For a while now, carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in the health and fitness community. It makes sense when you see the amount of studies that link processed carbs to obesity and chronic disease. But it’s important to remember that carbohydrates are necessary to maintain muscle mass and have the energy to complete high intensity workouts.
The challenge comes with making sure you are eating the right carbs, in the proper amounts, at the right times. Since you’re following the Paleo diet, it’s safe to assume most of your carbohydrates are HEALTHY carbs, so you won’t need to worry about that aspect of your diet. However, the amount of carbs you eat and when you eat them can have a significant effect on how your body responds and metabolizes them.
Carb cycling is a process in which you can manipulate your consumption of carbs so that you can maximize muscle growth while minimizing the negative effects of carbs, such as fat storage.
What is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is essentially a plan where you cycle between low/no carb days and high/moderate carb days. It’s an alternating method that can give you both the benefits of a low carb diet, such as fat loss, and benefits of a high carb diet, such as muscle retention and more energy.
Carb cycling works by giving your body the fuel it needs to increase metabolism while still creating an overall calorie deficit to burn fat. On your high carb days, your body releases several hormones that are needed to increase metabolism. On low carbohydrate days, many times calorie consumption will be in a deficit, allowing your body to burn fat on those days. (1)
How it Works
There are typically two methods to use when carb cycling. Some prefer to have a no-carb day, while others have a low-carb day. This depends on the person’s preference, their fitness program, and how their body responds to a no carb diet. Most weeks are broken into 3 different days.
- High Carb
- Low/Moderate Carb
- No/Low Carb
High carb days usually match up with your most intense training day, for many that would be leg day.
Your moderate/low carb day would be a training day that is a little less strenuous, such as upper body. And low or no carb days usually match with rest days or cardio-only days.
Here’s an example week:
It’s important to remember that while following a carb cycling schedule, that all days require high protein intake to keep muscle growth and maintenance optimal. You must also take into account that your fat intake should be inversely related to your carb consumption.
This means that on your high carb days, you should decrease your fat intake to ensure you do not exceed your calories for that day, and vice versa for low carb days. Increase fat intake on low carb days, but make sure to hit the calories needed to maintain OR make sure to be in a deficit if you are trying to cut fat or weight.
Why It’s Beneficial
Carb cycling is more of a hormonal strategy than a caloric one. Varying carb intake influences several hormones than can greatly determine body composition.
Insulin not only regulates blood sugar, but it is also a fat-storing hormone. Whenever you consume carbs, your body releases insulin to bring your blood glucose levels back to normal. It takes the glucose from the carbs and brings it to the liver to be used for later, in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is important for energy and is your muscles’ primary fuel source during workouts.
The problem is, the body can only store so much glycogen before it starts storing excess glucose as fat. Carb cycling helps minimize fat storage and increase insulin sensitivity on low carb days, and replenish glycogen stores needed for muscle growth on high carb days. (2,3)
Leptin is a hunger hormone and lets your body know when it has been satisfied. Leptin is released in response to increased carb consumption. If the body is constantly on a high carb diet, it begins to become leptin-resistant, meaning it will not tell your body when it has reached the point of feeling “full” — not good for those trying to lose weight.
However, on a low carb diet, the opposite will happen. Your body will begin to feel constantly hungry and lethargic, and your metabolism will slow down.
When carb cycling, leptin sensitivity remains high because just as leptin levels begin to drop too low, a high carb day will reset leptin levels, which will increase metabolism.
Serotonin is a “feel good” chemical for your brain. It boosts your mood and makes you feel happy. Carbs actually boost serotonin levels (which explains why people “comfort eat”), so when a diet is low in carbohydrates it is also lower in serotonin, which can cause cravings for sugar. Many diets low in carbs make people feel depressed due to low levels of serotonin, which is why many low carb diets fail. Carb cycling combats this by regulating serotonin levels during high carb days. (4)
Is Carb Cycling Right for You?
Like any diet, carb cycling isn’t for everyone. Carb cycling seems to be most effective for those that do not have a substantial amount of weight to lose, but rather 10-15 pounds, or for those that are looking to slightly decrease body fat. If you have more weight to lose, simply decreasing carbohydrates slightly and lowering calories in general should help you reach your weight loss goals.
Keep in mind that carb cycling does require a bit more meal planning than a traditional diet, as well, so if that is something that you aren’t willing to commit to, then perhaps carb cycling is not for you, either.
However, if you’re willing to adjust your diet and you don’t have a whole lot of weight to lose, giving carb cycling a try might give you the body you desire and help you enjoy a few indulgences from time to time.