also do a couple of weeks of low-carb and have a re-feed week with high carbs. 

You can rotate between the high, medium and low days. There isn’t really one perfect way or set of rules for one.

Doing a diet like this also does require you to be pretty advanced with your macro counting, so if you are someone who never counted macros, this type of diet will be challenging for you as it required a lot of fluctuation in food from day to day. 

You must also not forget about the protein and fats in your diet. When adding or lowering carbs, we want protein intake to stay the same throughout the week while adjusting fats based off the carbs. Meaning, on low-carb days you’d be eating more fats while on high-carb days fat intake will be lowered. 

How Exactly does Carb Cycling work?

While there aren’t much human research on the matter, the effects are based on biological mechanisms as well as data from people who used it as a tool. 

When you consume carbs your blood sugar goes up, the pancreas releases insulin that then takes glucose into your cells. Once glucose enters the cells, there are two options-glucose gets converted into glucagon and is stored to be used for energy or gets stored as fat. 

When you eat high carb diet regularly, the body could create too much insulin and cause weight gain and potential development of type 2 diabetes. This however is mostly associated with calorie surplus. 

What can carb cycling do for your and your health? 

1. Boost up your metabolism for fat loss

When you are in a caloric deficit, when losing weight, there are a few different ways that the body can react to it:

Your BMR (basal metabolic rate) drops, meaning your metabolism gets used to the calories it’s receiving as a norm.

The energy expended during exercise also decreases. 

As your weight decreases, you usually have to adjust calories and keep decreasing them in order to keep yourself in the deficit. There can also come a point when you hit a plateau and the weight won’t budge, even in the deficit. Your metabolism has this amazing way of adapting. It is what’s known as metabolic adaptation. Once the body adapts to lower calories, you either have to do a reverse diet and take a break from dieting to bring your baseline up, or keep lowering your calories in order to be dropping more weight. 

When you add in carb cycling, because of the different calories and different amounts of food, your body is able to kick-start your metabolism back up and prevents it from adapting to one thing. 

2. Aid in hormone regulation, while being in the calorie deficit

Staying in a caloric deficit for a long time can affect some of your hormones- leptin, thyroid as well as testosterone and estrogen.  Leptin, potentially being the one to keep most attention on as it plays a huge role in hunger as well as metabolic adaptation. 

Leptin is one of the hormones that’s responsible for the feeling of hunger. When you have extra weight, the levels of Leptin in the system are high. However, when you cut your calories down, even if it’s for a few days, Leptin drops and sends a signal to the brain telling it to eat more to prevent starvation. 

Some hormones, such as thyroid and reproductive hormones, are connected and influenced by the changes in Leptin. If leptin drops, they drop as well. 

When you do carb cycling, during the high-carb days leptin levels will go up and will send a message to the brain saying that everything’s great, and you’re well-fed. So when you do low-carb days you might not even feel as hungry as you would otherwise on lower calories, and it will make those days easier to get through. 

3. Can help support athletic performance while being on low-carb diet

Most of our energy comes from carbohydrates, we know that. However, there’s a way to teach your body to use fats for energy. And I’m not talking about switching to Keto. Having those low-carb days does aid in using fats for energy when your glycogen stores are depleted. This is specifically great for when you are doing long-form cardio like a marathon or a race. 

With carb cycling, your body uses the fat for energy during those low-carb days, but then the glycogen tank gets filled on high-carb days. This gives you energy to burn from fat and now from the new supply of carbs. 

This particular claim is not researched as deeply as it should be to make hard statements, and this information is based on people who’ve done it and how the body responded to it. 

4. Aid in muscle gain while loosing fat

Usually, when we think about growing muscle mass or bulking, there’s an association of fat gain that accompanies it. However, people who do carb cycling claim that they can gain muscle while not gaining any fat. The key here is Insulin. 

Insulin gets a bad reputation, but it is necessary for regulating blood glucose levels and delivering glucose to the cells in our body. It also plays a part in muscle growth and glycogen storage. 

When you have a high-carb day on a training day, you use insulin’s recovery as well as muscle building properties.

When you eat low-carb on rest days or cardio/conditioning workout days, you can not only optimize fat burning, but also improve insulin sensitivity and make the most out of those high carb days. 

Who would benefit from carb cycling? 

Before we get into this, I do want to reinstate that Carb Cycling is a more advanced technique, and you need to have a fairly good grasp on your nutrition and habits before diving into it. Which brings us to the first type of person who would benefit from this diet:

  • You’re someone who’s got their habits down. 

As mentioned before, you need to have a pretty good grasp on your nutrition, your sleep and stress, training split. If that sounds like you, and you want to switch things up a bit and give carb cycling a try, you’re ready for it. 

  • You are already pretty lean but want to push it to the next level

When you get really lean, getting rid of even a bit of remaining fat is hard, especially, if you’ve been in the deficit for a while. So tricking your metabolism with carb cycling can help get to the goal physique and feel like you’re getting more food on those high-carb days. 

  • You are someone who is trying to cut the weight down and change body composition

Carbs tent to hold on to water, so doing carb cycling can help you get that water weight down, and also, assuming you’re in the calorie deficit, trim down that fat. 

  • You’re trying to grow more muscle

If you’re someone who’s already fit and wants to grow muscle, carb cycling can be a way to get you to your goal with more gains. If you are just starting on your fitness journey, carb cycling might not give you any major leg up in muscle building, but is definitely to keep something in your back pocket. 

  • Your body doesn’t tolerate carbs that well

If you’re someone with an underlining medical condition, like issues with blood sugar control, or you get  inflammation after eating a lot of carbs, carb-cycling could be something to explore. You could potentially feel better after carbs if the majority of the carb intake is around your workout time. 

  • You enjoy that structure of eating. 

That one is pretty straight-forward. You want to like whatever eating regimen you have, be it intermittent fasting, paleo, vegan, whatever really. So if you find yourself enjoying carb cycling, and it feels easy for you, why not stick to it long term.

How to do carb cycling:

Below there are a few different examples of how to set up your carb cycling routine. Whether you’re using high-low days or adding carbs before after workout and doing day cycling. The numbers (grams) for macronutrients are just an example, yours would need to be calculated specifically for you. 

carb cycling
(Photo via Healthline)

carb cycling

So to sum it up, while you can go very low in carbs for low-carb days, we’d recommend doing 20-30% difference, which are not going to be as drastic as the numbers in the tables presented above. 

So, if your norm is 150 grams of carbs per day, low day would be around 100 grams and high day would be 200. 

To reiterate this yet again, carb cycling is advanced. If you feel like you’re up to the challenge, then absolutely go for it. Or, if you’ve been doing it for a while and have any tips or tricks, share them in the comments down below.

By Co-Author: Karina Movsesova

Editor: Amanda (Meixner) Rocchio