What is carb cycling?
Simply put, carb cycling is a planned alteration of carbohydrate intake in order to prevent a fat loss plateau and maintain metabolism along with workout performance.
Carb cycling is considered an aggressive and high level nutrition strategy. Only people (such as physique athletes) whose nutritional adherence is extremely high, and who require a more meticulous nutritional approach, should use it. I have tried it with clients who are not competing but have hit a plateau in their weight loss and it works very well! But do not attempt this if you haven’t been eating clean consistently for at least 3 months…
Carb cycling is designed for short-term use. It is not a long-term solution for body fat management. In fact, if used for too long it may be detrimental to your fat loss.
Planned manipulation and variation
If eaters plan a higher carbohydrate intake at regular intervals, their bodies won’t ever get too close to starvation mode.
However, they can still lose fat if they still take in fewer total calories than they expend — i.e., if the overall long term trend is towards negative energy balance.
Higher carbohydrate intake days can increase thyroid output and control hunger
Manipulating carbohydrate intake can also help one take advantage of certain anabolic hormones, primarily insulin.
Insulin regulates amino acid and glucose intake entry into the muscle cells. If insulin is seldom elevated, dieters will not reap its anabolic (promoting tissue growth) benefits.
Conversely, if people plan to elevate insulin levels at the appropriate time with a scheduled higher carbohydrate intake, they can maximize insulin’s potential anabolic effects.
What you should know
There are different methods of carb cycling. However, the common theme behind them is that protein and fat intake stay relatively constant while carbohydrate intake is manipulated.
Carb cycling also typically involves calorie cycling. Since carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, adjusting carbohydrate intake while keeping fat and protein more or less the same can greatly alter calorie intake.
Days where carbohydrates (and usually calories) are increased are often known as “re-feed” (a.k.a. my favourite)days.
Dr. Berardi (Precision Nutrition) gives a nice definition of re-feed as a planned increase in calorie intake that lasts 8 – 12 hours and usually consists of a large increase in carbohydrates.
Re-feeds usually occur when dieting and are scheduled in order to provide a brief day of psychological relief as well as a number of physiological benefits…
An example of a re-feed is following a strict diet of 1500kcal 5 days per week and consuming 2500kcal of clean bodybuilding foods (the additional kcal coming mostly from carbohydrates) on the other 2 days.
Since carbohydrate intake will be increased on the re-feed days, it is important to scale back the fat and protein intake slightly. Carbohydrates have a protein sparing effect so less dietary protein is required. This will allow for one’s calorie count to remain in check.
The same principles of good nutrition apply equally to “everyday” eating and carb cycling phases, including proper meal frequency, omega-3 fat intake, adequate protein and fiber intake, plenty of vegetables, etc.
Here are some common carb cycling approaches.
Infrequent big refeeds
Higher carbohydrate intake every 1-2 weeks during a lower carbohydrate intake phase.
Frequent to moderate refeeds
Higher carbohydrate intake every 3-4 days during a lower carbohydrate intake phase.
Strategic Carb Cycling
This consists of structuring different menus with moderate carbohydrate intake at strategic intervals during a lower carb intake phase. This approach steers away from an extremely high carbohydrate intake because the menu changes regularly. But it does allow for metabolism to play catch-up with dietary intake.
Carb Cycling for Muscle Gain
Those interested in gaining muscle mass need a calorie surplus. Unfortunately, if they grossly over-consume calories for too long they’ll probably gain bodyfat. Thus, one way to optimize muscle gain over fat gain during a muscle gaining phase is with carb cycling.
This is similar to the “strategic carb cycling” approach. Menus are planned according to your weekly schedule in order to create a temporary calorie surplus. This can assist with lean mass and strength gains.
Here is the current carb cycle I am following for the next month…
Day 1: High, Day 2: Low, Day 3: Low, Day 4: High, Day 5: Low, Day 6: High, Day 7: Low
Important Tips for the Carb Cycling Approach…
- Base the dietary approach on basal calorie needs and activity levels.
- Always pick out the re-feed days in advance.
- Stay on course until the re-feed day arrives.
- Keep your decisions outcome-based. Different re-feed strategies work better for certain body types. Look at the evidence from your photographs and body composition tests to ensure that you are on the right track.
- Try to exercise on the re-feed days for optimal body composition results.
- On the re-feed days, the body still tolerates carbohydrates best first thing in the morning and around times when physical activity is high.
Whether your goal is to lose weight, build muscle, see your abs, or get back in shape, carb and calorie cycling can make a real difference.
So to put this all in a nut shell….
Before you attempt carb cycling and other fine tuning strategies: Removing deficiencies, controlling calorie intake, and beginning eating for your body type – and doing this all consistently – must come first. If you haven’t done those first, this strategy usually backfires.
While it may have a fancy name, carb cycling is simply eating more carbohydrates on some days – usually on high volume or high intensity days – and eating fewer carbohydrates on other days – usually low volume, low intensity, or off days.
The focus is on carbohydrates (and not protein or fats) because carbs seem to influence body composition, how you look, and how you feel the most.
By changing carbohydrate and therefore calorie intake on particular days, we can keep fat loss going and metabolic rate increasing, without the harsh effects of stringent calorie or carb restriction.
The carb and calorie cycling approach is pretty simple, and based on your activity.
- On the days you’re not lifting weights – or days you’re just doing low intensity or short duration exercise – eat a baseline diet of mostly protein, vegetables and healthy fats with minimal carbs.
- On the days you are lifting weights – or you’re doing longer duration high intensity exercise – add starchy carbs to your baseline diet.
And that’s pretty much it. No need to measure grams or count calories. Just follow a baseline diet on lower carb days. And add carbs on higher carb days.