Get a better body with carb cycling
In our recent reader survey, many of you asked for a post on carb cycling - well, we aim to please! If the idea of a no-carb or low-carb diet leaves you feeling weak at the knees (we don't blame you!) but you also don't want to load up on pasta and bread every day, then carb cycling is a good middle ground. It may have its roots in the bodybuilding industry, but today many personal trainers are turning to carb cycling as a strategy to help their clients achieve their health and fitness goals.
What is carb cycling?
As the name suggets, carb cycling involves 'cycling' between eating healthy carbs and a low-carb diet. So on certain days of the week you'll load up on healthy carbs, whilst reducing your carb intake and sticking to mostly veggies and protein on other days. Carb cycling plans can be easily modified to suit your individual goals, and you can put together your own plan or ask your trainer for help.
The winning formula
Classic carb cycling relies on an alternating mix of high and low carb days for 6 days a week - day 7 is reward or 'cheat' day. However this isn't for everyone and you can alter the classic plan depending on your goals. Say you're looking to lose weight - then 5 low-carb days and 2 high-carb days might work better for you. For those of you looking to build muscle and gain weight, 4 or 5 high-carb days is a great choice. The thing to remember with carb cycling though is that your high-carb days should be spaced out throughout the week, rather than all back to back.
So are low-carb days just an excuse to chow down on red meat, whilst high-carb days are about cramming as many bagels in your mouth as you can at one sitting? Err, no, there's a bit more to it than that! On high-carb days, the majority of your calories should come from complex carbs - legumes, whole grains and fruits, or even a protein shake made with high-quality ingredients. On low-carb days, fill up on lean protein such as chicken, lean beef, tofu, eggs and fish, adding any non-starchy vegetables to the mix (that means no peas, sweetcorn or potatoes). On your weekly shop, stick to the supermarket's outer aisles to load up on fresh produce and protein, rather than heading for the inner aisles which is where most of the processed food can be found!
A sustainable plan
One thing carb cycling isn't is a crash diet or lose-weight-fast plan. It's designed to be a sustainable option that you can try either short-term or commit to long-term. Many trainers recommend including a 'cheat day' on day 7 when carb cycling, but if you're the kind of person who rewards themselves with food, this could actually set you back. You may find you end up consuming waaaay too many calories on cheat day, which is bad news. Carb cycling plans do allow for treats (before you totally panic!) - just work a bagel or a sugary bowl of cereal into one of your high-carb days and adjust portion sizes or calories for some of your day's other meals, to compensate.
Plan your meals
It's important to plan your meals when carb cycling, as otherwise you could find it hard to make healthy choices, particularly when hunger strikes. The average man needs around 1,500 calories on low-carb days, whilst women need around 1,200 calories. This figure rises slightly on high calorie days and obviously is also dependent on the amount of activity you do. The following formula can help you to work out how many grams of protein and carbs your body needs on both high and low-carb days:
High carb days
- 2-3g carbs (x your body weight in lbs)
- 1-1.25g protein (x body weight)
- As little fat as you can
- 1g carbs (x body weight)
- 0.75g protein (x body weight)
- As little fat as you can
- 0.5-1.5g carbs (x body weight)
- 1.25-1.5g protein (x body weight)
- 0.15-0.35g fat (x body weight)
- 0.2-0.5g carbs (x body weight)
- 1g protein (x body weight)
- 0.1-0.2g fat (x body weight)
Carb cycling works best if you spread your calories across 4 to 6 smaller meals throughout the day - and make sure you don't skip breakfast, as it's important to eat as soon as possible after waking up. So, what does a typical day look like when you're carb cycling?
Typical carb cycling menu
- Breakfast (7am) - 2 scrambled eggs with 1/2 red pepper
- Snack (10am) - Protein shake with berries
- Lunch (1pm) - 3oz grilled chicken and 1 cup asparagus
- Snack (4pm) - 1/3 cup porridge oats and 10 almonds
- Dinner (7pm) - 3oz steak and 2 cups steamed broccoli and cauliflower
- Breakfast (7am) - 1/2 cup porridge with berries and walnuts
- Snack (10am) - Apple and 2 tsp almond butter
- Lunch (1pm) - Half a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread
- Snack (4pm) - 1 cup of 3 bean salad and 1 cup quinoa
- Dinner (7pm) 3oz grilled chicken with 1 cup whole-wheat pasta and pesto
Commit to it
Commiting to carb cycling for a few months can change the way you look at carbs, if you've previously been on a low-carb diet. Carbs are no longer 'the enemy' or a treat for cheat days, they're allowed as part of a carb cycling plan - great news if, like us, you just can't see yourself giving them up anytime soon!
We'd love to hear about your carb cycling experiences - Tweet us with your stories!