A few years ago, personal trainer and transformation specialist Chris Powell hosted the show Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition. Chris, with the assistance of his fitness trainer wife Heidi Powell, would coach clients and help them lose a tremendous amount of weight. Although Powell had quite a bit of success with many clients, the show wasn’t all fun and games. Not every contestant would lose their desired amount of weight and some often gained back what they lost throughout the process.
In addition to a strict exercise regimen, Powell used a special diet known as carb cycling with every single one of his clients to help them lose the weight. In a blog post on his Transform HQ platform, Powell claims that carb cycling can “change your body composition, build lean muscle, and transform your metabolism into a highly efficient, highly responsive fat burning machine.” But is this diet really the answer to your weight loss prayers? Here’s everything you need to know about carb cycling and some key tips if you do in fact decide to try it out for yourself.
What exactly is carb cycling?
There is no true formal definition for carb cycling, but most carb cycling plans feature alternative high and low carb days. Protein intake remains consistent, while fat intake typically increases on lower-carb days and decreases on higher-carb days.
Carbohydrates are one of the macronutrients that your body needs to survive and provide energy. Each macronutrient has a specific role in the body, and not getting enough or getting too much of any macronutrient is a concern when manipulating carbs, protein, and fat in your diet. Different carb cycling calculators are available online and provide rough estimates to breaking down your macronutrient requirements for the day, although these are not considered validated tools.
How does carb cycling work?
The theory behind carb cycling is that it maximizes the use and benefits that carbohydrates provide. Most of the carb cycling diet principles revolve around your exercise regimen, so this isn’t something to adopt if you are inactive and sedentary most of the week since the diet aims to match the body’s needs for calories and carbohydrates.
High-carb days are meant to pair with your heavy workout days, like high intensity interval training sessions and weight lifting. The purpose of the high-carb days are to refuel muscle glycogen in hopes of improving exercise performance and assisting in recovery.
Low-carb days are designed for your rest days or days when you’re doing light activity such as a light jog or short yoga class. These low-carb days aim at using fat primarily for fuel, which proponents of carb cycling diet say can potentially help improve metabolic flexibility. Typically, the high and low carb days alternate every other day.
Here’s what a standard week of beginner’s carb cycling diet looks like:
MONDAY: High Carb Day
TUESDAY: Low Carb Day
WEDNESDAY: High Carb Day
THURSDAY: Low Carb Day
FRIDAY: High Carb Day
SATURDAY: Low Carb Day
SUNDAY: High Carb Day or Reward Day
Powell offers his clients five different carb cycling plans to fit their lifestyle. Some plans feature back-to-back low-carb days followed by a high-carb day, or vice versa.
Is carb cycling the same as keto or intermittent fasting?
Not quite. The keto diet focuses on a very-low carb intake and a very high fat intake, with protein intake at a moderate level. The goal is to put the body into a state of ketosis where you are using fat for fuel. This is different from carb cycling in that the keto diet requires you to restrict yourself on this very low carb count every day and does not allow any moderate or high carb days. Plus, even the low days of carb cycling are typically higher carb than a traditional keto day. Both diets do work around manipulating carb intake and counting macros. One thing to note is that carbs carry water in the body, so many individuals who start a carb-restricted diet are simply losing water weight in the beginning and not necessarily fat.
When it comes to intermittent fasting, this dieting approach centers around timing of your meals and designates between times of fasting (not eating at all) and times when you are allowed to eat your meals. Typically, carb cycling plans actually require you to eat multiple meals throughout the day and don’t restrict feeding time. Some individuals combine intermittent fasting and carb cycling, but this is very difficult to sustain in the long-term and are considered two completely different dieting methods.
Are there any drawbacks to carb cycling?
Since this diet is relatively new, there is limited research on the effects of alternating between low and high carb days. If you do try carb-cycling out yourself, it’s best to do it for a short period of time since we don’t know the consequences of doing it for the long-term. And of course, always consult your doctor before starting any diet or exercise changes. If you are diabetic or have a history of issues with blood sugar control, something like carb cycling that features spikes and lows of carbohydrate intake is not recommended for you.
Another drawback of this diet is that it can be extremely difficult to plan for and very time consuming. Counting macronutrients is no joke and requires meticulous portion control, which makes this diet not very sustainable in the long-run. Plus, it can have some long-term emotional consequences. “Counting macronutrients, and carb cycling, are forms of restrictive dieting. When it comes to food restriction, there is a serious potential side effect of developing disordered eating or an eating disorder,” says intuitive eating specialist Willow Jarosh, RD, CIEC. “While some people may be able to do something like carb cycling without becoming obsessive about measurements and including flexibility by adapting the protocol for their lifestyle, many cannot,” Jarosh adds.
One last important thing to note about carb cycling is the mechanism by which weight loss occurs. Some plans keep you at one steady caloric intake, while others lower calories on the low-carb days and increase calories on the high-carb days. When you average out the calories for the week on a carb cycling diet, that caloric deficit itself may be to thank for the weight loss and not so much the carbohydrate manipulation.
If you do try carb-cycling, I encourage you to choose nutritious fiber-packed carbs to help keep you full, especially on those low-carb days. Not all carbohydrates are created equal, and if you are on a diet, you’ll need those fiber-packed vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to improve satiety and energy. Plus, it can be easy to spiral out of control on those high-carb days and overdo it with foods loaded with added sugar. Remember that there is never a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to diet and nutrition. Every single one of us has unique nutritional needs, and it’s best to consult a registered nutritionist for expert guidance when it comes to starting any new diet regimen.