Foods To Eat and Avoid When Carb Cycling
Before starting on a carb cycling diet, you have to be careful about which foods to eat and which foods to avoid. Carbohydrates are a controversial subject in most dietary circles. Some nutritional experts associate carbohydrates with various health problems such as diabetes and obesity, while others insist that they are an essential part of our diet.
Of course, not all carbohydrates are bad. But you have to distinguish between good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates. Often it is not the carbohydrates themselves, but the type and quantity of carbohydrates you consume matter.
Types of Carbohydrates
Starches, Fiber and Sugars
Carbohydrates, in addition to fat and protein, make up the three macronutrients (also known as macros). There are three main types of carbohydrates: starches, fiber and sugars. Many foods contain one or more types of these carbohydrates.
- Starches – They include foods such as whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice), legumes (beans, lentils) and starchy vegetables (potatoes, carrots, corn, peas). Starchy vegetables contain three times as much carbohydrate as non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, tomatoes and zucchini).
- Fiber – Fiber is found in plant-based foods such as grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Animal products do not contain fiber.
- Sugars – They are found as natural sugars in foods such as vegetables, fruits, milk and honey. Added sugars are found in processed foods, sugary drinks and sweets.
Complex and simple carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are also categorized as complex and simple carbohydrates based on their chemical composition and what your body uses them for. Fiber and starch are considered complex carbohydrates.
The primary difference between complex and simple carbohydrates is that it takes longer for the body to digest complex carbohydrates compared to simple carbohydrates. As they break down more slowly, they release their energy slowly. On the other hand, simple carbohydrates like sugary cookies and candies break down quickly. This means that you get a super-fast energy rush followed by a crash.
Complex carbohydrates play a vital role in supporting a healthy lifestyle. You should focus on eating complex carbohydrates that help sustain energy and stabilize blood sugar levels. Complex carbohydrates also contain key minerals, vitamins and fiber. When you eat complex carbohydrates, they make you feel full longer on fewer calories. Simple carbohydrates (processed or refined) contain less fiber and starch. They are also more sugary with less nutritional value.
How to tell which carbohydrates are good
- Nutrient rich
- High in fiber content
- Unprocessed with no natural ingredients removed
- Slowly digestible
How to tell which carbohydrates are bad
- Found in highly processed foods
- Low in fiber content
- Contains white flour
- Contains sugar
When you are carb cycling, you should reduce bad carbs such as white bread, sugary cereal, cakes, cookies and increase nutritionally rich whole foods containing complex carbohydrates in your diet. However, you can add foods containing natural sugars such as milk and fruit to your diet in addition to some occasional treats.
A Look At Carb Cycling Diet
When you are on a carb cycling diet, the amount of carbohydrates you need will vary depending on a number of factors such as your body type, your activity level, the type of activity you do as well as your height, weight and gender. If you are not sure what to eat on your carb cycling diet, you should consult a dietician for a personalized recommendation to maximize your results.
What to Eat on A High Carb Day
On a high carb day, you should consume complex carbohydrates avoiding simple carbohydrates. You should get about 60% of your calories from complex carbohydrates. This means that if you are consuming about a total of 1,500 calories daily, 900 calories should come from complex carbohydrates.
If you are doing high intensity workouts like interval training, long-distance running or sprints, you can add more carbohydrates to your diet. However, this does not mean you should be adding donuts or cakes to your carb cycling regime. High carb days shouldn’t give you an excuse for binge eating. Instead, you should increase the consumption of complex carbohydrates.
On a high carb day you should eat:
- Good carbohydrates – Vegetables, whole fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
- Plenty of lean protein – Foods that are rich in protein (animal or plant-based) and low in fat such as white-fleshed fish, white-meat poultry, lean beef, eggs, plain Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese, beans, peas and lentils.
- Healthy fats – Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as vegetable oils, avocados, nuts, olives, chia seeds and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Keep in mind that not all fats are good fats. You should avoid saturated and trans fats.
If you are going to eat starchy foods, you should eat them after you’ve worked out when your insulin sensitivity will be at its highest level. So your body will be able to make better use of the calories you consume, and they are less likely to be converted into fat and stored in the body.
What to Eat on A Low Carb Day
On low carb days, the body uses a different way of producing energy. Without the glucose from carbs to fuel the body, it begins to burn fat. When done in succession for three days, low carb days prompt the body to use up all its glycogen (stored form of energy) and start burning stored body fat for fuel which can lead to weight loss.
On days when you are not working out or are only doing low intensity exercises, you should have a low carb day. On low carb days, you should substitute some of your usual carb servings with non-starchy, fibrous vegetables such as artichokes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots, celery root, which are virtually free of calories.
You could also replace some of those carbohydrates with healthy wholefood fats and proteins. As protein contains no carbohydrates, you can eat it freely even on a no carb day. Protein will help you feel fuller and stronger while boosting muscle growth. Foods such as fish, nuts, eggs, avocado, and coconut oil are all good choices.
You could use a low-carb day as a starting point from which to calculate your high carb days. Usually, 50 grams of carbohydrates per day is enough to reach ketosis, which is a metabolic state that occurs when the body starts to burn stored fat for energy when it does not have enough carbohydrates to burn. Therefore, you can begin by consuming 50 grams of carbohydrates on low carb days and then work up from there maxing out at 200 grams of carbohydrates daily.
What to Eat on A No Carb Day
On no carb days you should eat vegetables that are high in fiber, lean protein and good fats. Likewise, you should also avoid starchy carbohydrates like oats, rice, potatoes and cereals. They also include starchy vegetables such as squash, zucchini and beans. However, you can’t just cut out starch and sugar without replacing those missing calories with something else like good fats. Your total carb intake should be under 25 grams per day.
You should also avoid a mentality like “20 minutes more running means I can eat more carbohydrates,” which can lead to a difficult and disordered relationship with diet and food. Nevertheless, eating more carbohydrates on some days with fewer carbohydrates on other days is how the body regulates itself naturally. Therefore, reducing carbohydrates offers benefits that you can take advantage of.
What to Eat on A Refeed Day
A refeed day is a controlled way of purposely overeating specific foods (high-glycemic carbohydrates) above your normal carb cycling diet plan. The reason for a refeed day is that after eating at a reduced calorie level for a few days, your body will have a carbohydrate deficit in terms of glycogen. When you increase your carb intake on a refeed day, this starts replenishing the glycogen in your muscles instead of being stored as fat. By eating a lot of carbohydrates, you “refeed” your body with energy and glycogen.
If you have a higher body fat level, you may want to consume slow-digesting, high fiber carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, pasta or even bread. However, if you have an extremely low body fat level, you can eat carbohydrates-dense foods that are fast-digesting so you won’t get full easily.
Refeed days are an excellent way to boost your metabolism and keep burning fat after periods of calorie restriction. However, if you find that you haven’t reduced your body fat or lost weight the week after your refeed, it’s likely that you have eaten too much.
How To Implement A Carb Cycling Program
Carb cycling is a dietary approach in which carb intake is alternated periodically. Some people alternate carb intake daily, while others alternate on a weekly or monthly basis. Others embark on long periods of high, moderate and low carb diets. So there is no one type of carb cycling diet that suits everybody.
Therefore, when you want to go on a carb cycling diet, you should program your carb intake according to a range of factors such as:
- Your body composition goals
- Your rest days and training days
- Type of workout you do and its intensity
- Whether attending a competition or not
- Your scheduled refeeds
- Your body’s fat level
Approaches to Carb Cycling
There are many ways of implementing carb cycling. You have to come up with the right approach using trial and error to suit your own needs and goals. Needless to say, this makes it harder to decide how you are going to get started on your carb cycling program.
Here are two of the most popular carb cycling approaches you can try:
- High-Low Carb Cycling – Two days of low carbs followed by a day of high carbs in a repeating pattern.
- High-Medium-Low Carb Cycling – Two days of high carbs followed by two days of moderate carbs and then three days of low carbs to complete the weekly cycle.
If you are on a low carb diet, you can also add carb cycling at certain intervals to your diet program in the form of a refeed as follows:
- Bi-weekly approach – 11 days of low carbs followed by 3 days of high carbs in a row before returning to the start of the cycle.
- Monthly approach – A 4 week low carb phase followed by a one week of high carbs for the fifth week.
- Intermittent approach – You can structure your menus with a moderate carb intake at specific intervals during a low carb phase.
Usually, your protein intake stays more or less the same each day while your fat intake varies depending on the carb intake. On low carb days, fat intake is increased to provide the necessary calories to fuel the body. On high carb days, fat intake is lowered to keep total calories in control.
Essential Tips To Be Successful With Carb Cycling
While the idea of carb cycling may look appealing, however, it can be difficult to decide how to come up with the right carb cycling plan due to the complexity of this diet.
Here are some essential tips about how to avoid the most common pitfalls of carb cycling and be successful in achieving your dietary goals.
1. Don’t focus just on carbs while ignoring other macronutrients
The term “carb cycling” is a misnomer as this diet isn’t only about carbohydrates. It’s about balancing your calorie intake during the carb cycling period. If carb intake is lowered on a rest day, more protein and fat are needed to compensate for the difference to maintain fat loss in the long term.
2. Estimate the number of daily calories you need to maintain your weight
This information will enable you to plan how to distribute and adjust your calorie intake between rest days and training days. On a rest day, take 10 to 20 percent off your calorie intake from carbohydrates without increasing your protein or fat intake. For example, if your calorie intake is 2,000 per day, reduce your carb intake by at least 200 calories or 50 grams (4 x 50 = 200 calories) on rest days. However, sports people may need a higher calorie intake to maintain their current weight.
3. Base your dietary approach on your activity level and basal calorie needs
Once you know your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is the number of calories your body needs to keep functioning at rest or in bed, you can easily find out how many calories you will need per day to maintain or lose weight.
4. Don’t vary your calorie intake very much
The 10 -20% rule specifically applies to carbohydrates. However, you shouldn’t have more than 33% difference in the total amount of calories consumed over the week. Too much variance in carb intake hurts recovery and makes it more difficult to stick to your carb cycling program.
5. Work out on your refeed days
Exercising on your refeed days will help you have the best body composition results (the ratio of fat and non-fat mass in your body). On refeed days you should consume more carbs in the morning and when you are doing plenty of physical activity. You should also schedule your refeed days well in advance.
6. Keep track of your nutritional intake
You should keep detailed records of your nutrient intake at each meal on a daily basis as long as you are on the diet. This will help you keep track of how many calories you consume. Often we tend to underestimate how much protein we are consuming and overestimate the amount of fat and carbs we eat. There is no way to look at ingredients and tell their macronutrient content. However, apps such as MyPlate and MyFitnessPal can make the measuring and recording of your nutritional intake much easier.
7. Avoid skipping meals
Occasionally, you might be tempted to eat less by skipping meals to lose more weight on normal or low carb days. However, this is not a good approach as it could result in your body breaking down more muscle tissue.
8. Don’t use your high carb days as a cheat day
High carb days shouldn’t provide an excuse to go on an eating frenzy. Eating large amounts of pasta and white bread, consuming tons of cake and having bottles of sugary drinks won’t help your health. If you do this constantly, you would start developing unhealthy eating habits which can ruin your carb cycling program. So always focus mostly on nutrient rich foods that support your overall health, even on high carb days.
9. Indulge occasionally
Just because you have to eat healthily most of the time, this doesn’t mean you can never indulge. If you restrain yourself from eating desserts or goodies from time to time, you will start craving them all the time and eventually end up messing your diet up.
10. Get professional advice
Nutrition can be a complex subject for most people. So working closely with a certified nutritionist who can prepare a personalized diet plan based on your needs can go a long way in getting the most out of your carb cycling diet while achieving your goals.
Whatever your reason is for going on a carb cycling regime, it can be an ideal diet for you if you know what you want to get from it. However, keep in mind that this is a rather complex and rigorous diet to follow so you must be committed to the end in order to achieve your dietary goals.
To get started on your carb cycling program on the right track, you need to select the right carb cycling approach. You must align your high and low carb days with your activity level and physical fitness goals. You should also adjust the proper nutritional intake every day and keep detailed records of it when you are on a carb cycling diet. With the correct approach, you could find that carb cycling is the solution for weight loss or muscle gain you’ve been looking for.