Have you ever attempted to give up carbohydrates for an extended period of time? As a registered dietitian, many of my patients have, and the majority of them report challenges in sustaining the habit. But what if you knew, that tomorrow, or a few days from now, you could have carbs again, and it wouldn’t hurt your goals, it may actually help you reach them?
A dietary method called carb cycling has emerged that could allow you to have your cake (so to speak) and eat it too.
What is carb cycling?
Carb cycling means you alternate moderate to higher carbohydrate time periods with periods of eating low carb.
Though carb cycling is currently trending, it’s not new. It actually emerged many years ago in bodybuilding and fitness circles as a way to utilize carbohydrate consumption in the most efficient manner possible. Athletes used carb cycling in the hopes that it would make the body better at utilizing the right fuel, at the right time, during training and competition. The practice was also done as an attempt to build muscle, lose fat and enhance performance.
The theory behind carb cycling is that alternating between low-carb and higher-carb days will make the body more sensitive to insulin levels, and ultimately improve health. Your low-carb days force the body into a more fat-adapted model, and they are intertwined with days of higher carb “refeeding” so that you don’t suffer the consequences of long-term carbohydrate deprivation.
What does a cycle look like?
Here’s the challenge for the average person: The cycling period, as well as the amount and the type of carbohydrate is not defined, so most individuals may have to try different types of cycling before figuring out what works for their goals. For example, what works for a 23-year-old elite athlete may not work for a 46-year-old woman entering menopause.
If someone is training for a fitness event, he or she might eat less carbs followed by eating a higher carb count a few days before a planned event. You could also alter your carb content based on the type of physical activity (aerobic or resistance).
If you’re hoping to go into ketosis on your low-carb days (a condition where the body switches from burning glucose to burning fat), you have to plan for that as well by scheduling in longer periods (more than 3 days) of carbohydrate deprivation to reach that goal.
See? It's complicated!
What carbs should you eat?
This is not a diet where you should abandon healthy lifestyle practices and start bingeing on doughnuts and rigatoni on carb days.
Consuming 100 percent whole grains, especially intact grains, is still the healthier option. Additionally, fat and protein may vary on cycle days as well. Overall, your cycling success depends on many different variables, such as your current weight, activity level, disease status and of course, your ability to stick with the diet.
The science behind carb cycling
Fans think that it helps to reset the metabolism, burn fat and achieve weight loss. The science, however is still playing catch up. Though many studies show the benefits that low-carbohydrate diets can have on weight and overall health, relatively few delve into the concept of cycling.
Further, recent studies on carbs in general have been mixed. Some show that low-carb diets (which ultimately decrease the need for the hormone insulin by tapping into fat as fuel), may help with weight loss, athletic performance, cognitive health and even disease prevention and management. However, newer research shows having too little, or too many carbs could lead to an earlier death.
A recent study found that both low- and high-carbohydrate diets were tied to an increase in mortality, while moderate-carbohydrate diets had the lowest risk of mortality. Though the research is not specific to cycling of carbs, it could suggest that carb cycling may be the perfect “meeting in the middle” approach.
How to carb cycle
The best way to start carb cycling is to determine your goals: Are you looking to lose weight? Are you training for an Ironman? Do you want to start competing in body building? Has your weight loss plateaued?
One of my patients did intensive workouts three days a week, and would alternate her carbs according to her workout days. She would have a high-carb breakfast when she was working out in the evening.
A busy executive I’ve worked with traveled during the week with little physical activity and ran long-distance trail runs on the weekend. He ate a higher-carb diet on Thursdays through Sunday, and ate little to no carbs the rest of the week.
Another patient of mine ate low carb every other day, and was finally able to lose the last ten pounds that she had plateaued at for months.
Multiple personal variables are involved in whether this will actually work for you, and there is no official guide on what results to expect. Additionally, while carb cycling is relatively safe, not everyone is a good candidate. Those who are pregnant, breastfeeding or have type 1 diabetes should avoid low-carb diets. Working with a dietitian or physician can help you determine if cycling is right for you.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "Skinny Liver." Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat.