Should You Try Carb Cycling for Weight Loss?

Erika Straus used to consider herself one of those lucky people who can eat whatever they want and not gain weight. So, naturally, she did – filling up on pasta, pizza and other dorm life staples while maintaining her fit figure. But when the then-college rugby player hurt her knees and stopped exercising regularly, she realized her luck had run out.
“I had all of these bad habits and gained 40 pounds” as a result, says Straus, now a 25-year-old opera singer in the District of Columbia, who also runs District CrossFit’s social media and marketing efforts.
After a few unsuccessful weight loss attempts and some internet research, she decided to try carb cycling, a strategy that promotes eating a very low-carbohydrate diet some days and a carbohydrate-rich diet on other days. To Straus, who loves pasta, the plan seemed far more bearable than following an entirely low- or no-carb diet all the time. The reality, however, was different.
“I’d go off carbs for two days, then have a meal with carbs and I would just overdo it,” Straus says. After a few months, she gained even more weight, quit the plan and continued to pack on pounds. “I didn’t necessarily believe it was possible to get in the best shape of your life in a healthy way,” she says.
That all changed last spring when Straus moved to the District of Columbia, began biking to work and joined CrossFit, where she saw people carb cycling – and succeeding. So she decided to try it again, but with a different approach. This time, instead of bingeing on pasta on her carb-heavy days, she eats quinoa, brown rice or beans. Instead of haphazardly planning her low- and high-carb days, she aligns them with her workout schedule. Instead of leaving her eating choices to chance, she cooks batches of vegetables, chicken and hard-boiled eggs. And, instead of gaining weight, she’s flattened her belly, thinned her face and neck and watched muscle definition emerge. “I’ve already seen things that I did not see before,” she says.
What Is Carb Cycling? 
Carb cycling – which isn’t a “diet” so much as a concept that emphasizes when you eat certain foods – seems to have originated among bodybuilders, fitness models and elite athletes trying to achieve peak performance. The idea was that by starving the body of carbohydrates, they’d improve its ability to increase glucose, or the stored form of carbohydrate energy, later. Then, when they ate large amounts of carbohydrates before competition, they’d soar.
“For example, sprinters [wanted] to see if they could tap into that extra stored form of glucose or energy even for an extra second longer, which would improve their times,” says Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian in Denver who works with athletes.
But while the jury is still out on whether carb cycling actually works for that purpose, the eating pattern has nonetheless made its way into more mainstream circles like CrossFit gyms, social media posts and diet books, which mostly highlight carb cycling as a way to lose fat while building muscle.
“The way I describe it is: You need carbs to sustain activity levels, but until you’re at 10 percent body fat or below [for men], you might as well burn your body fat as fuel and teach your body how to do it well,” says Jim Loperfido, founder of Solace New York, who’s been using variations of carb cycling for nearly four years.
But whether carb cycling works to lose weight or improve body composition is debated, too. On one hand, you’re likely to lose weight, at least at the beginning, since carbohydrates hold onto water and cutting them out periodically can shed water weight, says Jim White, a registered dietitian and personal trainer with studios in Virginia. “That tends to motivate people,” he says. Some also find carb cycling is more reasonable and nutritionally balanced than diets that eliminate carbs entirely or require followers to obsessively count calories. “I’m just living life and eating what feels good,” Straus says.
On the other hand, carb cycling isn’t safe or effective for everyone. Here’s what experts suggest considering before giving it a shot:
1. Know the risks.
If you have diabetes, heart disease or any type of metabolic syndrome, steer clear of carb cycling or any diet that restricts healthy carbohydrates. Women, too, should be cautious about trying carb cycling since their bodies need more fat than men, Loperfido says. Anyone can experience negative side effects like irritability, lack of energy and moodiness from carb cycling, too. “I’ve heard it hasn’t worked for [people who’ve tried it] because they can’t deal with those ups and downs,” Crandall says.
If you’re carb cycling to boost athletic performance, keep in mind that novelty can backfire, “You would never train out your tennis shoes on your marathon day, so putting a different fuel source in your body on marathon day may completely ruin how you feel during that run,” Crandall says.
2. Consider your activity level. 
 
Carb cycling doesn’t just mean eating lots of carbs one day and few or none the next. While plans vary in exactly how many grams of carbohydrates you eat on how many days of the week, the point is to match your high-carbohydrate days with your most active days. If you don’t exercise, the plan might not make sense for you.
3. Eat smartly. 
As Straus learned, portion sizes, carbohydrate sources and patience all still matter. “Healthy weight loss and good body change is not going to happen overnight,” she says. It’s also important to keep your overall calorie intake relatively stable, White says. “By decreasing carbs and restricting that, when you load up on carbs, people are going overboard and binge eat,” he says. “It can lead to binge eating disorders.”
4. Talk to a pro. 
Before starting a carb cycling plan, recruit the guidance of a registered dietitian or personal trainer with expertise in nutrition, who can make sure you’re following it in a way that meets your nutrient and energy needs. “If it’s a jump-start and you get that psychological edge, why not try it out?” White says. “But if it’s harmful for health and body, it’s not worth the risk.” Ultimately, Crandall adds, the pattern was never meant for weight loss or long-term use. “Do what you know you can do,” she tells clients, “instead of reaching for something you can’t adhere to long-term.”

Healthy competition

When Tony Horton visits New York City, he loves being able to eat anything at any time. Sushi at 3 a.m.? Why not? Pizza at 8 a.m.? Get it while it’s hot. Brunch at 4 p.m.? Everybody’s doing it. But when Horton, a Beachbody “super trainer” and founder of the at-home exercise program P90X, returns to Los Angeles, he loves that the default options are healthy. “I can [eat] healthy Thai or healthy Mexican or healthy Italian,” he says. While most big cities on both sides of the country match up in many health measures, anecdotally, West Coasters may find it easier to pursue some healthy behaviors. Health experts suggest East Coasters take note.

1. Start the day with a shot.

Rise and shine! Say no to that cup of joe and instead throw back a shot – of ginger and turmeric, that is, suggests Alexandra Dusenberry, a registered dietitian nutritionist in San Diego, where the average life expectancy is 3.5 years greater than the average American’s, according to data from Live Well San Diego. “Ginger is great for digestion, and turmeric has major anti-inflammatory properties, so starting the morning with a shot of [them] will prep your body to combat the stress of the day,” Dusenberry says. No juicer? No problem. Just grate a tablespoon of fresh ginger and turmeric root into a glass of warm water, she recommends.

2. Find fresh.

Whether it’s January or June, Lori Zanini can buy her produce at local farmers markets, which stay open all year in Manhattan Beach, California, where she works as a registered dietitian nutritionist. People in other parts of the country can eat fresh produce year-round too, she says, by investing in a community-supported agriculture program or buying – and then freezing – fresh produce when it’s in season. “Not only do you support local farmers and reduce your carbon footprint [since] the food doesn’t have to travel as far to get to you,” she says, “but you are maxing out on nutrients since they are picked when they are ripe.”

3. Be creative with vegetables.

Morning green juices are only the first of many vegetable doses West Coasters pack in all day. Many find beets or arugula mixed in their hummus and frozen cauliflower or butternut squash blended into their smoothies, Dusenberry says. “Not only does this bump up fiber intake, but vegetables contain antioxidants and other nutrients … that help prevent disease, keep skin glowing and keep your immune system functioning,” she says. To sneak more vegetables into your diet, keep frozen vegetables on hand and use them in place of bananas in smoothies or throw them in a food processor with hummus. “Bonus points for dipping veggies into your veggie hummus,” Dusenberry says.

4. Take a hike.

Horton lives near 17 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails – not a backyard norm for many East Coast dwellers. Still, finding ways to get outside year-round can increase your exposure to vitamin D, which is critical for bone health, and may lower your risk of many chronic conditions including cancer and heart disease. Research has also linked time in nature with lower rates of depression and better immunity against illness. “Any type of physical activity is healthy,” says Randi Eisenshtat, a senior studio manager at Life Time in Scottsdale, Arizona, “but making being outdoors a habit, getting fresh air and dressing for the weather are all fantastic.”

5. Move all day.

Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Conor Dwyer can jump in the Pacific Ocean within 20 seconds of leaving his home in Manhattan Beach, California. “[Physical activity] is a bit more of a lifestyle that’s in your face wherever you go,” he finds. Contrast that with other cities in which he’s lived like New York and Baltimore, where people seem more likely to think of exercise as something that has to get done. Beachbody data also suggest West Coasters gravitate toward Horton’s hour-long, 90-day program while East Coasters prefer 22-minute, military-style workouts. But research suggests moving all day, rather than in a single bout, is critical for preventing the detrimental effects of prolonged sitting.

6. Wind down with kombucha.

From cocktails with New York names like “Manhattans” to TV shows based in Boston bars like “Cheers,” for many East Coasters, fraternizing over booze comes with the territory. Not so much in places like San Diego, where Dusenberry says it’s perfectly acceptable to socialize over kombucha, a fermented tea drink packed with probiotics thought to promote gut health, boost mood and improve the immune system. “The effervescence and subtle, tart flavor … make you feel like you’re having a cocktail, while saving calories and giving your liver a break,” she says. Never had “booch?” Try one with fruitier notes like apple, grape or berry, Dusenberry suggests. Cheers!

7. Go to bed early.

When the last buzzer sounds during the NCAA National Championship game, it’s close to midnight for East Coasters, whose cities brag that they “never sleep.” But out West, tucking in early might be easier: More than 68 percent of folks in Washington and Oregon, for instance, report sleeping the recommended seven hours a night, while only 61.6 of New Yorkers and 62.5 of Pennsylvanians do. Not only is sleep deprivation linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic medical conditions, but you also “want to get enough sleep to wake up with the energy and enthusiasm to make good choices,” Horton says.

8. Chill out.

While many major cities have caught up, “the West was way ahead” in terms of its love of yoga, which Horton calls “the ultimate stress-buster.” That may have paid off for residents’ mental health, with California remaining home to seven of the top 25 U.S. communities in the Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index. “You can be sure to find us working on keeping our body, mind and soul healthy every day,” be it through meditation, yoga or other self-care rituals, Dusenberry says. The good news is that health-conscious communities exist in all corners of the country. If you can’t find one in yours, Horton says, “maybe you have to be the leader.”
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