Carb Cycling Has Emerged – Is it Right For You?
Have you ever attempted to give up carbohydrates for an extended period of time? Many of my patients have, and the majority of them report challenges in sustaining the habit. But what if you knew, that tomorrow, or a few days from now, you could have carbs again, and it wouldn’t break your goals, it may actually help you reach them? A dietary method called carb cycling accomplishes exactly this.
What is carb cycling?
Carb cycling is a concept in which you alternate moderate to higher carbohydrate time periods with periods of eating low carb. Use of carb cycling began in bodybuilding and fitness circles quite some time ago as a way to utilize carbohydrate consumption in the most efficient manner possible. Athletes used carb cycling in the hopes that it would making the body better at utilizing the right fuel, at the right time during training, and competition. The practice was also done as an attempt to build muscle, lose fat, and enhance performance.
The theory behind carb cycling is that alternating between low carb and higher carb days will make the body more sensitive to insulin levels, and ultimately improve health. Your low carb days force the body into a more fat adapted model, and they are intertwined with days of higher carb “refeeding” so that you don’t suffer the consequences of long-term carbohydrate deprivation.
What does a cycle look like?
Here’s the challenge for the average, non-body building individual – the cycling period, as well as the amount and the type of carbohydrate is not defined so most individuals may have to try different types of cycling before figuring out what fits best for their goals.
What works for a 23-year-old elite athlete after all may not work for a 46-year-old woman entering menopause. For example, you might spend several weeks training and eating lower carb followed by eating higher carb a few days before a planned event. You may also alter your carb content based on the type of activity you’re engaging in (aerobic vs resistance).
If you’re hoping to go into ketosis on your low carb days (a condition where the body switches from burning glucose to burning fat), you have to plan for that as well by scheduling in longer periods (>3 days) of carbohydrate deprivation to reach that goal. The type of carb you consume is also important. This is not a diet where you should abandon healthy lifestyle practices and start binging on doughnuts and rigatoni on carb days. Consuming 100% whole grains, especially intact grains, is still the healthier option. Additionally, fat and protein may vary on cycle days as well. Overall, your cycling success depends on many different variables, such as your current weight, activity level, disease status, and of course, your ability to stick with the diet.
The science behind carb cycling
Fans of the carb cycling diet say it will help to reset metabolism, burn fat, and achieve weight loss. The science, however is still playing catch up. Though many studies show the benefits that low carbohydrate diets can have on weight and overall health, relatively few delve into the concept of cycling. Further, recent studies on carbs in general have been mixed. Some show that lower carbohydrate diets (which ultimately decrease the need for the hormone insulin by tapping into fat as fuel), may help with weight loss, athletic performance, cognitive health and even disease prevention and management. However, newer research shows having too little, or too many carbs could lead to an earlier death.
A 2018 study distinguished that both low and high carbohydrate diets were tied to an increase in mortality, while moderate carbohydrate diets had the lowest risk of mortality. Though the research is not specific to cycling of carbs, it could suggest that carb cycling may be the perfect “meeting in the middle” approach.
Here’s how to do It
The best way to start a carb cycling regimen is to first determine your goals. What are your end goals? Because there are personal variables involved in whether this will actually work for you, and there is no official guide on what results to expect. Additionally, while carb cycling is relatively safe, not everyone is a carb cycling candidate. Those that are pregnant or breast feeding, or have type 1 diabetes should avoid low carb diets. Working with a Dietitian or physician can help you determine if cycling is right for you.
More research is needed to truly test the health impact on carb cycling but for now, it appears to be here to stay.