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Does Carb Cycling Help You Lose Weight?

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Over the last few years there’s been plenty of diets come and go – many of them were just fads that involved complete elimination of food groups or were just too strict to adhere to.

Some diets however involve manipulating food groups or eliminating foods on a more intermittent basis rather than continuously.

In this article we’ll break down one such diet – carb cycling – and tell you what the science says about it’s ability to help you lose weight.

This is what we’ll cover:

  • The role of carbs in the diet
  • What is carb cycling?
  • What does the research say – does it help with weight loss?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • Example carb cycling plan

The Role of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients we rely on for energy. In fact it is the body’s preferred and primary energy source, providing 4kcal per gram.

When you consume carbs your body breaks down the long chains of sugar molecules into glucose, which then enters the bloodstream. It is the role of a hormone called insulin to collect the sugar from the blood and remove it.

The higher the sugar in the food, the higher the amount in the blood. This means you are more likely to get a big release of insulin, which is referred to as a ‘spike’.

Many believe that it is insulin that signals fat cells to store the sugar as fat, making it difficult for you to lose weight and improve body composition. There is limited evidence to suggest this, but there is evidence to suggest that low-carb diets do improve insulin sensitivity [1].

Additionally, insulin has been seen to suppress the activity of the enzyme, hormone-sensitive lipase which breaks down stored fat into fatty acids [2].

Regardless of the mechanism, carb cycling is a popular weight loss strategy in bodybuilding circles. Let’s take a closer look at what it is…

carb-energy-for-exercise

What is Carb Cycling?

Over the last few years we’ve seen many diets that involved reducing or pretty much eliminating carbs from the diet. The Atkins diet, Paleo and Dukan diet are all examples where this macronutrient is manipulated to attempt to speed up weight loss.

Whilst people did lose weight using these diets, the results weren’t always positive. A study published in the British Medical Journal [3] found that long-term carb-restriction increased cardiovascular disease. A similar study found that low-carb diets were associated with a 6% increase in cardiovascular-related death [4].

It was also quite common for dieters to rebound when carbs were re-introduced and put all of the weight back on, if not more. 

Carb cycling is a method of manipulating the amount of carbs you take in on a daily basis. It involves not only a good general knowledge of food groups, but also strict planning. It can be physically and mentally challenging and requires a bulletproof attitude. 

food-calculator

When you follow a low-carb diet you can often suffer a drop in exercise performance and concentration. Your metabolic rate can begin to decrease and cravings can increase dramatically. By adding in higher carb days along the way you can help to offset some of these side effects, which make the lower carb days more manageable and easier to stick to.

There are a number of different cycles that you can follow but they typically involve higher carb days followed by lower carb days. You’ll also cycle your daily calories too, with higher carb days typically being higher in overall calories too.

The higher carb days should take place on heavier training days so it is important that this dietary approach follows an existing exercise plan. Low carb days should fall on rest or moderate intensity cardio days.

The reason for this is that your body needs carbs as an immediate energy source when working hard in the gym – it’ll help to maintain productivity in the gym, which is essential for muscle building and fitness. Carbs are also important to replenish glycogen stores post-exercise, and boost recovery.

low-carb-for-fat-loss

Key Point: Carb cycling simply involves structuring a diet that is higher carb on training days and lower on rest days. Both days shouls still maintain a calorie deficit though.


Does Carb Cycling Boost Weight Loss?

The concept of energy balance dictates weight and fat loss. Ultimately you’ll only lose weight if you fall into a calorie deficit, which means that you are taking in less calories than you burn off. Whether you are on a low or high carb day, the idea is to maintain a modest deficit. 

A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition [1] found that ‘intermittent restriction’ of carbs helped a group of overweight women lose more weight than a calorie-restricted group, and also saw more improvement in insulin resistance. The group had been asked to consume less than 40g of carbs for 2-days per week. 

Another study [5] showed no significant differences between intermittent restriction or continuous restriction in weight loss or risk factors of metabolic disease, although the intermittent group did lose slightly more weight over a 6-month period – 6.4kg vs 5.6kg.

These results were echoed in another study using overweight and obese females who were tracked over a 12-month period [6].

The important point to take home from these studies is that whilst the differences might not have been drastic, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that continuous restriction of calories is very difficult to maintain. Being able to include foods that you enjoy on an occasional basis is important in sticking to a diet plan.


Example Carb Cycling Plan

Here’s an example of a week carb cycling plan. As you can see, the higher carb days coincide with intense weight training sessions where carbs will be needed for energy and recovery. Low carb days coincide with rest days or cardio days.

Day Exercise Carb Intake
Monday Weight Training High carb
Tuesday Cardio / Rest Low carb
Wednesday Weight Training High carb
Thursday Cardio / Rest Low carb
Friday Weight Training High carb
Saturday Cardio / Rest Low carb
Sunday Rest Low carb

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References

  1. Harvie, M et al. The effect of intermittent energy and carbohydrate restriction v. daily energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers in overweight women. Br J Nutr. 2013; 110(8): 1534-47
  2. Meijssen, S et al. Insulin mediated inhibition of hormone sensitive lipase activity in vivo in relation to endogenous catecholamines in healthy subjects. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2001; 86(9): 4193-7
  3. Lagiou, P et al. Low carbohydrate-high protein diet and incidence of cardiovascular diseases in Swedish women: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2012; 344: e4026
  4. Lagiou, P et al. Low carbohydrate-high protein diet and mortality in a cohort of Swedish women. J Intern Med. 2007; 261(4): 366-74
  5. Harvie, MN et al. The effects of intermittent or continuous energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers: a randomized trial in young overweight women. Int J Obes (Lond). 2011; 35(5): 714-27
  6. Keogh, JB et al. Effects of intermittent compared to continuous energy restriction on short-term weight loss and long-term weight loss maintenance. Clin Obes. 2014 Jun; 4(3): 150-6


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