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Carb Cycling

June 4, 2015 | 0 Comments
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What if we told you that you can eat carbs and still lose body fat? We know what you’re thinking and no, we’re not acting crazy… nor are we trying to push some kind of miracle carb partitioning fat loss supplement on you. We’re talking about manipulating and timing your carbohydrate intake to maximise fat loss while still maintaining or, quite possibly, even building muscle…

We’re talking about “Carb Cycling”!

What is Carb Cycling?

Carb cycling is the process of manipulating your carbohydrate intake for a given period of time to trigger desirable hormone responses to encourage recovery, performance and fat loss.

When you are dieting to reduce body fat your main goal is to be in a caloric deficit; consuming less calories than you use each and every day. And dieting in this fashion definitely works, but it will only get you so far.

At some point your results will start to plateau and you may not have the room to reduce your caloric intake any more, nor have the energy to increase your caloric output. This is where carb cycling can help you push through plateaus and help get you shredded AF!

Increasing your carbohydrate intake for a day or 2 and then dropping it again is the name of the carb cycling game… but we’ll get in to those nitty gritty details later.

Wait, Increase Carbs? But Aren’t Carbs Evil?

NO. Just no… Carbohydrates are AMAZING. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. But before you start cooking up a big bowl of pasta or call your local pizza joint; let us clarify a few things.

It’s not carbs alone that are to blame for their bad reputation, it’s where they come from and how people consume them that is the problem. Poor carbohydrate sources and incorrect carb timing can cause carbohydrates to be stored as fat in the form of triglycerides. Get the right sources and consume them in the right quantity at the right time and you’ll be making nothing but sweet, pure gains. All while encouraging your body to use stored body fat for energy.

But Wait! How Well Do You Know This Macro?

Hold Up! Before we go any further you need to check yourself before your wreck yourself… and we’re talking about your knowledge of carbs. 

If you’ve got a good understanding of what carbs are, where they come from, the different types of carbs, glycemic index (GI) and what your body uses carbs for, perfect! Keep reading.

If you don’t, continuing to scroll down will be like attempting to complete a Formula 1 Race without having a drivers licence. So do yourself a solid and take 30 minutes to check out our carbohydrate introduction video MJ’s Thoughts: Carbohydrates Here.

Got it? Good. Let’s continue.

How To Cycle Carbs

Throwback to the start of this article and you’ll remember that we mentioned the idea of carb cycling is to manipulate your carbohydrate intake and timing to achieve a number of physiological adaptations. Although it may sound quite complex, carb cycling is nothing more than breaking down your days of carbohydrate consumption into 4 main categories:

No Carb Days

Low Carb Days

Moderate Carb Days

High Carb Days

On each one of these days, as you’ve already guessed, you will consume different quantities of carbohydrates… and by doing so, you will be able to harness the full potential of carb cycling!

And while it’s not necessary to break down your carb intake days into 4 separate categories (some people may use 2 categories; high & low days, or even 3 categories; zero, low & high days), we don’t do things by half measures! So we’re breaking it down and rebuilding carb cycling from the bottom up for your knowledge gaining pleasure!

No (Zero) & Low Carb Days

Now before you question the idea of zero carbs let us explain the theory behind “no & low carb days”. By reducing, and in some cases eliminating completely, your carb intake for a day or two you can cause a few pretty significant physiological changes to occur.

Lower Calorie Intake

The first one is the most obvious, a lower calorie consumption. By reducing carbohydrate intake and maintaining protein and fat intake you will be consuming fewer calories and thus create a caloric deficit, which will enhance fat loss.

Depleting Glycogen

By reducing your carb intake whilst maintaining a sensible workout and cardio regime you will force your body to deplete its glycogen (stored carbohydrate) stores. Glycogen is the preferred source of energy for all human movement so by depleting your glycogen stores you are forcing your body to look for other sources of energy. The theory is that fats, and in particular stored body fat (aka tri-glycerides) will then become the most utilised energy source until carbohydrates are reintroduced. 

Insulin Sensitivity

As well as putting your body into a state where it is burning more fat for energy, by reducing your carbohydrate intake, especially simple carbohydrates (aka sugars), you will improve your body’s sensitivity to insulin. When you consume carbohydrates, they enter into your digestive system and are absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose. Depending on the type of carbohydrates, and in particular the glycemic index (GI) of the carbohydrates, they will then cause a certain increase in blood glucose concentration which causes your body to release a hormone called insulin.

Insulin is a very powerful hormone with the main function of regulating blood glucose levels. It does this by driving the glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells. In particular, insulin signals muscle cells to ‘open up their gates’ to allow the glucose to enter; but it’s not just glucose that insulin helps enter the muscle cells. Amino acids and creatine also get pushed out of the bloodstream and into the muscle cells and this is why insulin is so important for building & maintaining muscle. When you consume minimal or no carbohydrates you improve your body’s sensitivity to releasing insulin and will in return cause greater insulin spikes when carbs are reintroduced.

High Carb Days

These are, simply put, the fun days! Where you get to eat carb meal after carb meal AFTER carb meal! Of course just like our terrible ‘no & low carb days’ there is a goal and objective behind our high carb days – they too, create a number of unique physiological responses.

Insulin Response 

Insulin, as mentioned above, is a VERY powerful hormone for muscle building and nutrient delivery. A huge benefit of carb cycling, when done correctly, is that you can amplify and make the most of the effects of insulin. Your no & low carb days are designed to improve your insulin sensitivity (how much insulin your body releases in response to consuming carbs) so now on your high carb days, you want to make the most of this. By eating carbs, in particular post workout, you signal to your body to release insulin to manage the increase in blood sugar you get from consuming carbohydrates. This is where the cells in your muscles get told to open the gates and let in the glucose along with the amino acids you have in your blood stream. By getting these into your muscle cells you are ensuring your body is supplied with the nutrients it needs to recover, repair and build muscle.

Replenish Glycogen 

Since we use our low carb days to deplete glycogen; on our high carb days we want to replenish our glycogen stores. Glycogen is your body’s preferred fuel source when exercising. It’s stored in your muscles as well as your liver, but the majority is in all of your skeletal muscle. As you exercise your body taps into your glycogen stores and uses it for energy. The duration and intensity of exercise determines by what rate you use your glycogen, but we can simply note that the longer you train the more you deplete your glycogen stores. By consuming carbohydrates, in particular post workout, you are allowing your body to replenish the used glycogen and to begin that all important recovery process.

Increased Energy

It may seem pretty straight forward but it is a very important point to make. By consuming a large quantity of carbohydrates from good sources you will have more energy, simple as that. The replenishment of glycogen stores and excess of carbohydrates and glucose in your body will give you that energy boost you need after those low or no carb days. This is also why, as you’ll see later, some people schedule their bigger and more intense workouts around their high carb days.

Increase Leptin Levels

Leptin, the “satiety hormone”, is a hormone with the primary responsibility of regulating energy balance through inhibiting hunger. Leptin is produced by adipose cells found in adipose tissue (body fat). Leptin levels can drop in as little as 24 hours of a person consuming below maintenance calories.

Increasing leptin levels is a huge advantage of high carb days. By increasing your calories, in particular your carbohydrate intake, you will boost leptin levels within the body which in return will boost your metabolism, increase your daily energy expenditure and also help you feel more satisfied with your daily intake of food.

Increase Thyroid Hormone Levels

Thyroid Hormones are primarily responsible for controlling your body’s metabolism. They are secreted from the thyroid gland within the body. The thyroid hormones are involved in regulating many of your bodily functions, such as your heart rate, how quickly you burn calories, and digestion.

Increased carbohydrates can boost your thyroid hormone levels which will boost your metabolism and also increase your daily expenditure of calories. However this is where your source of carbohydrates plays a role. Using complex carbohydrates especially those high in fibre are ideal to aid digestion and in return help boost your thyroid function.

Moderate Carb Days

Just like with our high carb days, our moderate carb days are designed to illicit the same physiological responses mentioned above, just not to the same degree. On your moderate carb days you will be consuming a similar amount of carbohydrates as to what you were consuming when you reached your fat loss plateau prior to starting carb cycling.

What About Your Protein & Fat Intake?

So far it has been all carbs, carbs & more carbs, but let’s not forget about our other macronutrients here. Proteins and fats play just as equally important role in losing body fat so here’s what you’ve got to do.

Protein

Lets keep this simple, you DO NOT change your protein intake. You’re trying to lose body fat while maintaining or hopefully building muscle, why would you drop your protein? Protein supplies us with the amino acids to build and maintain our muscle mass; to protect it from being broken down when we’re in a calorie deficit, so do not decrease it while cycling carbs!

To read more into why you should never drop your protein intake, check out our “How Much Protein” article.

Fat

Fats are vastly different to proteins, due to the fact that fats affect how our body digests carbs and how we put carbohydrates to use. This is mainly due to carbs’ effect on insulin and shuttling nutrients into the muscle cells. Consuming fats along with carbohydrates can dull the insulin effect but also cause the fat consumed to be stored almost immediately as body fat.

This is why on your high carbohydrate days you will reduce your daily fat intake; to maximise the effects of the carbohydrates and to not cause any fat to be stored. After all, that’s what we’re trying to burn here! On your no carb days you can increase your fat intake, to help combat the drop in carbohydrates but also to encourage more fats being used as fuel.

"But by how much?" We hear you ask? Well we don’t want to alter your daily calorie intake while carb cycling, and keeping in mind that fats contain 2.5 times the calories of carbs (9 calories per gram of fats vs 4 calories per gram of carbs), for every 2.5 grams of carbs you reduce on your no carb days you can increase your fats by 1 gram. Visa versa, for every 2.5 grams of carbs you add on your high carb days, reduce your fat intake by 1 gram. Simple.

How Do You Get Started?

There are many different ways to approach a carb cycle, just like with training, everyone has their own opinion of which method or strategy works best. Here are a few examples of how you could structure your carb cycling routine:











Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Example 4

Day 1 – No Carb

Day 1 – High Carb

Day 1 – Low Carb

Day 1 – No Carb

Day 2 – Low Carb

Day 2 – No Carb

Day 2 – Moderate Carb

Day 2 – No Carb

Day 3 – Moderate Carb

Day 3 – Low Carb

Day 3 – No Carb

Day 3 – High Carb

Day 4 – High Carb

Day 4 – High Carb

Day 4 – High Carb

Day 4 – Low Carb

(repeat)

Day 5 – No Carb

(repeat)

Day 5 – Low Carb

 

Day 6 – Low Carb

 

Day 6 – Moderate Carb

 

Day 7 – Moderate Carb

 

Day 7 – Moderate Carb

As you can see from the table of examples above; there is no set way you ‘have’ to cycle carbs. As long as at the end of the day you are manipulating your carbohydrate intake carefully and strategically you can still achieve the desired physiological and hormonal results you want.

When deciding on your carb cycling routine there are a few things to consider. When do you want to have your high carb day? How many high carb days do you want to have a week? And more importantly how many no/low carbs days do you want to incorporate? Once again there are no right or wrong answers here, for some people 1 high carb day is all they need to boost energy and results where some people may need 2 high carb days per week. It’s all just a matter of trialling and then adjusting to find what works best for you and your body.

Tips For Planning Your Carb Cycle

  1. Schedule your high carb days on days where you train your bigger muscle groups (eg. legs or back) or even your weaker muscle groups to help give them extra energy to help them catch up.
  2. Start with only 1 high carb day per week. See how your body reacts and adjust from there. 
  3. Keep it simple! There’s no need to overcomplicate things here, just try and keep track of what you do and how your body reacts and you’ll be able to find what works best for you in no time.

Time To Put It All Together

You know what carb cycling is.

You know what you’re trying to achieve with carb cycling.

You have decided how you’re going to cycle carbs.

…now let’s get those finer details worked out!

To put all of this information into practice to show you how you can allocate macronutrients for each given day we are going to use an example athlete who is consuming the following calories in the given macronutrient breakdown on an average day:

Protein: 260g

Carbohydrates: 180g

Fats: 75g

Calories: 2,435

While consuming these calories and performing their training and cardio regime, this person has hit a fat loss plateau and is no longer losing body fat. The simplest way to calculate the required carbohydrate intake for any given day is to first take these current macros (P:260, C:180, F:75) and apply them to a moderate carb day.

From here, for a low carb day, half the carbohydrate intake, leave protein the same, and increase fats to ensure the same amount of calories are being consumed (P:260, C:90, Fat:115).

For the high carb day, multiply the original carb intake by 1.5, keep protein the same, but decrease fats to ensure the same amount of calories are being consumed (P:260, C:270, Fat:35).

And finally for the no (zero) carb day, remove all carbohydrates, keep the protein the same, but now increase fats dramatically to ensure the same amount of calories are being consumed (P:260, C:0, Fat:155).








 

No Carb Day

Low Carb Day

Moderate Carb Day

High Carb Day

Protein

260g

260g

260g

260g

Carbohydrate

0g

90g

180g

270g

Fat

155g

115g

75g

35g

Calories

2,435

2,435

2,435

2,435

Carbohydrate Timing

Your body has 3 uses for carbohydrates and an order of priority for how these 3 uses are prioritized. Firstly, your body will digest carbohydrates, convert them into glucose and send this glucose directly into the bloodstream as a source of energy (we’ve touched on this already when discussing insulin response at the start of this article). Secondly, if your body does not have an immediate need for the glucose, it will be stored as glycogen in your organs and skeletal muscle tissue (we’ve also been over this when discussing the benefits of high carb days). Thirdly, if your body has no more room to store glycogen, your body will convert the glycogen into tri-glycerides and store them as a body fat.

Keeping this in mind, when determining what times during the day are best to consume your carbohydrates, it becomes quite obvious that you want to consume carbs when your body has an immediate use for glucose or has the potential to store glycogen, and NOT when there is the possibility of your body storing body fat.

In other words, here is how you should prioritize your carbohydrate intake – what we shall call our "Carb Intake Windows":

  1. Pre-Workout
  2. Post-Workout
  3. Intra-Workout
  4. Meal 1

Clearly, on your high carbs days you will have more carbs to play around with, so you may be able to hit all 4 of these carb intake windows. On low carb days however, you may only be able to hit 1 – 2. How many of these windows you are able to utlilize, and what percentage of your daily carbs you allocate to each, is something that you will have to trial to see what works best for your body.

Carbohydrate Sources

So what type of carbohydrates are best to use while carb cycling? Quite simply, the more complex the better. The lower GI the better. The higher the fibre content the better. This goes for all days and almost all of your meals.

The one exception is your post workout meal. Whether it be a post workout shake with carbs added or a post workout meal at home, this is where you can really make the most of our friend insulin and introduce some simple carbohydrates.

Simple carbs post-workout will cause a much more significant spike in blood sugar levels which will then result in that all important hormone, insulin, being released. A great carb to use post workout is dextrose.

For the rest of your meals the more complex, lower GI, high fibre the carb source…the better! This means brown rice, quinoa, potatoes and whole wheat bread just to name a few.

And that’s it! That’s everything you need to know about Carb Cycling and how it can help you break through fat loss plateaus. "Carb Cycling 101" as we like to call it!

So get cracking and put this powerful macronutrient manipulation tool to work for you!

Got any questions we can help you out with? Pop them down below and let us assist you in your carb cycling conquest!

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