Once only the domain of bodybuilders and other elite athletes, carb cycling has gone mainstream. Here’s how it works.Click To TweetOnce only the domain of bodybuilders and other elite athletes, carb cycling has gone mainstream. Here’s how it works.
The well-kept secret bodybuilders have been privy to for years is out. Desiring to keep their body fat percentage to a minimum, muscles as huge and ripped as possible, yet needing extra fuel on those extra-grueling days, someone (or many someones) came up with carb cycling.
What is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – switching up the days that certain amounts of carbs are eaten. Some days of the week will be for eating very low carb (some even say no carb); other days are ones in which higher-carb foods may be eaten.
For elite athletes, this is very precise. They know what their BMI is, exactly how much fat and how many calories they need to eat depending on what type of training they’re doing on any given day. They also know exactly how many carbs are needed and keep track of everything accordingly.
But most of us don’t want to get that involved, keeping a tally of each and every gram of protein, fat, and carbs, and every single calorie. Especially for those who simply want to lose weight and get healthy, changing up one’s diet, getting into a workout routine and sticking to it are difficult enough without throwing a lot of extra mental aerobics and time into the mix.
Not to worry, as carb cycling can be easily adapted for those looking to shed pounds and the weekend warriors alike.
Why Carb Cycling?
For years, there has been a war on carbs. And it’s easy to see why, as it’s been proven repeatedly that many body types simply do not do well with an abundance of carbs and the pounds start piling on. The popularity and success of earlier low-carb diets such as Atkins and South Beach, then later paleo and now keto has shown this to be true.
One thing I liked about the Atkins diet was, you weren’t supposed to eat super low-carb forever. After the first two or three weeks of eating extremely low-carb, dieters were instructed to then start adding in five grams of carbs per week and to continue doing this until the weight loss reversed and the dieter began to gain weight.
At that point, they knew how many carbs their individual bodies could handle (depending on exercise too, of course) before gaining weight. Armed with that information, once they had reached their goal weight, they could eat anything they wanted, provided it was healthy and they didn’t exceed that magic number of carbs.
I have read and heard a lot of claims that the Atkins diet was “bad” because a) it was “too low-carb”; and b) Dr. Atkins and later, those who wrote the books after his passing, basically said that it didn’t matter how much fat people ate or where it came from, as long as they were keeping the carbs down.
This is patently untrue, as I have read some of the books and spent time on the website and found that Dr. Atkins et al stressed lean meats and absolutely no trans fats.
Others disliked South Beach because it was so low-fat, and later when paleo had become all the rage, many folks didn’t like the amount of protein they recommended.
Now keto is huge, and of course, there are those who decry it, with its lower protein than Atkins, extremely low carb and high-fat recommendations.
My question is, when will people realize that one size doesn’t fit all? If a certain way of eating has made you healthy and feeling good, and gives you the results you want, great.
And that’s different for all of us.
I don’t know about the other diets, but I have noticed that some people who have been eating keto for a long time complain that they have plateaued and are stuck. According to the carb-cycling mavens, this is because the whole insulin/leptin hormone dance has swung wildly out of control. I won’t get into that in this post, but here’s a pretty good description here at Healthline.
Carb cycling is supposed to prevent both insulin resistance and leptin resistance, plus is much easier to follow than an all-out low carb way of eating that stretches to eternity. And no “keto flu”!
How Carb Cycling Works
I hate to disappoint you, but if you thought there was going to be a carved-in-stone, step by step list of exactly what to eat and when, and exactly how to do it, you’ll soon see it’s not that simple.
In other words, there are about as many different methods of carb cycling as there are diets out there.
Of course, right? Because one size doesn’t fit all, and this goes not only for each general diet but for the specific approach within each diet. But first, let’s look at the similarities. All recommendations that I know of include:
- Eat fresh, whole foods
- Eat the highest quality foods you can
- Eat lots of low-carb veggies
- Eat fibrous, starchy veggies on high-carb days
- High-carb days do not call for potato chips, cheeze puffs, or Fruit Loops
- Drink lots of water
From there it goes off in all different directions.
One weekly carb cycling plan that I saw calls for low-carb, high-carb, low-carb, medium-carb, high-carb, medium-carb, and no-carb. Although how exactly one would eat zero carbs is beyond me, as even leafy greens and meat contain a small amount.
One suggestion was that the more athletic folks could alternate with four high-carb days and three low-carb days per week. Yet another called for five days of eating low-carb and two of eating moderately high.
Some said that the amount of fat should be raised on those low-carb days. Some said that carb cycling should be used in conjunction with intermittent fasting, especially for women; others said to eat three meals a day and no snacks. Still others said to eat immediately after getting up in the morning and eat no less than five meals per day.
Here’s another suggestion that might work better: carb matching. This approach depends on your day to day energy needs; such on days when you’ll be working out, eat a healthy (read: complex carbs from whole foods) high-carb meal before your workout.
How many carbs you eat the rest of the day would depend on several factors, such as your age, sex, fitness goals, and even your occupation. Obviously, a person of either sex who works as say, a landscaper, will need more carbs than the person of the same sex who works at a desk all day.
And from the life-ain’t-fair deck comes the card to remind we girls that in general, the guys can get away with far more carbs than we can. [pouts severely]
I wish I could give you a concrete plan, a la, eat this much of these foods on Sunday, eat this much of these other foods on Monday, etc. But each body is unique and the plan that works best for you may not work best for your friend or anyone else you know. As with many other things in life, it’s going to take some experimentation, along with paying attention to personal preferences and lifestyle, to get it right for you.
Heidi Powell has five different carb cycling plans on her website. This may be helpful, as you can get a quick run-down of several possibilities all in one place. I haven’t yet read any of her books or put any of the plans into practice, however (although I plan to when I figure out which one), so I can’t recommend one over the other.
And in the End…
Maybe one of Heidi’s plans is what your body needs. Or maybe carb matching is more realistic for you. Perhaps one of the other plans would be better or – here’s a wild thought – maybe a combination of one or more. Mix and match!
Ten different dieters and ten different experts may each tell you ten different things. But in the end, you must do what’s right for your body, your personality, and your lifestyle. You have to start somewhere, so go ahead – dive in and try one of the cut-and-dried plans or take a bit from each playbook and create your own custom eating and workout plan. If it doesn’t seem to be working, tweak it. It’s the only way you’ll find out what is right for you.
And now I’d like to hear from you! Have any of you already tried carb cycling or carb matching? If so, how did it work for you? Leave a comment and let us know. And don’t forget to share the love out there in social media land! 😉