Help Clients Get Results with Carb-Cycling
A Two-Part Series About Carbohydrates
Here is Part 2 of our general guide to carbs and how to use them to maximize performance, fat loss, and health. We introduced you to carbohydrates and why you shouldn't be afraid of them in the first part. This second article discusses carb cycling, in more detail, for your client.
To start a carb cycling approach to carbohydrate consumption, you have to start with the number of calories you consume. Track your food intake over the course of three to four days and total up the macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates, and fats—for a typical day. Do not change your eating patterns during this timeframe, as it will paint an unrealistic picture.
Once you have a summary total for all three macronutrient groups, you will be able to start right at step number four listed below.
If you don’t know what your caloric total is, you can use the steps below to get a rough estimate of calories based on your age, weight, and height.
Step #1: Calculate Your Basal Metabolic Rate
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) simply means the amount of energy used by your body during a 24-hour period without considering any physical activity. In other words, if you're inactive for 24 hours straight, you still "burn" some calories equivalent to your BMR.3
Your BMR is a sum of your age, weight, and height, which can be calculated with the Harris-Benedict formula:
- For Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) - (6.8 x age)
- For Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.7 x height in cm) - (4.7 x age)
Step #2: Daily Physical Activity Level
Multiply your BMR by a number that represents your current level of physical activity.4
Activity Level Factor
Very light activity
Step #3: Determine Your Macronutrient Breakdown
Next, you need to calculate approximately what portion of your calories comes from each of the macronutrients. For example, for a 175-lb. Male with a daily caloric intake of 2,500 calories:
Protein = 1.15 grams per lb. x BW (175 x 1.15 g per lb. = 201.25 g protein)
Each gram of protein accounts for four calories, so 201.25 g of protein x 4 calories per gram = 805 calories
Fat = .30 grams per lb. x BW (175 x.30 g per lb. = 52.5 g)
Each gram of fat accounts for nine calories, so 52.5 g of fat x 9 calories per gram = 472.5 calories
Together, protein and fat account for 1277.5 calories for this hypothetical case.
This leaves a total of 1219 calories that come from carbohydrates. Divide this number by 4 (calories per gram of carbohydrate) and this man consumes 305g of carbohydrates per day.
The total macronutrient breakdown for a typical 175-pound man is 52.5 g fat, 305 g carbs, and 201.25 g of protein per day. Together, these total his 2,500 calories per day.
Step #4: Determining Amounts for Cycling Carbs
To determine how many carbs you should be consuming on high, medium, and low carb days, follow these guidelines:
High-carb days – Maintain your current ratio of fat to carbs to protein: 53:305:201
Medium-carb days – Decrease your carb intake by 15 to 20 percent: 305 x .20% = 61 g. Decrease your carb intake from 305 to 244: 53:244:201
Low-carb days – Decrease your carb intake by 20 to 25 percent from the medium-carb day amount: 244 x .20 = 48 g. Decrease your carb intake from 244 to 196 grams: 53:196:201
Step #5: Adjust Macronutrient Amounts as Your Diet Progresses
Our bodies have been designed to adapt, so when trying to lose weight, you'll eventually need to lower your calories. Re-evaluate every three to four weeks and recalculate. To help with the evaluation of your plan, take pictures, body measurements, and scale weight to monitor progress.
Based upon your progression, you may need to evaluate a couple of KEY factors:
- What is the duration of your cardiovascular work? How many sessions a week are you completing? Remember, the key to promoting weight loss is expending more calories than you're taking in.
- Decrease carbohydrate calories slightly on your medium and low days to continue losing fat at an optimal rate. Avoid making drastic cuts, the reason being most people lose muscle when they diet. Try dropping around 20 grams of carbs (for each “high”, “medium” and “low” day) every two to four weeks.
What You’ll Get from Carb Cycling
Carb cycling puts you in a caloric deficit, but that means your body will begin to adapt sooner or later. It will learn how to function on ‘X’ amount of calories to perform daily tasks and physical activities. The problem with this adaptation is not only that it slows down chemical reactions in the body, but it also downregulates your thyroid, which is responsible for fat loss. Leptin, the hormone that signals to your brain that you are full or satisfied, also downregulates as part of this adaptation.
In other words, simply cutting back on carbs and calories, over time, will stall weight loss.
Hence the purpose of the higher carbohydrate days. You offset this natural adaptation process by boosting leptin levels and keeping your metabolic rate high.
To get some of the benefits of carb cycling, without going through the calculations, try a cheat meal. It will have the same effect, but will not be as precise since you are not strictly determining your carb amounts through calculations.
You will also need to remain “low-carb” for about six to ten days before having the cheat meal or the “refeed day”. Remember also that the term “low-carb” will be different for everyone. The elite athlete who has 6% body fat may very well think and “feel” that 150 grams of carbs per day is low, while the 9-5 sedentary office worker will have a low-carb day with just 50 grams and feel perfectly fine.
When you have your refeed day after many days of following a low carb intake, you should drastically increase your carbohydrate consumption (five to ten times your current intake). Again, this is a general recommendation, but trainers working with clients will be able to come up with a better guideline for each individual.
For a cheat meal, follow a few rules for optimal success:
- Eat for no more than one hour at a time.
- Make protein a big portion of this meal.
- Increase the carbs and fats too.
- Don’t feel guilty!
Personally, I usually go to an all-you-can-eat sushi place for my cheat meals and then stop somewhere on the way home for some ice cream. Another time, I may grab a few burgers and fries from a place I like and then get a milkshake or some frozen yogurt afterward. Whatever you’re craving, go for it; this is a time to mentally relax from the rigor of dieting and also reset your body into a high fat-burning mode.
Carbohydrates: A Summary
There is a lot to remember when it comes to carb cycling, so here is a quick summary:
- Weight Loss: Any dietary protocol that has you in a calorie deficit over an extended period will result in weight loss, regardless of the foods you eat, how you structure your meals or any other variable.
- Use lower calorie days to maximize fat burning.
- Use higher - and medium-carb days to replenish glycogen stores and to increase training intensity.
- Influence various hormones related to muscle protein metabolism and fat metabolism.
- Temporarily spike insulin levels to help preserve muscle tissue.
- Increase insulin sensitivity. Allow the body to better utilize this hormone via total carbohydrate intake.
- Above all else, be consistent.
Carb cycling is a great way to maximize fat loss, get over a plateau, and to feel better overall. If your client hits a plateau in fat loss, is getting bored with the current protocol, or has been very low-carb for a sustained period, suggest trying out a carb cycling approach as your next weapon in the fat loss arsenal.
Want to learn more about nutrition and how you can use it to maximize your workouts and overall health? Check out the ISSA's nutrition course online. You can improve your own food intake and use it to help clients reach their goals more efficiently and effectively.
When clients ask, “How much protein do I need?” can you answer? What about explaining the role protein plays in weight loss and muscle growth? Learn how to give clients what they want and need to know in the world of protein intake here.
While experts will likely continue to debate how to include carbs in the diet for maximum health and workout results, one thing will always remain true: everyone needs carbs. Based on current research, cycling carbs in your diet in a thoughtful and strategic way is the best way to utilize this important nutrient.
Should you really be cutting back on carbs to achieve weight loss and muscle mass? Ever since low-carb diets exploded onto the weight-loss scene, carbohydrates have been demonized, avoided, and targeted as a dietary evil. But here’s the truth: we all need carbohydrates in our diets, every single day. Period.