Is Carb Cycling Necessary?
Cycling carbs seems to be a common term in dieting world nowadays to help shed fat. As a diet coach, I have seen carb cycling work great! But, is it superior to a linear diet where you keep calories the same from day to day? Let’s address the positives and negatives of carb cycling to find out if it’s really necessary.
First Off, What is a Carb?
A carb is a carbohydrate. It is one of the macronutrients we eat each day. There are three macronutrients which are protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates you eat are starches like cereal, pasta, and bread as well as the sugar found in fruits, candy, jellies and desserts. Carbohydrates are stored in the muscle and liver in our body, but in excess, they can be converted and stored as fat.
What is Carb Cycling?
Carb cycling is when your carbohydrate intake varies day to day. You may have a high, medium and low carb day or you may have a high and low carb day.These carbs could vary drastically or moderately. The combinations are endless really. Protein and fat intake tend to stay the same. Fat and/or protein may even be decreased* on the high carb days.
Drastic carb cycle example:
Somewhat drastic carb cycling:
Moderate carb cycling:
These examples are just a few of the 1,000’s of combinations you can put together to get desired results. There is no correct or incorrect way to cycle carbs.
Why do People Carb Cycle?
When you diet down, your metabolism (aka hormones) will adapt. Your body is designed to conserve energy during times of famine and in an attempt to continue tolose fat, people cycle carbohydrates to help offset the imbalance of hormones.
Here is a brief synopsis:
When dieting down, the hormone Leptin drops. This tells your brain that you need to eat and just may be starving.
The appetite control* hormone, Peptide YY, drops which increases* your appetite making you a hungry bear.
Your stress hormone, cortisol, increases* which cause a number of issues including increased fat storage.
Your hunger hormone, ghrelin, soars telling you that you need to eat.
Not to mention you become irritable, cranky and have trouble sleeping.
This is just a few of the things your body does to combat fat loss when dieting which can make it really hard for a person to diet long term or for those in the normal body fat range to drop some winter fat to tighten up for swimsuit season.
Carb cycling is supposed to temporarily combat the above issues.
When you have a good high carb day, the above hormones tell you that you are satiated. Leptin and peptide YY increase* and cortisol and ghrelin decrease* telling your brain that you are not in fact starving. Bonus! But the effects of a high carb day are not long lasting. When you hit your medium and low carb days, your hormones get all wonky again.
The Issues with Carb Cycling.A Comparison of Carb Cycling and Linear Dieting
When you carb cycle, especially in a drastic way, you are causing large hormonal spikes and valleys. Aside from the crazy hormones, low carb days can be torture anyway. A linear diet keeps hormone levels more consistent. If you can avoid those low carb days along with the severe irritability and hunger, why not?
Here is the deal. When setting up a carb cycling diet, you will look at the total average calories you take in per day.
Let’s take the drastic carb cycling diet and compare that to a linear diet.
When comparing the two diets, or, when setting up a carb cycling diet for that matter, we will look at daily average calories so we know that we are in the appropriate caloric range.
For this example, say a person is taking in 1540 calories per day.
When carb cycling, we will vary the carbs daily BUT, the average daily calories will be similar to the above linear diet. When you need to drop calories, you will drop the carbs, or add in more medium and low days. Then you average the calories over 7 days to see if you have dropped them enough or too much. A good drop when progressing through a diet is about 50-100 calories each week. See Cut Phase: How to Much to Lose* and How to Cut Calories for more info on setting up your diet and progression.
Does it Make a Difference to Cycle Carbs if We Take in the Same Amount of Calories Over a Weeks’ Time?
Hormonally, the dips and valleys you would see carb cycling could be more torturous for your mental sanity than keeping calories the same daily. On your low days, you will feel like eating your arm and be cool with that morbid thought but those high days are pretty darn nice when you can enjoy a good stack of pancakes or fit in those social gathering food fests without ruining your diet.
At the end of the week, calorically, it won’t matter. A calorie is a calorie. Your body is constantly balancing and maintaining homeostasis so that on your low days you may burn fat and on your high days you might store some yielding the same results at the end of the week on either diet.
So what should you do? Do what you enjoy or what you will stick to! If it is easier for you to plan the same macronutrients daily, do that. If you enjoy the high carb days while powering through the low carb days, great! Do that.
The bottom line is to do what you will stick to. There are a million ways to go about losing fat. You need to find the one that works for you long term.
Keep in mind, longer term dieting will result in a slower metabolic rate as your body adaptsand reverse* dieting may be needed. See more on reverse* dieting in this article Reverse* Dieting. Who Needs It and How to. Also, check out Three Reasons for Diet Plateaus + Seven Tips and Tricks to Bust Through Them.
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