The food philosophy that I propose considers as a basis our evolution, without worrying much about calories (although you should have an idea of what you need), eating when you are hungry and fasting when you are not.
It is simple to implement, intuitive, and will allow you to maintain your ideal weight in a healthy way, without adding more complexity to your already busy life.
However, many of us are interested in understanding more deeply how our body works and knowing what levers we can activate to achieve more specific results.
In recent weeks, I have presented two of these levers, quite different, for particular cases. One is the ketogenic diets, which allow us to ‘wake up’ metabolic pathways rarely used by the majority of today’s population, making fat burning more efficient (apart from other health benefits). Another lever is almost the opposite, increase carbohydrates to be able to correct some problems that occur in certain people when they follow long-term diets low in calories and carbohydrates.
Today I am going to present a third strategy that you can incorporate into your “toolbox.” It really consists of alternate the previous two, trying to take advantage The best of both worlds: the ‘fat-burning’ capacity of low carbohydrate diets and the ‘build-muscle’ factor of carbohydrates.
Welcome to the exciting world of carbohydrate cycling.
Why does it work?
As you know by now, hormones are the main players in regulating your weight. And the protagonists of the film (or perhaps I should say directors) are undoubtedly insulin and leptin. Who controls these hormones controls your health (and your weight).
As your body fat decreases, so does the level of leptin. Remember that leptin is the hormone that suppresses appetite (by increasing its level), but also influences energy expenditure, through its effect (direct and indirect) on the thyroid, and therefore on metabolism.
In a thin person, it may happen that their fat levels are low enough so that the leptin level is reduced (less fat less leptin) and their brain therefore perceives that there is not enough food in the environment, deciding that it should save Energy. The result is a slower metabolism, and a body ‘reluctant’ to burn fat because of tough times.
In these cases, a periodic and limited increase in carbohydrates increases leptin and signals to our body that things have changed, and it seems that now there is enough energy to surviveSo it encourages you to have fun and explore: go for a walk, play, have sex (low leptin = low libido)… in short, life with a constantly low level of leptin can be very sad :(.
Another benefit of doing regular carb refills is that it induces muscle building (if you train your strength, of course). Low-carbohydrate diets are also usually relatively low in calories, due to their satiating capacity. This has many advantages, but it is true that a continuous caloric deficit does not help build muscle.
I’m obviously simplifying a much more complex process, but for practical purposes, this is the important thing.
Until a few years ago, these strategies were known primarily in bodybuilding and other body-control-obsessed circles, but had little scientific backing. Today we begin to know in more detail why they work, and the first studies on their benefits appear.
If you need to lose a lot of weight, don’t complicate your life with carbohydrate cycling. You will be much better off keeping carbohydrates (and calories) under control for as long as possible, with some strategic “recharge” if you stagnate for a long time or feel weak.
If you have a lot of excess weight, it is highly likely that you have some degree of insulin and leptin resistance. In this case, increasing carbohydrates too frequently will only make the problem worse.
If you are very thin and want to gain muscle (more than 5-10Kg of muscle), carbohydrate cycling can work for you but it is slow. In this case, you will grow faster on a generally moderate / high carbohydrate diet ‘clean’, with a high caloric load (but you will also gain more fat).
He carbohydrate cycling is therefore ideal for those who are already at an adequate weight (or close to), with reasonable body fat levels (below 15-16% in men and 22-23% in women), but wanting a ‘fine tuning’, losing some fat and gaining some muscle at the same time (The Holy Grail). These people do not have insulin or leptin resistance problems, and in them, a punctual increase in leptin can help convince their body that there is no risk in getting rid of that persistent layer of fat that remains on the belly.
The cycling options are multiple. As soon as you review the literature, you will find several dozen methods with different combinations. I will focus on the most basic and easy to implement, which in my experience will give you practically the same results as any other more complex combination, without too many headaches.
Method 1) Seasonal
Our ancestors suffered harsh winters. Let’s not forget that a good part of our existence was spent under the influence of the last ice age (which ended just over 10,000 years ago).
Surely, during the winter months, our diet was mainly limited to animals that we could hunt (or fish), which would represent certain periods of ketosis or at least limited carbohydrates.
Everything changed with the arrival of spring and summer, where we would have the opportunity to eat fruit, all kinds of plants and the occasional tuber. During these months, we would move more, have more energy and accumulate more fat, which would be very useful to face the return of winter.
It’s probably the most natural approach, but I know it will be difficult for me to convince you to limit carbohydrates during the winter and gain fat in the summer, so let’s move on to other versions more in line with the times. I usually do a ketosis cycle in winter.
Method 2) 5 days low, 2 high
If your goal is lose some fat while maintaining muscle, try this option. Low carbohydrate diet five days and high two. The good thing about this approach is that it is simple, fitting in with the way we usually organize our weekly lives. On work days you are more strict on carbohydrates, and on the weekend, usually with more social events, you let your hair down a bit. You even make a cheat meal.
Method 3) 5 days high, 2 days low
If your goal is gain muscle by minimizing accumulated fat, this is maybe better option. 5 days high in carbohydrate (and protein), followed by 2 low in carbohydrate. The problem is that if you use the weekend for low carb days, you will not be very popular with your friends, but we are already past that stage, right? :).
Try to focus your harder workouts during the week, trying to get the extra glucose used to build muscle, and rest (or train light) on the weekend.
Method 4) Alternating days
It consists of alternating a high carb day with a low day, that easy. You cannot be governed by the ‘work calendar’ but it is relatively easy to maintain it. Another benefit of this approach is that if you are one of those who have a lot of ‘cravings’ for carbohydrates, you know that you only have to endure one day to eat them, and not all week as in the second method.
As in the previous cases, train hard on the days when you consume the most carbohydrates and slow down (or rest) on the days low in carbohydrates.
These are examples of the simplest and most practical alternatives. You will find information on cycling methods that also incorporate intermediate days, something like: High Monday, Medium Tuesday, Low Wednesday … There are no serious studies that support that this works better than a simpler strategy (with high and low days), and I believe that the added complication they require is not worth it. If you have to be looking at the calendar what day it is and eat very differently based on that, you will most likely give up.
How to eat in each cycle?
As the name suggests, you are cycling carbohydrates, but you are also cycling calories. You should have a caloric deficit on low carb days and a caloric excess on high carbohydrate days. You could aim to be 5-15% higher on high carb days and 10-20% lower on low carb days.
High carb day
- 4-6 grams of carbohydrate per Kilo of body weight.
- 1.5-2 grams of protein per Kilo of body weight (more detail).
- Fat to fill in the remaining calories.
Low carb day
These days, you can go from a ketogenic approach (with less than 40-50 total grams of carbohydrate) to a higher one (1-3 grams of carbohydrate per Kilo), keeping protein constant and increasing fat. It will depend on your goals and type of training.
If you want more details on how to organize your diet and training, don’t forget to review the programs.