Gone are the days of “no carbs allowed” and “fat-free” weight loss plans. In an era where high intensity training is all the rage—from Crossfit, to indoor cycling, to power yoga—more and more people are becoming actual athletes and adopting lifestyles and eating habits to help them achieve their goals. Yet, as our bodies adapt to the demands of these regimens, many hit plateaus both in terms of weight loss and performance. As such, carb cycling has started to make a name for itself.
Famous with the bodybuilders and elite fitness competitors for years, carb cycling is praised for its ability to lean people out without sacrificing muscle. In essence, a carb cycling program bounces between periods of very low carbohydrate intake to periods of high carbohydrate consumption. On the low-carb days, protein and fat make up the majority of the diet, and while on high-carb days, fat intake is limited. Protein remains a constant throughout the process, in order to build and maintain lean muscle mass. These low- and high-carb intervals may be spaced between days, weeks, or even months. Generally speaking, more carbs are eaten on heavy training days (weight lifting days, for example), and less carbs are eaten on days with light cardio, or on rest days.
Why are we finally staging a coup against the long-reigning, low-carb-forever regime? There are several reasons why society seems to be over the days of Atkins. First, a diet confined to lean meats and produce can quickly become unaffordable—and beyond that, it’s hard to power through a 45-minute booty-lifting class when you’re not giving your muscles the fuel they require (glycogen, which comes from carbs). What’s worse: Your muscles start to eat themselves, you begin to feel skinny-fat and lethargic, and, should you ever indulge in so much as a dinner roll, that sucker sticks to your assets.
Let’s be real: Sticking to a strict, low-carb diet for an extended amount of time is very difficult for most people. Birthday parties, happy hours and holidays begin to feel like three-hour prison sentences, leading to binging and then overly-restrictive calorie counting. If you’re always the one noshing on spinach, while everyone else is enjoying a burger, then you know this frustration. Carb cycling is a great way to have your cake and eat it, too (as long as it’s on a reward day, of course).
From a scientific standpoint, long-term diets which are low in carbohydrates can have seriously adverse effects on the body. Major health conditions, such as heart arrhythmias, cardiac contractile function impairment, osteoporosis, kidney damage, increased cancer risk, impairment of physical activity, lipid abnormalities and even sudden death can all be linked to long-term restriction of carbohydrates in the diet.
On the flip side, combining periods of low-carb and high-carb eating, as well as tailoring the timing of your program to your specific workout, can bring a multitude of benefits to the body—beyond six-pack abs and lean legs. Low-carb periods may include better insulin sensitivity, increased fat burning, improved cholesterol and enhanced metabolic health, while high-carb refueling days may have positive effects on hormones during a diet, including thyroid hormones, testosterone and leptin.
Most carb cycling methods involve counting calories in order to create a calorie deficit, which is the cornerstone of any successful weight loss approach. In addition to counting calories, carb cycling requires breaking down your macronutrient ratios (the amount of proteins, carbohydrates and fats you consume). This may seem overwhelming at first but, once you have a meal plan in place, you will find that the variety afforded by switching up your macronutrients every few days is actually a nice change of pace. There are many great resources to help you tailor a carb cycling program specific to your needs. Chris and Heidi Powell offer several helpful books and online resources for crafting carb cycling programs.
While more extended studies still need to be done, initial evidence seems to indicate that carb cycling can work as a very effective strategy for fat loss and muscle building. In a world of dietary extremes, carb cycling feels like a refreshingly balanced strategy for how we fuel our bodies.
Chelsea Vincent has been teaching fitness for almost ten years. Prior to teaching, she had 15 years of formal dance training. Chelsea has a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University and is a certified power yoga instructor, spinning instructor, barre instructor and weightlifting Instructor, as well as an ACE-certified personal trainer and wellness specialist. In 2014, Chelsea was named as one of SHAPE magazine’s Hottest 50 Trainers of the Year.