Calorie restriction as a weight loss strategy is a short-term solution at best, and one that has more negatives than positives.
Carb cycling is a sustainable and more effective approach to weight loss and weight management. In this blog I will explain what it is, how to do it, and lay out several different carb cycling programs so you can choose which one is best for you.
Sticking to a strict low calorie regimen while training hard is both physically and psychologically tough. Physically, you are hungry, tired, low energy, and if you restrict yourself too long you risk going into a state of overtraining because you haven’t given your body the support it needs to recover. If that isn’t bad enough, the psychological affects of calorie restriction; hunger, mood swings, decreased desire, impaired cognitive function and focus; are even worse.
Adding to the psychological burden is the fact that calorie restriction doesn’t work for very long. That has a spirit crushing effect when you are suffering and not seeing positive results. You begin to question your motivation and yourself. When you start questioning yourself the next steps are usually a binge that snowballs into a total loss of nutritional discipline and missed training days that cause you to feel fat, sluggish, bloated and “Blah.”
Calorie Restriction Snowball Effect
Physical/Psychological Drain --> Results plateau --> Negative self-talk --> Binge --> Loss of discipline --> Feel “BLAH” --> Feel shitty about yourself --> More negative self-talk --> More Binge --> More “BLAH” --> Feel shittier about yourself --> Repeat
What is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is the planned alternation of carbohydrate intake that prevents fat loss plateaus by maintaining high metabolic function and workout performance. If you plan high carbohydrate days, known as “re-feeds” strategically your body never goes into starvation mode, thyroid function stays high, hunger stays in check, and muscles get glycogen refueling when they need it.
Carb cycling is a high-level nutrition strategy that requires planning. There are several different carb cycling strategies with varying degrees of difficulty and aggressiveness. Some of the strategies short term solutions, while others can be used as a long-term lifestyle approach.*
*I have been using a form of carb cycling and intermittent fasting (IF), which I will cover tomorrow in Easy Intermittent Fasting, for the last 4 months. In that time I have lost 12 lbs of fat, recorded several strength training personal records (PR’s), and had more energy than I can remember without feeling deprived. Keep in mind I also managed to do this with a baby that is now 3 months old (shout-out to my girlfriend, Lauren).
Benefits and How it Works
Sugar intake causes your body to make more fat cells, triggers those fat cells to fill up, and impairs cellular fat metabolism making it difficult for your body to utilize what is in those fat cells (Read Myth #4: Eating Fat Makes You Fat for more information on the factors that make you fat). Keeping blood sugar and insulin levels low is the key to losing and maintaining a healthy weight. Eating carbs also makes you retain water, three molecules of water per molecule of glucose (Read Guide to Labor Day Cheating). Too much carb deprivation however, can be difficult and may actually hinder performance.
The basic premise of carb cycling is that fat and protein intake are kept relatively constant while carbohydrate intake is varied. Throughout the cycle carbs are kept low or gradually depleted leading up to a high carbohydrate, “re-feed” period that lasts between 8 and 12 hours. Typically, fat and protein intake is scaled back on re-feed days unless hypertrophy is the goal. The bolus of carbs mitigates the need for energy from dietary fat and carbohydrates have a protein sparing affect so less dietary protein is required.
Carb Cycling Strategies
The following are several strategies. This is not a definitive list of every possible carb cycling plan.
Schedule one re-feed every 7-14 days. The high carb re-feeds on this plan are the biggest because it the low-carb phase is the longest. This is the most aggressive plan and the one that will result in the fastest fat loss. Depending on the length of your low-carb phase this may not be sustainable long term. You may keep a relatively steady low-carb amount through the low-carb phase, but it may help to do a progressive decrease. A progressive decrease would look something like the following:
- Day 1 Carbs = 60 grams
- Day 2 Carbs = 50 grams
- Day 3 Carbs = 40 grams
- Day 4 Carbs = 30 grams
- Day 5 Carbs = 20 grams
- Day 6 Carbs = 0-20 grams
- Day 7 Re-feed
Schedule a re-feed every 3-5 days. This is easiest and most sustainable program to follow. On this plan you can constantly tweak your ratio of low-carb days to re-feeds.**
Start with a ratio of fat day to re-feed ratio of 3:1. Ride that ratio for as long as you get results and then experiment with 4:1 and 5:1. If 3:1 is working there is no need to use a more aggressive plan until you need it. Don’t use a nuke if a fly swatter will get the job done.
Note: The re-feeds should be a little more moderate than the Infrequent Re-feed plan.
**Personally, I never refer to days as “low-carb” days. It has a negative connotation and it makes it sound like it is anything other than a normal day. The re-feed is the deviation from the norm, not the days that are low-carb. Instead I call them “fat days” because that is where I am getting my energy.
This is a great approach for serious trainees, endurance athletes and those that travel frequently. This approach requires the most amount of planning because you are structuring varying carbohydrate intake days at different intervals in synchronization with intense training days, travel or special events. This is an extremely affective approach for someone who is organized.
To illustrate an example, lets say that I am training multiple energy systems 5 days a week. Two days a week I train two times a day, one intense strength training session and another steady state aerobic session in the evening. Also factor in that my best friend is getting married the third Saturday of the month. My goal is to lose 5 lbs of fat to improve my power-to-weight ratio, but I don’t want to hinder my performance.
In this scenario I would lay out my calendar for the month. I start by identifying the re-feed days. The obvious first choices are days that I am training twice in one day because I will want to support my training. Another obvious re-feed is the day of the wedding because I want to enjoy being social and taking part in the festivities. That will work out to 9 re-feeds out of 30 days in the month (8 days of “two-a-day” workouts and 1 wedding). That is a ratio of a little over 3:1 low-carb to re-feed days.
Let’s say for my goals I know I need to be close to a 4:1 ratio to fuel the amount of fat loss I want while keeping my performance high (note: a lot of this is done through trial and error). I will have to adjust by taking away a couple re-feed days when I train twice in a day.
Keep in mind that low-carb days may vary in the amount of carbs in this plan or any other carb cycing strategy. Let’s say that as a baseline anything less than 100 grams of carbs is a low-carb day. That baseline varies from person to person based on gender, muscle mass, training intensity, training duration, etc. That means there is variability from 0 to 100 carbs on your low-carb days. When I am looking at my training program and I see a particularly taxing workout I may plan for that day to be a low-carb day at the top end of the low-carb scale. On a low intensity day, for example a 60-90 minute aerobic workout on the ERG machine, I will plan to stay on the lower end of the scale.
Conclusions and Tips
There are infinite different ways to carb cycle. The best program will take some trial and error. Generally it is a good idea to periodically do a re-feed lasting several days or even a week if you have been carb cycling for a long period of time. This will ensure your metabolism stays high long term and you don’t impair thyroid function. Go into those extended re-feeds with the expectation that you will gain a little body weight. Look at that as taking a couple steps back so that you can move three steps forward in sustaining a healthy metabolism that makes it easy to burn fat if you ever have to get really lean for something.
In my experience carb cycling works best with some form of Intermittent Fasting (IF). Register for my blog updates at the bottom of this page to get my upcoming article Easy Intermittent Fasting.
It is important to maintain good food quality during the re-feeds. “High carb” does not mean “junk food.” Don’t let carb cycling become an excuse to binge on crappy food. Treating yourself from time to time is a good thing, but everything in moderation.