You’d be fooling yourself (or just a fool) to say you haven’t tried to burn calories so you could then consume them in the form of pizza, pasta or pinot. Unfortunately, the beloved carb-heavy, comfort foods are typically taboo for anyone trying to lose weight. But what if you could have your carbs and eat them, too?
If you’re a total foodie who exercises to eat or an athlete in training who loves pizza Fridays way too much and can’t get to your ideal weight, it’s time to take a spin on the carb cycle.
The Basics: What is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is a low-carbohydrate nutrition plan which incorporates periods of high-carb intake. You can alternate high and low intake by meal, by day or by week.
For health nut newbies, switching meal by meal is a good way to ease into it without feeling deprived. Already a full-blown fitness freak? You’d be best off cycling on the daily. For instance, when you go heavy on the weights (hello, legs!), go heavy on the carbs. On lighter training days – or when only doing cardio – lighten up the carbs. In a week’s time, you’re shooting for 3 high-carb days and 4 on the low side.
Bodybuilders and figure competitors might go an entire week with little to no carbs. This cycling routine is a bit more extreme. And if you know any grumpy figure competitors, you know going too long without carbs is not sustainable – or you hope not, at least.
The Benefits: Will I Really Lose Weight?
Carb cycling is like a training routine for your metabolism. You’re teaching your body how to more efficiently utilize fat.
Here’s the gist of it: when you consume carbohydrates, your body releases insulin which transports the sugar (from carbohydrates) to your muscles to be converted into glycogen (energy). If your energy requirements aren’t on par with your sugar consumption, insulin will initiate the conversion of excess sugar into fat.
The concept of carb cycling ensures your consumption does not surpass your energy needs. Sounds like any old diet, right? Well, it gets better. A higher carb day nicely complements a higher training load, because your body is getting adequate fuel – and then some. That means when you cut back on carbs, your body can pull from the surplus glycogen, blow through it and then begin to burn fat reserves for energy. It doesn’t matter who you are – from new moms to old athletes – you can benefit from being a fat-burning machine.
The short of it: you can absolutely lose weight. At the very least, you’ll gain a much leaner body composition as long as you’re consistent with the routine, honest with yourself and healthy with your choices. Like any healthy eating plan, you’ll get better (and faster) results when you opt for more nutrient-dense fare. Even on high-carb days and during cheat meals, try to indulge in whole grains, starchy vegetables and other complex carbs. Basically, the lower on the glycemic index the better.
The Breakdown: How Does a Typical Week Look?
Breakfast: 5-egg-white omelet with spinach & feta or chocolate egg protein shake (if you’re rushing)
Snack: 1 serving protein pancakes
Lunch: 4 oz. skinless chicken breast with ½ cup brown rice and 1 cup broccoli
Snack: Spicy Almond Green Smoothie
Dinner: Tuna lettuce wraps made with 1 can no-salt tuna
Breakfast: ½ cup oatmeal topped with ¼ cup dried cranberries and ¼ cup walnuts
Snack: 6 oz. non-fat Greek yogurt with 1/3 cup granola and ½ scoop protein powder
Lunch: 1, 5-oz baked sweet potato with 2 cups chicken & wild rice soup
Snack: Rice cake PB&J
Dinner: Salmon Couscous Salad
Monday = Low carbs
Workout = 30+ minutes of low- to moderate-intensity cardio (swimming, walking, rollerblading, 3-mile run)
Tuesday = High carbs
Workout = HIIT strength training routine or 30+ minutes of cardio speed intervals
Wednesday = Low carbs
Workout = Pilates, yoga or other active recovery workout
Thursday = High carbs
Workout = 45+ minutes of intense strength training
Friday = Low carbs
Workout = 30+ minutes of moderate cardio
Saturday = High carbs
Workout = 45+ minutes of intense strength training or 30+ minutes of cardio speed intervals
Sunday = Cheat day!
Workout = Rest or get up early and do your favorite cardio exercise for more than 90 minutes at low- to moderate-intensity