The absolute truth about low carb diets and carb cycling

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I’m not a believer of the weight loss shortcuts, not by a long shot. I know weight loss takes time and that can’t be skipped by a so called cutting edge program, magical pill, a secret diet plan or miraculous and expensive food.

Fortunately for us we have a ton of scientific research and studies behind telling us the plain simple truth: weight loss happens in a caloric deficit and that is that. You just need to eat less to lose fat.

It doesn’t matter what you eat, it doesn’t matter when you eat and it doesn’t matter how many meals you have each day. Well, at least to some extent as you probably know already.

That being said, there still are few controversial topics out there which need attention – and carb cycling is one of the advanced dieting technique we will look at in this article.

Take note of the word ‘advanced’ used above! In 90% of the cases you will be fine with applying the basic dieting and training techniques. Unless you are preparing for a competition or you simply just take this sport to the extreme, you probably will not notice any difference if you stick with the plain old calorie deficit and track your macros.

Arnold-Schwarzenegger-Shoulders

What is carb cycling?

Short and simple put, carb cycling means planning your daily meals so that you alternate between high carb, low carb and very low carb days. Basically you are alternating your carb intake following a certain pattern (cycle).

  • Very low carbs means less than 30 grams per day.
  • Low carb means 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight.
  • High carb means more than 2 grams per pound of bodyweight.

The values above should be considered more like general guidelines, since there are no strict rules or definitions, but you got the point. Also, there are a lot of ways in which you can alternate high, low and very low carb days, but I will leave that out for now.

As you can imagine, a high carb day will result in an increased caloric intake as well (1 carb = 4 kcal) and a low or very low carb day will imply a low caloric intake, considering that you keep the other macros at the same levels.

Since carbs are the main energy source for the body and they put the glycogen inside the muscles, it’s a smart idea to have your low carb days on rest days and eat more carbs when you are training. Otherwise the workout will feel exhausting and your performance will not be optimal.

fast-food

How does it work?

I am a carb person. I like eating carbs and most of the times I don’t recommend low carb diets because they don’t support muscle building and they don’t support your workouts.

So, what’s the carb cycling fuzz all about?

In order to  answer correctly to that question you need to understand the basics of how carbs work and what they do once inside our body.

There is a whole debate on low carb vs. high carbs diet and I am not even going to start that here. I am just going to tell you what science says.

Because obesity has become a real issue during the past decades, fortunately for us a lot of money have been put into studying how the metabolism works and how various type of diets influence our weight and/or body composition.

And based on the scientific evidence we have available to us, from a fitness perspective, the amount of carbohydrates we eat greatly influence two things:

  • The amount of glycogen our muscles hold
  • The amount of water retention

Therefore, when you cut back on carbs doing is what you are actually doing is depleting your body from glycogen and water.

Of course, this will result in weight loss, but not fat loss. You are just taking some water and glycogen out of your system, but most likely the fat will still be there.

That’s why the effect of low carb days or carb cycling is noticeable in just a few days. You can strip off 3-4 pounds in a day from doing low carb. There’s no way that can be fat.

Low carb diets are great if you are lean already and for whatever reason you what to get supper shredded and get that ‘dry look’. That’s what the bodybuilders are doing before the shows. They get extremely dehydrated by heavily restricting their carbs.

Assorted Carbohydrate Sources Spelling Out 'Carbs'

Is it good for fat loss or not?

Well, it is not any better that the traditional way of losing fat through caloric deficit. If you don’t believe me, look at the findings of this study performed by the people at Arizona State University. You can check out the entire study over here.

And here we have science behind us again. I am not telling it, science is. Low carb diets are not better for fat loss than any other hypo-caloric type of diet.

Carb cycling is great for fast weight loss though. The amount of body weight (water and glycogen) you will lose from a couple of days can be quite high and not achievable through other methods.

There are 3 main down sides of low carb-ing:

  1. All the weight will be put on once you resume your normal diet. The glycogen and water storages will be restored.
  2. Energy expenditure levels will drop which will mean less effective workouts which is not optimal for muscle growth
  3. Insulin levels will also drop, which will mean less capacity to carry nutrients to the muscle, which again is not good for building muscle.

There you have it.

As you can figure it out for yourself based on the above information – carb cycling can make sense in some situation in which you just want to drop body weight in a short period of time, but low card dieting done long term is definitely not recommended to anyone who is serious about lifting weights. So, low carb myth busted!

Mexican food

Macro split while carb cycling

Another smart question to ask yourself when you plan on starting carb cycling is what should you do with the rest of the macros – well actually, with the protein, because fat is not that important.

And things are pretty simple.

First and foremost, carb cycling should be included into your diet only when you are cutting. There is no real purpose in doing that when you are bulking up.

It’s a known fact that when cutting, the body weight you lose comes from various sources: fat, water, glycogen and muscles. Muscle preservation is a big concern among lifters and this should be kept in mind when cycling your carbs as well.

So here is what you need to do. When you cut back on carbs, make sure you are not restricting your total calories with more than 25% of your maintenance each day. To do that you may need to up your protein intake to the point where your caloric intake remains to within the ‘safe’ range of 20-25% deficit.

Alternatively, if the protein will be super high (200 – 250 grams) you can up your fats with 10-20 grams as well. This will also make the meals more enjoyable.

What about carbs when not dieting

In case you are bulking or maintaining, carb cycling doesn’t make any sense.

What you should do is keep carbs as high as possible as long as you hit your caloric target. Your metabolism will be kept running fast, you will have all kinds of glycogen inside the muscles and the nutrients will be flowing like crazy through your body.

Apart from the fact that it gives you and extra boost of energy, the next biggest advantage of high carb diets is that it increases the insulin level which puts your body in an anabolic state by increasing the protein turn-over rate.

So, under no circumstances low carb diets are optimal for building muscle. I don’t recommend getting less than 150 grams of carbs a day when you are cutting and I recommend getting as high as 250-300 grams a day when your bulking or maintaining.

Over to you

Looking forward to hearing your opinion on the topic – how many carbs to your eat a day? Have you cycled your carbs before? How did that go for you? Let me know in the comments below or shoot me an email.