With every passing month, there seems to be a new and improved way touted to improve performance or appearance. The latest is known as “carbohydrate cycling” or carb cycling for short. This form of diet appears to serve as a solution for fat loss while avoiding the negative side effects of total carbohydrate restriction. But what is it really? How does it work? Is it effective? Welcome to your primer on carb cycling.
What Is It?
Carb cycling is essentially, a means to manipulate your metabolism-regulating hormones, e.g., insulin, leptin, and ghrelin, by increasing and decreasing your carbohydrate intake during a given period of time. To fully understand a quick biochemistry lesson is in order.
Leptin – Secreted by fat cells to inhibit Ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry.
Ghrelin – Secreted by the gastrointestinal tract that makes you feel hungry and sensitizes the brain to make the cheat meals taste orgasmic (literally the same pathway).
Insulin – Decreases blood sugar levels by storing glucose as glycogen (mostly within the liver) or as fat (mostly in places where you’d feel self-conscious). It also increases muscle protein synthesis and Leptin release.
How It Works?
No and low carbohydrate days occur on days when you’re not working out. On low carbohydrate days, your blood glucose is lower, so your insulin will be low which will inhibit fat storage. The high carbohydrate days are on intense workout days. On high carbohydrate days, insulin levels will increase. But this is when you’re doing the heaviest lifting, so instead of storing fat you will be making muscle. The other key to carb cycling number of meals per day. Specifically, eating five to six smaller meals a day. Ghrelin is produced by the gastrointestinal tract between meals, so more meals means less Ghrelin and less hunger. This effect is compounded by the release of Leptin on high carbohydrate days.
Why Avoid Carbs?
Many know that your body processes carbohydrates into sugar. That process begins in your mouth with an enzyme called Salivary Amylase. What isn’t as well known is that your body essentially runs on glucose. The fats and proteins you consume will also be broken down into glucose and an alternative fuel source called ketone bodies. The difference between carbohydrates and fats and proteins is their structure. Carbohydrates are essentially just chains of glucose made by plants. Fats and proteins require conversion to glucose, and the inefficiency of this process is what drives the success no carbohydrate diets. By decreasing the amount of dietary glucose, you decrease the amount of glucose stored as fat.
Does Carb Cycling Work?
Any doctor would tell you that caloric restriction and exercise are the keys to weight loss. The same goes for carbohydrate cycling. You can’t have 10,000 calories of lechon as a no carbohydrate meal and still lose weight. The success of the high carbohydrate days will depend on your activity in the gym. Skip leg day and the increased insulin will turn the carbohydrates into fat.
Carbohydrate cycling is meant for an active lifestyle, especially those looking to lose stubborn chichos. There isn’t much scientific evidence to back the claims that carbohydrate cycling prevents the loss of muscle mass and the hanger of no carbohydrate diets. In fact, according to an article from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, low carbohydrate diets won’t cause a loss of lean muscle mass. In the end your success will depend on how well you watch your diet and push yourself at the gym.
Warning: This diet won’t work as described if you’re resistant to insulin (Type 2 Diabetes) or leptin (chronic obesity), but a no carbohydrate diet has proven effective if you fall within these categories. Consult your primary care physician prior to beginning any diet or exercise regimen to make sure it’s right for you.