It’s high time we lay out everything you need to know about carb cycling and how this approach to weight loss and nutrition can help change your body composition, build lean muscle, and transform your metabolism into a highly efficient, highly responsive fat burning machine!
Carb Cycling And Weight Loss — What You Need To Know
But First, What Is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling in simple terms is the practice of alternating high carb/low fat days with low carb/high fat days. Most programs that utilize carb cycling include one day with a pre-programmed reward meal (or meals) where restrictions are off.
This gives you a break from the structure of a diet and a chance to satisfy your cravings.
These reward days/meals are super important! No diet or lifestyle is sustainable if you’re fighting with feelings of deprivation and restriction. With carb cycling, you can still have the foods you love and will learn how to incorporate your favorite indulgences into your diet in a smart and targeted way. We’ll cover this more when we cover the reward portion or “cheat meal” aspect of carb cycling so read on!
Carb cycling allows us to strategically manipulate macronutrients to create a metabolic cycle that enables you to lose fat while still allowing your favorite comfort foods without the need for an entirely low carb lifestyle. Repeat it until you believe it, carbs are not the enemy!
You can keep carbohydrates in your diet and still lose weight, build lean muscle, and achieve your goals.
The idea of carb cycling is to maximize the benefits of the carbohydrates you do eat and allocate them where they can be used most effectively.
What Really Happens When You Eat Carbs
A common misconception is that carbs are automatically converted into body fat. Your liver fills up on carbs first, and then sends the excess nutrients out to muscles.
Whatever your muscles don’t use gets sent out to the rest of your organs and bodily systems.
Once all of your systems have taken what they needed, only then are carbohydrates converted into fat stores.
The more active you are, the more carbs you need and the more carbs you can eat. Less active = less carbs.
All macronutrients (macronutrients = protein, carbohydrates, fat) have value and a purpose in your diet.
Though it might be a popular and common approach to weight loss, labeling an entire food group as “good”, “bad” or off-limits is entirely unnecessary and can also cause you to perform some serious mental gymnastics when they resurface in your diet which will inevitably happen at some point because your body needs nutrients from all three.
Protein is essential for building, repairing and maintaining lean muscle mass which in turn, works to boost your metabolism and burn more calories.
Protein isn’t broken down as quickly as carbs and fat and helps keep you feeling fuller, longer. In carb cycling, your daily protein intake stays the same, regardless of whether your day is high carb/low fat, or low carb/high fat.
Protein is your anchor, steady and true.
Carbohydrates can come from a variety of healthy sources like veggies, fruits, grains, and legumes, but also from all of the junk we want to eat instead of the healthy stuff.
Cakes, cookies, candy, donuts...ALL THE CARBS! Unfortunately for the donut and cake lovers out there, quality counts, especially when it comes to carbs.
Healthy carbohydrate sources win out every time when it comes to fueling your muscles and organs, stabilizing blood sugar levels, and keeping your energy levels high and your metabolic engine burning at full capacity.
Carbohydrates supply vital energy and nutrients, your body needs carbs. With carb cycling, you’re not eliminating carbs from your diet, just shifting them around to make them more effective.
Healthy Fats are unsaturated fats and also come in both healthy vs unhealthy forms. Healthy fat sources like avocados and nuts can help prevent heart disease, lower your risk of stroke, maintain energy levels and keep you feeling full and free from hunger.
Fats are important for healthy brain and eye function too!
Using Macronutrients In Your Diet
All three of these vital macronutrients play an important role in your body.
When a little bit of strategy and intentional eating is applied, can be tremendously effective at improving metabolic function, burning excess fat and optimizing the food you eat for max results.
You have to eat to lose, it’s true! Most people aren’t eating enough when trying to lose weight.
They’re so used to a destructive cycle of restriction and low calories that it comes as a total shock when they see just how much food they’ve been missing out on and how much food they actually need.
It’s time to break free from that mentality and start fueling our bodies with the valuable nutrients they need.
Carb Cycling In Action
A sample day of carb cycling looks similar to this:
- Eat five meals
- Drink 1 gallon of water
- Eat breakfast within 30 minutes of waking
- Eat remaining 4 meals on a schedule of every 3 hours
- Choose approved foods - this list will vary based on if you are on a high or low carb day
- Unlimited vegetables (non-starchy)
By strategically alternating between low and high carb days your body can level off glucose stores and amp up your metabolism which brings all the benefits of a low-carb diet like the ability to lose weight rapidly, but without running the risk of crashing your metabolism by restricting or attempting to eliminate carbs.
Benefit Of Low Carb Days:
- Better insulin sensitivity
- Increased fat burning ability
- Improved cholesterol
- Enhanced metabolic health
Higher carb days can have positive effects on different hormones including thyroid, testosterone and leptin, the hormone that regulates body weight, calories expended, and how much fat we store on our body.
Higher carb days are designed to help boost metabolic rate, replenish liver and muscle glycogen stores and aid in protein synthesis (muscle building) and the preservation of lean muscle mass.
Why Restriction Diets Don’t Work And Why Reset Days Are So Important
The rewards of carb cycling run deep, but the most exciting benefit might be that nothing is entirely off limits. No extreme restriction or elimination dieting required!
Strategic “reset” days are a hugely important aspect of a carb cycling approach to diet and nutrition.
Some people call it a cheat day, we prefer the term “reset day” because that’s what a good caloric re-feed day actually does - helps reset your metabolism and give it an extra fat burning boost while giving you a brief reprieve from the psychological and emotional demands of following a diet plan.
Diets are hard!
To cut body fat and lose weight, you have to eat at a caloric deficit. It’s the law of calories in vs calories out. Your caloric intake must be less than your total calories burned.
With carb cycling, our body operates at a deficit on low carb days and is brought back up to maintenance during high carb days, and then above maintenance during reset days.
Low carb days put the body into a deficit from high carb days, which causes your body to mobilize and oxidize fat through the release of catabolic hormones.
Physically, anytime you’re at a deficit the body will compensate by slowing metabolism to preserve energy.
Reset days help trick the body a little by bringing calories up to maintenance or above maintenance and gives metabolism a big boost with plenty of fuel to burn.
This cycle of low carb/high carb/refuel is what keeps your metabolic processes fired up! Which also helps to maximize fat loss, preserve lean muscle mass and prevent a metabolic crash and rebound.
Eat And Be Happy!
Food and emotions are inevitably tied together.
Which is probably why the majority of people wanting to lose weight or change their body struggle with restrictive diets.
Restriction and dieting can actually create powerful emotional and psychological cravings. If you tell someone they can’t have bread then all their brain is ever going to think about is BREAD! That is, until you eat it and satisfy that need.
Brains are tricky that way!
Losing weight and changing your diet is as much of a psychological/emotional challenge as it is a physical one!
A reset day helps give both your brain AND your body a break. It refuels your body with some extra calories to fire your metabolism up in preparation for the week of carb cycling ahead.
Reset Day Rules
Stick to these basic guidelines when it comes to your scheduled re-feed day while carb cycling. This will help you keep your brain, emotions, and metabolism in fine form!
- Add up to 1000 extra calories on top of what you would normally eat
- Intake the additional calories at breakfast and lunch - dinner and beyond is the red zone making you more susceptible to mindless eating and getting wildly off track.
- Cheat at a table, not a drive-through - Sometimes the simple act of having to sit down and focus on the actual physical act of eating is enough to keep us from heading off the rails and facedown into a few pints of Ben And Jerry’s after your meal. The struggle is real!
- No leftovers allowed! - clean your plate and leave no carb behind!