When you are trying to lose fat, it is important that you don’t cut calories too drastically from the get go. You will eventually stop losing fat and have to reduce calories even further or increase the amount of cardio you are doing to continue seeing results.
Most people can handle a generic fat loss plan with a moderate amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat. But for those that are already lean and more experienced with nutrition manipulation, carb cyling can be a great method to continually burn fat.
Carb cycling is an advanced nutritional approach, and requires strict dedication and adherence. It should not be followed for longer than 8-12 weeks at a time.
What is carb cycling?
Carb cycling is a nutritional protocol whereby you alternate the amount of carbohydrates – and, consequently, calories – you consume on a periodic basis. Common approaches involve three low carb days followed by one higher carb day, but the pattern will be determined by an individual’s goals, genetic make-up and dieting history. Generally, the higher an individual’s body fat, the less frequent the carb-ups. Ideally, the high carb day should come right before your body uses up all of its glycogen stores.
There are numerous benefits of carb cycling. Firstly, because you vary the amount of carbohydrates and calories you consume on a daily basis, your body never knows what to expect. You are therefore more likely to stay in fat-burning mode for longer without having to reduce your overall caloric intake. Periodic carb-ups keep your muscles full, and you significantly lower the risk of sacrificing muscle mass compared to a traditional low-carb diet.
Secondly, it is much easier pyschologically. I struggle following low carb diets for extended periods of time (what can I say, my body craves carbs!). With carb cycling, there are no periods of prolonged, restrictive eating patterns and there is always a reward in sight.
Finally, there is increasing evidence that cycling carbohydrates is the key to body recomposition (gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time). You ingest carbohydrates when you need them, and limit them when you don’t – allowing you to efficiently recover but also use existing fat stores as fuel.
How do I carb cycle?
I typically recommend at least two higher carb days per week, which should fall on the days of your hardest workouts (eg legs, back) when your body needs the extra nutrients most. High carb days are often referred to as refeeds, as the carbohydrates you ingest go straight towards refilling your body’s liver and muscle glycogen stores; rather than being stored as fat. The higher carb days are essential to ensure that your overall weekly caloric total is not in too drastic of a deficit.
A low carb nutritional plan should be followed on rest days and less intensive workout days. The amount of protein you consume will remain relatively consistent across all days. For lower carb days, you typically want to ingest a higher amount of healthy fats.
The below tables will provide a rough calculation as to how many grams of protein, carbohydrates and fat you should consume on a low carb day versus a high carb day. Multiply the protein and carbohydrates by four to work out the total number of calories coming from each nutrient. Multiple the fat result by nine to calculate the total number of calories from fat.
|Low carb day||High carb day|
|Protein||BW (lbs) x 1.5||BW (lbs) x 1.7|
|Carbohydrates||BW (lbs) x 0.9||BW (lbs) x 1.7|
|Fat||BW (lbs) x 0.8||BW (lbs) x 0.6|
|Low carb day||High carb day|
|Protein||BW (lbs) x 1.2||BW (lbs) x 1.4|
|Carbohydrates||BW (lbs) x 0.6||BW (lbs) x 1.4|
|Fat||BW (lbs) x 0.5||BW (lbs) x 0.3|
Using myself as an example, I would consume approximately 186g protein, 93g carbohydrates and 77.5g fat on low carb days (1813 calories total), and 217g protein, 217g carbohydrates and 46.5g fat on high carb days (2154 calories total).
On high carb days, you can either consume the exact same amount of carbohydrates per meal (i.e. 217g divided by 6 meals = 36g of carbs per meal), or you can continue to eat the bulk around your workouts and at one other meal. This is the approach I recommend, and what I personally follow.
Limit your carbs to pre- and post-workout on low carb days. You can cut out carbohydrates altogether on rest days, or limit them to breakfast.
It is important to eat clean the entire time you carb cycle. There are no cheat days or meals. Even though you may be consuming upwards of 300 grams of carbohydrates per day, they must be non-junk foods in the form of sweet potato, rice, fruit and oats, as they are less likely to be converted to fat.
Have you ever tried carb cycling?