Focus On: Carb Cycling (what is it and how does it work?)

Recently, I got a question about carb cycling and how my eating changes depending on whether I’m in my losing or maintenance mode. There is a lot of hubbub in the fitness world about carb cycling and macro counting, so here’s a little post with my two cents.

Carb cycling

For those who may be curious about carb cycling, here’s what it is and how it works:

Carb cycling is alternating high carb and low carb days. This strategy was initially implemented based on the bodybuilding philosophy of building (stacking on carbs and lifting extremely heavy weights to increase muscle growth) and shredding (decrease carb and fat intake, increase cardio). According to this article, many personal trainers started to follow a similar method with their own clients and found that it promoted weight loss. A major pro of carb cycling is that you can indulge in treats things like donuts on high carb days, but it’s also a bummer to be cranky pants and lacking fuel during low carb days. For this reason, I’m not a huge advocate of this extreme. If you want a donut, eat a donut and go on with the day. I do think that it’s important to alternate your fuel intake to keep your body guessing, but not to the point where you’re depriving yourself of essential nutrients (<— never a good idea).

For carb cycling, it’s exactly as it sounds: you follow a high carb day (with small meals throughout the day) with a low carb day (also small meals, but emphasis on protein and veggies). There are various methods out there (including specified gram amounts of each macronutrient depending on your body composition and goals) but that’s the basic gist of it. To carb cycle, it would be important to adjust the eating plan to match your training schedule. If you’re lifting extremely heavy or rocking out your cardio, and not getting adequate fuel, you may be hindering your efforts. If I were to follow this method (I don’t), I would probably do cardio on my high carb days and strength train on low carb days. 

Bicep curl

Why does this work?

Weight loss occurs when you burn more calories than you consume. For a method like carb cycling, you can still be at a net deficit if you’re undereating on some days and overeating on the others. Too many of one macronutrient will be stored as fat, so the net effect of this method would be fairly stable levels of all macronutrients.  My thoughts: why not eat a balanced diet EVERY day, instead of depending on a net effect to get everything your body needs, or to promote weight loss?

In this study, it was determined that an intermittent low carbohydrate diet may lead to greater weight loss than a standard Mediterranean style of eating. The problem with the study: it was short term (only four months). I would have loved to see some research over a longer span, like four years, as a low-carb (or low anything) diet isn’t easily sustainable for the long term. When you decrease carbs, weight loss is largely attributed to lack of water in the body, which can be gained back quickly after resuming a “normal” diet. 

I think it’s important to alternate your fuel intake to keep your body guessing, but the BEST way to do this is through intuition. You’ll naturally be more hungry on some days and less hungry on others. On days that I do OrangeTheory I want to eat ALLTHETHINGS and other days, I’m not as hungry and may have a small lunch or small dinner. Listen to your body’s hunger cues, and tune in to what it needs. Choose healthy whole foods and the leave science experiments out of it.  

Do I count macros?
Kind of, but in a very basic way. It’s something that I thoroughly break down in my book (which has a cover now! Very exciting!) and I’m able to get an ideal balance of macros without the need of apps or calculators. It took a long time, but I’m now able to follow my hunger cues while making progress towards my own fitness goals.

Do you track macros or calorie count? Or are you more of an intuitive eater? 

Favorite donut? (I just have donuts on the brain now haha)

xoxo

Gina

More Focus On posts about different types of diets:

-Weight Watchers

-Raw Food

-Intermittent Fasting

-South Beach

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Comments

  1. I am all about intuitive eating! I cannot say enough good things about listening to your body’s needs and how easy it is to eat, maintain your weight and feel your best. For me, car cycling, counting calories and such take all of the joy out of food.

  2. I’ve tried to become a more intuitive eater, and that seems to be what works best for me. Sometimes I’ll focus on getting in more protein though, since as a vegetarian I feel like my diet can easily become super carb-heavy!

  3. Great post! I kind of had a gist of what carb cycling was but this definitely helped clarify it for me. I don’t think carb cycling would ever be for me but I always like to learn about these things. I try to eat more intuitively but I still usually have a basic idea of the calories and macros that the food that I eat has in it. Boston cream donut!

  4. I did carb-cycling as part of Jamie Eason’s LiveFit plan and have a similar outlook as you. It’s a competition “trick” that is meant to be short-term and is not a good lifestyle approach to eating.

    One note, though – on high carb days, donuts still aren’t part of the plan. You’re supposed to eat more carbs on those days, but it still has to be healthy food. On those days, I ate a serving of oats, sweet potatoes or bananas at every meal.

  5. Charlsie N says:

    I’m trying to get away from counting calories and points and just focus on limiting myself and eating whole foods. I feel like I’ve spent the last ten years counting and I feel like I’ve lost focus on actually just being healthy.

    Wanted to let you know I did one of your kettlebell work outs this weekend and I’m feeling it today. Also didn’t help we decided to take a random hiking trip too.

    Thanks for the work out!

  6. I’m an intuitive eater. I try to eat based on what my body feels like it needs, but I am aware that if I overdue it one day then I need to scale it back the next. Counting calories is such a pain. I don’t think that’s ever something I could do longterm. I prefer to make exercise a part of my daily routine and I work to make relatively healthy choices with a few indulgences thrown in here and there.

  7. Gorgeous book cover!!

    Favorite doughnut: the kind at the cider mill, especially when it’s fresh-fried and the edges are still crispy. I’m salivating now just thinking of it.

  8. I actually and a harder time maintaining my weight when I was really anal about logging and tracking my calories and macros, which I think was largely because of all the added stress that came with planning and worrying about what was “right” to eat. It got to the point where it was taking too much time out of my day, and too much joy out of my food, so I gave it up and never looked back. Best.thing.ever. I definitely prefer a more balanced carefree approach, and found that it works way better for me.

  9. I’ve never heard of carb cycling, but it’s nothing I’d ever do.
    I had a similar experience to Amanda(^) when counting calories/keeping a food journal. I was obssessed/unhappy/ did not enjoy food and I ended up gaining weight. I only lasted about a month before I threw the notebook out. This phase was about 7 years ago – Since then I’ve went up and down, not really knowing what my body wanted or needed. In the last couple of years I’ve really got a good grasp on intuitive eating, which has definitely worked the best for me (although the days that I want to eat everything still shock me haha…I love being able to give my body what it wants!)
    Favorite donut: Sour cream glazed … mmm…

  10. I eat when I’m hungry, but I do keep count of my calories just to make sure I’m not over eating. I love cake donuts with white icing and sprinkles!

  11. Oh man I love Krispy Kreme. And I’ve always wanted to try Voodoo Donut. I try and eat good carbs every day so I don’t think I’d be able to handle the low carb days. (And would probably feel really stuffed on the high carb days!)

  12. I now have a yen for a twisty doughnut (Are those called longjohns? They’ve been my favorite since I was a kid!), either glazed or dusted with cinnamon sugar.

    I’ve never done carb cycling (I keep trying to finish Jamie Eason’s LiveFit trainer, which requires it on phase 3, but haven’t gotten that far), but some make it look so easy. I think it’s all about planning, plus, I’m curious about what happens when you stop? It can’t be a sustainable way to eat.

  13. I used to count calories and every now and then I check to see where I am at, but when I counted my calories it seems I became overly focused on food. I thought about food more. I have decided that I am going to eat for health. I like that so much better.

  14. This is just confusing, haha! I think I’ll stick with trying my best to be balanced every day! And donuts? Krispy Kreme all the way ;)

  15. I totally agree with eating balanced everyday. Unless you’re preparing for a body building competition where you need to look a certain way, I think each day you should try to eat healthy and follow your body’s leads as to what it needs. I’ve never tracked my food or macros, but have considered doing it as I’ve changed my workout program recently. Thanks for this topic!

  16. Intuitive eating all the WAY! Just posted about that last week, actually. :) Since I started eating what I want and not making a big deal of it, and *generally* choosing foods that I both want and that I know will be beneficial towards my goals, I’m leaner and stronger than ever. The key, I think, is having plenty of healthy options to choose from…the more good choices you’ve got, the more likely you are to pick one of them!

    It’s taken years to get to a place where I’m comfortable doing this, so I definitely appreciate that some folks might find it scary to let go of the numbers game. But it is so worth it to just be able to eat the damn donut…although honestly, I’d prefer a scone ;)

  17. I’m definitely into intuitive eating. I’ve heard of carb cycling through Chris & Heidi Powell but have never looked into it past that.

  18. This is all very interesting! I like your mindset and thoughts on it all. I honestly don’t think I could deal with carb cycling/tracking macros on a regular basis. It would be too consuming for me. Plus, I don’t think it’s a realistic way to live to be honest. I think if you’re training for something specific, or you’re doing it short term, then yeah, it may be a good option, but I’m more of an everything-in-moderation kinda gal.

  19. I don’t have many opinions on carb cycling (although now I do have donuts on the brain – I’m from Portland, Oregon. So Gina when you ever visit, check out Voodoo and Blue Star)…but I wanted to hop on and say the cover to your book looks great. You look lovely, and I look forward to reading it. Glad it’s all coming together!

  20. I am definitely an intuitive eater, I try to eat what makes me feel good (more than at the time of consumption) because food impacts the way you feel ALL day! I can’t handle all the counting, no carb-cycling for me- makes people too cranky. I love a good cake donut with strawberry or cherry frosting, my favorite!

  21. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve never understood carb cycling before.

  22. Love the book cover! I can’t wait to get it. :)

    I used to count calories and try to plan out my meal minute by minute but it just did not work for my lifestyle or needs. I still lose weight by eating protein, veggies, fruit, and fresh food. I do try to stay away from carbs as much as possible though because my body loves them and holds onto them for dear life.

  23. I’m definitely in the “intuitive eating” boat! Everything in moderation has always worked for me and fits with my intention to be a good role model for my kids.

    I don’t really have a favorite donut…I’ve been blessed with a lack of sweet tooth! I’d much rather have 3 huge spoonfuls of nut butter. Call me crazy!

  24. Amber Schumann says:

    O-M-G… so I’m not the only one that is a starving beast after OTF?!

    I’m normally not a post-workout eater (I re-fuel, but I’m never actually hungry). But there’s something about OTF that makes me SO HUNGRY, I can’t even wait the 15 minute drive home. If they had a snack bar or cafe inside, they’d make a killing. From me.

  25. Love this post Gina! It truly is all about moderation and what your body FEELS it needs. Wee need to listen to what our body is telling us what we need to eat and not what media/fad diets are telling us to eat! But that is very difficult and takes daily practice.
    Happy Monday!!

  26. Interesting post – I cannot believe I’ve never heard of carb cycling. It doesn’t sound like a sustainable way of eating, though, but that is just my opinion. I agree with you in that intuitive eating is so important, and something we learn as we explore different ways to fuel our bodies.

    …Donuts are my kryptonite…maple bar all the way.

  27. I used carb/macro cycling for both of my fitness competitions and found it was an easy way to get stage ready without sacrificing muscle mass.

    I would never eat something like donuts on a high carb day though, as my high carb days were also lower in fat just like my low carb days were higher in fats.

    Similarly I personally would also put a high carb day on a strength training day to refuel glycogen stores and prevent muscle breakdown.

    It’s an effective tool if used correctly.

  28. Thanks for including our DailyBurn article!

  29. Astro Doughnuts in DC has a Creme Brûlée donut that is totally worth it :)

  30. I’ve never done any carb cycling but it sounds like it requires too much work and planning for me. I like to eat a balanced diet everyday and feel that I do eat fairly healthy by including different types of nutrients in my meals. I try to listen to my body as much as I can when it comes to eating.

  31. Apple fritters alllllll the way!!!!

  32. Shaina Anderson says:

    I’m definitely more of an intuitive eater these days. I used to do the food journal thing, but that was unhealthy for me and I got too skinny. To each their own right?

    Chocolate cake donuts….nom nom. And most places don’t have them anymore! I don’t want frosting. I just want the chocolate version of an old fashioned with the glaze, is that so much to ask?!

  33. Love the book cover! Can’t wait till it comes out :D

  34. I’ve been doing the 4 hour body diet for about a year now and it seems to really work for me. I’ve lost about 10 pounds but am mostly just maintaining now. I’m not sure if the spike in calories (and sugar) is the greatest, but mentally I’ve found it to be the best long term eating for me. Having a cheat day coming up makes it easy to make the healthy choice, and I can still go out and be social. During the week, I don’t count calories or anything, I just eat lots of veggies and protein. Also, almost every cheat day starts at Donut Bar…they’re the best (and free donuts for kiddos too)!

  35. Crystal says:

    Meh, I’m lucky if I can pack a well balanced lunch and remember to grab it on my way out the door in the morning–carb cycling or any type of macro counting isn’t for me.

    I’m so boring–I love Krispy Kreme glazed donuts! But one of my friends shared some of her family’s homemade jelly donuts last year at Hanukkah–omg so amazing, definitely the best.

  36. Gina! I’m wondering if you could do a post addressing form for two strength training moves – squats with weighted barbells on shoulders, and lunges (weighted or not). I feel like when I’m squatting with a weighted barbell on my shoulders, all I feel are my back and shoulders screaming at me to stop, and my legs don’t feel sore at all. That doesn’t seem right. For lunges, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be working – is it my front quad, back hamstring, back glute – I find I just get cramps in the back of my calf in the leg behind me on my lunge (maybe my calf just isn’t flexible enough?) Thanks!

  37. I first heard about carb cycling in Chris Powell’s book (the guy who does Extreme Weight Loss). His specific plan seemed way too complicated with the way he alternated meals. I agree with you- why not just have a balanced diet all the time?

  38. Interesting post! It seems too stressful to me but I can see how it might work for some people!

  39. Caroline says:

    I loved this post! I have been so confused recently coming off of an extremely low carb diet. The diet worked for me for about 6 months and then I slowly began to put on weight. This just led to frustration with my fitness and nutrition style. This post put things into perspective. Thanks for your input. I love reading your blog!

    • Fitnessista says:

      thank you so much for reading! happy to hear it helped. carbs are not the enemy :)

      • Caroline says:

        Oh and my favorite donut would have to be a strawberry glazed donut from Dunkin’ Donuts. It brings me back to my childhood. Thanks again!

  40. I totally agree with you on balancing. I used to not allow myself to eat many carbs. I found that my body actually does better with fewer of them. I get a carb brick in my stomach. Now that I’m more active I find that I do need certain carbs though to fuel my workouts like rice and oatmeal. I’m definitely more in rune now with my body’s needs than a few yes ago.

    • Fitnessista says:

      it’s something that you learn over time! it also changes depending on your goals, body composition and activity level

  41. OK. I am going to totally be that girl, yet again. Another San Diego recommendation. The Doughnut bar downtown. If you haven’t been there yet, you MUST go. I work a block away and when I was pregnant, I might have been known by name. :)

  42. Carolyn says:

    Hi Gina,

    Thanks so much for the post. I’ve been reading so much about it, I was starting to feel like it was wrong to eat carbs on my rest days (and i only work out 3 days a week…) I needed the perspective :)

    Carolyn

  43. kristina says:

    awesome timing on this post! I also have been researching carb cycling recently because of Chris and Heidi Powell.

    currently I’m a paleo girl..but have been trying to figure out how to balance my carb intake so i can lean out more. I’ve put on a lot of awesome muscle and love how my body shape has changed since paleo and crossfit these last 2 years..but there’s little switches im experimenting with to get my desired aesthetics…carb cycling was a recent goolge item for me….not sure i could do it tho… i hate having to be so diet strict when im with friends etc… paleo is enough! lol

    so instead ive been cutting out fruit (except berries) and trying to consume carbs (sweet potatoes, plantains, etc) post workout or in the AM. … as well as have been incorportating Bullet proof coffee in the AM for breakfast so help become more fat adapted.

    what are your thoughts on bulletproof coffee?

  44. I’m an intuitive eater and agree with you – eat a balanced diet EVERY day. And if I really want a donut, I eat one! ;)

  45. I use MyFitness Pal to keep track of my calorie intake to make sure I am getting enough nutrients, since I am always active. I find it helps to know what I am consuming to make sure I am properly nourishing. Like you, I don’t really agree with this, nor practice, nor recommend it to clients. I believe in intuitive eating and doing what works best for YOU.

    I’m actually not a donut fan. I’d rather a big MUFFIN! ;)

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