When it comes to reducing body fat or lowering insulin levels quickly, low-carb diets can be a great choice. Unfortunately, many people don’t tolerate a lack of carbs very well, often quitting altogether or veering off their eating plan at just the wrong time.
One alternative is carb cycling. In simple terms, carb cycling is when you rely more on fat and protein for certain periods, saving carbs for the most opportune times. There are many different iterations of carb cycling but the key point is that by limiting carbs in favor of protein and fat, you can transform your metabolism.
One common trend in those who consistently eat higher carb diets is higher insulin levels. High insulin makes weight management difficult because insulin shuts off fat burning and shifts your body into “storage” mode. If you have an excess of calories, which is especially common with foods that are high in refined carbs, you’re more likely to gain body fat. Carb cycling can help solve these problems.
For one, carb cycling depletes the muscles of glycogen—the storage form of carbs in the body. Then, the carbs you eat during your higher carb meal are stored as glycogen, not fat. Carb cycling also helps keep the thyroid working like clockwork, maintains insulin sensitivity, and keeps the brain responsive to the hormone leptin so you do not experience deranged hunger.
Option 1: Use Daily Carb Cycling
A popular approach to carb cycling is to eat protein and fat during the day and add carbs at night. This option plays to the natural reservoir of will power that you have first thing in the morning. Instead of spiking insulin and blood sugar with a carb-filled meal at breakfast, protein and fat stimulate energizing neurotransmitters and have an appetite-suppressing effect.
Saving higher carb foods for dinner time will help lower cortisol so that you can get a restful night’s sleep. The stress hormone cortisol is an insulin antagonist, which means that when you eat carbs and raise insulin, cortisol goes down. Simultaneously, you get an increase in the “feel-good” neurotransmitter serotonin that promotes a sense of calm and satisfaction.
How To Do It:
For breakfast, lunch, and any snacks, design meals around a high-quality protein (fish, meat, dairy), healthy fat (most proteins provide fat, but you can get more by including nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive or coconut oil), and low-carb vegetable (leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage). Include higher carb foods from whole sources at dinner, such as fruit, grains, or starchy vegetables. Any “treats” or foods with added sugar or refined carbs should be saved for dinner.
Option 2: Carb Cycling Around Workouts
For people who train hard, carbs can be a vital part of recovery. But going high-carb all the time can cause blood sugar irregularities, GI issues, and poor body composition. One way to avoid these pitfalls is to eat higher carb on hard workout days but lower carb on rest days. On rest days, carb needs are reduced, whereas on training days, carbs promote athletic performance because they allow for faster ATP energy production during high-intensity activities, while making workouts “feel” easier.
Timing carb intake around specific workouts is also worthwhile. You have probably heard the mainstream recommendation to have simple carbs pre-workout for energy. The reality is that unless you’re trying to gain weight or doing long-distance endurance training lasting more than 90 minutes, you won’t need carbs before or during your workout. After training is another story: Athletes will benefit from restoring muscle glycogen and helping to clear cortisol. Even individuals who are trying to lose body fat can benefit from the recovery benefits of carbs.
How To Do It:
High-quality carbs from whole fruit, vegetables, grains, and beans are recommended if your goal is better health and recovery. For athletes, including liquid carbs with protein can improve glycogen storage and help the body clear cortisol faster. A carb-to-protein ratio of 2:1 to 4:1 is recommended from a carb supplement or fruit juice that supplies both glucose and fructose to fill both muscle and liver glycogen stores.
Keto Carb Cycling
At the most extreme level is a keto diet that incorporates carb cycling at strategic time points. With a keto diet, you radically decrease carbs so that they supply 5 percent or less of your calories from carbs (usually 50 grams of carbs or less a day). Fat and protein provide the remaining calories with fat making up 70 to 75 percent of energy and protein providing 20 to 25 percent.
A keto diet is one that shifts your body from relying on glucose for energy to burning ketones, which are a byproduct of fat metabolism. As you reduce carbs in favor of fat and protein, insulin levels drop, which helps to increase fat burning. Ketones have the added benefit of suppressing appetite, which can help people manage hunger and lower calorie intake.
The challenging thing about keto is that it is fairly strict. During the initial phase, you need to stick closely to the very low carb, high-fat macronutrient protocol in order to help your body develop the unique enzymes necessary for burning fat. Once you get through the adaptation phase, you can begin cycling carbs, having a higher carb meal at strategic time points.
How To Do It:
Keto carb cycling requires you to lay the metabolic groundwork with a two-week strict, low-carb phase. Once you get through this adaptation phase, the timing of your higher carb meal will depend on physical activity and goals. Individuals who are sedentary, or who exercise a few days a week will likely benefit from a higher carb meal once a week. For leaner individuals, people who are active, or training regularly, a higher carb meal every 3 to 5 days is preferred. Determining the ideal schedule for you takes some experimentation. The goal is to be able to achieve and maintain optimal body composition and feel energized.
In terms of health, it’s always going to be worthwhile to choose healthy, whole carbs (fruit, starchy vegetables, beans, grains) over processed carbs (bread, sweets, chips, foods with added sugar).
If you are having trouble adapting to a lower carb diet, increase your fat intake to help the body burn fat instead of relying on glucose.
When on lower carb cycles, focus on what you can have instead of on what you can’t have: Avocado, olives, artichoke hearts, limes, lemons, apricots and berries are all low-carb fruits that can go a long way to overcoming a carb craving.
Planning when and how you will eat to optimize the metabolic response is going to pay off in terms of better body composition, healthier blood sugar, less preoccupation with food, and fewer cravings.