There are plenty of diets that take away the focus from carbohydrates. In fact, most restrictive (yet popular) diets push the needle on fat and protein. You know, a lot of fat loss, and muscle building plans involve cutting out carbs to lose weight, and then maximizing protein to gain muscle.
However, carbs are good for you. They supply you with enough energy to have productive and sustainable workouts. Plus, carbs also help you get through the rest of the day by helping you restore glucose and glycogen levels, preventing any signs of fatigue.
At the same time, if you want to lose weight, eating too many carbs may not be an effective strategy. Why? Because those carbs may get stored as fat if eaten excessively or at the wrong time. Though, carb cycling exists to help you eat carbs without necessarily adding more weight.
Look at carb cycling as optimizing your carbohydrate intake for a specific goal. Do you want to lose fat, increase performance, or build muscle? The number of carbohydrates you consume each day depends on your goal.
Can Vegans Carb Cycle?
A question a lot of vegans have is whether or not they can carb cycle.
As you know, a vegan diet is quite abundant in carbs and low in fat. And what preoccupies most vegans is whether there are enough sources of fat (and protein) to fill in for the days you’re reducing the number of carbs you eat.
Well, there are plenty of vegan protein sources. Those sources range from tofu to beans to chickpeas. You also have a reasonable number of fat sources, such as vegetable oils, seeds, and nuts. Avocado and dark chocolate are also good fat sources.
Therefore, yes, vegans can carb cycle.
What Exactly Is Carb Cycling?
Carb Cycling means you have to alternate your carb intake on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. It is used to lose weight, build pure muscle or even maintain physical performance while dieting.
You can adjust your carbohydrate intake from day to day, or you can do longer periods of low, moderate, and high-carb diets.
Carb Intake can be planned based on different factors, such as:
- Performance and Recovery: A common approach is increasing carb intake for training days, and reducing carbs on resting days. (Again, because they’re not needed)
- Building Muscle or Losing Weight: In other words, some people might reduce carbs to lose weight, and then add them on to build muscle or for performance reasons.
- Competitions: Athletes might carb up prior to a competition. That is quite common in bodybuilding competitions or after a UFC fighter gets through weight cut.
A typical carb cycling strategy may be an alternating three low-carb days and two high-carb days. Three low-carb days would help you burn fat, and two high-carb days would serve to replenish your energy levels, and even build muscle.
In theory, carb cycling’s goal is to maximize the utility of carbohydrates, and at the same time, teach the body to burn fat as fuel. While there is research supporting this practice, more research is still required.
How to Properly Carb Cycle.
As we’ve seen, carb cycling can be adapted to different goals. For instance, Bodybuilding.com suggests an interesting plan specifically for fat loss.
They start by figuring out how many carbs you should eat on your highest day on the plan.
They figure that out by sticking to the following calculations — 1-1.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight. For illustrative purposes let’s stick to 1.5 grams. If you weigh 200lbs, that means on your highest day you should eat 300 grams of carbohydrates.
Carb Cycling Plan (Example)
Again, Bodybuilding.com gives an example of a 5-day carb-cycling method, but I’m going to use the 300 grams of carbs as the highest amount you eat on a high-carb day.
Monday: 250 grams
Tuesday: 200 grams
Wednesday: 150 grams
Thursday: 225 grams
Friday: 300 grams
Important note: You’ll probably have to tweak these numbers since there are a lot of factors that determine how many carbs you need. Factors such as age, activity level, training intensity, and gender. Make an effort to find your sweet spot. 🙂
In the example above, you take off 50 grams each day, and then in the two final days, you stack 75 grams, reaching the 300 grams’ ceiling on the fifth day. Bodybuilding.com also suggests that you be careful with fat, especially on low-carb days. Fats are also very caloric and may affect your weight loss goals. By not exaggerating on fat, it allows you to burn more fat in the process.
Other sources such as Precisionnutrition.com suggest that you keep fat (as well as protein) relatively constant while carbs are manipulated.
Personally, I feel compelled to add as many micronutrients as possible, given the nature of a vegan diet. For instance, a spoonful of linseeds (or chia seeds) resolves the omega-3 dilemma by providing our body with ALA’s, which convert into EPA & DHA. So instead of looking at the diet in terms of macros (carbs, fats, protein), I pay close attention to things like vitamins and minerals.
Does Carb Cycling Actually Burn Fat?
Carb cycling is actually used intensively for that purpose.
Logic dictates that on low-carb days you are meant to lose fat. Also, lowering carbohydrate intake increases insulin sensitivity which is associated with lower body fat. (3) On the other end, high-carb days are meant to help you recover, restore glycogen levels, and even fortify your muscles.
Bodybuilding.com also advises people to “shock the metabolism” because eventually, you reach a fat burning plateau. You can dismantle that plateau by having a cheat meal, doing 3-5 high-carb days in a row, or even go no-carbs for 2-3 days before resuming the fat loss program.
Best Carbs For Effective Carb Cycling
There are numerous healthy carbohydrate sources that are delicious and packed with fiber, beneficial micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Most people get carried away when it comes to high-carb days. However, you have to hold your ground and stick to healthy sources.
Keep it simple and use healthy sources such as:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Rice Cakes
- And more.
What is different about a vegan diet, is that beans, quinoa (and others) are also used as sources of protein. Therefore, you must ensure you’re choosing sources of protein without lower carb content, especially on low-carb days.
Proteins with low-carb content include:
- Green peas (Not chickpeas)
- Peanut butter
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Hemp Seeds
- Chia Seeds
To be honest, I might have not covered all the available sources. But keep in mind not all of them are high-protein low carb. After the Peanut butter, it’s more like moderate-protein and low-carb content. Yes, even if you aren’t vegan, carb cycling is not an easy strategy to pull out.
Avoid Junk Food
Naturally, just because you’re carb cycling, that doesn’t mean you’ll lose weight. That’s right. If you stick to sugar-filled (or ultra-refined) carbs (i.e: chips, tortillas, white bread), there’s a high probability you won’t lose weight.
I know it’s a lot to ask, but please try to cut back on junk food as much as humanly possible.
Why Carb Cycling Is Important
Short-term carbohydrate and calorie deprivation are known to have incredible benefits. Missing a meal, eating a cheat meal does not unsettle the body if it’s occasional and brief.
Even evidence suggests that brief and infrequent periods of fasting may be very beneficial for both health and composition. In fact, a recent study from the American Journal of Cardiology found that occasional and short periods of fasting improved markers of cardiovascular disease.
However, depriving the body of carbohydrates and calories over the long haul may have terrible metabolic effects. That’s essentially what happens sometimes when people want to lose weight.
They deprive themselves, pushing their body to its limit, only to find out that they can’t hold it anymore and return to a sedentary, and unhealthy lifestyle. Long-term restrictions can lead to reduced metabolic rate, thyroid hormone output, reproductive hormone output, thyroid hormone output, and more.
Symptoms which may jeopardize your health, but also impair your body composition goals.
This is why carb cycling is important— It doesn’t let your body feel deprived or unsatiated for long periods of time and doesn’t allow it to enter starvation mode.
At the end of the day, I don’t think carb cycling is for everyone. It’s not that easy to pull off since it takes some planning and a certain amount of consistency. In addition, you only do it for a short period of time, since it’s not good for your health to put your body through constant trials and tribulations when it comes to dieting.
Plus, you have to pick a carb cycling strategy based on your goals. Do you want to lose weight, maximize performance, or build muscle? That’s how you define the outcome.
Next, you must establish your calorie intake goals. This is essentially what carb cycling is all about — manipulating carbohydrates to consequently manage your calories. Then you have to establish the protein and fat intake which will remain pretty constant throughout the process. And as I’ve mentioned, only the carbs will be manipulated to achieve your goals.
The logic is quite simple, but if I failed to explain the carb cycling process, feel free to watch this video explanation on Carb Cycling for beginners:
The underlying principles are identical regardless of your dietary choices (i.e: vegan or omnivore), therefore you can easily adapt what’s said in the video to your own case.