At one time, carbohydrates were all the rage, while fat was the enemy. Then protein was the heralded nutrient, while carbs were shamed and consumed only in low quantities, if at all. The truth is that all nutrients have a place in a healthy diet, and none should be completely excluded.
However, in a quest to burn fat, lose weight, gain muscle, feel better, improve performance, address health conditions and more, people continually manipulate their diets, such as with carb cycling. So, what is carb cycling, anyway?
Basically, carb cycling is alternating intake of carbohydrates on a daily, weekly or monthly basis – from zero, low, moderate or high carb diets. The main purpose of this manipulation is to teach the body to use up stored carbohydrate and burn more fat as fuel. More research is needed to support the effectiveness of this plan, but bodybuilders, fitness models and athletes report anecdotal success.
What are carbs exactly? One of the main nutrients, along with protein and fat, carbohydrates provide energy. The digestive system breaks down carbs into glucose, which fuels the body and the brain. As glucose enters the blood stream, the pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that moves glucose from the blood and into the cell, where it is converted to energy, stored as glycogen or stored as fat.
Two types of carbs exist: simple and complex. Simple are sugars found naturally in fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products, and complex are whole grain breads, cereals and pastas; legumes and starchy vegetables, such as potatoes.
Complex carbohydrates, which are rich in fiber, minimize blood sugar spikes and are known as good carbs. This includes spinach, oats, beans and apples, for instance. Simple carbs, or bad carbs, can spike sugar in the bloodstream, and tend to be refined and processed, such as white rice, donuts and French fries.
Fiber in complex carbs can help prevent peaks and valleys in blood sugar, reduce cholesterol and contribute to satiety. Sugars are considered carbohydrates, whether natural sources, such as lactose and fructose, or artificial, like high-fructose corn syrup, and should be limited to control weight.
According to the World Health Organization, daily total carbohydrate intake should be 55% to 75% of total caloric consumption, while proteins should provide 10% to 15% and fats should provide 15% to 30%. But carb cycling plays with these numbers.
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to follow carb cycling, but various regimens exist based on specific goals:
- Fat loss – Follow four or five low-carb days with two or three high-carb days
- Muscle gain – Intersperse four or five high-carb days with two or three low-carb days
- Athletic performance – Include more carbs on training days and fewer carbs on recovery and rest days
Some typical weekly routines are three low-carb days, two moderate-carb days and two high-carb days. The basic concept is to eat more carbs on active days and fewer carbs when you’ll be more sedentary. Lower carb intake means more protein and maybe fat, while higher carb diets have fewer protein and fat amounts.
On low-carb days, carbohydrate intake is approximately 50-150 grams, typically from non-starchy vegetables and some dairy. Higher-carbohydrate days include 20-400 grams of carbohydrate from starchy carbs, whole grains, fruit and non-starchy vegetables, and dairy products.
You should consult with a registered dietitian to develop a smart carb cycling plan for your lifestyle. Note that carb cycling is not recommended for people who are pregnant, lactating, underweight or have an eating disorder. Ultimately, listen to your body and follow the plan that works best for you. Stay Fueled.