How to Do Carb Cycling for Weight Loss, According to a Dietitian
Nutrition trends come and go in waves. First, everyone was terrified of eating too much fat. Then the conversation started to shift, and the masses begin to demonizing carbohydrates.
And, in a way, a fear of carbs kind of makes sense.
Carbohydrates make up a large portion of your daily calories, and eating too many of the not-so-great kind of carbs (sugary drinks, white bread, cookies) can be problematic if you’re looking to lose weight or, honestly, just get healthier. Those carbs are empty carbs, largely devoid of the protein and fiber you need to stay full.
So diet programs argue that you should cut out all carbs in order to avoid empty carbs—except that this is sort of saying that you should never listen to Bruce Springsteen because of “Queen of the Supermarket.”
That type of restriction isn’t entirely necessary.
There are good carbs out there, carbs like oats and brown rice, which your body with the fuel you need to not only get through your workouts—but also your day in general.
That’s why some people opt for a strategy called “carb cycling.” That means that they alternate between high carb days and low carb days.
“Carb cycling is a way to help dieters periodically feel like they’re not dieting and in some cases actually indulging,” says nutrition expert Alan Aragon, M.S.
Carb cycling doesn’t mean you’ll get a special fat-burning effect by going low carb, but it might help you stick with your diet in the long run, he adds.
But does this approach do anything for your weight for the long haul? Even more importantly, is it any better than simply cutting calories overall? Here’s your beginner’s guide to carb cycling and how to figure out if it’s a fit for you.
What Is Carb Cycling?
The term basically means that you’re eat a higher amount of carbs one day, followed by a lower amount of carbs the next. You continue to alternate between the two throughout your week, depending on your activity levels on each day.
The rationale behind it is pretty solid: You get the perks of going high-carb during the days you work out, and the perks of going low-carb when you’re not as active.
When you exercise, your body dips into your carb stores for energy, so naturally your high carb days would align with training days, when your body can best utilize that fuel. That can be a great thing, because an extra push during your workout means you can go harder for longer, burning more calories overall.
By comparison, on your rest days, you can scale your carbs back as a way to reduce empty calories without feeling too restricted for the rest of the week.
So let’s say you’re 175 pounds and aiming for 2 grams of carbs (g) per pound of body weight on your high-carb days. If you’re training on a Monday, that’s 350 g. On your following rest day, or low carb day, you might cut back to just 1 or 1.5 grams per pound of body weight, ranging anywhere from 175 to 263 g.
That said, there’s no set amount for how many carbs you’re allowed on higher or lower carb days. It depends largely on the types of workouts you’re doing, and how often you do them. As with most diets, there are a variety of carb cycling “prescriptions” available on the internet, but your carb intake should ultimately be tailored to you and your needs.
How Do You Start Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling requires a bit more planning than most people prefer, because you need to weigh, measure, and count grams. Using an app like My Fitness Pal can help make that easier, but if you appreciate flexibility in your diet, carb cycling might be too strict for you.
That said, if you love having guidelines or “rules” to follow, carb cycling can be worth a shot for you.
Here are a few things to keep in mind before you give it a whirl.
1. Know how many calories you need
Establish a daily calorie goal you’ll aim for on all days. A general approach: If you want to lose weight, multiply your bodyweight times 10. That’s how many calories you’re aiming for each day. Weight maintenance? Multiply by 12. And if you want to gain, multiply by 15.
2. Balance out the macros
Divide those calories among your main macronutrients: carbs, protein, and fat. Carbs and protein both provide 4 calories per gram, while fat provide 9 calories per gram.
In addition to your carb cycling, aim for about 1 g of protein per pound of body weight. Make up the rest with healthy fats. (For a more detailed plan, here’s how to count your macros for weight loss.)
So on high carb days, you’ll up the carbs and your calories, keeping protein and fat the same. On the flip side, the lower carb days will slash your calories, again while keeping your protein and fat the same. Remember, it’s about eating less calories but not really “feeling” like you are.
3. Don’t nix the fiber
When you eat fewer carbohydrates, make sure you keep the fiber. Low carb days aren’t an excuse to dump the broccoli and apples. Focus primarily on removing added sugar and other refined carbs, like muffins and bagels, from your diet. Load up on fiber and nutrient-rich vegetables, fruit, beans, oats, quinoa, and other quality grains.
4. Eat enough, even on low-carb days
Your brain runs on carbs, or more specifically, on the sugar glucose. And when there’s none around, your body has to make it using other sources, like protein, which can be bad news if you’re looking to build and maintain lean muscle. That’s why it’s so important to eat more than 130 g of carbs on your “low carb” days. Feed your brain so you’re not in a fog the entire day at work.
What Does Carb Cycling Look Like, Food Wise?
Well, that depends on the day.
On a high-carb day, for a 175-pound guy aiming for 350 grams of carbs, might include 1 cup of oats in the morning made with milk, a small handful of raisins and a bit of brown sugar; a piece of fruit and yogurt for a snack; a basic sandwich (with 2 slices of bread and some protein); a banana and peanut butter for an afternoon snack; 2 to 2.5ish cups of cooked pasta with veggies for dinner; then maybe some popcorn for an evening snack.
This is just looking at carb intake and doesn’t include all the protein-rich foods you’d be eating along with them. It’s also a loose recommendation, so it’s not exact in terms of total carbs, but should give you a feel for the amount of carbs you’d be looking at on a high-carb day.
On a low-carb day, half that amount of carb –175 g or so–would simply mean cutting some of the given portions above in half, so maybe just ½ cup oats; 1 to 1.5 cups cooked pasta; more vegetables and some lower carb fruits, like berries.
Are Low-Carb Days Different From Keto?
Eating “keto” has very specific rules around what to eat and how much you can eat (check out the Beginner’s Guide to Everything Keto). The general idea of this approach to eating is to make sure your carbs are low enough and fat is high enough that your body runs on ketones. Too many carbs and when you pee on the keto stick, you’ll see that your body has shifted its fuel source back to glucose.
On the flip side, “low carb” doesn’t have a specific definition and if you ask 10 people, you might get 10 different answers on what it means. That said, most guidelines recommend keeping carbs under around 150ish grams daily (compared to less than about 50 with keto). To put things in perspective, a typical piece of fruit has about 15 or so grams, a slice of basic sandwich bread around the same, and 1 cup of most cereals around 30-ish grams. Of course, this varies based on brands, type and size of foods, but those are general parameters.
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