Carb cycling is one of those buzz phrases that could confuse you. In this post, I answer these questions:
- Should you try carb cycling?
- What is carb cycling?
- Why do people do carb cycling?
- What are the pros and cons of carb cycling?
- How do I start if I want to try carb cycling?
Still curious or want a conversation? I’m going live on Facebook Friday, June 16th at noon MT to chat more about it and how it might hurt or help your exercise results. Reading this after the fact? The recordings are always there after – just click videos when you arrive on the page. (Hint: if you like the page, when I do go live, you’ll see notifications so you can join if it’s convenient)
It depends. If you’ve tried everything else, and you have a sound lifestyle diet that you’ve designed together with a fitness and nutrition expert based on you, it might be time to try. For those with blood sugar issues, known diabetes, or other conditions including disordered eating, check with your physician about whether it is appropriate for you.
What is carb cycling?
Carb cycling is restricting the amount of carbohydrates consumed temporarily. Temporarily is key. There are specific times for increasing the amount of carbohydrate consumption. These times of increased carb intake help prevent the body from slowing the metabolism by dropping carbs, which often creates a calorie deficit, too low. If you eat less, your body will burn less. A slow metabolism doesn’t help the overall goal of decreasing fat stores by burning them.
When you hear a body builder or chronic dieter talk about “cheat days, ” carb cycling is often, but not always a part of it. There is a wide range of ways to apply carb cycling. One of the biggest errors made in having “cheat days” is that these are often really just “binges” without attention to the quality of food eaten.
A lack of conscious decision about what to eat suggests there’s no real behavior change. Actual carb cycling includes quality sources of carbohydrates eaten in greater amounts at certain times and cycling downward for a lower intake at others. Carb cycling is not accidental but purposefully planned.
Why do people try carb cycling?
Most likely candidates have tried everything! You may be reading this for that reason. Body builders who want longevity and better health most often have carb cycling built into their training regime otherwise chronically (extreme) low dietary intake of carbohydrates can cause fatigue and increase cortisol due to the stress on the body. I’m hinting already at some cons I’ll include more on later.
Getting “bulky” with weight training? May be your carbs or overall intake is too high. You’re compensating. Scheduling your days would be very important if you were to use carb cycling. Then sticking to them is even more important! Here’s an example of a six day rotation.
Day 1 2 3 4 5 6
Low low mod low low higher
What are the pros and cons of carb cycling?
Read into this heading question or anything you read here on flippingfifty.com, for women going through hormone changes. Short term for most people, there’s no scientific proof of damage and there is some proof there is positive response in heart disease risk reduction.
Beginning exercisers with significant amounts of weight to lose (more than 20 pounds) may be put on this kind of a “diet” during initial stages of exercise. Often exercisers, or their trainers, start with the idea of losing fat first and then regaining muscle. Unfortunately, for women in midlife who are more susceptible to negative effects of stress (cortisol), this calorie deficit that can put the body into starvation mode, can backfire and result in the exact opposite of the goal:
As a result of long-term carbohydrate and calorie restriction, dieters may experience reduced:
- metabolic rate
- thyroid hormone output
- sympathetic nervous system activity
- spontaneous physical activity (you want to nap and sit)
- leptin levels (you need to tell you that you’re full)
- reproductive hormone output (you may not want a baby but this usually means for women peri menopause increased fat storage)
Reducing carbohydrates (if protein and fat are kept the same) reduces over all calories or energy. That has consequences. Eat less and you tell the body to burn less.
I’ve watched university students and employees (personal trainers) go through training for body building competitions. Sadly, I’ve watched them attempt to apply their own training and diet methods to women in midlife who have no desire to stand on stage and flex for a few moments but who do want all day energy and better legs, arms, and abs (these do not take extremes)! Those are reasonable goals and there is a safe, sane, simpler way to get there.
Here’s what I noticed about these women training for on-stage presence at figure competitions. They would workout hard at the crack of dawn, between training sessions, and/or often again in the evening, then spend the afternoon napping at the pool, exhausted instead of interacting with their children, or sneaking home between their training sessions to take naps. That’s the reference above to “reduced spontaneous physical activity.” These women get less active in their normal daily lives as they get more active in the gym and running off fat.
The Flipping 50 Approach to Exercise
Here’s where you and I may differ in our opinion of the purpose of exercise and diet. I want, and want for my clients, MORE active lives. Not better workouts or a few minutes on stage that required hours weekly, if not daily, to get there and severe diet restriction that can’t be maintained if you want your health, but better every day all day and pleasure from food that doesn’t have to be measured and weighed or require entering each and every bite into an app.
I completely advocate a whole body 2-3 times a week strength training routine for the best metabolism boost in the least amount of time for my clients. I don’t work with women who have or want to spend hours in the gym doing a “split routine” that requires a daily commitment to the gym and weight lifting. I have not met very many women who have that kind of time!
I advocate using the body in integrated exercises not isolated exercises. With the exception of working on your weak links and preventing injury or rehabbing from one, whole body exercise is safe, sane, and efficient and you are not co-dependent on an exercise routine or a slave to the gym.
Better midlife, metabolism comes from major muscle groups and intensity. You do not need more stress and more time sucked from enjoyment of life. Life happens outside the gym.
Though I’ve taken a little detour, it is very worth mentioning this exercise philosophy because carb cycling is so often tied to it. I am all for the long term sustainability of any exercise plan. You may want to try body building or figure competition as a hobby and if that’s your goal, I’m all for that too, provided you enter with caution into diet practices that don’t negatively impact you. I don’t want you to be sorry you’ve begun something that will lead to a need to retrain your metabolism when you return to “normal.” Some of the traditional weight lifting and diet habits of the “sport” of figure competition are distinctly in opposition to hormone balance. [Next week I’m going to do a reveal for you about an “extreme” goal I’m taking on this year and how I’m going to bring you along for training and hormone updates. In a sense, I’m going to throw myself under the bus for you.]
Let me give you even more detail of the cons of extreme carb cycling
When you get into “starvation mode” with fasting:
- Overall energy needs decrease (you’re burning fewer calories)
- Metabolic rate decrease 20-25 kcal/kg/day (that’s a slowing of -1600 a day for a female 125)
- Energy comes from fat 90%
- Energy from protein 10%
To stop the doom and gloom I may be spreading, there are some pros.
The good news about carb cycling:
Catabolism…muscles losses are minimized initially (protein loss is spared). It’s here though that there is possible danger. You need to make sure that you have the adequate amount of protein and don’t allow calories to drop too low. In my experience, it is so easy for women, even who have not formally had disordered eating, to have dysfunctional eating. It’s all too easy to let this spiral downward.
Carb cycling really has a continuum. You don’t have to go to extremes. Take the following variations for example:
[Carb cycling is simplified by assuming there are higher carbohydrate days]
- Carb intake higher 1-2 days each week (5 days a week low)
- Carb intake higher every 1-2 weeks during low carb phase
- Carb intake higher every 3-4 days during low carb phase
- Carb intake higher at different meals through the daily menu
Of all of these, the one I use with my midlife female clients is the least challenging to implement. That is, the change of carbohydrate consumption at meals throughout the day. The hardest thing about this for most women is unlearning habits from information that has suggested they should stop eating carbs at night. Almost 99% of women I work with do better in terms of weight loss, sleep, and increased energy for morning exercise by shifting quality carb intake to be higher at the evening meal. (That doesn’t mean bring on the bread basket).
Keep in mind with carb cycling over weeks and months, increasing carbs is best when physical activity is higher. Some will also say earlier in the day, however this may not serve you if you’re a female between 45 and 65.
Carb cycling isn’t a “pig out” and it needs to be planned. Otherwise it can backfire and result in fat storage increase. Your choices should still be low glycemic index carbs, high nutrient-dense resistant starch options.
- Use strict carb cycling only if you’re advanced and you’ve exhausted other nutritional approaches.
- Don’t use it for long periods of time.
- Keep your protein goal the same. 20-30 grams x 3
- Keep your fat goal the same 1-2 servings each meal (total of 5 servings a day)
- Fill that plate with rich colored veggies every meal
- Increase protein and or fat for energy if needed on low cycle days
- Pick your high quality resistant starch carbs and plan the timing
Have you tried carb cycling? What questions do you still have about it?
Douyon L, Schteingart DE. Effect of obesity and starvation on thyroid hormone, growth hormone, and cortisol secretion. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am 2002;31:173-189.
de Rosa G, et al. Thyroid function in altered nutritional state. Exp Clin Endocrinol 1983;82:173-177.
Kozusko FP. Body weight setpoint, metabolic adaption and human starvation. Bull Math Biol 2001;63:393-403.
Dulloo AG, Jacquet J. Adaptive reduction in basal metabolic rate in response to food deprivation in humans: a role for feedback signals from fat stores. Am J Clin Nutr 1998;68:599-606.
One of the best ways to try carb cycling safely is take the first step with the 28 Day Kickstart
You can combine that with a special upgrade to private coaching available exclusively to group program members.