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What Is Carb Cycling? Everything You Need to Know

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Modern diets are a dime a dozen. Scrolling through social media, you’d think everyone was on some sort of diet the way they’re discussed in such fervorous detail.

The ketogenic diet, or “keto diet” for short, eliminates carbs entirely and is a favorite of bodybuilders. The South Beach Diet insists a low-carb approach is the healthiest diet for you heart. And even eating techniques like intermittent fasting are diets in their own unique way, suggesting we eat during specific periods of time throughout the day while restricting food entirely during others.

Truth be told, there’s no single diet that solves every problem, nor is every diet safe for every person. That being said, there are eating methods we can adopt that utilize the basic principles of a diet alongside simpler rules for consumption. One of these diet plans that’s proven to have a significant effect on one’s health is referred to as carb cycling.

No, this method doesn’t involve eating a bowl of pasta before spending hours on a bicycle. Instead carb cycling is a diet plan that seeks to simplify carbohydrate intake over a period of time, thus leading to weight loss as a result. But before we delve too deeply into the process of carb cycling, let’s begin with the basics. Let’s start with the simple carbohydrate.

What Is a Carbohydrate?

There are three main macronutrients that our body gets from food: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Fat is stored in large amounts throughout the body and acts as a slow-burning fuel. A gram of fat contains 9 calories. Protein, on the other hand, is used to make hormones, build muscle, and create enzymes. A gram of protein contains 4 calories. And finally, carbohydrates are stored in the body as glycogen and act as the main fast-burning fuel source for the body and brain. A gram of carbohydrates also contains 4 calories.

While carbs may serve a number of functions, their primary responsibility is to provide the body with a source of energy. They’re the body’s most readily available form of fuel. Yet because our body will only need a certain amount of fuel from carbohydrates each day, excess carbs are converted to fat for future use when needed. But often times such stores of fat can go unused, thus contributing to an increase in body weight over time.

The solutions we can utilize to combat this conversion of carbohydrates to fat are numerous. For instance, we can attempt to burn fat and carbs by exercising regularly. We can reduce our calorie intake each day or practice healthy eating habits that provide fewer carbs. Or we can adopt a technique like carb cycling, which aims to match the body’s need for glucose with a specific activity, or our overall activity levels. That final option remains one of the healthiest ways to regulate our carbohydrate intake.

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So How Does Carb Cycling Work?

You may now be wondering how exactly carb cycling works. If the intent is to match the body’s need for carbs, what measures can we take to ensure this occurs?

When breaking down the carb cycling procedure, we must start by discussing how we use carbs during different carb cycling days. While most people are generally consistent in terms of daily carbohydrate intake, carb cycling seeks to manipulate intake in a regimented fashion. These days can be categorized as high-carb days and low-carb days.

High-Carb Days

Think of all the food you’ll consume on any given day. Most of us will incorporate breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks between meals. Yet as we all know, higher-carb days are bound to occur throughout any given week. Perhaps your morning will start with a bagel, and the night will end with a hearty bowl of pasta, followed by a slice of cake for dessert. When days like these occur, and we’ve increased our carb intake more than we otherwise would, this is considered a high-carb day.

So what do we do when we’ve got a day ahead of us that’s chock-full of carbs? Ultimately, our goal is to match that increased intake of energy-dense macronutrients with high-intensity workouts that are sure to burn the carbs off.

When we exercise at high-intensity, our body requires more fuel from carbohydrates to meet the increased energy demands. By breaking down the carbs either aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), the body is using more carbohydrates during the workout itself, as well as after the workout to make glycogen to refuel and decrease muscle breakdown.

Low-Carb Days

So what happens if the day is reversed? You’ve eaten far fewer carbs, and instead have relied on healthy fats like avocado or protein from meat and veggies as opposed to that plate of pasta.

This is the other end of the spectrum that completes the cyclical carb “cycle.” While it was once believed that low-carb days ensured little need for exercise, recent research has instead suggested that training on low-carb days can still serve a purpose by speeding up any adaptations to aerobic training while increasing fat burning and thus improving endurance.

By participating in days of low-carbohydrate consumption, the body is forced to rely on fat as the primary form of energy, thus increasing aerobic capacity, defined as “the maximal amount of physiological work that an individual can do as measured by oxygen consumption.”

However, the body must grow accustomed to a diet that reduces the total amount of carbs if it’s to burn fat on a consistent basis. While fat loss is often a product of utilizing the carb cycle, the body will still be dependent on carbs in the short-term before progressing to fat as the primary energy source.

A Carb-Cycling Schedule

Though the schedule below leaves room for customization, this is a solid example of your typical carb-cycling routine. Remember that lower-carb days can still be accompanied by exercise, but high-carb days should most certainly be combined with training days, as is standard procedure for the carb cycling diet. The schedule below also fails to address the opportunity for a rest day, but these can be incorporated once per week if needed.

  • Monday: higher-carb day
  • Tuesday: lower-carb day
  • Wednesday: higher-carb day
  • Thursday: lower-carb day
  • Friday: lower-carb day
  • Saturday: higher-carb day/optional reward day to enjoy a favorite meal
  • Sunday: lower-carb day

Keeping Your Diet in Mind

While it may be easy enough to keep track of the carbs we consume while exercising accordingly, often our diet and everyday meal plans alone can play a sizable role in our body and brain health. A low-carb diet or even a moderate carb diet that relies on whole foods and high-protein is a common means of altering one’s body composition. When we elect to maintain a healthy diet, many changes can take place.

That being said, it’s important to consult a nutritionist or dietitian when considering an extensive overhaul of your diet. Any form of food consumption that suddenly alters protein intake, fat intake, or carb intake can be dangerous for those with an insulin sensitivity or blood sugar concerns.

Additionally, weight loss in any form is a product of both diet and exercise. According to Shawn Talbott, nutritional biochemist and former director of the University of Utah Nutrition Clinic, “weight loss is generally 75% diet and 25% exercise.” It’s not a product of diet alone. To ensure we’re establishing our exercise routine alongside this new diet plan, we can use measurement techniques like the rate of perceived exertion scale, to make sure we’re exercising at the correct level for our personal fitness.

The most difficult aspect of carb cycling tends to be sustainability. While we can go perhaps one or two weeks on any given diet plan, low-carb diets are no easy task. As a result of this reality, medical professionals often recommend striving for a more balanced plan that focuses on fruits and veggies, lean proteins, and whole grain carbs.

Because cutting calories too low can lead to a decrease in muscle mass, the general rule of thumb is to allow 10 calories per pound of body weight — so a 125-pound person should strive to consume 1,250 calories per day, thus leading to weight loss no matter how much you exercise.

Is Carb Cycling for You?

Determining whether or not you should participate in a carb cycling diet requires research and experimentation based on your lifestyle and fitness routine. Striking a balance between high-carb and low-carb days is a process that can change in the long-term, so be patient and pay attention to your body as you go. Incorporating exercise and even consistent sleep are other necessary tools to ensure your carb cycling is as effective as possible.

To learn more about carb cycling, be sure to consult a nutritionist or dietitian rather than go it alone. Carb cycling allows for flexibility and empowers choice, making it one of the most popular diets in that ever-expanding catalog of dieting options. And it could be a more sustainable option for carb-cutters with a love of pasta.

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