You’ve probably been hearing a lot of buzz lately about carbohydrate cycling, but what exactly does it mean, and how can you use it to support your low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet? If you’re still stuck in the mindset that the only way to lose weight and improve health on a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet is to eat a certain number of calories of a certain macronutrient (i.e. protein, fat, or carbohydrates), then you’re missing out on a major piece of the puzzle.
When you carb cycle, you alternate between periods of high-carbohydrate dieting with periods of low or zero carbohydrate dieting. The goal of carb cycling is to keep your body in balance, performing best on a diet that is challenging but not uncomfortable (i.e. a low-carb diet).
From , medical opinion from – Updated 17. June 2021
If you follow a low-carb or keto diet, you may have heard of the carb cycle, also known as carbing up or cyclical keto. But the name can mean different things to different people.
What is carbocycling? How do you do that? Who should or should not drive a carburetor? Read on to find out what the scientists and leading experts in this field have to say, and be sure to read all the way to the end for practical advice on how this can work for you.
It is important to note that there is not much data on the effect of carbohydrate cycling on a low-carbohydrate staple diet. This guide attempts to combine information from existing data with expert clinical knowledge to provide the best evidence-based resource on this topic.
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What is carbocycling?
A carbohydrate cycle is a planned temporary or cyclical increase or decrease in carbohydrate intake. While carb cycling can be applied to any type of diet, even a high-carb diet, this guide focuses on carb cycling for those on a low-carb or keto diet.
At first glance, this seems counterintuitive. If someone is following a low-carb diet to improve some aspect of their health, why would they intentionally increase the amount of carbohydrates they ingest?
Maybe not everyone does. Some people feel that the carbohydrate cycle does more harm than good.
But others see potential benefits in the carbohydrate cycle, such as. B. enhanced athletic performance by increasing carbohydrates before a competition.
Others are better off sticking to a low-carb diet in the long run by switching carbs one or two days a week, or a few weeks every few months. Others may want to modulate their carbohydrate intake across seasons to mimic the assumed evolutionary patterns of their ancestors.
Who can benefit from carbohydrate cycling?
Athletes are the people who benefit the most from the carbohydrate cycle. But, as we will see later in this article, the scientific evidence for this varies.
The other type of person who may benefit is someone who has limited themselves to fruit, bread, pizza and other carbohydrate-rich foods their entire life, which is depressing and a big obstacle to switching to a low-carb diet. If they know that they can temporarily return to their favorite carbohydrate-rich foods for a week every few months, their chances of long-term success may increase.
However, the opposite can be true for people who don’t know how to be moderate, so it’s important to know how you’re going to react. Would letting go of carbohydrate restriction lead to uncontrollable cravings or overeating? We’ll go into more detail about this in the section on who shouldn’t try carbocycling.
After all, some people want to imitate the eating habits of our ancestors as best they can. As Seattle physician Dr. Ted Nyman puts it: I think with the exception of the last few hundred human generations, our species – especially those living at higher latitudes – has always followed a cyclic ketogenic diet, and I think it makes perfect sense to cyclize carbohydrates when you look at nutrition through the prism of evolution.
Although the data on the diet of our ancestors at higher latitudes is not perfect, it stands to reason that many of them followed a low-carbohydrate diet consisting mainly of game and meat during the winter months when vegetation was less abundant. In spring and summer they could eat more carbohydrates because berries, tubers and other plant species were available then.
Modern society has destroyed any need for seasonal food. It’s possible to ship berries from South America to Alaska in the middle of winter, and hydroponic gardens might even redefine local food.
Some people think that eating very low-carb meals or staying in ketosis all year can be bad for your health. While there is no data to say that this is the case, if you think we need to return to consistent dietary patterns over the course of evolution, you might consider increasing your carbohydrate intake in late spring, summer and early fall.
Who shouldn’t try carbocycling?
If you’re just starting out on a low-carb diet, you probably shouldn’t try cycling carbs just yet.
As San Diego physician Dr. Brian Lenzkes said: I do not recommend low-carb cycling for people on a low-carb diet. Many people suffer from a real addiction to carbs, and cycling can lead them down the wrong path.
If there is a strong desire for carbohydrates or if it is difficult to control the desire, introducing carbohydrates can be a slip from which it is difficult to recover.
Some people struggle to maintain the quality of the carbohydrates they take in. They are immediately attracted to carbohydrates, which are high in sugar and highly processed. And others have trouble chewing off the carbs after the prescribed period, regardless of the quality of the carbs.
Dr. Michael Mindrum, a member of the medical board, agrees. He explains: When patients want to break a low-carb diet, they often don’t want to indulge in lentils and beans, but miss the chips, ice cream and other foods that stimulate them. When these foods become part of your normal diet under the guise of a carbohydrate cycle, it can lead to further compliance issues.
Eliminating the risk of carb cravings is the first priority before considering the carb cycle.
Also, some people feel much worse when they add carbs to their diet. It is not uncommon for many of the symptoms that were eliminated by a low-carb diet to return immediately.
Some people may experience carb cravings, mental fog, low energy, bloating and more after resuming carbohydrate consumption. For these people, the theoretical benefits of carbohydrates are unlikely to outweigh the physical side effects.
Finally, it is always a good idea to consider why you are choosing a low-carb diet. Was it to lose weight? Was it treatment for type 2 diabetes, PCOS, metabolic syndrome or other health problems? If so, checking your underlying health markers is an important aspect of deciding whether or not to change your diet.
If you z. B. If your blood sugar is well controlled with a low-carb diet, make sure it stays under reasonable control by experimenting with the carbohydrate cycle. You’re not doing yourself any favors if you find that your blood sugar has returned to diabetic levels, undoing the progress you’ve made on a stricter low-carb diet.
Can cycling carbohydrates affect my health?
Nevertheless, we can try to draw some lessons from the available data.
As for the effects of drastically increasing carbohydrates in the diet, one study found an increase in an esoteric marker of blood vessel damage when low-carb people drank a 75-gram glucose solution.
As we described in an earlier post, this study has some serious flaws. However, the main criticism of attempts to extrapolate these results to carbohydrate-based cycling is that a 75-gram glucose solution is likely to be very different from what a carbohydrate-based cyclist would actually eat.
In other words: A non-physiological stimulus may not be the best way to predict the health effects of a short-term increase in carbohydrate-rich foods.
Furthermore, it has long been known that consumption of less than 150 grams of carbohydrates per day in the 3 days prior to an oral glucose tolerance test often results in an increase in blood glucose after a 75-gram glucose load. Therefore, experts in the field have long advised against the use of the test under such conditions.
There is concern that chronic carbohydrate restriction may have a negative effect on thyroid function, especially in women. Therefore, you need to decide if a temporary increase in carbohydrate intake is necessary for thyroid health.
One study showed that a low-calorie and low-carbohydrate diet led to a faster and greater decrease in T3 hormone production than a low-carbohydrate and low-calorie diet.
Another study showed that subjects who followed a 100% fat diet had a significant drop in their T3 levels.
Another case showed significant changes in thyroid hormones in children who were fed a ketogenic diet for the treatment of epilepsy.
However, none of these studies reported clinically symptomatic hypothyroidism. Thus, in the absence of symptoms and clinically significant abnormalities of other thyroid function tests, it is not clear whether a decrease in T3 is significant. Moreover, these studies did not specifically examine the carbohydrate cycle, so their results cannot be extrapolated to this topic.
Conclusion: We do not believe that cycling carbohydrates is necessary to maintain adequate thyroid function.
Can carb cycling have positive health effects? It is possible. However, there is no scientific research to answer this question.
Some low-carb experts, such as Robb Wolf and Dr. Ted Nyman, believe that carbohydrate cycles have no negative effects and can be helpful for the right person on a long-term diet.
Carbohydrate-based cycling for athletic performance
Performance cycling can take on different aspects depending on the athlete’s goals – competing at the elite level, riding races with friends on the weekend, or simply striving for a personal best.
Carb cycling may also be different if you are primarily concerned with body composition, endurance sports (such as long-distance running or cycling) or short-duration sports (such as tennis or martial arts).
Before we talk about carbohydrates in cycling, the first question to ask is: Should athletes eat more carbs?
There is ample evidence that athletes following a low-carb diet can efficiently burn fat as fuel (i.e., adapt to fat) and improve body composition and training performance without carbohydrates.
Other studies show that low-carbohydrate diets can harm short-term athletic performance.
Yet other studies have shown no effect of a low-carb diet on performance (no citations here). Although many studies have shown changes-even negative changes-in certain metabolic parameters, such as. B. increased fat oxidation, have shown that these clear benefits of a low-carb diet do not always translate into improved athletic performance.
Regarding the use of cycling carbohydrates for athletic performance, there is mechanistic evidence for the effectiveness of this strategy.
Following a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet (LCHF) during exercise increases the availability of fat for energy use in the form of increased intramuscular stores of triglycerides and free fatty acids in plasma. At the same time, glycogen stores in the muscles are depleted due to the lack of large amounts of carbohydrates in the diet.
Because fat is so much more available than carbohydrates, the body increasingly relies on fat oxidation (rather than carbohydrate oxidation) for energy during submaximal workouts. This is what is meant by fat adjustment.
In an effort to extend the time to muscle fatigue during competition, it is thought that a pre-competition carbohydrate dose will replenish glycogen stores in the muscles without significantly altering the body’s adaptation to increased fat oxidation. Therefore, a fat-adapted athlete should be able to burn fat efficiently during training and use muscle glycogen stores only when needed (most likely during the most intense training intervals).
Although the mechanical evidence is strong, clinical studies of pre-exercise carbohydrate loading have produced mixed results.
Finally, the duration of the fat adjustment period is also important. While some studies show that the adjustment takes about 4 weeks, some athletes report that it takes up to 6 months for the adjustment to be optimal.
However, some people find positive effects in the carbohydrate cycle, creating the train little, do much model. Simply put, this means consuming a minimal amount of carbohydrates during training and increasing your carbohydrate intake before the race.
How can we reconcile all this conflicting information? Here’s the summary:
- Fat adaptation may be more beneficial in endurance sports than in shorter, more intense sports.
- It can take more than six months to fully adapt to fat burning.
- The carbohydrate cycle can help some people improve their performance, especially if they train with a small amount of carbohydrate and then increase their carbohydrate intake during the race.
- Carbohydrates can help athletes who need shorter, more intense bursts of energy.
If your livelihood depends on a few seconds of improvement, you might need some carbs before you start the race.
But let’s assume that your livelihood doesn’t depend on your athletic performance.
In this case, after a period of adequate fat modification, a low-carb diet is unlikely to have a drastic negative effect on your subjective perception of your performance during exercise. If so, consider adding carbs before or during your workout, experimenting with timing and amount until you find what works for you.
As long as cravings and overeating aren’t a problem for you, don’t be afraid to add or subtract carbs to see how you feel physically and how your blood sugar responds.
How to test for carbohydrate tolerance
Since there is no clear definition of carbohydrate tolerance, there is no better way to test it. Nevertheless, we can identify some parameters by which it can be assumed that a person can tolerate carbohydrates, and then describe ways to measure this response.
For example, blood glucose and insulin response to carbohydrate consumption are two possible indicators. The oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) has traditionally been used to measure a person’s response to glucose.
The Kraft test is even better: it is an OGTT that measures glucose and insulin levels. As Dr. Kraft has shown, abnormally high insulin responses likely precede abnormally high blood sugar responses, allowing us to identify people at risk much earlier than waiting until blood sugar is too high.
However, as mentioned above, it has long been known that eating less than 150 grams of carbohydrates per day in the three days prior to an oral glucose tolerance test often results in an increase in blood glucose after a 75-gram glucose load. Therefore, experts in the field have long advised against the use of the test under such conditions.
For many, the best measure may be a tolerance test in the real world. Chances are you don’t drink synthetic, super-concentrated glucose drinks in your daily life, so why would you want to test your reaction to this product?
Instead, you can test your tolerance for sushi, sweet potatoes, or even margaritas and liver (as Dr. Peter Attia mentions in the podcast). If it is not possible to measure insulin levels at home, it is possible to measure the glucose response to real food.
It is best to test your blood sugar before eating. This is time zero. Then eat the food you want to test. Check your blood sugar one hour and then two hours after a meal. If your blood glucose has not returned to its baseline value after two hours before a meal, continue to monitor your blood glucose at one-hour intervals until it does.
The more often you test, the more information you get, of course. You can check your blood sugar every 15 minutes if you want, but that’s a lot of sticks.
This is where a continuous glucose meter, or CGM, can make a difference. With CGM, each product and meal is its own tolerance test. Just pay attention to the readings before and after.
The following are general guidelines for interpreting your blood glucose results:
- A lower maximum stroke and a shorter total stroke time are signs of a healthier response.
- A normal blood glucose response for 1-2 hours to food is defined as less than 140 mg/dL (7.8 mmol/L); pre-diabetes is 140-200 mg/dL (7.8-11 mmol/L), and type 2 diabetes is a blood glucose level greater than 200 mg/dL (11.1 mmol/L).
- Trying to lower your blood sugar is always a good idea. Just because 140 mg/dL (7.8 mmol/L) is considered the norm doesn’t mean you should settle for it. As Dr. Casey Means explains in the podcast, it’s probably best to aim for even lower levels, closer to 120 mg/dL (6.6 mmol/L).
- Studies show that without diabetes, the highest blood sugar level after a meal should be reached within an hour, but people with type 2 diabetes usually reach this peak within two hours.
Different protocols for carbohydrates during cycling and the best carbohydrates during cycling
The carbohydrate cycle doesn’t mean you have to eat carbs in all their forms. Carb quality remains important, and we strongly recommend choosing less processed and more complex carbs.
These include vegetables (both field and root vegetables), nuts and seeds, low-glycemic fruits, beans, lentils and other legumes. If you want to add grains, we recommend whole grains and so-called ancient grains, such as millet, amaranth or barley, because they are less processed and refined.
There is no one best protocol for cycling with carbs, as your program will depend on your goals.
The seasonal cycle is probably the easiest protocol to understand. It can be very simple:
|October to March:||20 grams of carbohydrates per day|
|From April to September :||100 grams of carbohydrates per day|
Such an image is perhaps more in keeping with the seasonal availability of game, berries and vegetation that our ancestors may have encountered.
Another popular protocol is to match your carbohydrate intake to your sport or training program. An example would be something like the following:
|Kind of exercise||Amount of carbohydrates|
|Monday:||High intensity, high volume training||150 grams|
|Tuesday:||Moderately intensive training||100 grams|
|Wednesday:||Day off||20 grams|
|Thursday:||Moderately intensive training||100 grams|
|Friday:||Day off||20 grams|
|Saturday:||High intensity, high volume training||150 grams|
|Sunday:||Day off||20 grams|
Or, for those who are physically active but don’t train or compete, it could look like this:
|Kind of exercise||Amount of carbohydrates|
|Monday:||A long walk in the morning||50 grams, eaten mainly in the morning|
|Tuesday:||Moderate day hike||20 grams|
|Wednesday:||Resistance training in the afternoon||50 grams consumed mainly in the afternoon|
|Thursday:||Day off||20 grams|
|Friday:||A long walk in the morning||50 grams, eaten mainly in the morning|
|Saturday:||A fun day out with family and friends||20 grams|
|Sunday:||Resistance training in the morning||50 grams, eaten mainly in the morning|
For more information, here’s an example of a 100 gram carbohydrate day with a morning workout:
Frequently Asked Questions
Does carb cycling work better than Keto?
Carb cycling is a popular dieting strategy that involves alternating between periods of low-carb and high-carb eating. It’s often used as a way to lose weight, but it can also be used for other health reasons. Keto is a low-carb diet that typically restricts the intake of all carbohydrates, including sugar and starches. Carb cycling is a popular dieting strategy that involves alternating between periods of low-carb and high-carb eating.
Is it bad to cycle in and out of ketosis?
No, it is not bad to cycle in and out of ketosis.
How many carbs should I eat on a low carb cycling day?
On a low carb cycling day, you should eat about 20-30 grams of carbs.
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