Wellness has become something of a buzzword in recent years, but while dieting has existed for centuries, it’s no longer a matter of simply trying to eat clean and exercise regularly. Perhaps it was Gwyneth Paltrow who made the Yuppie-yoga-mum a figure to be revered, one who covets kombucha drunk straight from a rose quartz crystal-infused water bottle and exists solely on steamed clams and seasonal greens. Or maybe it was Twitter’s Jack Dorsey who made intermittent fasting a trend?
Regardless of the source of inspiration, wellness has come to encapsulate numerous fads. We can’t help but question, has any of this made for better health? Or are we simply becoming more fragile as humans? Surely Keith Richards proves that it’s the vessel that matters, not the contents. Despite a lifetime of partying, drug and substance abuse, and famously going nine days without sleep, the 75-year-old musician still maintains a vigorous touring schedule with The Rolling Stones. Sure our idols are subjective, but if you ask us, this – Richards thriving at 75 – is the pinnacle of health.
But if you don’t play guitar like Richards, chances are he’s not going to be your poster boy for athleticism and good looks. And with the weather warming up and demanding the reveal of more flesh, you’re most likely looking to get in shape. Cue the latest wellness trend: carb cycling.
What is it?
According to Ryan Andrews of Precision Nutrition, carb cycling “is a planned alteration of carbohydrate intake in order to prevent a fat loss plateau and maintain metabolism along with workout performance.”
You’ll go from eating a higher amount of carbs one day, to eating a lower amount of carbs the next. Dieters will continue to alternate between the two throughout your week, depending on activity levels on each day. The idea behind the diet is that those following carb cycling will go high-carb during the days they work out and are more active, and then go low-carb when less active. During exercise, the body naturally dips into carb stores for energy, meaning high carb days will see the energy utilised as fuels for a greater push during the workout.
Why does it work?
Unlike other fad diets that restrict carbohydrate intake significantly, often leading to binges for those who don’t have the willpower of Tom Cruise taking to a movie stunt, carb cycling is actually considered a high-level nutrition strategy. The catch however, is that it is recommended only for short-term use and is not a long-term solution for managing body fat.
A recent study in the American Journal of Cardiology suggests that the occasional but of fasting improved markers of cardiovascular disease. But restricting calories and/or carbohydrates for longer periods of time can have adverse effects on metabolism, often leading to reduced metabolic rate, thyroid hormone output, sympathetic nervous system activity, and more.
How does it work?
Carb cycling is a diet that requires more planning than most. Firstly, you’ll have to establish a daily calorie goal to aim for on all days. If seeking to lose weight, multiply your bodyweight 10 times – that’s the amount of calories you’ll be aiming to consume each day. If you’re seeking to maintain your weight, multiply it by 12. And if you want to gain weight, multiply by 15.
You’ll then need to divide those calories among your main macronutrients: carbs, protein, and fat. Carbs and protein both provide 4 calories per gram, while fat provides 9 calories per gram. On high carb days, you’ll then up the carbs and your calories, keeping protein and fat the same. On the flip side, the lower carb days will slash your calories, but your protein and fat intake will remain the same.
What should you eat?
While carb cycling is based on eating higher amounts of carbs, it should be stated that no all carbs are created equal. It’s a diet after all, which means you might want to put those doughnuts away and stock the fridge with some healthier alternatives. Good carbohydrates are those that have high fibre content, can be slowly digested, and are unprocessed. These attributes can be found in whole grain starches, oatmeal, sweet and white potatoes, fruit, legumes-beans, lentils, split peas and vegetables.
Alternatively, anything that’s highly processed, low in fibre, contains white flour and sugar, should be avoided. Think white bread, sugary cereal, cakes and cookies as things that should be avoided at all costs during the diet.
An example of a high carb day diet includes 1 cup of eats in the morning made with milk, with some raisins and brown sugar. A snack could include fruit and yoghurt, with a basic sandwich with protein for lunch. An afternoon snack could include a banana and peanut butter, with 2.5 cups of cooked pasta with veggies for dinner, and maybe an evening snack of popcorn.
Example carb cycling plans
Carb cycling is considered an effective diet for serious athletes, marathoners, or triathletes as it’s particularly beneficial for training and allows you to vary your plan based on your training schedule.
Here are some ideas of how to incorporate carb cycling into your lifestyle.
The 5-day Plan
For this plan, you’ll eat a low amount of carbs for three days, averaging about 100-125 grams each day. This will then be followed up with two days of eating a higher amount of carbs on physically active days, approximate 175-275 grams.
The Exercise Plan
Considered a more simple approach to carb cycling, for this plan you’ll eat more carbs to optimise energy and minimise fatigue on days where you undertake intense physical workouts. You’ll then eat fewer carbs on less active days, which may help you maintain or lose weight.