What Carb Cycling Means
There are a lot of carb-cycling regimens out there. For example, some serious athletes, like bodybuilders, who know exactly when and how long they’ll work out each day follow a weekly pattern, says Brian Murray, an A.C.E.-certified personal trainer and certified nutritionist. That might include a high-carb day followed by three days of eating very little carbohydrates. For these kinds of plans, dieters keep track of each gram of carbs they consume, says Murray.
The exact amount of carbohydrates they eat totally depends on their weight, muscle mass, goals, and activity levels, he says. But for the average active woman looking to lose weight, the best way to take on carb cycling is on a day-to-day basis, says Murray.
How It Works
On days when you’re crushing it at the gym or training for a race, carbs are your BFF. Your body burns through them (along with fat) for energy instead of protein. That allows the muscle-building nutrient to focus on doing its job.
But on days when you don’t leave the couch, eating extra carbs could encourage your body to store that unused glucose in your fat cells. By eating less carbs on a rest day, your body turns to fat for energy instead of the sugary and starchy foods it usually gobbles up, says Georgie Fear, R.D., author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss.
Can It Help You Lose Weight?
For those days when you’re playing desk jockey or couch potato, there are definite weight loss benefits to chowing on fewer carbs. “You don’t need to be hoarding all these extra calories if they’re not going to be used,” says Fear. “Unlike your fat and protein intake, your carb needs vary from one day to the next.” Also, when you swap carbs for protein and veggies, it becomes trickier to overeat (most of us don’t binge on broccoli and chicken), so that helps your waistline.
Should You Try It?
While there’s nothing dangerous about switching up the way you consume carbs, “measuring things down to the gram puts you in a restrictive mindset, which can leave you craving those foods you’re missing out on,” says Fear.
Carb cycling without a set of gram guidelines seems like it would be less effective (especially compared to the plans bodybuilders follow). But since everyone’s needs are different, sticking to a one-size fits all plan isn’t the best method for meeting your weight-loss goals, says Fear.
With that being said, Fear outlines how to make a carb-cycling diet work for you.
What a High-Carb Day Looks Like
On an average day, around 60 percent of your calories should come from complex carbs. That’s about 900 calories if you’re eating 1,500 calories a day.
On high-carb days, when you’ve planned a high-energy workout, like metabolic conditioning, interval training, sprints, or a long-distance run, add an extra serving or two of whole grains, fruits, or legumes. “If you’re gassed 10 minutes into your workout, you should try adding another serving,” says Fear.
What a Low-Carb Day Looks Like
On days when you don’t work out at all or do something low-key, like jogging for 30 minutes or taking a hatha yoga class, try swapping a serving or two of your regular carb intake with leafy veggies, lean protein, or healthy fats. For example, if you normally have a whole-wheat turkey sandwich for lunch, try a turkey and spinach salad with cheese instead, says Fear.
The Bottom Line: It’s important to avoid a transactional mindset about food, says Fear. Thoughts like, “I ran an extra mile, so I can eat this,” are a slippery slope to an unhealthy relationship with food.
That said, “having higher carbs on some days and lower carbs on other days is how the body naturally regulates itself,” says Fear. “So there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of some of the benefits of reducing carbs.”