The first time I heard the term “carb cycling,” I thought it involved indulging in a few maple bar doughnuts and then hopping on my bike for a little road trip. Granted, this was years before the internet was our “go to” for everything, and I had to wait for the latest muscle mag to hit the newsstands or thumb through one of my college textbooks to get the scoop.
But, what I learned from those early years of reading countless articles and cross-referencing my nutrition text books, is that carb cycling makes sense. When our body becomes accustomed to a set nutrition plan—especially while dieting—weight loss tends to slow down, or stop altogether and adjustments need to be made in order to get things moving again (sometimes easier said than done). So, what exactly are these “adjustments,” and how do you make it happen?
The theory behind carb cycling is actually quite simple. Instead of eating the same amount of macros (macronutrients) every day, you cycle your carbs, fat, and protein so you have low and high carb days. Physiologically, carb cycling has numerous benefits across the spectrum of needs—from performance to weight loss.
Chris Powell, Host and Transformation Specialist from ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss” and Co-Creator of The Transform App, says “high carb days boost metabolic rate and load glycogen stores, while low carb days increase insulin sensitivity of the cells and put the body in a prime catabolic state for fat loss.” Powell describes carb cycling as a patterned way of alternating between a high carb/low fat diet (to optimize metabolism and muscle development) and a low carb/higher fat diet (to maximize fat loss).
“The beauty of carb cycling is that it can be tailored to your goals—higher carbohydrate for more sports performance goals, or lower carbohydrates for fat loss goals,” says Powell. While the exact amount of carbohydrates you eat during your low and high days depends on your weight, muscle mass, goals and activity levels, the formula Powell has found that works best for him is:
Monday: High Carb
Tuesday: High Carb
Wednesday: Low Carb
Thursday: High Carb
Friday: High Carb
Saturday: Low Carb
Sunday: Reset Day (select one to three larger “reward” meals this day)
And since there’s no “one size fits all” program for weight loss and athletic performance, Chris and his wife Heidi, have developed an app called Transform, that offers multiple transformations from weight loss to men’s and women’s physique and body sculpting, to hardcore cross training.
Ask any fitness enthusiast or athlete about their thoughts on nutrition and exercise and you’re likely to get a similar answer: Adequate food (with the proper macros) makes a significant difference in performance and your physique. Powell says to maximize the results of carb cycling, it’s recommended that you do the heavier loaded workouts (weight training) on higher carb days, and lower intensity (cardio) on the low carb days.
If your goal is sports performance and/or to stay lean, Powell says to cycle the carbs around the training days and off days. “We call if the ‘Fit Cycle’ and it usually equates to only two low carb days per week,” he says. He suggests high carb days for the four or five heavy training days, and low carb days on the one to two days of active rest or aerobic activity to help maximize fat loss and remain lean.
My first experience with carb cycling was about 20 years ago (at the age of 22), when my goal was to decrease body fat while minimizing muscle loss. So, after digging into the science behind this fat loss phenomenon, I decided to give it a try and see if the impressive claims would hold up over time. After a 12-week cycle, similar to the one Powell outlined, my body fat was significantly lower (down about 5%) and I was able to increase my strength—while still enjoying all of my favorite foods.
Fast forward 13 years, and once again, I found myself using a carb cycling program. This time, my goal was to lower my cholesterol and lose the weight I had gained over the course of two pregnancies. In a little under one year (remember—permanent weight loss takes time), I was down over 75 pounds and managed to move my cholesterol into the “acceptable” range. The best part? It’s been six years, and I’ve been able to keep the weight off and increase muscle mass by exercising daily and incorporating carb cycling into my overall nutrition program.
M Dreibelbis, CC-BY
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness.