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

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 will power, 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.

What is carb cycling?

The newest trend in dieting is ‘carb cycling’, which sees dieters only consume carbohydrates on the days that they exercise to burn them off. In short, if you don’t work out, you don’t get the carb rewards.

If you’re already worried (thinking about the last time you set foot in a gym) then don’t panic, because on the days you don’t exercise you focus on a diet of healthy fats, such as oily fish, nuts and avocado.

What does the science say?

The carb cycling approach to eating carbohydrates is reportedly better for burning off body fat and enhancing muscle gains as carbs help muscles grow bigger because glycogen (the energy molecule present in glucose and therefore carbs) is stored in the muscles.

What do the experts say?

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 much carbohydrate can I have?

The carb cycling approach recommends eating approximately 30g of carbohydrates after a workout session. That would be the equivalent of a handful of rice, a baked potato or an apple and a banana.

Is carb cycling for me?

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

Instead of denying yourself, you change your attitude towards fuelling your body, and if you are doing the movement and activity to warrant a carbohydrate day, then you can have those meals.

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!