Carbohydrate cycling is a nutritional strategy that prescribes variance in the amount of carbohydrates consumed per meal or day. Although there is a small body of scientific literature on humans to support these claims, carb-cycling may still have merit for some individuals.
Central Athlete clients have many nutritional questions because there are so few definitive answers about the optimal way to incorporate carbohydrates in their diets. Underlying hormonal and metabolic health, activity level, and lifestyle variables make it difficult to make across-the-board recommendations. Few studies address these issues and those that do always use standard high-carb diets in their manipulations.
The best we can do is explain the logic behind different strategies and encourage you to experiment. As with so many things, it might take time to discover which strategies work best for you.
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In contrast to a Standard American Diet, a low-carbohydrate approach will keep carbohydrates primarily to leafy vegetables as opposed to ultra-processed foods, starches, caloric beverages, and sugar. In fact, many people who adhere to a low-carbohydrate diet consume a variety of non-starchy carbohydrates like broccoli, spinach, kale, mustard greens, bok choy, etc. However, reducing or eliminating starchy carbohydrates lowers the total amount of carbohydrates consumed.
Who Would Benefit from Carb Cycling
There are a number of situations where carb cycling may be applicable. When someone has consistently applied the following strategies, in order, carb cycling might be something to consider.
- Phase 1
- Prioritize lean protein and veggies
- Whole nutrient-dense foods
- Adequate sleep/recovery
- Eat mindfully
- Walk 10,000 steps per day
- Phase 2
- Implement a periodized and progressive exercise program
- Customized macros
- Portion control
- Phase 3
- Carb cycling
- Time nutrients around training
- Intermittent fasting
Once the individual has been consistent with Phase 2 nutritional strategies AND if they fit into one of the “avatars” below, carb cycling might be an option to consider if they are still motivated to take their health and fitness practices to the next level.
Post-deficit - If someone is coming off four to eight weeks or longer of a caloric deficit.
Chasing performance/leanness - If someone is looking for the nutritional “sweet spot” of leanness and performance.
Struggling with cravings - If someone wants to avoid frustrating fat loss plateaus by better regulating hormones like leptin and insulin.
Desire to gain primarily muscle - If someone wants to gain muscle without gaining much fat.
Method 1 - High/Low Days - This carbohydrate and calorie cycling approach is very simple and based on your level of daily activity. On days with minimal physical activity, eat mostly protein, vegetables, and healthy fats, prioritizing carbs to non-starchy vegetables.
On days with physical activity and/or planned exercise, add starchy carbs to the baseline diet primarily around training (before and after training is ideal).
Method 2 - Post-Workout/Anytime Meals - This method involves putting the bulk of a day’s carbohydrate intake in the meal that follows physical activity (post-workout), and minimizing carbohydrates at other meals (anytime). On non-workout days, choose one meal to be considered post-workout. Breakfast and dinner are the most common options.
Method 3 - My Personal Favorite - This is a more intuitive approach where you get to avoid “sitting on the sidelines” of your own life. The problem with methods one and two is that special occasions naturally happen. Say you are following Method 1 and it is a low activity day and you are planning on going to your sister’s birthday party. Well, that’s unfortunate for you. Enjoy sitting there as your family participates in a delicious meal with ice cream and cake. It may be more difficult to comply with this strategy if you have a busy work or social life that throws these types of occasions at you.
Using the third method, an individual will prioritize protein, fat, and non-starchy vegetables, along with some fruits or starches pre- and post-workout. However, there may be a meal or two per week outside of this framework that fits in when you want to enjoy a delicious meal or you have a social obligation. With this method, you will likely sacrifice a bit of body composition progress for mental sanity and the ability to adhere to a low-carb approach for long periods of time.
Okay, I Want to Know More About the Thought Process Here
Carb cycling may help keep your metabolism humming during fat loss. When you eat less—say, to lose fat—your body responds in a variety of ways. For example:
- Your basal metabolic rate drops.
- You expend less energy when you exercise due to decreased energy and body weight.
- Your daily activity level outside of workouts tends to decrease (you move around less without realizing it, and you weigh less).
- Metabolic adaptation - The more your metabolism adapts, the more you have to restrict your food intake. Carb cycling may help regulate hormones affected by fat loss. Intense dieting can mess with your hormones.
Leptin (satiety hormone) is one of the reasons you feel so hungry when you consistently eat less. Hypothetically, a cyclical low-carb diet would tell your brain that you’re well-fed, causing a temporary decrease in hunger and appetite.
Ghrelin (hunger hormone) travels through your bloodstream and to your brain, where it tells your brain to become hungry and seek out food. Ghrelin’s main function is to increase appetite. It makes you consume more food, take in more calories and store fat.
When we are in a caloric deficit for long periods of time, our physiology will have adaptations to thyroid hormones (TSH, T3, T4) and reproductive hormones (testosterone and estrogen). When we eat a large bolus of carbohydrates, there may be very real psychological benefits. When you’re generally eating lower amounts of carbs and calories, getting in a higher carb, higher-calorie day on purpose can feel really good mentally and physically. Additionally, carb cycling may make it easier to adhere to a low-carbohydrate diet.
Carb cycling may support athletic performance on a low-carb diet. The ketogenic diet is also sometimes used by athletes who want to become fat-adapted. Being fat-adapted allows you to burn greater amounts of fat at higher exercise intensities, according to several studies (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26741119/).
For example, in order to fuel long bouts of endurance exercise, your body normally relies heavily on carbohydrates stored in the form of glycogen. Unfortunately, your body can only store so much glycogen at a time. So if you exercise long enough, you’ll run low on carbs and have to slow down. That’s why endurance athletes usually consume 60 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour during competitions. It gives them more fuel so they can keep going at an intense pace. Even very lean people have 15 times more energy available from stored fat than from stored carbohydrates.
If you adhere to a low-carb diet for an extended period of time (months), you will likely have metabolic adaptations and increase fat oxidation. This means that you will create “metabolic flexibility” and your body will be able to utilize both sugars and fat as a fuel source. People who consistently eat a high-carbohydrate diet may be more apt to be “metabolically inflexible” and only able to burn sugars as a fuel source. If you utilize a cyclical low-carbohydrate approach, this could give you the best of both worlds: lots of energy to burn, from both carbs and fat (1).
Carb cycling may promote muscle gain without fat gain. The hypothesis goes:
If you eat high-carb on days you resistance train, you can take advantage of insulin’s muscle-building and recovery properties. If you eat low-carb on rest or conditioning workout days, you can simultaneously lose fat and improve insulin sensitivity, making the high-carb days even more effective.
In summary, a cyclical low-carbohydrate diet in theory and practice is a highly effective tool for optimizing body composition, athletic performance, and establishing high compliance, but it is not for everyone.
Too many people these days are doing intermittent fasting or a ketogenic diet for a few days or weeks, only to revert back to their old practices. Start with one simple change, and then increase the nutritional challenge over time, once you have demonstrated adherence.
At Central Athlete, we implement nutritional changes in phases, based upon where you are and what you want to accomplish. If you’re ready to end the start-and-stop model of behavior change and work with a professional coach that will get you to your desired outcome, schedule a free strategy session today.