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carb cycling

Carb Cycling - What Is It?

By Sarah Jerome, RD June 21, 2022 Posted in: Recipes, Nutrition

Carb cycling is a systematic approach to eating carbohydrates that shifts between high, moderate, and low-carb meals on specific days. The idea is to have each day tailored to the type and intensity of your workout. This way of eating used to be most popular in the bodybuilding world and with high-performing athletes, but is now gaining traction for the average person who may want to eat lower carb for fat loss while still maintaining an active way of living.

What is the Idea Behind Carb Cycling?

You know the phrase, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too!” Well, the science behind carb cycling essentially allows for both (although, unfortunately we’re not talking about cake here). You allow your body to be in fat-burning mode while also keeping your metabolism working. On low-carb days, you put your body in a fat-burning state, while eating high-carb jump starts your metabolism.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of information regarding carb cycling is based on informal reports and hypotheses. Carb cycling as a whole very much lacks any scientific human research. So then, from where were these hypotheses born? What we already know is that carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of energy. When we restrict carbohydrate intake enough, our body shifts to an alternate source of energy - that source being fat.

Low-carbohydrate diets are commonly sought for those people wanting to lose weight, but difficult for most people to stick with for a lifetime. What we also know is that when we eat less in general, our body responds in a particular way. The number of calories we burn doing our everyday activities (also known as basal metabolic rate, or BMR) drops. When we are active, we burn less energy, and our activity as a whole decreases. That makes sense, right? Less energy in means less energy our body is going to want to expend, naturally. This explains why individuals who initially lower their caloric intake see a reduction in weight, but overtime weight starts to plateau, or adapt. The scientific term for this is metabolic adaptation.

Those that back up the carb cycling theory tout that it avoids this metabolic adaptation. Reason being simply because adaptation necessitates predictability. If we’re constantly confusing our body with how hard we ask our metabolism to work and keep switching between available energy sources, it’s going to make it a lot more difficult to adapt and therefore store energy as opposed to using energy.

Who Should Avoid Carb Cycling?

For individuals with food sensitivities, or those prone to GI distress due to the inconsistency of type and amount of foods, may not find this eating plan beneficial. Carb cycling may be difficult for some individuals whose GI systems have a difficult time adjusting to the wide day-to-day variations in food composition and amounts. The carb cycling plan varies the carbohydrate amount

From 30 grams on a low-carb day to 200 grams on a high-carb day. To put it in perspective, 30 grams of carbs a day is equivalent to a slice of bread (15 grams) and a small piece of fruit (15 grams). Whereas about 200 grams of carbs would be consuming three slices of bread (45 grams), two small potatoes (60 grams), a cup of rice (50 grams), and a cup of pasta (50 grams) in one day.

Furthermore, individuals should not carb cycle if there’s been a history of disordered eating, an eating disorder, fear around certain foods, or if tracking macros is a trigger for falling into unhealthy eating habits. Reason being; carb cycling requires a lot of time planning and tracking food. Although it’s true that eating healthy and convenience don’t always align, and yes, eating healthy takes effort, the carb cycling approach is certainly not for everyone. Staying on top of the grams of carbs, fat, and protein consumed is required at every meal and snack otherwise, you run the risk of getting off track.

Along the same note, a downside is that this eating pattern doesn’t speak to our body's natural cravings for foods or feelings around foods. Resisting cravings or feeling like food is being forced to meet numerical goals is a risk. This is never a good idea when eating (or restricting) goes against your body’s natural queues and signals.

Tips/Tricks For Carb Cycling

If carb cycling may be of interest to you, a few pointers to keep in mind will be helpful. On low-carb days, you want to limit fruits and milk, both of which have high amounts of carbs per serving. One serving of fruit contains 15 grams of carbs and one serving of milk contains 12 grams. This doesn’t sound like much, but can add up quickly! On the flip side, on high-carb days, you want to choose mainly whole foods and avoid refined, highly processed carbs. With the heavy amount of carbs required on high carb days, it’s important to make carbs count by choosing them in their most natural form. If it doesn’t have a food label or package, it’s probably the better choice.

If you decide carb cycling sounds like something you want to try, the most important thing to remember is to give yourself grace. You may learn that it makes you feel great and improves your energy or you may learn it’s too regimented, un-realistic for the long-term, and discouraging. Either way, you learn something new - about yourself, about your body, and your relationship with food.

Recipe Ideas

High-carb snack ideas:

    • Oatmeal with sliced banana and peanut butter
    • Greek yogurt with granola and berries
    • Dried fruit mix with pretzel bites
    • Fruit smoothie with milk as a base
    • Quinoa bowl with roasted sweet potatoes
    • Mixed bean and corn salad

Low-carb snack ideas:

    • Cheese-stuffed portabella mushrooms
    • Spaghetti squash sprinkled with pecans: 1 cup squash = 7 grams of carbs
    • Spiral veggie noodles with meatballs
    • Cauliflower rice with tuna or salmon cakes: 1 cup = 3 grams of carbs vs. 1 cup white or brown rice = 45 grams carbs
    • Oven-roasted or air fried radishes: Similar taste and texture to potatoes when roasted with olive oil
    • Turkey kabobs with eggplant, tomato, and onion

For more information on diet plans, talk with your Primary Care Provider. 

Sarah Jerome, RD
Sarah Jerome, RD

Sarah Jerome is a Certified Diabetes Educator and Registered Dietitian with CHI Health

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