As we know by now, overconsumption of certain carbohydrates can lead to fat gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases. The biggest issues stem from a diet high in refined or processed carbs, such as breads, cereals, and juices. These foods provide a major influx of sugar and very few nutrients.
One tactic many people use to help moderate their intake of carbs is “carb cycling”. This allows a healthy intake of carbs while avoiding the detrimental effects of the Standard American Diet.
Even though carbs are not essential for life, zero carb diets may have the following side effects:
- A decrease in performance during very intense activity
- Heightened cortisol (stress) if the body is forced to produce sugar from protein
- Individuals with hypothyroidism may experience worsening of symptoms
- Decreased testosterone as an outcome of heightened cortisol and thyroid down regulation
- Limited variety in the diet (since fruits, roots and tubers, legumes, and grains are restricted)
These side effects usually only occur long-term (over a year of eating less than 50 grams of carbs a day) and don’t occur in everyone that practices low-carb.
I personally spend 1-2 months every year in ketosis and have never noticed any negative effects.
However, carb cycling avoids all these risks by allowing a regular carb “refeeding”.
The frequency and size of this refeed will vary based upon many factors, such as:
- Activity level. If you are a hard-charging athlete, you may need daily refeeds. If you exercise regularly, but not at your maximum, a weekly carb meal may be adequate. If you don’t follow an exercise regime, you probably don’t need carbs beyond root vegetables such as carrots and squash.
- Goals. A recent study examined 2 groups, one high-carb and one low-carb, that ate the same amount of calories and performed the same exercise for one year. The low-carb group lost 8 more pounds of fat than the high-carb group. If you are trying to lose weight, cut back carb intake to the weekends only. Alternatively, if you are trying to gain muscle and perform at a competitive level, increase carbs to at least once a day.
- Personal genetics. Just as some people can’t drink milk because they are “lactose-intolerant”, some people have a lower tolerance for carbohydrates. To use myself as an example, I don’t respond well to high-carb diets. If I eat carbs at every meal, no matter how healthy they are (sweet potatoes, fruits, etc), I start to gain fat.
Another important concept is that the body can become better or worse at tolerating carbs based on intake levels.
After decades of over-consuming carbs, many people find that their bodies become inefficient at storing carbs in the muscle and liver, and experience fat gain as the sugars are stored in adipose tissue. Once they dial back their carbs, their body relearns how to properly handle a reasonable amount of carbs.
Unfortunately, some people experience the exact opposite! They drop their carbs to such a low level, so consistently, that when they do “carb up”, in a punctuated fashion, their body is not prepared to use the carbs properly.
In this case, increase carbs in a very slow and steady manner…maybe adding 10 – 20 grams (a half of a piece of fruit or a tiny sweet potato) every 5 – 7 days. Increase until carb intake is around 50 – 100 grams a day. This may be a more effective way to train your body to properly metabolize carbohydrates.
As with most things pertaining to nutrition and fitness, you have to experiment to see what works best for you.
Remember to always stick with any change for at least 2 weeks so the body can adjust to the changes. Maintaining a change for 4 weeks would be ideal, but I know immediate results are sought by all.
I would also recommend getting your carbs from healthy sources – avoiding processed cereal grains, and anything else in a package, due to low nutrient content and high anti-nutrient concentration. Legumes may be a good option if they are prepared properly. Stick with what you can find easily in nature – berries, fruits, roots, and potatoes.
Best of luck finding your optimal fat and carb fuel mixture! Feel free to contact me directly if you want a more specific structuring!