The Circle of Carbs
Carbohydrates are so misunderstood. There are a lot of different philosophies when it comes to carbs. Although the typical Western diet is high in refined carbohydrates, many weight-loss diets rely on a low-carb component. And you have those who avoid carbs entirely based on a specific nutritional belief.
For a sustained lifestyle and a healthy diet; I believe you need everything in moderation. Now carbs per se are crucial; you need them to power-through workouts and perform well, but eating too many can contribute to fat storage and extra weight. Well, ultimately a caloric surplus is what will make you gain weight; but it is very easy to over-eat carbs than any other macronutrient just because they are easier to digest and ultimately; they are the master fuel – the body’s preferred source of energy.
What is Carb Cycling?
It is a process of eating more carbohydrates for a sustained period followed by a period of eating lower carbohydrates. So basically, some days you’ll have higher carbs followed by days with less carbs.
The main point to remember here is that carb cycling is a very strategic approach to setting up your diet. So if you aim to utilize this method for your goals of fat loss, more muscle, or better performance in the gym, you must do it strategically. It all depends on your goals and your dietary preferences. Having said that, it’s good to remember that there is no one way to go about this. Some people eat a high-carb diet every single day and some eat a lower carb diet. Some cycle their carbs, some don’t. But lots of research and my experience with my clients has shown that carb cycling can break plateaus, enhance body composition and could aid in your performance if you take your nutrition very seriously and you usually eat meticulously.
The trick with carb cycling is that it attempts to manipulate glycogen stores in a strategic manner by topping up the body’s stored carbs to replace what’s been used up for exercise. For example if you are a runner you need to eat high carb meals prior to a run so that you have enough glycogen stores to sustain you throughout the run.
Purpose of HIGH carb days:
- Refilling muscle glycogen and improving performance
- Spare protein from muscle breakdown due to lots of training, calorie and carb restriction
- Raise hormones like Leptin that regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger; when leptin is higher, we feel fuller. Higher carb meals help raise leptin more than high-fat intake.
Purpose of LOW carb days:
- Inducing a caloric deficit; which helps the body burn more fat
- Manage caloric intake on a weight-loss diet
- Managing insulin; especially after a day of high carb eating
On high carb days; healthy starch, vegetables and fruit will typically make up 50% or more of the total intake for the day. And the range can vary depending on your needs, activity level and goals. Low carb days are rather different, carbs will make up anywhere from 25-50% of their intake depending on their personal energy requirements.
Carb cycling can be used for fat loss; but you need to be aware as I mentioned in the beginning of the article, you need to be in a caloric deficit for a sustained period of time to drop body fat. Just because you go low to almost no carb, you can still be eating enough calories to maintain your weight, which will not allow you to lose fat.
As for muscle building, carb cycling is definitely a great tool for muscle gain. Building muscle mass happens because of many factors such as resistance training, a caloric surplus (from all calories, not just protein) and adequate rest and recovery from hard training. Eating carbohydrates strategically can help you pack on muscle mass without the extra fat gain. But beware… any type of caloric surplus WILL make you gain fat regardless of how you go about it; whether it was from protein, fat or carbs. Reality check, there is no magical macronutrient ratio for weight gain. Eat more, carry more!
You need to also note that starchy carbohydrate sources such as grains and potatoes are better stored as muscle glycogen, while fructose (the sugar found in fruit) is best for refilling liver glycogen. There is a difference. So on your high carb days I would suggest focusing more on starchy carbohydrates for better and sustained energy. On your lower carb days opt for some low glycemic index fruit and green veggies with little starch on the side.
Bottom line; if you want to lose fat, build muscle or even just shuffle up your diet and try an approach that is a bit out of the routine, sure – give it a go. However, you need to keep in mind that just because carb cycling is trendy and gets a lot of attention in the fitness world doesn’t mean it is for you. It can be extremely stressful to keep zig zagging your macros and leave your body guessing what energy source it will be getting. Also, low or no carb days are definitely intense on the body; so do not take it lightly.
For fat loss, maintain a caloric deficit over a sustained period of time, if you speak to my clients they will tell you how much I stress on consistency; I truly believe that consistency is arguably the most difficult part of losing weight or even muscle gain. You need an achievable and realistic goal that will keep your hormones and psychological being happy and relaxed most of the time. Celebrate the little achievements like fitting into an old pair of jeans, or breaking a PR. There is nothing wrong with trying out different methods to get those goals in check, just don’t go too extreme because extremism is short-lived and it will backfire sooner or later.
Zein Nimri is an AFPA certified sports nutritionist, NESTA kids nutritionist, long distance runner, cyclist and traveller with big dreams. Follow her on Instagram @Zeinutritionist she is currently an Eating Disorder Recovery Coach.