With the growing number of low-carb diets and no-carb diets surrounding us, it’s no wonder why so many people whose goal is to lose fat cringe at the idea of eating some form of carbohydrates during their meals. What society fails to understand, however, is that our body needs carbs in order to function properly and that not all carbs are “bad.” Rather, what causes such abnormalities, such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and chronic diseases are processed carbs, which can negatively affect our body’s hormonal functions and cause us to gain unwanted fat.
As far as muscle growth and physical performance are concerned, healthy carbs need to be ingested. The key to being successful in regards to healthy carbs is to accurately track how many carbs you’re actually taking in, and when you are taking them in. Both how much carbs you take in and when you are taking them in can significantly affect your body’s overall reaction to them. This is where a process known as “carb cycling” comes in, where you can maximize your muscle growth and physical performance by controlling your carb consumption.
While carb cycling, you will want to separate your week into three different types of days: some days where no carbs will be ingested, some days where a low amount of carbs are ingested, and some days where a high amount of carbs are ingested.
On your low-carb days, the goal is to substitute carbs with foods rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats. Vegetables, lean meats, and nuts are all perfectly suitable to eat on this type of day. If you feel that you must eat some sort of carb during your meals, try and make sure that the source of carb does not come from heavy starches such as rice, oats, beans, and potatoes.
On moderate-carb days, you’ll still want to ingest fiber, protein, and healthy fats, but you’ll also be aiming for about 1g carbs per kg of bodyweight. Unlike no-carb days, it is encouraged that you eat carbs from starchy sources, like brown rice and sweet potatoes. We recommend that you try and eat these carbs after your workout, though.
Finally, high-carb days are the days you’ll be looking forward to the most. During this time, you’ll still want to get your carbs from healthy sources of food, but feel free to have a cheat meal if you so choose. Women can have up to 3g of carbs per kg of bodyweight on these days, while men can have up to 4g per kg of bodyweight. However, make sure you are still eating foods high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Know also that after one high-carb day, two no-carb days should follow, so enjoy the high amount of carbs while you can!
Rather than focusing on caloric intake, the goal of carb cycling is to focus on your internal hormonal function. Switching up how many carbs you take in on certain days can impact your body’s insulin levels, leptin levels, serotonin levels, and cortisol levels.
Insulin is what can build up both fat and muscle for your body. Depending on what type of carbs you eat and when you eat them, a surplus of fat or muscle can begin to form. When we eat carbs, insulin gets released into our bloodstream and is either stored in our liver for fuel we can use later on (fat) or to our muscle cells for physical recovery. If we take in too many carbs, our bodies will inevitably turn this excess storage into unwanted fat.
Leptin is what controls how hungry we feel throughout the day. Leptin is not like insulin, in that it takes a long period of time for its levels to change. For those who constantly eat high amounts of carbs on a regular basis, leptin levels are triggered often due to a growth in leptin resistance, which basically means that the individual will feel hungrier more often than the average person. Ironically, when having low levels of leptin through no-low calorie/carb diets, people tend to be hungry less often. This is exactly why a high-carb day is needed while carb-cycling, to reset these levels to stay leptin-sensitive.
Serotonin is a chemical in our brain that makes us feel better about ourselves. This hormone is frequently used to treat depression and improve our mood. The reason why so many diets fail is because they cause serotonin levels to drop drastically, leaving us craving for sugar and unhealthy starches. Carb cycling prevents this drop of serotonin and helps to replenish these specific levels during our high-carb days.
Cortisol is the hormone that helps us break down molecules in our body that can be used as energy. With that said, cortisol can be both advantageous and destructive to our bodies, as it can break down molecules from either fat or muscle tissue. Luckily, there are a number of studies that have shown that consuming protein can help to maintain muscle while in a catabolic state.
If carb cycling is something that interests you, you can use this calculator to determine how much protein, carbs, and fat you should be consuming while carb cycling. Please note that carb cycling is possible for anybody, but is more-so targeted for leaner people who are looking to shake off a final 10-15 pounds of fat.
Have you carb cycled before? If so, have you had any positive or negative experiences from it? Share your stories with us in the comment section below!