You hear the term carb cycling and the word carb sticks out. People are either completely
afraid of carbs, completely over indulge on them or just don’t know what to do with them.
Carbohydrates are a very versatile macronutrient that when used correctly can help
you succeed in your dietary goals.
This article will focus mainly on utilizing carbohydrates for either fat loss or hypertrophy and the goal is to give you a better understanding on how, when and why to use carb cycling.
The basics of carb cycling are simple to understand. You simply rotate between low,
medium and high quantities of carbohydrate intake throughout the week. To increase
lean body mass you need to consume more calories than you use, and to lose body fat
you need to consume fewer calories than you use. Carb cycling will
allow the rotation of maximum fat burning days and maximum muscle
accumulation days. Carb cycling is a great tool to overcome fat loss or
hypertrophy plateaus, and it is fairly simple to understand and follow.
Any diet that is realistic and easy to follow will ultimately be a successful
one. When you’re carb cycling it is important to consider the effects of
nutrients on hormones for fat loss and muscle gain. This is where
methods of carb cycling for fat loss and hypertrophy differ. I will start
with fat loss.
There are a few ways to start a carb cycling routine; current body fat
percentage, previous dieting history and insulin sensitivity all come into play. A simple way I prefer to start carb
cycling for fat loss is to split it into stages.
Carb cycling – Fat loss
Stage one encompasses the elimination of all carbohydrates sources for 1-2 weeks and
increasing your consumption of green vegetables and animal protein sources. By taking
out carbs during this period and continuing your training regime you have greater chances
of increasing insulin sensitivity, reducing total caloric intake and you will usually find a
large reduction in “water weight”.
However, don’t forget to bring carbs back in! Chronic low carb diets can eventually slow
your metabolism or cause metabolic damage. When restricting carbohydrate intake for
fat loss it is important to understand the hormonal and metabolic implications. The thyroid
is the main driver of metabolism in your body. The two key hormones behind metabolic
function are Thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroxine needs carbohydrates in
order to be converted into triiodothyronine. Without carbohydrates this conversion, along
with your metabolism, would slow down, and thus your fat loss results would suffer.
This stage of carb cycling for fat loss focuses on reintroducing carbs back into your diet,
in the form of re feeds and or post-work-out carbohydrate intake. There are several
indicators that you can monitor to evaluate whether you need to introduce carbs or not.
You can monitor your sleeping patterns, your energy levels, training performance, and
mood and body fat percentage. If either one of these starts to falter – you feel consistently
weaker in the gym, your weight/body fat percentage isn’t dropping any more (while training
intensity increases) or you struggle with, sleep this is where you can plan a carb re-feed day.
When fat loss is your main goal a carb re-feed day is used to boost thyroid function.
There are three key times for a re feed, first thing in the morning, post
work out or last meal of the day.
After 8 or so hours of sleep your body is very sensitive to insulin If you
want a re feed in the morning it would be best if this was not a busy
day or a work out day.
Carbohydrate intake also releases serotonin, which is a
neurotransmitter in the brain that makes many people feel very drowsy
(I am sure most of you have felt this feeling after smashing a huge
pasta or rice dish!).
My personal preference is either post work out or last meal of the day.
During the “post work out window” your body is extremely insulin sensitive, any carbs that you do ingest
have a higher chance of being utilized by the body and not being stored as fat. A carb re
feed before bed also has an added benefit that it may also promote better sleep, due to
the release of serotonin.
When having your re feed it is important to ensure all your carb sources come from clean
complex carbs. Oatmeal with a sprinkling of cinnamon is my personal favorite. If you’re
having a carb re feed in your post work out shake something with a higher GI won’t hurt.
You could add bananas, blueberries or even a carb powder. Research has shown that a
minimum of 50 grams is needed to boost thyroid function; this is a great starting point.
After having your first carb re-feed, you can start stage 3. This is where you can start
to add them in more regularly. Once a week, once every 5 days or once a fortnight.
The intervals between your re feeds are entirely up to how your body handles low
carbohydrates, so don’t be afraid to experiment with timing intervals and quantities of
carbohydrates. If you feel like you’re re gaining fat too quickly then back off on the quantity
of carbs and increase the interval between re-feeds.
Carbohydrate intake can range from 1-3g per pound of body weight so you can play
around with the numbers until you find what you think works best for you. Limit fruit to
1-2 pieces of low glycemic index pieces a day and make sure they are counted towards
your daily carb intake. When carb cycling, ensure all your carbs come from clean complex
sources. A re feed day is not a cheat day!