Carb cycling: Everything you need to know about the latest diet trend

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  • It has long been suggested in the diet world that cutting down on your carbohydrate intake could help you lose weight.

    The Atkins diet was the first to encourage completely ditching the carbs back in 1970, focusing more on protein and vegetable intake. Now, almost 50 years later, people are still promoting the low-carb approach (who can forget the cast of The Only Way Is Essex and their ‘no carbs before Marbs’ bikini body mantra?!).

    Although there are some carbs you can eat on a diet, trying to ditch bread, pasta and rice for any longer than a couple of days takes serious willpower, and is too demanding for even the most committed of healthy eaters because of the initial energy slumps that your body experiences.

    So instead of denying yourself carbs for the rest of your days, try carb cycling – a new, more sustainable approach to restrictive carbohydrate consumption. Here, we look at the science of why it works, and how you can try it yourself.

    How to carb cycle?

    Rob Hobson is Head of Nutrition at Healthspan. He explains that ‘the idea is that you have two low carb days followed by a high carb day and then repeat this over every three days.’

    Which food should you eat when carb cycling?

    Rob explains: ‘The easiest way to think about low carb days is that you just include them with one of your meals and I would still always choose wholegrain varieties (just to be clear here – carbohydrates are the starchy foods and not sugar). This might include a couple of slices of toast or bread for lunch or some wholegrain rice for dinner.’

    He adds: ‘High carb days involve eating them with each meal. You don’t need huge servings just a regular sized portion which might include a little brown rice or quinoa with a stir-fry for dinner or porridge oats for breakfast.

    ‘On all days you should still eat plenty of protein and also include healthy fast such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado.’

    Is carb cycling good for weight loss?

    Rob explains that carb cycling should help with both weight and fat loss.

    ‘The idea is that on two consecutive days during the week you eat very little carbohydrate food followed by one day of eating lots of them. The idea is that just as your body becomes depleted of carbs the high-carb day will kick-in to recharge energy levels (depleted glycogen in liver and muscles) which should encourage metabolism and lead to greater fat loss.’

    It’s also useful for those who exercise.

    Personal trainer Sarah Jane Holt, at Matt Roberts Personal Training in London, says; ‘Carb cycling is a very useful tool when the goal is to lose fat but still maintain high intensity training sessions and maximise recovery.

    ‘Carb cycling will allow you to manipulate your carb intake depending on daily activity level and individual session aims. For example, a high-carb day may be coupled with a session where the aim is to achieve an intense strength workout. The body is going to call on the energy from these carbs to fuel your session and allow you maintain a high workout intensity.

    ‘A low-carb day, however, may then be coupled with a moderate to low intensity session such as a weights circuit, a run, yoga, Pilates etc. Keeping carbs low on these days will allow the body to use stored fat during your session, as there will be much less carbohydrates readily available. Both workouts are important when trying to lose body fat.

    ‘The high intensity day will work on building and maintaining lean muscle which will help keep your metabolic rate high and help the body store less sugar as fat. The lower intensity days are also important as they use stored fat for fuel and help reduce fat stores on the body.

    ‘The simplest and most effective way to manipulate carb intake is to keep carbs to post workout only. So if you don’t train one day then keep carb intake to veg and low Gi sources only, and on training days have your grains, starchy carbs and sugars after your session – just make sure the amount and sugar content of these carbs matches the intensity of your workout. So for low to moderate intensity training stick to low Gi carbs, and higher intensity sessions follow with higher Gi/sugars and starchy carbs.’

    How long should you carb cycle for?

    The benefit of carb cycling rather than just completely cutting out carbs is that it is a more sustainable long-term plan.

    ‘You could try it for 30 days to see if it helps with weight loss/maintenance,’ says Rob.

    ‘To be honest it’s not an unhealthy way to eat in general if you find this an easy way to manage your diet as you’re not depriving your body of nutrients as long as you eat a wide variety of foods.’

    Carb cycling works well for both men and women, but males will see the effects more rapidly as they have a greater muscle mass, which is what this diet works on enhancing.

    If you are pregnant or breastfeeding then you should speak to your GP before embarking on any restrictive diet plans such as carb cycling.

    Would you try carb cycling? Let us know in the comments below!