Carb Cycling May be the Way to Go

From Will Winsborrow, ACSM-CPT, Certified in Mid-Life Functional Fitness; Stevie Winsborrow, NDTR, LMT, Certified in Functional Medicine Nutrition

Yeah, ok, keto may be all the rage, but I’m not a fan. Sure it can result in some quick weight loss, but not always without detrimental long term effects. There is no one eating style that works for everyone, and keto definitely has some contraindications. For example, the following people should most definitely reconsider:

-middle aged women (due to the hormonal changes experienced at this age)

-anyone with a history of adrenal issues

– anyone who is underweight

– anyone with potential blood sugar issues (not only limited to diabetes, but also metabolic syndrome and hypoglycemia)

-anyone with any history of disordered eating behaviors or an unhealthy psychological relationship with food. (Foods should never be “bad” or “taboo”)

-anyone with a history of insomnia or depression. (carbohydrates are needed for our bodies to make serotonin.)

To this I would also add anyone looking to workout with any level of intensity. Which should be everyone, since exercise is very important for mental and physical health, even more so as you age. If you are really trying to hit it in the gym and finding yourself hitting a wall during your HIIT or weightlifting workout, your body doesn’t have enough glycogen storage to provide you with the energy you need.

Rather than sticking with this low carb high fat fad diet on a daily basis, and not allowing yourself any deviation, I suggest carb-cycling as a more effective, safer and realistic option for weight loss.

Carbs are a very important part of healthy nutrition as they fuel both your brain and body, especially when doing high intensity cardio or any significant muscle building workouts. When doing intense exercise, carbohydrates and fat are burned for energy instead of protein, allowing the protein to be used for its intended purpose – powering and repairing muscle. However, on days when you are not active, extra carbs encourage your body to store unused glucose in fat cells. This is why carb cycling based on your activity level makes sense.

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How to do it

I do not believe in counting every calorie and macro gram that you consume. This is stressful, takes time and can lead to disordered eating, as well as causing guilt, poor mood and cravings if your numbers aren’t “just right”. That being said, counting for a few days so you know about what your needs looks like is totally fine. But then just be mindful and intuitive from that point.

Basically you should aim to eat moderate to higher carbs on the days that you perform high intensity exercise such as interval training, weight lifting, HIIT or long distance runs. This does not mean you can pig out on refined junk and sugar. The focus should be on adding in more fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes, and sweeter root vegetables such as yams. To compensate for any shift in calories (which you may not need to do depending on your activity), you can always cut down on your fat intake on these days. Your depleted carb stores will be replenished, recharging your metabolism and leading to greater fat loss.

On days when you are not active, or doing light exercise such as gentle yoga, pilates or a light walk, eat low carb so your body turns to fat for energy. The focus should be on protein and vegetables.

Once you know what your needs look like, counting isn’t necessary in my opinion. If you are sticking to mostly protein and veggies on low carb days, you are less likely to binge eat. (Most people overeat bread or chips, not salads and chicken). On your higher carb days, you can allow yourself those treats that you won’t eat that often, such as some whole grain pasta with dinner or a healthy dessert made with bananas and honey, for example. Knowing you can have these things on occasion when your body needs those extra carbs helps make “compliance” on the low carb days all that much easier! Just make sure to practice portion control. The most important thing is to make sure your diet isn’t monotonous. Focus on variety.

To give you an example of what a carb cycling week might look like, let’s say you are doing heavy strength training and cardio in the gym on Mon, Tues, Thu and Fri. Those would be your higher carb days. Wed and Sat, you still exercise but maybe less intensity, and Sun is a rest day. These would be your lower carb days.

Carb cycling can get you over that plateau, allowing for more weight loss, greater energy, and quicker results at the gym, all while being far less restrictive and more enjoyable!
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