Carbs? You eat Carbs? NO! You can’t eat carbs and lose weight! Or wait… maybe that’s complex carbs. No, it’s all carbs. Carbs are the enemy! Aren’t they???
Poor misunderstood carbohydrates. How did they come to get such a bad rap? So many people out there are under the impression that carbs are what cause weight (fat) gain and that simple elimination of the nasty substrates will alleviate the problem. But if you’ve ever been on a carb-free diet for any length of time, you know that isn’t always the case.
Fuelling your body and mind properly is the only way that you will not only perform at your best but also look your best. Starvation or complete elimination of food groups will not, in the long run, do anything for your adrenal system, your metabolism, or your psyche.
The Old-School Approach
Cut carbs. Shed weight. Protein and vegetables. All-day long.
Most weight loss methods and fads WILL work, in the short term. But there are a couple of things that you have to consider:
1. What kind of weight do you want to lose? Because ultra-low calorie diets or elimination diets will certainly have you losing water weight at the outset. And if you have the willpower to stay on these diets for any length of time, your body will actually begin metabolising your own muscle. That’s right, the hard-earned muscle you brag about will get eaten to keep you alive.
2. How long do you think you can live like that? Chicken and broccoli for every meal. Salads, salads and more salads. Rabbit food. Unless you live in a cage, it’s eventually going to get to you.
The brain’s preferred source of fuel in humans is carbohydrate. Without cyclical consumption of carbohydrate, your brain doesn’t work as well. It’s just that simple. Now, there are other ways of dieting (without daily carbohydrates) that can maintain your ‘normal’ brain function, but that is a topic for another article.
Society seems to have an all-or-nothing approach to shedding weight: if I cut it ALL out then I’ll lose even MORE! Or, if I’m having a slice of garlic bread I might as well have the loaf!
Moderation tends to fall by the wayside when it comes to weight loss. But it’s been proven time and again that moderation is, in fact, the key to success.
One excellent example of moderation in dieting is the recently-popularized ‘carb cycling’.
Though its basis is scientific in nature, carb cycling is not a terribly confusing concept. It’s really nothing more than eating more carbohydrates on some days versus others. The ‘more’ days help to promote muscle anabolism while the ‘less’ days minimize fat gain and even promote fat loss.
The reason that we choose to manipulate carbohydrates (and not fats or proteins) is because carbs have been shown to have the most influence on overall body composition and aesthetics, which is what most of us are seeking to improve upon.
How does it work?
When we decrease carbohydrate intake, the muscles release stored carbohydrates (muscle glycogen) as energy. Generally speaking, when glycogen gets depleted, the body increases its ability to burn fat. So decreasing carb intake will enhance fat burning – in the short term. Cutting carbs back by 1/3 to ½ of your daily intake will kick-start your furnace.
Everyone is different, so you may keep dropping fat at these carb levels, or you may plateau after a few weeks. This is when cycling becomes effective.
If you see that you are no longer getting leaner, it’s time to throw in a couple days of even lower carbs. If you cut back to about 100 grams of carbohydrate for two days (best done on non-training days), you’ll be lowering your glycogen levels further, and kick-start the fat burning process again (which will have curtailed with extended dieting). Again, if you find that your fat loss is tapering off at two days, you can increase to three or four low carb days to keep burning.
There is also the option to add in zero carb days. It’s VERY important to understand that no carb in this instance means NO STARCH and NO FRUIT. Fibrous carbohydrates must be consumed during your ‘zero carb’ days (see list below for options). But don’t forget this is a CYCLE: we still need to talk about the HIGH carb days!
When you’re consuming such little carbohydrate (100 grams daily) over an extended time period, you will need to re-feed the muscles AND the mind. Your muscles will be flat and depleted and you need to fill them up.
When you’ve reached this point in your low carb journey, it’s time to re-feed. Take the number of grams of carbs that you’re currently eating and double it. Again, this might take a few days for some or a few weeks for others. You most definitely don’t want to get to the point where you are losing muscle, and it’s counter-productive to keep your carbs so low and for so long that you’re always fatigued.
The fear that many have is that this ‘re-feed’ will undo all the fat stripping that occurred during the low carb phase. As long as you wait until you need the carbohydrates, you don’t have to worry about this happening. In fact, it should make you even leaner. This step will both re-ignite your metabolism and help you to hold onto your lean mass.
The ‘Pros’ of carb cycling
As I just explained, carb cycling allows you to put on muscle while also leaning out. The process of roller-coasting the carbohydrates makes it very difficult for your body to get used to the way you’re eating, so it takes significantly longer to plateau. The body gets confused and reacts very positively to the continual changes.
The ‘Cons’ of carb cycling
It’s pretty clear what the biggest ‘con’ is here: the low carb days! Not consuming carbohydrates means that your food selection is limited. Not only that, but your body will long for those starches when it doesn’t get them. Because carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of fuel, you could find your energy levels dwindling. This is why I recommend doing the low/no carb days on your ‘off’ days or on low intensity training days.
Benefits of High Carb days
– stimulates an insulin response that shuttles nutrients in your muscle cells, causing them to grow
– replenishes glycogen stores to feed your muscles
– increase your energy and feelings of well-being
Benefits of Low Carb days
– promote fat loss by sending your body to pull from fat cells instead of glucose from ingesting carbohydrates
– keeps your body receptive to insulin (if you overload on sugars the ability of the pancreas to secrete insulin can decrease and become sluggish) which improves anabolism
What about the rest?
Protein is very important in this diet, as it doesn’t change much at all, no matter how high your day’s carbohydrate intake is. You should consume between 1.0-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and can go up on your no/low carb days. Be sure that there is protein at every one of your meals.
Fat does not necessarily make you fat. We NEED fat. The reasons are too many to mention here. And as is the case with all diets, it’s important to keep your daily fat intake moderate. Cutting fat out will NOT lean you out faster in the long term and will actually work against you. Consuming 15-20% of your calories in healthy fats will not only keep your metabolism elevated, but it will also help to curb your carbohydrate cravings on those no/low carb days.
How do I do it?
There are countless combinations that you can use when cycling. You can use high, low and no carb days and you can truly cycle them any way you want: if you’re not leaning out at the rate at which you’re happy, then you should add in another low or no carb day.
As I mentioned earlier, you may choose not to use the zero carb days at all; if that works to achieve your goals then great! Everyone’s bodies adapt and react very differently to different substrates so you’ll have to experiment to find the cycle that works best for you.
I’ve included three lists, which highlight some of the best food choices from each of the macronutrient groupings.
Carbohydrate (starch and fruit):
Oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, barley, sweet potatoes, potatoes
Blueberries, apples, bananas, pomegranates
Broccoli, asparagus, spinach, kale, squash
Protein (lean sources):
Chicken (white meat), tuna, white fish, egg whites, whey protein isolate
Turkey (white meat), venison
Protein (fattier sources):
Lean beef, salmon, whole eggs
Sample carbohydrate cycle:
If you want to give it a shot, a basic ‘cutting’ cycle would be:
2 High carb days
3 Low carb days
2 No carb days
The biggest problem with fad diets and crazy methodologies is that most of them end up causing some level of metabolic damage to those who try them. When your goal is to shed fat and keep your hard-earned muscle, a ruined metabolism is a huge hurdle to overcome and it can take years to repair. Carb cycling offers a science-based, logical pattern of eating that provides your body with the nutrients it needs to perform, while allowing the dieter to achieve the physique that he or she seeks. If the potential carb cycler can manage the occasional low energy day and lethargy, the rewards can be many.