NOTE: This is an intermediate strategy. If you’re just getting started, focus on portion control and establishing good habits first.
Jim in accounting said he cut carbs and dropped 15 pounds in a week, so you figured you’d try too.
Now it’s Day 4 of your diet and you already feel like putting Jim in a chokehold.
You’re irritable, lethargic and ready to dive head first into that two-day-old donut in the lunchroom.
Let’s face facts: That initial weight loss on a very low carb diet is mostly energy to sustain intense physical activity (stored glycogen) and water.
Don’t listen to Jim.
Very low carb diets are not great for compliance, long-term sustainability, or performance in the gym.
A recent study found body fat loss slowed during a very low carb diet and led to a loss of muscle when compared to a moderate carb diet. Of course, if eating very low carb is how you get to a point of fat loss; good for you. But it isn’t the best option for the majority.
You don’t want to catabolize muscle entirely and end up looking like someone fresh off Weight Watchers.
On the other side of the coin, very high carb diets can lower insulin sensitivity. When your blood sugar levels are chronically elevated, higher and higher levels of insulin are released. This downward spiral is what ultimately leads to type II diabetes.
So what are you to do if low carbs and high carbs both have negative consequences?
Carb cycling may be your Golden Ticket to Fat Loss.
WTF Is Carb Cycling?
In the most basic format, carb cycling is a daily fluctuation of your carbohydrate intake used to prevent a fat loss plateau and maintain workout performance and metabolic rate.
You could simply setup your carb cycling diet this way:
- High-carb days on hard training days, used to restore glycogen levels and spike insulin during your workout
- Moderate-carb days on moderate training days (think arm day and more “pump” focused workouts) to maintain performance while being in a slight calorie deficit
- Low-carb days on low activity days when you’re off from the gym, where you suffer a bit to put yourself in a calorie deficit
Why Carb Cycling Works
Without a doubt, Carb Cycling fits well into the average lifter’s lifestyle.
You simply eat your protein and veggies with more carbs on the days that you lift weights and then the same with just fewer carbs on the days that you don’t.
Carb Cycling: How To
If you’re looking for a quick diet that’ll get you lean fast – but leave you worse off health wise and metabolically (i.e. the Biggest Loser drastic approach) – this is not for you. Secret revealed: Most contestants on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” gain back a lot of the weight they lose on the show within a year or so.
According to a study published in the journal Obesity, only one of the 14 Biggest Loser contestants studied weighs less today than when the competition wrapped.
But, again, you know better.
Here’s the base macronutrient setup on your carb cycle diet
- Protein: 1 gram per pound of body weight
- Fat: .5 grams per pound of body weight
- Carbohydrates: The remaining number of calories left over, which fluctuates daily based on activity levels
Now determine your baseline caloric requirements:
- Calculate BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) in METRIC
Women BMR = 655 + (9.6 X weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)
Men BMR = 66 + (13.7 X weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)
- Age: 27 years
- Height: 178 cm (5’10)
- Weight: 93kg (205 lbs.)
But BMR does not account for muscle mass or activity level (that’s why a muscle-bound guy gets compared to an obese person at the doctor’s office) so calculate Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) for more accurate calorie estimate.
- TDEE = BMR x Activity Factor
Determine your activity factor from the table below and multiply this number by the BMR you just calculated above, to determine your TDEE.
Looking at the chart, we selected an activity level of 1.55, as our Guinea Pig finds the time to train 4-5 days per week. Multiplying his activity level of 1.55 by his BMR of 2,413.6, we get a baseline calorie requirement of 3,427.
TDEE = 2413.6 x 1.55 = 3,427 calories
Now because you’re looking primarily for fat loss, you’ll set your starting calories below that baseline.
Reduce TDEE by preferred percentage:
10% – Normal fat loss
15% – Aggressive fat loss (would not recommend more than 20% drop to start unless you have more than 50+ pounds to lose)
Let’s take the TDEE of 3,400 (rounded down) and reduce calories by 10%.
Our Guinea Pig is left with 3,060 calories to start his fat loss diet. Now that we have the calorie target, we can set about getting the numbers for each macronutrient (protein, fats and carbohydrates).
We’ll start with protein. To determine how much protein to consume, simply multiply your current body weight by 1. This will give you a protein intake of 1 gram per pound of body weight.
Guinea Pig’s Protein Needs
Current Body Weight X 1
205 lbs x 1 = 205 grams
Next up is fat intake. For fat, multiply current body weight by 0.5. This will yield a fat intake of 0.5 grams per pound of body weight.
Guinea Pig’s Fat Needs
Current Body Weight X 0.5
205lbs x 0.5 = 103 grams
Finally, carbohydrates, where the remaining caloric needs will come from. To find this number, calculate the total calories from protein and fat by multiplying the number of grams of each by their calorie values per gram. Protein has four calories per gram, while fat has nine.
- 205 grams X 4 calories = 820 calories
- 103 grams X 9 calories = 927 calories
1,747 calories combined from protein and fats.
Calories remaining for carbohydrates then would be:
3,060 calories – 1,747 calories = 1,313 calories
So we are left with 1,313 calories for carbohydrates, which have four calories per gram. Dividing 1,313 by four yields a carbohydrate intake of 328 grams of carbohydrates per day.
A high number for a fat loss plan, but you want to start with the most calories possible and make slow, incremental decreases as you go.
Also, our Guinea Pig is very active and the least we want to do is start compromising lean body mass this early in the diet by cutting carbs too low and training hard. Remember, carbohydrates are eliminated on non-training days, so you’ll have points throughout the week where fat loss is optimized.
Here’s the breakdown of his low, moderate and high carb days.
LOW CARB DAY MACRO BREAKDOWN
Protein: 205 grams | Carbs: trace from veggies | Fats: 160 grams* (2,400 calories)
*Depending on how aggressive you want to be, fat intake can be kept constant at 103 grams to reduce calories further (but generally fat intake goes up when carbs are reduced to nothing)
MODERATE CARB DAY MACRO BREAKDOWN
Protein: 205 grams | Carbs: 328 grams | Fats: 103 grams (3,060)
HIGH CARB DAY MACRO BREAKDOWN
Protein: 205 grams | Carbs: 500+ grams | Fats: 50 grams* (3,850 calories)
*Fat intake is reduced to a minimum on high carb days
Here’s the carb cycling approach broken down weekly:
- Monday – Train Upper Body | Moderate carb
- Tuesday – Train Lower Body | Moderate carb
- Wednesday – OFF DAY | Low carb
- Thursday – Train Upper Body | Moderate carb
- Friday – Train Lower Body | High carb
- Saturday – OFF DAY | Low carb
- Sunday – Train HIIT| Moderate carb
When Is Carb Cycling Not Right For You?
You have an active job and want to put on muscle: If you’re a construction worker spending long hours in the hot sun –and you’re a naturally skinny guy looking to put on muscle—there’s no reason to carb cycle.
Combining protein, fat and carbs in every one of your meals is your best bet. Low days on a carb cycle diet can make you feel low, mentally and physically. Low carbs lead to low serotonin, and symptoms of hypothyroidism such as cold hands and irritability.
If you have an active day job and fat loss isn’t your first priority, it’s best to stay away from those low days and focus on keeping glycogen stores topped up for work and your muscle-building goals.
You have a history of binge eating disorders: If your high carb days turn into binge fests where you wake up in a pile of Twinkie wrappers, carb cycling may not be the best option for you.
High carb day “refeeds” can result in body fat gains (Dulloo, Samec 2001) when utilized improperly. So don’t use carb cycling as an excuse to pig out, or you may not lose any weight at all.
You are a performance athlete: Since athletes are far more sensitive to insulin and less susceptible to blood sugar fluctuations, any attempt to eat low carbs could compromise recovery and lead to a performance dip.
If you’re trying to be in peak performance on the field or court—and fat loss isn’t your first priority—then carb cycling isn’t ideal.
You have a lot of weight to lose and live a sedentary lifestyle: In this case, carb cycling may be too complicated a strategy with too much carb intake.
A very low carb (keto) diet may be the best approach in the early going to improve body composition and health for severely overweight, insulin resistant, sedentary individuals.