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Many athletes, particularly bodybuilders and physique competitors consider carb cycling the safest, most effective way to lose body fat without losing muscle.  We wanted to investigate the potential benefit to recreational athletes and determine if CrossFitters could also benefit from carb cycling.  

IN THIS BLOG, WE’RE GOING TO COVER:

  • The science behind getting lean with carb cycling

  • The nutrition rules of carb cycling.  They change based on your goals

  • A day of carb cycling meals and snacks from the dietitian

  • Nutrition WOD’s take on the carb cycling diet


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THE SCIENCE BEHIND GETTING LEAN WITH CARB CYCLING

Carb cycling involves alternating between days of eating no carbs, low carbs, moderate carbs, and high carbs depending on which plan you’re following.  Believers in carb cycling claim that eating this way is the most effective way to benefit from the short-term effects of low carb diets without suffering from their long term consequences.  Let’s see how this works.

We have cells in our body called mitochondria that produce energy from the carbs, fat, and protein we eat.  More specifically, from the glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids are broken down during digestion of the carbs, fat, and protein we eat.  Energy production occurs within the cell via the citric acid cycle.  For the citric acid cycle to produce energy, it needs an acetyl group.  The acetyl group comes from Acetyl Co-A.  Glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids all provide Acetyl Co-A to some degree to the mitochondrial cell.

What we eat has a direct impact on where the Acetyl Co-A comes from and, more importantly, what happens when we take in more than we need for whatever activity the body is currently doing.  When our energy comes mostly from carbohydrate, we produce excess citrate which becomes fat cells.  When our energy comes mostly from fat, we produce excess ketone bodies which encourage our body to break down fat.  

So, when we eat a low carb diet, we use more fat for fuel and break down fat more readily.  Burning fat instead of glycogen (the storage form of glucose) will definitely enhance efforts to get lean which is great in the short term.  But what happens if you eat a low carb diet for too long?

An extended period on a low carb diet negatively impacts metabolism which can slow your weight loss progress.  As with everything else, it all comes back to our hormones.  When the body loses fat too quickly, our levels of the satiety hormone leptin plummet.  Aside from signaling our bodies that we are full and don’t need to eat anymore, leptin also signals our body to use energy (aka burn calories).  So, when leptin decreases, our metabolism slows down and we burn fewer calories.

Low carb diets also lower our bodies ability to convert inactive thyroid hormone (T4) to the active thyroid hormone (T3).  If we don’t have enough T3 to kick our thyroids into gear, our metabolism slows down.  To make matters worse, long term low carb diets also cause reduced levels of testosterone and insulin which causes loss of muscle tissue.  So, not only are you losing fat, you’re also losing some of the muscle you’ve worked hard to build.

Carb cycling claims to be the solution to combatting those pesky long term side effects of low carb eating.  By scheduling days of higher carbohydrate intake, the thought process is you will avoid the metabolic crash.  The high carb intake days allow for a spike in insulin that will support continued muscle mass growth, keep your levels T3 at normal levels for ideal thyroid function, and prevent the downward spiral of leptin keeping your hunger/satiety hormones in check and supporting a fulling functioning metabolism.


Ready find out your best macro counts and when you should be eating your meals?

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Ready find out your best macro counts and when you should be eating your meals?
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THE NUTRITION RULES OF CARB CYCLING.  THEY CHANGE BASED ON YOUR GOALS

Depending on who you talk to or which book you read, you’ll see that the rules of Carb Cycling vary.  The only constant is that the amount of carbohydrate you take in from day to day changes based on your cycle.  However, there is no strict definition of a high carb versus a moderate carb versus a low carb day.  And there is no agreement on how to adjust the fat and protein when the carbs are adjusted although most people agree that protein should remain at a set point and not change.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m taking out no carb days which I’m pretty sure is not even possible unless you’re only eating meat.  I’m also taking out moderate carb days because that’s too much a gray area for me and I think it’s easier to follow a plan that only cycles two different days.

RULE 1. PRIORITIZE YOUR OVERALL NUTRITION FIRST

I cannot stress enough the importance of doing things in order.  Before you even think of carb cycling, you should assess your current diet and make sure your nutrition is rock solid. You should be eating mostly real food….like 95% or more...to ensure you know how to get the adequate nutrients you’d need even on the low carb days.  And I’m not just talking you started eating real food last week.  You’ll need to be eating real food diet for at least three months.

RULE 2. PICK A SCHEDULE THAT MEETS YOUR NEEDS

Your schedule should be based on your goals.  Here are two examples to consider.  For fat loss in the recreational CrossFitter, you may do best with an alternating schedule of high and low carb days.

Monday: low carb

Tuesday: high carb

Wednesday: low carb

Thursday: high carb

Friday: low carb

Saturday: high carb

Sunday: high carb

For the competitive CrossFitter or the heavy lifter, you may do best with fewer low carb days so that you have the building blocks necessary to put on muscle mass.

Monday: low carb

Tuesday: high carb

Wednesday: high carb

Thursday: low carb

Friday: high carb

Saturday: high carb

Sunday: low carb

Days of the week may vary based on your training schedules.  The pattern is important.  Try to get any heavy lifting or lengthy and intense metcons on the higher carb days.  

RULE 3: PLAN YOUR MEALS

Let’s face it.  Some of us want things exact and prefer to have target numbers to hit, and some of us don’t want to be tied to numbers and prefer a simpler approach.  Some of us are a little of both depending on the situation.  So, I’m going to give you both when it comes to planning your meals with carb cycling.

For you number folks, the table below serves as a guide for what a typical macro breakdown would look like on low carb and high carb days.  I recommend you know your daily protein needs in grams so you can make your specific breakdown from that number.  Nutrition WOD’s Macro and Meal Timing Calculator provides that information.

 
 

Protein

Carbohydrate

Fat

Low carb days

40%

20%

40%

High carb days

30%

50%

20%

For those of you who prefer an approach that doesn’t require weighing and measuring, use the table below as a guide for what your meals would look like on low carb versus high carb days.  Choose from the lower end of the range based on your daily energy needs.  You will notice that the after workout meal has additional carbs on the meal you eat after your workout when you need them the most.  If you are not working out on a low carb day, eat these additional carbs in the morning.  The fat on your high carb days will come from your protein and starches.

 
 
 

Low Carb Days

High Carb Days

After workout meal

Protein

1-2 palm-sized portions

1-2 palm-sized portions

 

Fat

1-2 thumb-sized portions

-

 

Carb

1-2 fist sized portion of veggies AND 1 fist-sized portion of fruit/starch

1-2 fist sized portion of veggies AND 1 fist-sized portion of fruit/starch

Other two meals

Protein

1-2 palm-sized portions

1-2 palm-sized portions

 

Fat

1-2 thumb-sized portions

-

 

Carb

1-2 fist sized portion of veggies

1-2 fist sized portion of veggies AND 1 fist-sized portion of fruit/starch

Snack

Protein

½-1 palm-sized portion

½-1 palm-sized portion

 

Fat

½-1 thumb-sized portion

-

 

Carb

1 fist-sized portion of veggies

1-2-1 fist sized portion of veggies AND 1/2 fist-sized portion of fruit/starch

 

RULE 4: PICK FOODS HIGH IN FIBER AND DRINK PLENTY OF WATER

Particularly on the low carb days, you’ll want to make sure the vegetables and some of the fats you select are high in fiber to help keep you regular.  You will also need to drink additional water as our body tends to flush water out when on a low carb diet.  Nothing will ruin a good thing like dehydration and/or constipation.  Nutrition WOD’s Macro and Meal Timing Calculator gives you daily fluid recommendations.

A DAY OF CARB CYCLING MEALS AND SNACKS FROM THE DIETITIAN

Using the table above as a guide, here’s an example of a what a low carb day could look like for you.  Portion sizes would be adjusted based on either table above.  In this example, the athlete has an afternoon/evening workout (5 PM).

LOW CARB DAY

Breakfast: Turkey sausage with sauteed peppers and onions topped with sliced avocado.

Lunch: Chicken salad on a bed of lettuce with cucumbers, tomatoes, and slivered almonds.

Snack: Deviled eggs and carrot sticks.

Dinner (post workout): Grilled steak with buttered steamed broccoli and roasted sweet potatoes.

HIGH CARB DAY

Breakfast: Turkey sausage with steamed peppers and onions with a bowl of fresh fruit.

Lunch: Grilled chicken and quinoa salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, and dried cranberries.

Snack: Carrot sticks and Hard boiled eggs (yolks removed) stuffed with hummus dip.

Dinner (post workout): Grilled steak with lemony steamed broccoli and baked sweet potato.

NUTRITION WOD’S TAKE ON THE CARB CYCLING DIET AND IF IT’S RIGHT FOR YOU

Numerous athletes have had tremendous success with carb cycling.  Although this dietary practice is used mostly in bodybuilders and physique athletes, the concept behind how carb cycling works could help recreational athletes and CrossFitters get lean while maintaining muscle mass too.  

That said, we would not recommend carb cycling to a nutrition newbie or to anyone that doesn’t have a solid nutrition foundation and has been living with consistently good nutrition habits for at least three months. In the tiers of progression we use with our athletes, we would consider carb cycling something to experiment with only after you have a truly personalized nutrition plan and are looking at nutrition techniques to further optimize performance.  In this case, carb cycling would be a consideration and not a requirement.

Carb cycling requires a certain level of dedication and planning that would not work for most.  In addition to having to balance life around your low carb and high carb days, you must have a good understanding of the nutrients provided by the food you eat to ensure you do not become malnourished in an effort to lean out.  I recommend that if you are considering carb cycling, you talk with a dietitian/nutritionist to ensure your nutrition needs are met throughout the week.  As always, before making any dietary change, discuss these changes with your physician for their approval.

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