Carb Cycling: Eat What You Want, Build Muscle and Lose Fat…What?!!!
Carb Cycling: Eat What You Want, Build Muscle and Lose Fat…What?!!
Carbohydrates have received a lot of attention over the past decade, and for good reason.
Carbohydrates, especially those that are refined and overly processed, have become a staple in the American diet. And hell, why not?
They taste good, are easily accessible and they make you feel good when you eat them (at least initially).
The problem becomes when your nutritional intake is heavily biased towards these carbohydrates.
When this happens you have a greater chance of becoming insulin resistant, you flirt with diabetes, you are likely to gain excess body insulation (fat!) and your overall health and performance is likely going to plummet.
So of course the solution is to remove these from your diet…right?
Well, if you told me that I could not have pasta, rice, cereal, bread, cookies, hamburger buns or the occasional extra frosted, gooey glazed, cavity causing donut, I would politely ask you to take your suggestion and shove it between your left and right gluteus maximus.
I, as anyone else who is human and enjoys life, like to eat carbohydrates.
But, I also know that the negative consequences of eating these on the reg is going to destroy my health and performance goals, and make me look more like the pillsbury dough boy than Leonidas.
So, I say no to them…
Restricting yourself from these pleasures in life not only a terrible way to walk around on this earth, but it will likely lead to the occasional binge, which is just a vicious cycle.
You restrict, you binge and then you feel defeated.
You restrict again, binge again, tell yourself you are a loser once again, rinse and repeat.
This not only leads to a miserable psychological state, but it will lead to the same negative physical and overall health consequences as when you are eating them on the reg.
So what can you do??
Use carbohydrate cycling.
What is carbohydrate cycling?
Carbohydrate cycling (carb cycling) is most easily defined as cycling through days where you have a higher carb intake and days where you have a lower carb intake.
What this does is it allows you to have some of those carbs that you want and love, while giving you days without them to drop overall calories, help you increase insulin sensitivity, and keep your health and performance on the right track.
I have found the best way to do so is to match your higher carb days with your higher physically demanding days (when you train, have a competition, etc.).
Your body is in a physiological state where it is more primed to use the carbohydrates for energy and restoration. The body is ready to “soak them up” which prevents you from storing them as fat.
Then on the days when you are not training or exerting at an intense level, back off on the carbs as your body does not need them as much for energy and recuperation.
This also helps prevent taking in to many calories and it helps keep you from becoming desensitized to the insulin response (which happens when blood sugar is constantly elevated from consistent carbohydrate consumption, and is no good!).
Throughout both higher and lower carb days you will keep your protein and fat intake relatively constant to ensure adequate nutrients for health and muscle growth.
A Few Examples
High Carb Day Option 1: 1 cup oatmeal, 1/2 banana, 1/4 cup berries, 1 scoop protein powder, cinnamon and nutmeg to taste (cook oatmeal and stir in the other ingredients to it).
High Carb Day Option 2: 2-3 eggs, 1-2 slices of Ezekiel bread, 1 slice cheese, 1 banana (make an egg sandwich, or open faced sandwich and have a banana on the side).
Low carb day Option 1: Shake: Add 8oz of almond milk, 1 handful spinach, 1 cup frozen berries, 1 tbsp peanut butter, 1 scoop protein, cinnamon and nutmeg to taste to blender and blend to desired thickness.
*Low Carb Day Option 2: 1 cup chopped veggies (whatever you want), 1 thin slice ham, 2-3 eggs, small amount of cheese, 10 baby carrots (make an omelet and have carrots on the side).
*To make this a higher carb option you could also have a side of potatoes or slice of Ezekiel bread for example
High Carb Day Option 1: Turkey Sandwich / Wrap and Apple with a little desert: construct a turkey sandwich or wrap and have an apple as a side and have a small amount of desert (this is where I usually have a small cookie, piece of a muffin of anything else I want…but it is small!)
High Carb Day Option 2: Stir Fry with Rice with a little desert: Cook your your favorite veggies and fruit with a protein of choice (chicken, steak, shrimp, etc.), add 1 cup of rice and some soy sauce and enjoy with a small desert.
Low Carb Day Option 1: Protein and salad: Construct a salad with your favorite veggies, a little dressing, a sprinkle of cheese and top with a protein of choice.
Low Carb Day Option 2: Grilled/Baked Protein with a vegetable side: Grill or bake a protein of choice and enjoy with a side of broccoli, green beans, carrots, etc.
High Carb Day Option 1: Pasta, Veggies and Protein: Similar to the stir fry, cook up your favorite veggies and protein, add a small amount of sauce of choice (try to stay away from the processed, fatty cream sauces) and place it on top of a bed of pasta.
High Carb Day Option 2: Grilled/Baked Protein with a baked potato and veggie side: Grill or bake your favorite protein and enjoy it with a baked potato and a side of veggies!
Low Carb Day Option 1: Grilled/Baked Protein with a veggie side: A piece of fish with asparagus for example.
Low Carb Day Option 2: Bunless cheeseburger with a side of mixed veggies.
Really the options are endless when it comes to constructing your high and low carb days. The thing to remember is that a low carb meal eliminates the bread, rice, grains, pasta, etc. and replaces them with low carb options such as veggies.
Will this approach work for everyone with every goal??
I would never say that something will work for everyone, especially with every goal.
What I will say though is that carb cycling can be tailored to better achieve certain goals, and in my experience it works very well for the majority of people.
With various goals there are slightly different modifications with carb cycling that can maximize results.
If you are looking for fat loss, during your high carb days, only your meal following intense physical exertion should be higher carb.
When you place an intense physical demand on the body, muscle glycogen (muscle sugar) is used for energy. Carbohydrates help restore muscle glycogen, and immediately following intense exertion your body is more primed to soak up these nutrients and store them as muscle glycogen.
With this, timing your high carbohydrate meal after this exertion helps guarantee that more of the carbohydrates go towards muscle glycogen replenishment rather that fat.
So I would encourage those seeking fat loss to have one higher carb meal during their high carb day, and this meal should be following the intense physical exertion. The rest of your meals should follow the lower carb template (protein and veggies without starchy carbs).
If you are seeking to maintain the amount of muscle to fat ratio you currently have, I suggest having two meals with a higher carb count during high carb days.
Again here I would suggest those meals being the two meals following intense physical exertion.
For the rest of your meals follow the low carb day template.
This helps to ensure that you are consuming enough carbs to maintain muscle mass, but not so much that you are going to accrue fat mass.
If you are looking to gain weight (mainly muscle mass) you need to create a caloric surplus in order for your muscles to grow optimally.
Because of this goal I suggest having three meals per high carb day that have a higher carb count.
This helps to ensure that you are consuming enough carbohydrates and calories for continuous muscle growth.
Of course if you start to notice too much fat accumulation you will want to dial back the amount of carbs little by little.
**A side note: You may have days that I would consider moderate training and carb days, such as days when you are doing some intense conditioning such like sprints, prowler pushes or other high intensity interval work. I would suggest eating a moderate amount of carbs during your post training meal, no matter what your goals are.
Portion Size Still Matters!
While carb cycling is awesome as it allows you to consume some of your favorite foods throughout the week, this doesn’t mean that you can go buck wild on high carb days / meals and expect an optimal result.
Portion size still matters, and when it comes to starchy carbs sticking to one to two cupped hand size portions for men, and one cupped hand size portion for women is key.
Sticking with these portion suggestions helps to maximize glycogen replenishment without going overboard and switching to fat accumulation.
Also, if you are going to have desert try to have only one to two bites…I know it sounds crazy but take your time chewing it, savor the flavor (<–like that one!) and then walk away!
And remember, we are talking about a normal sized bite, not a Hulk sized bite!
Get to Cycling
Hopefully by now I have convinced you that carbohydrate cycling is the easiest nutritional strategy to continue to eat the foods you love, prevent yourself from feeling deprived and maximizing your results from training as well as enhancing you overall performance.
It will not only result in the body composition shifts you want (more muscle and less fat), but it will drastically improve your psychological connection with food…you will not feel consistently deprived, depressed and angry as you will have the high carb days to mitigate the low carb days.
The keys to carb cycling are:
-Consume your higher carb days on the days your train or physically exert at a high level.
-Lower your carb intake on days you are not exerting physically by removing starchy carbs (rice, pasta, bread, etc.) and replace them with veggies.
-Keep your protein and fat consumption relatively constant each day.
-Stick to the carb portion control parameters of 1-2 cupped hand size servings for men and 1 cupped hand size serving for women.
Lastly, I thought it would be helpful to give you a look into how I am currently implementing carb cycling. At this point I am trying to maintain my muscle and fat ratio for the most part…if I gain some more muscle and lose some more fat I won’t complain 🙂
Monday: Higher Carb and Training Day; Higher carb breakfast and lunch, lower carb dinner
Tuesday: Lower Carb and Moderate Training Day: Lower carb breakfast, higher carb lunch, lower carb dinner
Wednesday: Higher Carb and Training Day; Higher carb breakfast and lunch, lower carb dinner
Thursday: Lower Carb and Moderate Training Day: Lower carb breakfast, higher carb lunch, lower carb dinner
Friday: Higher Carb and Training Day; Higher carb breakfast and lunch, lower carb dinner
Saturday: Higher Carb and Training Day; Higher carb breakfast and lunch, lower carb dinner
Sunday: Lower Carb and Off Day: Lower carb meals all day
Try out this approach and let me know what you think. Share it with friends and family, and if you have any questions or thoughts let me know!
To your health and performance,