Carb Cycling- explained!
Since I started the last portion of the training program I have been doing - I've been getting lots of ?s about my diet in this last phase, for which I am following a cycle of low and high carb days. There are lots of ways to do it, so I'm going to explain the basics:
What is it?
It's a meal plan that alternates high and low carb days. This is a style used by many fitness athletes because it's the best of both worlds. You can build muscle as well as burn off fat with this style of eating. This is accomplished by depleting and replenishing muscle glycogen stores:
boosting fat burning and muscle building hormones, increasing thyroid activity, and sparing your mental state by not living in a low carb world all the time. :D I find long periods in this state cause me to become hangry..
Nobody likes Hangry Iris, nobody. So carb cycling has been great for me!
On higher carb days, your body releases more insulin into the blood to grab nutrients and shuttle them into the muscles, where they are stored as glycogen, helping rebuild and repair the muscle tissue. Having a high carb day also fills up your energy tank, so you're ready to take on an intense workout like a leg training day or back day, where you're using lots of large muscles that burn a LOT of calories.
On low carb days, your body makes the switch from burning carbs as a fuel to burning fat as fuel. Once the glycogen stores are gone, your body dips into your fat stores to keep the motor running.
How is it done?
Here's where it gets tricky, as there are many ways to 'cycle' your carbs.
On low carb days, aim for minimum of 50g to a max of 1g/pound of body weight. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you could eat 50-150 g of carbs on a low day. This lets your body use up the glycogen stores and switch over to fat as fuel. If you're getting in the 50g, you can also ensure you're sparing your lean muscle tissue from being broken down to be used as fuel. You want to hang on to that hard earned muscle!!
On high carb days, you can go as high as 1-3g of carbs per pound of body weight. Again if you weigh 150 pounds, you could eat between 150 - 450 g of carbs. This is all dependent on your personal response to carbs, and how efficiently you use what is put in! Most women fair better on a lower carb side of it due to our hormones, so when first trying out cycling, start on the lower end of the scale and adjust from there.
What kind of carbs?
The kind found in good for you, nutrient dense foods! Root vegetables, greens, oats, whole grains, brown rice, fruit, etc. High carb days doesn't mean stuffing yourself with doughnuts and cookies, although they do allow room for a treat or a craving! The majority of your carbs should come from complex carbs, which break down more slowly in the body and keep blood sugar/energy levels balanced.
What about the other macros??
Proteins and fats will make up the remainder of your little pie chart (my fitness pal users know what I'm talkin!) aka the remainder of your calories :)
Protein will stay pretty consistent throughout your cycle, aim for 1 - 1.5 g of protein per pound of bodyweight, split up between 5-7 meals per day. This protein should be from high quality sources likes whey, egg whites, fish, poultry, lean red meat, and non fat dairy products if you include dairy in your diet.
Fat is the sliding scale, as it is making up the balance of calories depending on if you are on a high or low day (between 10% of daily calories to 40%) Fats should be from healthy sources - nuts, nut butter, avocados, olive oil, etc.
How often to cycle?
There's a million different ways!
You can align it with your workout schedule, on heavy lifting, large muscle group days, (leg, back) - high carb, on cardio or lighter, smaller muscle group days (arms, abs, rest day) - low carb.
You can do it based on how you respond to carbs, if you're pretty sensitive to carbs and would like to ramp up weight loss, do 2-3 low carb days, then 1 high carb day.
Alternate low and high carb days. This is an easy way to introduce yourself to carb cycling and lose weight.
If need more carbs, say you're an athlete and you want to lean out without compromising performance.. you can do 2 high carb days, 1 low carb day.
Other things to keep in mind
Anyone can do it!! It leaves room for treats, but also fuels the body with wholesome nutrients, so you end up with the best of both worlds. It's very flexible and can be tailored to fit your needs. Maybe you aren't ready to jump in with both feet into the clean eating world but want to clean things up a bit.. give it a try!
DRINK YOUR WATER!! Gallon a day. It sounds like a lot, but seeing as how most of us are chronically dehydrated, you will be amazed at how getting your hydration on point will make you feel. Also! Protein is high, meaning that you need to be adequately hydrated to flush out the by-products of protein metabolism.
Prep your food! Premaking foods helps you stay on track no matter what style of eating you are following. This means measuring cups and a food scale. Weigh and measure everything you can. That way you can grab and go or you always have your food ready, rather than having the inner struggle with yourself to cook something for dinner or grab a pizza. When it's already made, the decision is easy. :)
I am personally doing 3 low carb days, and 1 high carb day, keeping my calories around 1450/day.. ish.. It has been a struggle at times and I've slipped up a little here and there but I am learning and enjoying this style of eating. I don't find myself hungry sticking with my schedule of planned out meals, and I have plenty of energy for my intense workouts. I prep my foods 2 days a week for 3-4 days at a time. I get my gallon of water in every day. I feel my body leaning out but still enjoying the foods I love.
There are tons sample carb cycling meal plans out there, and by using myfitnesspal, it's easy to make your own. Plug in different foods and make adjustments as needed based on your own goals. I've been making my own plan from several different meal plans that I've found from Bodybuilding.com, FitnessRx, and Chris Powell.