Carb cycling is an old-school method which is still used today by body builders and fitness models around the world to get their body fat down to ridiculously low levels. It works by helping to stabilise our insulin levels. Insulin is the hormone responsible for carrying blood sugar (fuel) to the tissues, muscles and organs and, if we’ve got too much of it in our bodies, to the fat stores. For rapid fat loss, insulin levels need to be brought back down to earth. Cutting out starchy carbs such as pasta, bread and cereals will certainly help. However a solid approach is sometimes better and that’s where carb cycling comes into play. Through carb cycling it’s possible to balance insulin in our favour so that we can burn more fat.
A recent study funded by the Genesis Breast Cancer Appeal looked at three different diets over a four month period to assess the effects on weight loss and blood markers of breast cancer risk in 115 women who had a family history of breast cancer. The researchers placed each woman in one of the following diet groups: a calorie-restricted low-carbohydrate diet, an “ad lib” low-carbohydrate diet (allowed to consume unlimited proteins and healthy fats, like lean meats, olives and nuts for 2 days per week without structure), or a calorie-restricted daily Mediterranean diet for seven days per week.
According to their findings, both intermittent low-carbohydrate diets produced better results when compared to the standard daily Mediterranean diet for weight loss, reduction of body fat and insulin resistance. The average loss in weight and body fat after 4 months for both the calorie restricted low carb diet and the ‘ad lib’ low carb diet was 4kg (about 8lbs), while the standard Mediterranean approach was only 2.4kg (about 5 lbs). The calories restricted low-carb diet reduced patients’ insulin resistance by 22%, with a reduction of 14% with the “ad lib” low-carb diet, compared with 4% for those who followed the standard Mediterranean diet.
What does this all mean? Well, we can see that the Mediterranean diet works well, just not as well as the low-carb diet options. What was interesting to see was that the “ad lib” approach produced almost the same results as the low carb calorie restricted diet suggesting that we might be able to simply throw in a couple of low carb days into our weekly routine and lose the same amount of weight without cutting calories heavily. Although before we get too hasty the researchers did not keep track of the calories consumed on these “ad lib” low carb days and it is therefore difficult to say what effect calorie cutting had. Whatever the case maybe, this study shows that by cycling your carbs from normal to low and back again you can lose weight and reduce the all-important hormone, insulin.
How Should You Do It?
There are several versions of carb cycling so it really depends on how hardcore you want to be as to which approach you adopt.
The 3-day method allows you a high-carb day, a moderate-carb day and a low-carb day. The 2-day method allows you a regular-carb day followed by a no-carb day. The toughest, slightly unsociable, approach is simply to have several low carb days (four or five) followed by a day or two on regular carbs. The latter and more extreme version is used by fitness models who need to get ready for a photo shoot or a particular competition because it will yield the quickest results for most people.
Personally, I recommend the 3-day approach for the average Jo, and to most of my clients:
Day 1: High Carb Day: regular clean eating (think Paleo)
Day 2: Low Carb Day: reduce fruit consumption and increase protein consumption
Day 3: No Carb Day: no veg or fruits; only proteins and good fats
On the high carb day, which is also known as a “re-feed” day, your body will experience a surge in its metabolic rate and begin to fill up its glycogen stores (stored energy). The following day you will eat fewer carbs by cutting out all fruit and starchy carbs and increase the consumption of protein and good fats. This will cause your insulin levels to drop. On the third day your diet will consist of extremely little or no carbs and instead you will consume more proteins and good fats to compensate. By reducing your carb intake your body will reduce the amount of insulin in the body (as it won’t be needed due to the reduction in blood sugar). However, on the fourth day when you begin the cycle again, you experience a break from the low carb diet and this once again causes your body to increase its metabolic rate and refuel the energy stores.
I find that this 3-day approach is the most manageable for people on an ongoing basis as you can live with a bit more freedom if you so choose to. If you’ve ever tried a low carb or even a low calorie diet, I’m sure you will have found that it can become a bit of a mental battle. Carb cycling gives you that little bit of freedom on the regular days to let your hair down a little.
The true power in this method is being able to reduce insulin levels, which then helps us increase growth hormone. Just in case you’ve forgotten, insulin helps our bodies store more fat and growth hormone helps us to burn more fat.
If you generally eat a high-carb diet, especially if they are starchy carbs like cereal, bread, pasta, etc, you might find that you feel lethargic when you first try carb cycling. Although this is more likely to be psychological than physical, it is wise to try a low carb day to test how your body and your mind react. Because you’re so used to having them you will, no doubt, miss them initially but bear with it: it’s a process of adaptation and it might take a couple of cycles before you come to terms with the process.
One of the greatest benefits of carb cycling is that it is able to maximise fat loss whilst maintaining muscle (which is why it is so popular with fitness models). This is something that other methods (e.g. prolonged low calorie diets) can fail to do and if we lose muscle our metabolism declines, so it is important to hold onto muscle improve lean mass with resistance training. This is why carb cycling is perfect for fat loss and it’s no wonder that this method can produce very quick, visible, results.
Of course, your results will vary depending on your size, but to give you some sort of yardstick: a person who is over 14 stone is likely to lose between 3 and 8 lbs in week one using this method (that sounds great, but be aware that some of this weight will be actually be from water loss rather than fat). Water loss is caused by the reduction in glycogen (stored energy) within the body. The following weeks will give a better indication of what’s happening to your body and for a person of over 14 stone this is likely to be somewhere in the region of 1.5-3 lbs per week. For a person who is under 14 stone, during the first week weight loss is likely to be between 1.5 and 5 lbs (again, much of this will be water). During the following weeks, it will be somewhere between 0.5 and 1.5 lbs. Not too shabby, especially when you combine this with exercise and clean eating.
I would imagine that some of you reading this will be really excited by the prospect of such fast and amazing results and I don’t blame you, but I see carb-cycling as a short term fat loss method and not something to be used long term. In the long term, the Paleo lifestyle will serve you better but in terms of quick results, it will certainly do the job for you.
Carb Cycling Tips
When you make the decision to carb cycle for fat loss you are committing to a structured fat loss regime designed for optimal fat burning through physical activity. In order to properly cycle for the desired results, you will need to be aware of the following:
- Drink more water. This is especially crucial during the low carb days to make sure you don’t have problems with digestion. If you feel thirsty, drink more water.
- Eat high carbs when you train with weights. The days that you train with the heaviest amount of weight are the days that should be your high carb cycle days so that your body has time to refuel and repair before the next, lighter workout session.
- Keep an eye on the calories. Make sure there isn’t a significant increase in your calorie intake while cycling. This will take some time to perfect, but keep an eye out for it and constantly tweak your diet until you’ve found the right blend for fat loss.