First off, I love my carbs, so the concept of taking them all away in a keto-type diet is just insanity, in my books.
If you’re into keto and it works for you, that’s awesome! It doesn’t work for me. Yes, I’ve tried it. NO, it hasn’t worked. If anything, it made me cranky, aggressive and impulsive.
What is carb cycling?
Well…to explain it simply: it’s the act of eating more carbs on some days (or during certain parts of a day, say around exercise) and fewer carbs on other days (or, again, the majority of the day).
Either way, it usually results in fewer consumed calories, and can provide you with all of the fat burning elements and improved metabolic function of the keto diet…when done properly.
By carb cycling instead of going full-keto, however, you miss out on all those not-so-fun side effects that are a result of stringent calorie or carbohydrate restriction.
Here’s a quick overview of some of the most prominent reasons people carb-cycle.
People want to see their abs
For people who want a 6-pack: you’re going to have to come to terms with managing an energy deficit for a while. However, when you carb cycle, it can make an energy deficit seem much easier to handle.
You can accomplish this by scheduling days to eat less than other days; for example, on heavy-lift days you should eat more carbs to supplement for glycogen restoration and protein synthesis. Eat less or no carbs on days where you’re not in the gym or not working out as heavily.
Carb cycling can reduce hormone fluctuation, which is a cause of stress. It also prevents any mental health issues from being exacerbated through carb- or calorie-restrictive dieting.
People with intolerances can restrict their carb consumption to post-workout only and still reap the benefits of a low-carb diet without dealing with too much upset.
For those with poor glucose control or increased levels of inflammation, carb cycling helps with managing metabolic health.
Celebrations such as Ramadan, Yom Kippur, or lent, where fasting is the focus.
Cutting weight or preparing for a competition
Carb intake affects fluid balance. Controlling this allows competitors and athletes to appear much leaner through carb/water fluctuations, which gives them an edge in competition.
The above are a variety of reasons to carb cycle, the most popular of which is to lose fat, get six-pack definition, and for those who are a little more carb-sensitive (for example if you suffer from GI tract issues).
How do you do it?
My favourite approach is to schedule my carb meals around my workouts, and reduce my carb intake for the rest of the day.
You can also schedule high-carb meals every 3-5 days and keep the remaining days at a lower-carb intake.
Homeostatic requirements – high & low days
This is the simplest approach, in my humble opinion: on days where you’re going to be more active, it’s best to have a diet with more carbs. I recommend somewhere around 8-12 handfuls of carbs, based on how active you are going to be.
For example: on leg days or heavy back/chest days, I like to make sure that I’m eating about 250g to 350g of carbs. That may seem like a lot, until you compare that to my shoulder, arm, and active rest days, where I’m consuming roughly 150g carbs total for the day. However, if you look at the total energy balance for the week, there will still be an overall deficit.
This is what we are going for with this approach: a simple deficit achieved over 7-to-10 days.
High post-workout, low anytime
What this means is that you consume most of your carbs (or ALL of your carbs) around the time that you work out. This could include having pre-workout carbs (30 to 50g), intra-workout carbs (30 to 50g) and post-workout carbs (100 to 200g).
While doing this, every other meal is absent of carbs. “Anytime” meals would look something like this:
- 1-2 palms of protein
- 2-3 thumbs of healthy fats
- Remainder is non-starchy vegetables
Post-workout meals would look something like this:
- 1-2 palms of protein
- ½ – 1 thumb of healthy fats
- 3-5 cupped handfuls of simple, fast-digesting carbs
I find this approach to be much simpler and safer than going the keto route; the keto diet has sparked issues in some people with the now-infamous “keto-flu.” This is an example of a diet that actually becomes more detrimental than beneficial.
I am a relatively carb-sensitive person, and when I don’t have enough I can’t function very well at all. If you’re like me, this ‘carb cycling’ approach will allow you to remain within the 8-10% body fat range. For me that represents my last 4 years, and all without feeling like I need to change things up or that I’m getting bored and/or miserable.
Would you benefit from trying carb cycling?
As always, if you’re looking for coaching or more information, feel free to reach out for a FREE CONSULTATION & ASSESSMENT.
Wes Van Hart is a personal trainer, nutritionist (and far more), located in Toronto. Wes is an advocate for constantly improving both physical and mental health, and as such, he is dedicated to advancing his knowledge base, certifications and ability to help his clients, no matter how that looks.
Wes was the very first FitIn affiliate, and is a regular contributor to the FitIn blog.