The Truth About Carb Cycling

This week I had an interesting conversation with a patient who was having trouble losing weight.  She was eating right and exercising and STILL the stubborn pounds wouldn’t budge.  She asked me if I had heard of carb cycling and what was my opinion about it.

I had to admit I’d never looked into the concept of carb cycling, but since she asked I started digging.

Carb cycling is a weight loss technique promoted by Chris and Heidi Powell, the duo behind Extreme Makeover, Weight Loss Edition.  I’m skeptical of anyone who states someone can or should lose 300 pounds in one year, but I gave it a look.

In his book Choose to Lose, Powell describes a food program that alternates days of eating plenty of healthy carbohydrates with days of eating almost no carbs.  Healthy carbs are foods like oatmeal, fruits, root vegetables, beans, whole grain breads and pastas, NOT processed starchy foods.  Both high and low carb days have lots of non-starchy veggies and protein, and on low-carb days you add small servings of healthy fats like avocado, nuts and seeds.  It involves sensible calorie restriction, targeting intake 500 calories per day below the body’s needs.

The concept of carb cycling seems like is a sound one.  Your body needs carbs for energy and to produce glycogen for muscle and liver function.  Your brain uses 600 calories per day of pure glucose, which is most easily produced from carbs.  However, carbs also stimulate production of insulin which promotes fat storage and weight gain.

Anyone out there who has tried a low-carb diet (You know you have!  I tried it too.) knows that while it’s great for appetite suppression and initial weight loss, it is very difficult to exercise and really tough to maintain.  Cravings are a big problem after a short time on a low-carb diet, and fatigue and brain fog (due to low blood sugar) are limiting factors for many people.

In principle, carb cycling would be safe from a medical standpoint.  The Powells certainly have lots of testimonials of people who have had major success with this diet plan.  I couldn’t find any research published validating or refuting the plan’s design.

I found a few things that may explain some of the success of the plan apart from the concept of carb cycling.  First, there is a robust exercise program included.  The plan encourages 9 minutes of HIIT 5 mornings per week and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5 days per week.  Also, the plan strongly discourages any type of junk food and alcohol except during “reward days” or “reward meals” (depending on which plan you choose).

If I could get my patients to exercise 5 days per week, incorporating both HIIT and aerobic exercise, AND give up alcohol and junk food, they would lose weight.  Period.  So I wonder how much of the success of the Powells’ clients has to do with just those two provisions BEFORE adding the carb cycling concept.

If you are trying to lose weight and are not seeing success, or were having success and are now stuck, by all means give carb cycling a try.  I checked, Choose to Lose is available from the Cuyahoga County Public Library both in paper copies and through the Overdrive app.

Whatever weight loss method is right for you, remember to be sensible and patient with yourself.  You didn’t get to your current weight overnight, and it’s going to take time to get the pounds off.  Rapid weight loss (more than 2 pounds per week) has its own set of risks so take it slow and steady.  Love your body, enjoy your journey to health, and remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

QUESTION: Have you heard of carb cycling before now?  Have you tried it?  What was your experience?