If you follow any health and fitness buffs on social media, chances are you will have heard all about the ‘cutting’ benefits of carb cycling. But is a diet like this actually good for you?
Carb-cycling is becoming more and more popular within the fitness world. Athletes, models and fitness competitors often use it as a way to ‘cut’ for competitions and shows — in other words, to lean down and tone up.
Yes, if it’s done correctly and a smart plan is put in place, it can work wonders on the body — but if it’s too restrictive it can cause major problems, both mentally and physically.
We had Julie Masci, dietitian and director of New Life Nutrition, tell us just how carb cycling works.
“Carb cycling is when an individual alternates the amount of carbohydrate foods eaten. Days are split up into no carb, low carb and high carb days and cycled throughout the week,” she explains.
“The amount of carbs eaten on low and high carb days is dependent on the program the individual chooses to adopt.
“The carb cycling lifestyle assists the (fitness buffs) in achieving their short-term goals to achieve a particular low body fat percentage and physical appearance required for competitions.”
Carbohydrates are sugars that break down inside the body to create glucose. That glucose moves throughout the body in the blood and is the primary source of energy for the brain, muscles and other cells.
If they’re doing it correctly, people who carb cycle often schedule their major muscle workouts (like leg day) on high carb days so they have more energy throughout the workout.
It makes sense. If you’re working out — full steam ahead — on a no carb day, chances are you’re going to burn yourself out.
Personal trainer Brad Webber says eating low carb most of the time is the best way to be healthy, lean and strong, but planned “carb refuelling” days are very important.
“A low carb diet is king for being lean,” he says.
“However, once your body has learned to burn fat as fuel and the low carb diet is in full swing, a carb refuel day becomes extremely important and necessary.”
Brad says a “carb refuel” day serves three main purposes.
“It replenishes your glycogen levels. This will keep you from breaking down protein in the process of gluconeogenesis [the regeneration of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources, such as amino acids].
“It revs up the thyroid. If thyroid function becomes sluggish, body temperature will commonly drop, metabolism will slow and fat loss will halt.
“It also drives up leptin levels (a hormone made from cells that help regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger). When leptin levels are low, hunger increases, therefore making it difficult to stay on the diet plan.”
For a carb-up meal, Brad recommends low-fat complex carbs like sweet potato, rice, gluten-free pasta or gluten free oats. And don’t worry, dessert lovers — you can still have your sweet fix after dinner.
“You can finish your meal with a dessert if you wish, but try to make healthy choices by avoiding high fructose corn syrup, gluten and GMO-containing foods,” he says.
Julie says while there are some benefits from a carb-cycling diet, there are also some negative effects.
“This diet highlights the importance of preparing and cooking meals in advance and also highlights the importance of wholefoods, namely vegetables, lean protein and low GI carbohydrates, which reduces the amount of junk food eaten,” she says.
However, she adds, “this particular pattern of eating can be quite restrictive and revolves around training days, but does not take into account the social and day-to-day living requirements of the individual. In other words, it can be distorted and only prioritises training days. Individuals taking on this pattern of eating may feel anxious (due to the carb counting) and socially isolated.
“It may also interfere with performance at school, university and work, owing to the restriction of available glucose (broken down units of carbohydrates) for the brain on ‘no carb’ and ‘low carb’ days.”
Julie says this type of diet could even be harmful.
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not just the absence of disease,” she says.
“When a diet is restrictive it can limit social interactions with friends and family and potentially be harmful to an individual’s mental and social wellbeing. In other words, it is not very balanced and it would not be sustainable long-term (more than 2 years).”
If you are looking at embarking on a carb-cycling journey, Julie recommends seeing a health professional first.
“My advice would be to honestly consider the pros and cons of undertaking such a lifestyle and how it will affect you in the short and long-term,” she says.
“I would recommend consulting a GP or Accredited Practising Dietitian, especially if you have a medical history.”
Do you carb cycle? Do you think it’s a healthy way to get lean? Have your say in the comments below!