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In a few short months, I’ll be walking down the aisle to marry the love of my life. To feel my best on my wedding day, I’ve maintained a daily exercise and intentional eating practice. Mostly, this meant a boxing and weight-training routine and eating generally clean. Though I’ve never been a fan of keto, since I’ve always found carbohydrates necessary for energy, I knew I needed to be mindful of how many I was consuming if I wanted lean muscles.
So, I decided to give ‘carb cycling’ a chance. This approach limits the number of carbs I consume two days a week, specifically when I do more cardio-heavy workouts. Then, the rest of the week, I eat a balanced diet. And guess what? It’s been not only easy to follow but it’s resulted in more than 15 inches and nearly 20 pounds of weight loss.
Though it’s not recommended for everyone, if you’re someone who generally leads an active lifestyle and you don’t mind tracking what you’re eating, it could do wonders for your goals, too. Here, I spoke with nutrition experts to provide the 101 to carb cycling:
What is carb cycling?
Carb cycling is an approach to managing body weight and improving body composition that involves alternating between low carb days and high carb days, explains Lauren Minchen, MPH, RDN, CDN, a nutrition consultant for Freshbit. What does ‘low-carb’ constitute, exactly? Well, it depends and can vary, based on your comfort level and goals. For me, it usually means sticking to 60 carbs or less. For others, Minchen says it can involve zero carbs.
Monday: 60 carbs or less.“The intensity can vary from a beginner approach where low or no-carb days are planned every two to three days to a more advanced approach with an every other day plan,” she explains. So as an example, my typical week looks like this:
Tuesday: Up to 185 carbs.
Wednesday: 60 carbs or less.
Thursday-Sunday: Up to 185 carbs.
But for an endurance athlete — like a marathoner — it could look more like this:
Monday: No carbs or very few carbs.
Tuesday: Normal carbs for their body weight and goals.
Wednesday: No carbs or very few carbs.
Thursday: Normal carbs for their body weight and goals.
Friday: No carbs or very few carbs.
Saturday: Normal carbs for their body weight and goals.
Sunday: No carbs or very few carbs.
— and so on.
Never having rice, pasta, or a freshly baked slice of sourdough bread was a dealbreaker for me. Though I believe in moderation, I also value celebrations, so a super-restrictive way of living would never be sustainable for me. What’s benefitted me the most with carb cycling is planning for when I’ll need to eat more carbs and when I could easily cut back during my week. Particularly with my consistent meal plan, it’s made a massive difference in my overall body composition.
Here, nutritionists share the pros of carb cycling:
It can help you lose weight and define muscles.
Minchen says carb cycling has shown to be effective at supporting a metabolic rate that allows for optimal fat loss. And the practice supports muscle growth and development while allowing for a greater variety of foods into the diet. “Unlike a standard moderate carb diet, the low carb days in a carb cycling plan increase the body’s use of its own fat stores for energy, which has shown to boost fat loss,” she explains.
Celebrity chef and nutritionist Serena Poon also adds carb cycling could help you lose weight. “Likely what is happening with carb cycling as it relates to weight loss is that by reducing carbohydrate intake on some days, you are reducing overall calorie intake,” she explains. “If you decrease your calorie intake, chances are that you will lose weight.”
If you feel that you can keep it up, coordinating your carbohydrate intake with your more intense workouts could be a valuable strategy for creating an overall calorie deficit, she adds.
It can increase your endurance.
If your exercise of choice involves endurance — think super-long runs or workouts — Poon says carb cycling may increase your performance. As she explains, much of the research around carb cycling has been focused on the practice of ‘carb-loading.’ “Glycogen, which is produced from carbohydrates, is the body’s main source of energy. After 90 minutes of exercise, the glycogen stores in your muscles may run out,” she continues. “Many endurance athletes, who anticipate being active for more than an hour and a half will spend days leading up to their event increasing carbohydrate intake and reducing physical activity to build up these stores.”
It’s not as restrictive as keto or other low-carb diets.
With a ketogenic diet, you aim to be under 30 grams of carbs a day. And in my low-carb regimens, it’s recommended to be 60 grams or less. As you can imagine, sticking to this super-super small figure is challenging, particularly if you’re leading a busy life. That’s why Minchen says carb cycling can be easier to stick to since it does allow for more carbohydrate-rich foods to support healthy muscle growth and boost your metabolic rate. “A carb cycling approach allows all foods on planned days, supports a higher metabolic rate for weight management, and boosts the body’s use of its own fat stores rather than relying on glucose spikes for energy,” she adds.
It can teach you what your body likes — and doesn’t like.
While your best friend may be able to enjoy cheese and other dairy products without repercussion, your system may negatively react. The same is true for gluten, soy, and other common allergens. Poon says it’s always important to be in tune with your body, understand which foods give you energy, and make you feel depleted, bloated or uncomfortable. “One of the benefits of carb loading is that it forces you to examine what you are eating on a day-to-day basis closely. As you begin to track what you are eating, you will gain valuable insight into a diet that supports your health,” she says. “Even if carb cycling doesn’t work for you in the long run, you might learn a lot of helpful information in the process.”
The drawbacks of carb cycling
As with any eating approach, carb cycling doesn’t work for everyone. And though I may find it easy to maintain, for many, it can become a time-consuming process that’s confusing and tiresome.
Here, nutritional experts explain the drawbacks to consider before opting into a carb cycling approach:
1.It requires a lot of prep work and planning.
Each week, I take inventory of our fridge and then create a grocery list to meal plan. I meticulously track everything that goes into a recipe, including how many ounces of meat or vegetable I’m consuming daily. Planning, counting, prepping and tracking every last thing you eat can become tedious, so if you’re not someone who enjoys this process, carb cycling likely isn’t for you. As Minchen adds, it can also create a perceived inflexibility, say, if you want to have alcohol or dessert spontaneously. For many, this is a significant con.
2. It may create some short-term side effects.
“Low-carbohydrate diets, such as the ketogenic diet, have been known to cause side effects including nausea, headaches, fatigue, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies,” Poon explains. Particularly when you first start introducing low-carb days into your schedule, you could experience some of these symptoms.
“If you do decide to try carb cycling, it is imperative that you also pay attention to the quality of your carbohydrates,” she adds. “Stick to low glycemic, high-quality carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains.”
3. It’s not ideal for anyone with a bad relationship with food.
If you’re someone who struggles with disordered eating, body dysmorphia, or a negative relationship with food, Minchen says carb cycling isn’t the right strategy for you. “Counting carbs and other macros can lead to obsessive thoughts about food and put tremendous pressure on fat and/or weight loss,” she says.