You’ve probably heard of the benefits of carbohydrate cycling and wondered if it’s a good choice for you. In fact, timing your carb intake is one of the best ways to achieve peak athletic performance and lose excess body fat.
A side effect of getting your carb intake just right is that you optimize protein intake, and this combo leads to:
- greater willpower throughout the day
- increased satiety and fewer carb cravings
- full energy stores for better performance
- better mood, less stress, and more restful sleep
- faster recovery & greater lean muscle mass
The thing about optimizing carb intake is there’s no one size fits all approach.
It varies greatly based on training volume and type, body composition, goals, and preferences. Therefore, in an effort to promote clarity but cover as much as possible, this article will provide general carb intake tips, with specific recommendations in three categories:
- If your only desire is fat loss
- If you’re fitness minded and your goal is maintenance/sanity
- If you’re an athlete and your goal is strength/power performance
Take note that low-carb isn’t no carb! The sad fact is that low-carb eating done wrong causes a lot more trouble than it’s worth. Avoid the misery with these basic strategies:
#1: Personalize Your Carb Intake
One of the biggest barriers to optimizing carb intake is that “low-carb” is a vague term. Some people think low-carb is anything less than the 300 grams a day that was recommended in the old nutrition guidelines. Others go with the Atkins definition of less than 20 grams.
A 2009 review in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism provides more guidance:
- A low-carb ketogenic diet is less than 50 grams of carbs per day and less than 10 percent of calories.
- A low-carb diet is between 50 to 130 grams of carbs per day, or 10 to 26 percent of calories.
- A moderate carb-diet is 130 to 225 grams of carbs or 26 to 45 percent of calories.
For Fat Loss:
If you are overweight and your main goal is fat loss, the low-carb 50 to 130 g/d range is a good way to go because it will reduce hunger and restore insulin sensitivity, improving your body’s ability to burn body fat. For people who are working out correctly (intense weight training four days a week), you can probably go as high as 100 to 130 grams a day on training days.
If, for some reason, you’re not working out, you probably have a high degree of insulin resistance, which means that less than 50 grams a day is most likely your sweet spot for fat loss.
If your goal is maintenance and you do intense anaerobic training (weight training and possibly sprints or strongman), a higher carb intake may be beneficial on training days: between 2 and 3 g/kg of bodyweight or 150 to 225 grams of carbs for a 75 kg person.
Strength and power athletes who rely on the glycolytic energy system for a large portion of their training will generally benefit from above 3g/kg of carbs on training days in order to ensure glycogen resynthesis.
Because muscle-damaging training has been found to impair glycogen resynthesis, above 3 g/kg may be necessary when high-volume tissue-damaging training occurs frequently.
#2: Start The Day With Protein—Not Carbs
Eating high-quality protein for your first meal is one of the best ways to improve energy levels and set yourself up for a productive day. Protein foods elevate the stimulating neurotransmitters, whereas your average high-carb breakfast of cereal, juice, and fruit has the opposite effect, raising blood glucose and insulin.
For Fat Loss/Maintenance:
A high-protein, low-carb breakfast is one of the best ways to boost satiety and increase the likelihood that the carbs you eat later in the day will be stored as glycogen instead of as fat.
Glycogen is the storage form of carbs in the body and it’s the energy source for your muscles during exercise. Not only is it depleted during training, glycogen from the liver supplies energy when blood sugar gets low, which is the reason eating carbs is not necessary (and actually counterproductive) for breakfast if your goal is fat loss.
People who thrive on carbs and athletes who need to go into their workout with glycogen stores topped off may benefit from including complex carbs at breakfast. Protein is still a must because it will help moderate blood sugar. Including carbs in a pre-workout meal that is about four hours before training will help to make sure the body has had time to synthesize glycogen.
#3: Have Carbs Post-Workout/At Dinner
The very best time for carbs is after training because you will have depleted glycogen and the muscles are super sensitive to insulin, so carbs will be stored as energy, not as fat.
Of course, the one caveat to the recommendation to have carbs after training is that you have to have worked out for long enough and hard enough so that you actually depleted glycogen significantly—a casual workout on a cardio machine, or a weight workout in which you spent most of your time chatting or on your phone doesn’t count here.
Anyway, another benefit of eating carbs after training is that they can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can improve body composition over time.
Eating carbohydrates triggers a prolonged insulin release, which initiates a hormonal cascade that reduces cortisol for a faster recovery. Carbs also stimulate the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is calming, and at night it is converted into melatonin, which is the hormone that induces sleep. This makes dinner a perfect time to include carbs in your diet.
How does this work in real life?
It requires you to vary your carb intake so that on intense, high-volume training days, you eat higher carb, and on off/recovery days, you go low-carb, high-protein. Actual carb intake will be individualized (see #1), but some general recommendations are as follows:
For Fat Loss/Maintenance:
On training days, it’s best to have at least half your carbs post-workout with the other half at dinner, though you could have them all after training if you prefer.
Recommended carbs are starchy vegetables, fruit, or if you are eating them, whole grains. Eat them with protein to slow digestion.
Most athletes are unlikely to be on a lower carb diet, but they do tend to suffer a good deal of stress from the rigors of training, competition, and daily life. Therefore, having carbs at dinner is a no brainer for better sleep, recovery, and the promotion of training adaptations.
It can also aid in hydration because for every 1 gram of carbs you store as glycogen, you store 4 grams of carbs. Proper hydration is key because even moderate dehydration can impair work capacity and compromise testosterone levels.
#4: Do Not Eat Processed Carbs
Due to the fact that some coaches advocate cycling “junk” carbs into a lower carb diet, it’s worth noting that refined, processed carbs are more trouble than they’re worth:
- They are nutritionally empty but packed with calories.
- They contain no useful fiber and they spike blood sugar in the same way as regular sugar.
- They trigger food intake, making you eat more calories than you would if you ate the same grains in unrefined form.
Finally, the majority of processed carbs contain refined wheat, which many people are intolerant of. They get an immune response when they eat them, causing inflammation in the body.
Even if your refined carbs are gluten-free, they surely contain at least a little bit of processed corn, soy, or rice as filler—each of which has its own problem, making it a better move to eliminate these foods entirely.
For Fat Loss/Maintenance:
Eat fibrous carbs, especially green vegetables and dark-colored fruits because they are nutrient-rich, low in calories, and very filling. Include starches, higher carb plants, and boiled (non-wheat) grains as needed on training carb days.
Healthy whole carbs from plenty of starches, vegetables, fruit, and grains (non-wheat) are recommended for meals.
Fruit juice (pineapple and grape juice have a high-glycemic index and provide fructose for liver glycogen restoration) and carb powders (dextrose or maltodextrin) can be useful post-workout for quick replenishment of energy stores or if you’re trying to gain weight. Remember, this is for athletes, not for fat loss. Individuals who are trying to lose fat/maintain should avoid liquid carbs.
#5: Be Mindful of Overall Calorie Intake
Even though a strict calorie-focused approach is not generally recommended (it’s more important to focus on food quality and eating in a way that allows you to avoid hunger), calories are relevant for a couple of reasons:
For Fat Loss:
If you go on a low-carb diet for the first time, calories, which in the past were this thing that drove you crazy trying to avoid, can seem to become a non-issue. That’s because low-carb diets are inherently hunger reducing, especially if they are high in protein and fat.
This is all well and good in the short-term, but in the long-term, you need to be mindful of overall calorie intake because you don’t want to eat too few calories for too long because doing so can lead to a suppressed metabolism that makes it hard to avoid regaining fat.
Studies show that most people who go on an ad libitum (calories aren’t restricted) low-carb diet tend to eat in the 1,200 calories a day range because they aren’t hungry. This is great for fast fat loss, but it’s not sustainable. Once the “diet” ends, carbs are reintroduced, calories increase, and the fat comes back.
The solution is twofold: You need to develop sustainable eating habits (eating whole foods, timing your carbs, working out), and increase calories slowly and progressively once the fat is gone.
People feel ill or lack energy on low-carb eating plans if they don’t consume enough calories. Most people who work out require at least 2,000 calories a day to maintain body composition. Track your diet to make sure you’re fulfilling your needs and use the carb cycling strategies detailed above.
If you’re a hard charging athlete who has sky high energy needs, it may seem like you can never get enough calories. However, during the in-season or pre-competition when training volume is reduced it’s critical to avoid overshooting calories and gaining body fat because this will lead to drop-offs in strength and power performance.