Among the hundreds of myths circling in the fitness and bodybuilding community, one of the biggest and most enduring is that if you’re having trouble getting lean, carbs are the main culprit.
You must have also heard that ‘carbs are the devil’.
That is why there are so many people out there who’ve been fooled into thinking this and who are wasting their time and energy on low carb diets.
This type of diet not only slows down their metabolism it can even stop fat loss altogether in the long term, as the body activates its survival mechanism and starts to keep as much fat as possible.
It’s time to put an end to this old fallacy.
Provided that you consume your carbs from the right sources, in the optimal amounts and at optimal times of the day, they can become a powerful tool in your quest to build muscle and lose fat.
One of the most clever methods to harness the power of carbohydrates consumption is ‘carb cycling’.
The main idea behind carb cycling is to alternate the amount of carbs you consume day to day and week to week.
When you think about it, it makes sense. Why would you need to eat the same amount of carbs on the day of a brutal leg workout as when you are just training biceps or just having a rest day?
Simply put, this method allows you to manipulate your metabolic hormones which will help your body burn fat easily.
Proponents of this method believe it to be extremely effective at getting you shredded.
However, some think that this approach is not “one size fits all” and may not be beneficial for everyone.
Each person is different, with a unique body, which means that each person will get the greatest, most sustainable benefits from an approach which is best suited to their lifestyle.
That’s why it’s so important to weigh up the pros and cons of this weight loss protocol and determine whether it’s the optimal nutrition strategy for your individual body composition goals.
This leads us to the question: how does carb cycling work and what’s the underlying mechanism?
In a nutshell, you fluctuate the amount of carbohydrates you’re consuming every day, which means you alternate between high carb, medium carb and low to no carb days.
As we already mentioned, it’s a clever and simple method in that on high carb days you’re eating for muscle building whereas on low carb days you’re priming your body to burn fat.
This means that you will never be on a constantly high car or low carb diet, but always alternating between them which will keep your metabolism functioning optimally.
You alternate the carb amount whilst keeping the daily protein and fat intake the same. This also means that the number of calories you eat daily will fluctuate.
You will have a higher caloric intake on training days and a lower one on rest days.
It is imperative however that during the entire week you are in a constant state of caloric deficit which is essential to losing fat and which also makes tracking each meal a must.
It all boils down to how hormones work in the body.
This is great when you’ve just finished your workout and the insulin transports amino acids and glucose straight to your muscles.
However, when you’re merely resting and eat carbs, your insulin spikes and your body stops burning fat and uses the glucose as an energy source instead.
All the glucose that isn’t used up is then stored as fat deposits.
One of the greatest things about carb cycling is that people can get “the best of both worlds”, meaning they can both gain muscle and lose fat.
So, after a brutal workout session, you would be clever to harness the full power of insulin by consuming carbs as fast as possible.
And on the days when you’re resting and you don’t want to cause spikes in your insulin levels, you will eat a small amount of carbs, or at least carbs that have a lower glycemic index which will help you maintain steady blood sugar levels.
This will also force your body to switch to burning the fat deposits as a source of energy.
So, on a low carb day, for breakfast, you will eat only fats and protein, along with some veggies which have a low glycemic index and won’t cause insulin spikes and increase blood sugar levels.
When you’re not consuming any carbs for breakfast after your body has been in a fasted state for the 8-9 hours you’ve been sleeping, you are priming it to use the stored fat as an energy source.
This means, even just by walking around, doing your daily chores or doing any kind of aerobic activity you’ll be burning fat.
Since you’re not ingesting any carbs, you won’t experience any insulin spikes throughout the day.
Also by having lots of protein in your breakfast coming from sources such as lean meats, eggs, and good, healthy fats, like nuts, you are programming the neurotransmitters which control brain function, hunger, and overall energy levels.
This type of breakfast was even recommended by the great coach Charles Poliquin.
In any case, since most diets require mental endurance more than anything, carb cycling can make dieting far easier and sustainable.
It’s also a fact that most diets work pretty well, it all depends on how willing one is to adhere to it.
This is one such diet where you’re much more likely to stick to it in the long term.
You can juggle with your high and low carb days, so whenever you’re feeling low on energy you can always consume more carbs which will restore the body’s glycogen levels, keep the brain working at an optimal rate, suppress your hunger, maintain peak performance in the gym and overall keep you mentally sane.
It also has the effect of preventing your body from thinking it’s starving, which in turn decreases your energy expenditure and slows down your metabolism, a process also known as adaptive thermogenesis.
So, even though the underlying mechanism behind carb cycling has proven effective for fat, it also a fact that it might not the best suited for everyone.
For people who carry a considerable amount of fat, just a simple diet with restricted caloric intake, of let’s say 500 calories a day, would do the trick.
This is a much more straightforward approach without having to worry about too many details and yet equally effective.
When people first start on their fat loss journey, they tend to lose fat pretty quickly and consistently, especially when they get rid of all the “garbage” in their diet, introduce a moderate caloric restriction and increase their training intensity or volume.
In this phase, they may not need a more advanced approach such as carb cycling, although it may be employed in the near future when more nuanced weight loss techniques are needed in case progress stalls.
It can also be said that there are lots of people who don’t function that well when their primary energy source is carbohydrates, or they need to take additional steps to function better on this type of diet.
Insulin sensitivity is essential when it comes to effectively dealing with carbohydrate consumption and absorption.
If you happen to be resistant to insulin you will have to struggle a lot more getting lean while eating more carbs.
So, for anyone who has poor insulin sensitivity, it would be a lot better if they would follow a ketogenic, paleo, or Atkins-style diet, at least initially, to achieve optimal body recomposition.
Decreasing carb intake or cutting them out completely for a period will prime the body to be able to utilize or function better with them in the long them, which in turn would make cycling them much more effective.