Carb Cycling for Beginners
Below is an article I wrote last year for a British Health Magazine - now I can finally share it with you!
Most nutrition plans written by fitness and nutrition professionals usually involve some kind of carb cycling, even if the term is not specifically used. In essence carb cycling (like the majority of diets) is a form of calorie restriction (the foremost principle of weight loss is you need to expend more calories than you consume to see the scale drop).
Carb Cycling, when referred to by a Dietitian, Nutritionist or Personal Trainer refers to the manipulation of the amounts consumed of the 3 macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats), usually determined by the clients bodyweight, body fat to muscle ratio, and frequency and intensity of workouts.
Macronutrients are the building blocks of the foods we eat (micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals) and are classified as follows:
Carbohydrates: the components of carbohydrates are Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen. In their original form most carbohydrates come from plants. There are two types of carbohydrate: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates break down quickly in the body (and in turn raise our blood sugar rapidly, forcing the pancreas to make more insulin) due to their lack of fibre. Complex carbohydrates are a healthier option (and more suitable for weight loss diets) due to their fibre content which slows the rise in blood sugar.
Great complex carbohydrate choices include:
- Organic starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, squashes and yams.
- Gluten free grains such as rice, oats, buckwheat and quinoa.
- Low GI fruits such as berries, apples and kiwis.
Protein: protein is made from complex macromolecules that contain carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur, and are composed of one or more chains of amino acids. These amino acids are broken down in the digestive system and are used for the essential growth and repair of tissues, and as a secondary energy source. Animal sources are referred to as ‘complete proteins’ (meaning they contain all 20-22 amino acids), and plant sources are ‘incomplete’ as they do not contain all the amino acids.
Healthy protein choices include:
- Organic, lean cuts of meat
- Wild caught fish.
- Pasture raised eggs
- Organic, full fat dairy
- Beans, pulse legumes
- Whey and Vegan protein powders
Fats: fats consist of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen. Dietary fat supplies us with essential fatty acids (known as linoleic and and linolenic acid) that cannot be made by the body. Fat is vital in our diets as it aids the absorption of certain vitamins, helps brain development and protects our organs, and is the body’s second most preferred source of energy. It is important to avoid trans fatty acids and hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats as they can have negative effects on health.
Healthy fat choices include:
- Coconut oil
- Pasture raised butter
- Nuts and nut butter
When looking at any kind of diet for weight loss, choosing foods that have the most ‘bang for your buck’ (the most nutrient dense foods) is of utmost importance. When calories are restricted the quality of those calories are essential not just for weight loss (it is easier for the body to utilize fat burning for energy production when the body is in a healthy state), but for energy, stress levels, good sleep and beautiful hair, skin and nails. Choose single ingredient, unprocessed foods, that are organic and in season.
Carbohydrate intake is usually the first variable changed when dieting for fat loss. Reducing carbohydrates can cause a drop in weight for a number of reasons: It automatically reduces calories, it limits the amount of processed foods consumed, and is effective if a client is showing signs of insulin resistance. When any type of carbohydrate is consumed our blood sugar levels rise, followed by the release of insulin from the pancreas. The insulin is released to enable the sugar (energy) to get into the muscle cells (insulin literally ‘unlocks’ the cells to enable to energy in). Insulin resistance is the body’s inability to handle carbs efficiently, when blood sugar is raised too quickly and too often the body is unable to handle the amount of energy being produced, it is unable to ‘get into fuel the cells, and therefore is stored as fat.
However, not all carbs are bad for you, and not all carbs are created equally. Refined, processed carbs (white bread, donuts, cookies,) raise blood sugar very quickly, and should not be consumed on a regular basis. Carbohydrates such as sweet potato, oats, squashes and whole grains can be eaten as part of a healthy diet and have some great nutritional benefits.
There is no doubt a low carbohydrate diet can be a great quick fix for some, and the resulting weight loss can give a much needed boost to health, self esteem and insulin sensitivity. However, most on a low carbohydrate diet will start to plateau, and not including carbohydrates in your diet can cause negative effects such as raised cortisol (the stress hormone), lowered thyroid function and poor mood and energy levels.
Carb cycling has many benefits, and can be successful for both the general population client and the professional body builder! Below is a list of some of the reasons why carb cycling can be an effective approach for most:
- It is a great transition from a lower carb to a moderate carb diet - carb cycling reintroduces carbohydrates to the body at a slower rate, important for insulin sensitivity.
- As body weight and workout intensity are used to calculate your macros (and therefore your calories) it is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, it is highly personalised which is essential for weight loss results
- Higher carbohydrate foods often contain higher levels of some micronutrients (vitamins and mineral) than proteins and fats such as B Vitamins, magnesium and and beta carotene.
- It can prevent catabolism (muscle loss), and even increase muscle growth, important when trying to build muscle and increase metabolism (muscle mass burns more calories than fat mass).
- Adding carbohydrates to the diet can breakthrough weight loss plateaus as it can upregulate thyroid function and provide more energy for hard training sessions.
- Boredom and lack of food variety can be an underestimated player in weight loss, carb cycling reintroduces different foods and meal plans.
- Its flexibility means you can plan for when you may eat off track, such as dining out, holidays and vacation.
- It helps mitigate stress and improve sleep - carbohydrates upregulate the neurotransmitters that control your feel good hormones (serotonin and dopamine), which in turn can also help you get a great night’s sleep and result in more weight loss.
In the majority of diets ‘low carb’ is considered to be an intake of under 50g of carbohydrates a day, but what is considered high carb can vary greatly, and what is high carb for 1 person may be low carb for another. This is dependent of a variety of factors including:
- Body composition (muscle mass to fat ratio)
- Level of insulin resistance / insulin sensitivity
- Amount of inflammation in the body
- Stress levels
- Genetic make up
- Hormone balance
- Training frequency and intensity
In this example we will look at 3 different levels of carbohydrate intake, a high carb day, a mid carb day and a low carb day. The more weight you have to lose, the less insulin sensitive you will be. This means your body will be more likely to store carbohydrates as fat rather than muscle. If you have over 20lbs to lose, start out with 1-2 high carb days a week. Those who are leaner who wish to build more muscle can handle more frequent high carb days, and would benefit from 2-3 a week.
For example, let’s say you strength train 3 times a week in the gym, and on 2 days a week you do cardio for 25-35 minutes. On your 2 most intense strength training days (perhaps your full body workouts or leg day) you will raise your carbohydrate intake, keep protein at mid range, and have little to no fat (ie. your high carb day). This will help increase muscle growth and provide energy for your workouts. On the 3rd strength training day (your lighter day) you would consume a medium carbohydrate intake, a little more protein and a little more fat (mid carb day). The other days would be your 4 low carb days, keeping insulin levels low and enabling your body to use fat as a fuel source.
To establish your own macronutrient goals we need 3 pieces of information; your body weight, your somatotype, and the frequency and intensity of your strength training. Somatotypes are a classification of 3 body types in relation to bone size and muscularity, they are detailed below to help you ascertain yours:
Ectomorph: generally lean, a smaller frame and thinner limbs. Has a faster metabolism, your goal is usually to gain muscle instead of losing fat. Ectomorphs should choose 3 high carb days, 3 medium carb days and 1 low carb day a week.
Mesomorph: athletic looking with a medium sized frame. Stays reasonably lean and muscular without too much effort. Your goal is usually to optimize body composition (increase muscle / decrease fat). Mesomorphs should choose 2 high carb days, 2 medium carb days and 3 low carb day a week.
Endomorph: a larger frame and heavier set. A slower metabolism, you are usually trying to decrease body fat. Endomorphs should choose 1 high carb day, 1 mid carb, and 5 low carb days a week.
A suggested calculation for your high, medium and low carb days is as follows:
High Carb Day
Carbohydrate: 1.4 g per lb of bodyweight
Protein: 1.4g per lb of bodyweight
Fat: under 30g
Medium Carb Day
Carbohydrate: 0.8g per lb of bodyweight
Protein: 1.5 g per lb of bodyweight
Fat: 0.3g per lb of bodyweight
Low Carb Day
Carbohydrate: Approx 50g carbs coming from non starchy vegetables only
Protein: 1.4g per lb of bodyweight
Fat: 0.5g per lb of bodyweight
Let’s put this into practice for a 125lb female Mesomorph, whose priority is looking to drop fat whilst maintaining muscle size. Her base calories are 1625 a day as she workouts 5 times a week and is reasonably active. She trains with a high intensity 3 times a week, and does 2 x 35 minute Metabolic Conditioning workouts a week.
Her Carb Cycling breakdown for the week might look like this:
High Carb Day (2 Days a Week)
Medium Carb Day (2 Days a Week)
Low Carb Day (3 Days a Week)
The nature of carb cycling lends itself to eating smaller meals more frequently and you may find that 5 small meals are easier to digest, especially on on your high carbohydrate days.
A neglected (but effective) aspect of carb cycling is known as ‘nutrient timing’ - the placing of the carbs at specific times (usually focussed around the workout) for the body to be able to use them most effectively. To utilize nutrient timing eat the majority of your carbohydrates in the two meals after you workout. This could mean adding oats into your post workout shake, and then having another serving of low GI carbs (such as sweet potato) in the next full meal post workout. Keep fats low in these 2 meals so your body can use the carbs to full muscle building effect. With this format the meals furthest away from your workout will consist mostly of protein and fats.
Below is a suggested meal plan for our 125lb female mesomorph on a high carb day (training mid morning):
Breakfast: 40g Protein / 10g Fat
2 large scrambled eggs, 4 slices of turkey bacon with steamed spinach
Post Workout Smoothie: 35g Protein / 75g Carb
2 scoops protein powder, ½ cup oats and a small banana
Lunch: 35g Protein / 75g Carb
3.7oz grilled chicken breast, 1.25 cups sweet potato with a leafy green salad
Mid Afternoon Snack: 30g Protein
1 serving 0% fat greek yoghurt with 0.5 scoop protein powder
Dinner: 35g Protein / 10g Fat
5oz Rump steak, steamed broccoli, green beans and 1 teaspoon butter
There is some math involved, but once you have your individualised calculations you have a very effective guideline to work to.Here are some tips to make the process easier:
- Use single ingredient foods in their natural state, this will help to separate and calculate your amounts of protein, fats and carbs
- Food preparation is key, plan and prepare your meals in advance
- Use a calorie tracking app on your smartphone - My Fitness Pal is easy to use, has an enormous database of foods and you can even scan the barcodes of the foods you eat.
- No change on the scale? Remember that muscle weighs more than fat, which is why you may not see the drop bodyweight you expected. Track your progress by taking weekly photos in your sportswear and note improvements in the gym and in mood and positivity too.