Perhaps you tested a vegan lifestyle for a month or two. Maybe you devoted a week of your life to the keto diet (and realized it was dreadful). Or was paleo your weight-loss diet of choice? Hey, we've all tried a fad diet or two in our day.
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But unlike these lifestyle-altering diets, carb cycling is more of an eating style (like volume eating). Instead of specifying which foods to eat and avoid, carb cycling dictates the amount of carbohydrates you eat on which days of the week to boost athletic performance.
While carb cycling may be an effective eating plan for athletes and competitors, it's probably not the best regimen to try if you're just looking to lose a few pounds of fat. Read on to learn how carb cycling works, why it's not the best fat-loss method for everyone and what you should do instead.
So, What Is Carb Cycling?
Before diving into the benefits of carb cycling, it's crucial to understand exactly what carbohydrates do in your body. One of the three main macronutrients (alongside protein and fat), carbs are broken down into glucose when consumed, which your body uses as its main fuel source, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Once this glucose gets into your blood, your body produces insulin, a hormone that moves the glucose from your blood and into your cells. Your cells then convert the glucose into energy or store it in your fat cells.
Carb cycling involves strategically manipulating your daily carbohydrate intake to get the biggest benefits from the energy for exercise, competition or fat loss, per the ACE. Generally, an athlete will eat more carbohydrates and less fat on particularly difficult training days, whereas he or she may consume less total carbs on recovery days.
"Carb consumption might depend upon your level of activity or your ability to control your blood sugar," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, registered dietitian, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. "Some people cycle carbs, meaning that they adjust the quality and quantity of carbs throughout the course of the day, with particular attention to carb intake before or after exercising."
How Does Carb Cycling Work?
As with most eating strategies, there's no one way to carb cycle. Each person is different and will need different amounts of carbohydrates.
Plus, carb cycling can be a pretty rigorous eating regimen and probably isn't the best fat-loss strategy for most people (more on that below). Generally, carb cycling works better as a performance-related regimen, rather than as a fat-loss diet.
Nevertheless, there are some general rules of thumb when it comes to carb cycling. Usually, your week will consist of high-carb days, low-carb days and no-carb days, depending on your training session of the day, per the ACE.
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On your hardest training days (for instance, your leg days), you'll eat the most carbohydrates, consuming between 2 to 2.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight, recommends the ACE. On your lower-carb days (your other training days), you'll eat somewhere around 0.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight. Finally, on your no-carb days (your rest days), you'll usually eat somewhere around 30 grams of carbs or less in total.
These numbers aren't set in stone, however, as everyone's body processes and reacts to carbohydrates differently, Taub-Dix says. While some people may only need 2 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight on their high-carb days, others may need 3 or 4 grams of carbs per pound.
That's why working with a dietitian or nutritionist is probably the best way to get an accurate and educated value for your carb-cycling routine. A qualified professional can help you pinpoint how many carbs you need for your performance goals and overall health.
Carb Cycling and the Body
Carb cycling works for some athletes because of the effect calories and macronutrients have on your metabolism, according to the ACE. Your metabolism responds to increases and decreases in calories, signaling different hormone production, which keeps you at a healthy weight.
This is why eating too many carbohydrates can cause weight gain when you eat in a caloric surplus, which is more calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight. Because the carbs trigger an insulin release, eating too many can cause the body to store the excess glucose as fat.
On the other hand, eating a few lower-carb days one after the other can encourage the body to use its stored carbohydrates, switching over to body fat for fuel, according to the ACE. Then, when you have a hard training day, boosting the carbs can help improve your performance, thanks to the increased energy.
However, the quality of your carbohydrates matters, too, Taub-Dix says. You still want to make sure that your body is getting all the nutrients it needs, which is why starchy vegetables and whole grains are a better choice than, say, cereal or french fries.
Should You Try Carb Cycling for Fat Loss?
Carb cycling is an extremely strict, high-maintenance way to eat. While it can be an effective method for athletes looking to trim fat while maximizing performance and strength before a competition, it's probably not necessary if you're just looking for some overall fat loss.
"The bottom line is that more research is needed to determine whether carb cycling is beneficial or detrimental," Taub-Dix says.
Instead, eating a balance of all three macronutrients in a calorie deficit (when you burn more calories than you consume) will get you the results you want without the challenge of counting and cycling carbohydrates.
Start by finding the amount of calories your body needs to maintain its current weight (aka your maintenance calories). Track your food intake for a few days using a food diary or tracking app to get a ballpark value.
Then, you can safely trim about 500 to 1,000 calories from your daily intake, depending on your desired rate of weight loss, according to the Mayo Clinic. Keep in mind, though, that you shouldn't dip below 1,200 calories a day if you're a woman or 1,500 per day if you're a man.
Minimizing your processed foods is the easiest way to cut down on your total calorie intake. Cookies, chips and sodas may taste good, but they offer little nutritional value and are usually pretty dense in calories, too.
Fill your plate with plenty of vegetables at each meal. Veggies are high in vitamins and nutrients as well as fiber, which helps you maintain a regular digestion pattern and promotes a feeling of being full. Plus, veggies are low in calories.
Instead of carb cycling, try to eat a whole-food carb at each meal. Brown rice, oats and sweet potatoes, for example, are great sources of nutritious carbs that are lower in calories but will still provide the energy you need to get through your workouts.
Finally, you don't want to neglect your protein, either. Although fattier cuts of meat may taste delectable, try to eat more lean protein, like chicken, turkey and fish during your fat-loss phase. These sources are lower in calories but provide the satiating protein you want at each meal.
The Bottom Line
So, is carb cycling the right choice for you? If you're looking to lose fat while keeping performance levels high for a competition, it can be a helpful strategy. However, you'll want to consult a dietitian or nutritionist to help create the best carb cycling plan for your body.
If you're just looking to drop a few pounds of fat, carb cycling is an unnecessarily elaborate diet for your purposes. Instead, prioritize eating healthy sources of all three macronutrients while slowly trimming your calories. Before you know it, you'll reach your fat-loss goals — no carb cycling needed.