Can you imagine a diet that would give you the effects of cutting carbs without actually cutting carbs? We're not just teasing you with the idea of a fantasy universe and diet — this is legitimately possible. Have you heard about carb cycling? Here's the scoop.
"Carb cycling is an eating protocol that alternates between days of eating higher amounts of carbs and low amounts of fat, with days where you eat low amounts of carbs with moderate amounts of fat," Dr. Chelsea Axe, DC, CSCS, told POPSUGAR. "Eating like this has many benefits, [including] preserving muscle mass, helping with muscle recovery, reducing body fat, maintaining a steady metabolism, having more energy, balancing hormones, etc."
"Life is about balance and enjoyment and carb cycling really celebrates that and marries the two."
Dr. Axe now recommends carb cycling to clients because of the success she experienced personally. "I had tried numerous diets before that didn't work with my lifestyle," she explained. "I was getting frustrated and felt like I wasn't seeing results despite working out hard and eating really healthy." When she switched to a carb cycling protocol of two low-carb days followed by one high-carb day, she said, "Not only did I lean out to where I wanted, but I felt better, I had more energy then before, I had less sugar cravings, and my hormones balanced out (I have noticed that I no longer deal with any PMS or cramps)."
This could be because carb cycling is particularly effective in women. DIAKADI personal trainer and founder of AUSome Fit Austin Lopez, CSCS, has seen similar results in his clients. "For a day of carb cycling [where you vary your carb intake based on the time of day], I have seen a lot of success, especially for females, when they can focus their carbs into their lunch time," said Lopez. That means you don't necessarily have to have specific days alternating high-carb and low-carb, but simply times of day.
"This [cycle] gives them a lot of time to be in a relatively fasted state where the body opts for burning fat to survive while at the same time, ensuring that they are not dropping too low in calories, which can end up stalling fat loss."
Another reason why it's so successful is because of its flexibility, which both Dr. Axe and Lopez reiterated. "It fits in the realm of flexible dieting; you're not limited," said Lopez. Dr. Axe said, from her personal experience, that she loves that it doesn't limit her everyday life. "I can travel, I can go out to eat, I can do whatever I need to do and not fall off track," she said.
That freedom is paramount to long-term, sustained success (read: not just weight loss, but weight maintenance). "I know I'll be going out to dinner with friends on Friday and want a glass of wine with dinner, I will rearrange my eating so that Friday falls on a high-carb day," said Dr. Axe. "This [method] has helped many clients I have worked with to retrain their thinking. If someone has been craving a cookie during their two low-carb days, I encourage them to have a cookie on their high-carb day right after they work out! Life is about balance and enjoyment and carb cycling really celebrates that and marries the two."
Lopez and Dr. Axe both instilled how imperative adding in ample amounts of vegetables is to having success on this kind of diet. "While technically [vegetables are high in] carbs, they have a handful of benefits and don't typically spike insulin in a way that would affect the diet," said Lopez.
Here's his sample meal plan for a day of carb cycling:
High-protein/fat, low-carb breakfast:
Eat: Egg, protein, and veg scramble
Drink: Black coffee (Bulletproof also works here), water, unsweetened tea.
Tip: Stay away from secretively (or not-so-secretively) carb-heavy breakfast items like processed fruit juices, pastries, etc.
Low-carb mid-morning snack:
Eat: Nuts or a nut butter on celery; fresh/raw vegetables.
Drink: Coffee, water, unsweetened tea.
Moderately high-carb (whole-grain-based) lunch:
Eat: A salad with quinoa or other grains, sweet potatoes, a variety of vegetables, and a protein; a multigrain pasta with a light tomato sauce and steamed vegetables on the side.
Drink: Feel free to add some sugar/cream to your afternoon coffee/tea if you desire.
Moderate- to low-carb snack:
Eat: Slice of whole grain/sprouted toast with some cheese or some olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper; freshly prepared fruit/berry, vegetable, power smoothie (think things like oatmeal, cayenne, turmeric, lemon juice, ghee). This will have some carbs, but it's all very functional for this snack.
Drink: Focus back on water or some unsweetened herbal tea heading into night.
Tip: The carby-ness of this snack can especially depend on activity level or planned workouts for that day/evening.
High-protein/fat, low-carb dinner:
Eat: Steak salad with a low-carb vinaigrette; vegetable stew; spaghetti squash with a tomato sauce.
Drink: Water, herbal tea.