By now, you’ve probably heard that, although contentious, low-carb diets can be great for those who have extra weight to lose. When the body doesn’t take in high levels of carbohydrates, it switches from burning glucose (a sugar found in carbohydrates) to burning fat, producing ketones as a by-product. This is the general theory behind programs such as the ketogenic diet, and even, to a certain extent, more moderate-carb philosophies, like the paleo diet.
However, being extremely low-carb for an extended period of time can be tough on the body. And that’s where carb-cycling comes in. If you find that you function well or have enjoyed weight loss on a low-carbohydrate diet, you may want to consider incorporating higher-carb days once you’ve reached your target weight. Here’s what carb-cycling is all about.
FEAST AND FAMINE
Our bodies were designed to handle periods of feast, and periods of famine. This is precisely why we are able to burn fat for fuel when we have little to no glucose in our diets. It is also why we are able to manufacture our own glucose from protein through a process called gluconeogenis. Some of this is high-level nutrition information, but suffice it to say, our bodies are designed to go through periods when we don’t have access to plentiful carbohydrates.
As a result, the human body responds well to periods of fasting from carbohydrates. When we fast, our bodies go into ketosis, even if we’re not on a low-carbohydrate diet. The health benefits of fasting are many, from increasing longevity to promoting weight loss and regulating insulin levels.
Let’s talk a little bit more about insulin. When we’re either fasted or abstaining from carbohydrates, our body doesn’t need to produce insulin to convert glucose to energy in our cells. Many, many modern humans produce insulin far too often, as a result of eating too many carbohydrates. And this constant insulin production can lead to insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
“Insulin sensitivity is a system in the body that determines how effectively your body can utilize carbohydrates,” states Perfect Keto, a resource for people eating a lower-carb, high-fat diet. “Having good insulin sensitivity is considered being in good health… Low insulin sensitivity can be detrimental to your health. Many factors can cause the body to stop responding to insulin like it’s intended. This is also called insulin resistance. When you become insulin resistant, your pancreas starts creating more insulin in the attempt to decrease blood sugar levels. Hyperinsulinemia is linked to blood vessel damage, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and heart disease.”
Losing weight, whether you’re on a low-carb diet or a low-fat one, can improve insulin sensitivity, according to Mastering Diabetes. But many experts believe that reducing the production of insulin altogether is beneficial for improving insulin sensitivity, and that’s where a low-carbohydrate diet comes in.
So, for some people, a low-carbohydrate diet can promote healthy insulin sensitivity, increase longevity and lead to weight loss. But just as humans weren’t designed to eat TOO MANY carbs, they also weren’t designed to eat NO carbs. This is why having intermittent periods of eating more carbohydrates can be great for your health and metabolism.
“Some evidence even suggests that brief and relatively infrequent periods of fasting and/or carbohydrate restriction may actually be advantageous for both health and body composition,” states Precision Nutrition. “However, restricting calories and/or carbohydrates for longer periods … can have negative metabolic effects. For example, as a result of long-term restriction, dieters may experience reduced metabolic rate, thyroid hormone output, sympathetic nervous system activity, spontaneous physical activity, leptin levels, and reproductive hormone output.”
So, interspersing a low-carbohydrate diet with higher-carbohydrate days may be the ticket to maintaining a healthy metabolism and boosting insulin sensitivity.
HOW TO CARB-CYCLE
If you have diabetes, heart disease or any other medical condition, it’s best to speak with your doctor before making any changes to your diet. However, if you’re in good health and are simply interested in trying out the metabolic effects of carb-cycling for yourself, here’s a quick how-to.
Start off by eating low-carb for at least two weeks. This will get your body into fasting mode, also known as ketosis. You can remain eating low-carb longer than two weeks if it feels right for you.
Next, incorporate a healthy, wholesome carbohydrate at 1-2 meals per week. Some examples of heathy carbohydrates include sweet potatoes and fruits.
Finally, move into maintenance mode. Decide how often it feels good for you to boost your carb intake, and use those days as your opportunity to re-fuel. If your goal is physical fitness, it’s best to center these days around your most physically demanding workouts, such as weight lifting or long-distance running.