**************************** Carb Cycling: The Fat Loss Plateau Buster
High carbs, low carbs, moderate carbs – depending on who you talk to, you will likely hear one of these recommendations being touted as the optimal approach to maximum fat loss. So what’s the truth? The truth of the matter is that there is really no one best way. Each of the above methods has been used by countless people – from bodybuilding and fitness competitors all the way to your every day gym rat – and used successfully at that. In actuality, how many carbs you are eating is not the key determinant of your fat loss progress; calories are. More on that later though. The key to successful fat loss is paying attention to your body, following a plan designed for your body and making the necessary adjustments to your program as your body changes. With that said, a nutritional strategy that includes both carbohydrate and calorie cycling in a structured plan built around your training program could be just what you’re looking for. Let’s take a closer look at this carbohydrate issue first.
Truth be told, there are benefits to having a fair amount of carbs in your diet and there are benefits to keeping them low. So why not use both strategies? Rather than choosing one or the other, why not get the benefits of both by cycling your carbohydrate and caloric intake throughout the week? By cycling your carb intake you get the best of both worlds. Assuming you keep your protein and fat intakes relatively constant, and only manipulate your carb intake, you are automatically cycling calories as well. The first benefit to doing so is that it keeps your body from adapting to what you are doing. Your body will always try to adapt to what you’re doing and the further you move away from your natural set point, the harder your body is going to try to pull you right back. This is just in part related to the regulatory hormone, leptin.
Leptin levels are related to things like insulin, your caloric intake and your current level of body fat. Think of it as one of the big “fat-loss decision makers”. The leaner you are the lower your circulating levels of leptin are going to be. Under more normal circumstances, higher body fat, maintenance caloric intake, etc., leptin levels are higher. However, while on sub-maintenance calories, and particularly on low-carb diets where circulating insulin levels are low, leptin levels drop and they can drop quickly. Decreased leptin levels cause a cascade of other regulatory changes, namely a decrease in thyroid output and metabolic rate, as well as an increase in catabolic hormone activity and appetite. In an attempt to become more efficient, your body will try to adapt to make your newly lowered caloric intake its new maintenance intake; that is, it will make the necessary changes needed to do the same amount of work on less energy. Unfortunately, this usually means having to continuously lower calories to maintain fat-loss progress, which inevitably makes it very hard to hold onto all your hard-earned muscle. None of this sounds too good does it? There has to be a better way, and there is. Planned and structured days of high calories and high carbohydrates may help with this.
As previously mentioned, there are benefits to both low-carb intakes and to high-carb intakes. When carb intake is drastically reduced you create a temporarily greater caloric deficit. In addition, low-carb intakes result in decreased levels of circulating insulin, increased levels of the fat-burning catecholamines and therefore a much heightened rate of fat oxidation. Quite simply, when insulin levels are low, you create an environment in which fat is more likely to be used for energy. Low muscle glycogen, as a result of decreased carbohydrate intake, obviously results in depleted muscles, but there are benefits to this as well. Low muscle glycogen tends to promote a higher rate of free fatty acid burning. Result? More fat loss.
On the flip side however, most people do not enjoy eating few carbs for very long. While there are clearly benefits to doing so, there are other things that need to be considered. Chronic low-carb intake can actually impair insulin sensitivity and promote insulin resistance. As already noted, low-carb intakes result in overly flat, depleted muscles and gym performance typically suffers. Throw in a day of high carbs and your muscles fill out, you find yourself more vascular, your workouts are great, and you look and feel much better. There is also research to support the fact that these higher-carb/calorie days may stimulate leptin production, which as we already noted is an important player in the fat-loss game. Carbohydrates are also very protein sparing – meaning they prevent protein from being oxidized as fuel – which is of paramount importance when retaining all your hard-earned muscle is a priority.
In addition to the numerous physiological factors, there are psychological variables that need to be taken into consideration as well. How you feel on a diet is arguably just as important to your progress as any other variable. There are not too many people that enjoy looking flat and depleted all the time. And lets not forget one of the reasons most people can appreciate – carbohydrates simply taste good.
To recap, in order to take advantage of the benefits of both higher and lower carb intakes, we want to fluctuate our carb intake from high to low throughout the training week. The simplest way to set this is to just cycle your carbohydrates and calories according to your weekly training schedule. For example, assuming four workouts per week, you might have your high days on your two big workouts, medium days on your two easier workouts, and low days on your off days.
PRACTICAL STEPS There is no one best way to cycle carbs or calories. In fact, there are many, many different permutations that can be used successfully. Here is just one example that you could use as a template. Feel free to tweak it to suit your needs if necessary.
First off is caloric intake. Determine all the macronutrient totals (protein, carbs, fat, and calories) for the medium day and then just let the carbohydrate intake change the calories for the high and low days. So, assume the medium day is a standard dieting day. As an aside, but a valuable note to keep in mind, there are many different calorie equations you can use – however be aware that they all have the potential to be off by as much as 20%. So for the sake of simplicity you could just assume maintenance to be approximately 15x total bodyweight and subtract 20-25% to create a healthy caloric deficit. Remember, if you are not progressing based on your caloric intake, simply adjust it up or down until progress resumes. Next up is protein. I am sure we are all in agreement that we need to eat sufficient amounts of protein when trying to lose fat and maintain muscle, so set it anywhere from 1.0-1.5g/lb of bodyweight and split it up evenly throughout the day. You are going to have three carbohydrate intakes – one for high days, one for medium days, and one for low days. Carbohydrate intake for the medium days is going to be set at 1.0g/lb of bodyweight. So now we know our calories, our protein and our carbs. All that remains is to figure out how much fat we’re to eat. In this case, fat simply serves as a caloric ballast. Simply make up the rest of your calories from fat. Your protein and fat intake from these days will stay constant throughout all three days. On your high carb days, set your carb intake at 2.0g/lb of bodyweight and finally for your low days it is going to be minimal as you’re only eating fibrous vegetables; no starch type carbs at all.
Remember the truth of the matter is that there is no one best method for fat loss. Carbohydrate and calorie cycling is just one logical and effective way of approaching it. Many who opt for this kind of approach find it very easy to follow as you get a few days a week where you get to eat some fun carbs, and like I said, who doesn’t like eating carbs?
Erik Ledin, B.Kin, CSCS, CISSN, is the President of Lean Bodies Consulting Inc., an online consulting firm that reaches globally and specializes in physique contest preparation, fat loss, nutrition and overall physical enhancement. He can be reached at www.leanbodiesconsulting.com
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