What the Heck is Carb Cycling + How Does it Work?
I’m sure you’ve seen the big push to eat less carbs or to eat almost no carbs as in some “flavors” of keto diets.
While this can work well for short-term fat loss it’s not as easy to sustain for many situations.
Especially if you have kids at home or are traveling a lot for business or pleasure. That’s why in my “metabolic toolbox” I sometimes roll out the carb cycling strategy to allow for some variety for clients and myself. My wife is fine with this variety as long as it’s only with food 🙂
Over the decades, some of my clients did fine on lower carbs. Others who did better with a limited higher-carb plan. Maybe 100 to 150 grams per day of healthy carbs unless you are training for hours a day .
While I always suggest 90% whole foods and find a carb-controlled plan is the most effective for fat loss, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
For example, with my Lean Hacks-X coaching method, we start with client preferences. You see, I’ve learned there are not many happy endings after an unhappy journey. And some of my VitalityON clients have successfully lost body fat on paleo, keto, vegan or other plant-based diets.
Despite the food preferences for the majority, carb cycling with a moderate caloric deficit and healthy macro-nutrient balance has been a godsend. Carb cycling is a flexible eating strategy with low carb days and higher carb refuels.
Basically, the idea is you eat more carbs on the more active days. Remember we count any physical activity and workouts. On the other hand, you’ll be better off eating fewer carbs on the less active days.
This is metabolic biology 101 and is also about psychology. You’ll likely be hungrier on days you’re more active, right? So can you see why it makes sense to eat more food on those days?…
It’s that simple. Depending on your own preferences and results some folks enjoy reward meals (depending on the plan you’re following). That means on an extra active day a few times a month you might selectively eat some your favorite higher-carb foods. The caveat is it must not provoke a binge.
For me, on weekends I love to cook with my 4 year old when time allows. Last time we did home-made high-protein pancakes with oatmeal, natural yogurt, protein powder, apple and cinnamon. Maybe once a week or so after a very active day or two a slice of pizza or lasagna or a serving of Spanish paella.
Sounds pretty much perfect, right? Warning… this is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. MOST of the time our carbs should be complex whole food carbs or fibrous whole food carbs like this:
The key is achieving the balance between health and what you can enjoy sustainably takes some work, some testing and “fine tuning” with your coach.
That’s because modern ultra-processed food are highly engineered to light up our brain’s pleasure centers. And for many folks, myself included, certain foods can lead to overeating. Micheal Moss has a well-researched exposé of this business model that has contributed to our obesity and chronic disease crisis since the 1970s.
“Moss’ argument is that free will is an illusion, at least for certain foods. He’s right” — The New York Times
For me, my kryptonite is Doritos or Nachos with Cheese. I just say no as both are “domino foods” for me so lead me to overeat + to a few cold beers. Then before the meal arrives I am bloated and do not enjoy the evening. That often leads to a bad night sleep which impacts the next day. See how our daly habits can help or harm our lives?
- WARNING not-so-healthy ultra-processed carbs can lead to blood sugar spikes, cravings, more hunger and more body fat. This includes anything with added sugar like commercial breads, ice creams, cookies, soda, cakes doughnuts, candy, and many processed foods).
So it’s one of the pillars of what we teach at VitalityOn. How to enjoy foods you love in moderation including wine if that’s your passion, and still lose weight. But you probably need to exclude your “domino foods”, that’s part of the work our coaching helps with.
While each person’s plan has a different mix of high carb and low carb meals, each day works basically the same:
- Choose mostly natural, whole foods, not processed food from a factory.
- Drink ½ your body weight in ounces of water every day. So, if you weigh 150 lbs, you’ll drink 75 ounces a day.
Carb cycling is based on the right combination of proteins, carbs, and healthy fats. In order to lose weight, our bodies need the right combination. Here’s why:
- Protein builds and maintains muscles and these muscles burn calories like an inferno. Protein also breaks down more slowly than carbs and fat, which burns even more calories and helps you feel fuller longer.
- chicken or turkey
pork or beef
Greek yogurt (nonfat, plain)
cottage cheese (low-fat or normal)
protein powder (I use whey, but adjust according to any food sensitivities)
- Carbs are a key fuel source for your muscles. Healthy versions include starchy vegetables, natural whole fruits, brown rice, legumes and beans, brown rice, sweet potatoes, red or white potatoes and maybe oatmeal
- Healthy fats Oils (olive, flaxseed, coconut), Eggs, Avocado, Nuts (if tolerated), Fatty cuts of Pork or Beef, Olives, Cheese, Chia + other seeds, Dark chocolate, Fish like salmon, anchovy or sardines. These help the development and function of your eyes and brain and help prevent disease, stroke, depression, and arthritis. Healthy fats also help keep your energy levels steady and keep you from feeling hungry.
Breakfast: Eggs with spinach, onion, and feta
Lunch: Large green salad with chicken, avocado, sea salt, spices and extra virgin olive oil and vinegar
Dinner: Zucchini noodles topped with crushed tomatoes, mushrooms, and ground beef
Snacks: Greek yogurt with protein and/or frozen berries. Celery sticks with natural peanut butter or plain cottage cheese
Breakfast: Protein pancakes made with oats and egg whites with berries
Lunch: Chicken with broccoli, carrots and brown rice,
Dinner: Salmon with sweet potato and roasted asparagus
Snacks: Apple with natural almond butter or plain yogurt over sliced apple, peaches or pineapple.
Hold off on the Doughnuts & Doritos… forget about pigging out with your fast food or junk food favorites! High carb days are not “cheat days”. This is because if you overeat on your higher-carb days, you can block fat loss or even gain weight. Yes, I have seen this with folks who flipped from eating too little during the week into “weekend feasters”.
Instead, focus on refueling with natural whole foods with fiber. Yes this is vital to eat filling fiber-rich carbohydrates not processed, food products like cookies, ice cream, cakes or fried foods. Instead learn to love refuel days with sweet potatoes, red or white potatoes, squash, beans or lentils.
Avoid “All or Nothing Thinking”… Cycling between very strict low-carb diet days and then higher-carb days could put you into an “all or nothing” mindset. It’s far healthier to have a balanced way of eating that includes healthy carbs in moderate amounts rather than swtiching between low and high carb. We have research to support the benefits of a balanced diet for your overall health and your mental health.
Who shouldn’t carb cycle? If you have a mood disorder, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, or you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, steer clear of this diet. You need a steady supply of fiber-rich carbohydrates to stay healthy.
NEXT STEPS?… if you’d like to explore joining one of my online fat loss or muscle & fitness programs first take my quick 30 second Fat Loss & Fitness quiz here <<
Time to run and do my 15 minute metabolic workout!
In your corner,
Dan O’Beirne, B.Sc. (hons) – Health & Human Performance
Founder & Head Coach => www.VitalityOn.com – ” Hack Your Habits & Enjoy Life”
Creator: Lean Hacks 90X Transformation System ™ *
Certified: ACSM Health & Fitness Instructor + Lean Body Hacker ™
Member: SMHP – Society of Metabolic Health Practitioners
Author: Healthy Habits Hacking
P.S. as FREE SAMPLE of some of the insights you can benefit from see my interview below…