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The equation for losing weight seems simple enough: Burn more calories than you consume and you’ll see the numbers drop. Adhere to this basic guideline and you’ll almost definitely be rewarded with a downshift on the scale—at least for the short term. But if you’re looking to maximize fat loss while also maintaining your hard-earned muscle (which, we might add, also burns fat), then you’ll want a plan that does more than simply cut calories while calling for intense training sessions.
That’s where carb cycling comes in. This integrated dieting and training technique has long been used by physique athletes to strip away fat. The key is to manipulate your diet by changing around your carb intake, moving from lower carbohydrates in one phase to higher levels in the next.
“When you follow a strictly low-carb diet for weeks or even months on end, it can have a negative impact on your metabolism and actually slow your progress, ” explains Denise Maxwell, R.D., a registered dietitian, professional chef and an NPC figure competitor. “That can also result in excess catabolism of muscle, energy depletion, and a decrease in stamina.” But by changing around your foods and eating patterns, you’ll help burn off stubborn fat and avoid weight-loss plateaus, she notes.
Giving your body an excess of carbs on high-carb days refills your muscle glycogen stores and promotes a favorable environment for maintaining (and building) muscle. When you switch to low carb, your body will draw on these stored energy reserves and fat—rather than your muscle mass—for power. “When you briefly ‘refuel’ with strategically incorporating higher-carb days, you give your metabolism a boost, ” adds Maxwell.
But it’s not just your diet that can be cycled. Your training regimen can also be manipulated to tap into your fuel sources and maximize results. Using your higher-carb days to fuel workouts of larger body parts, such as legs and back, will allow you to train heavier while still maximizing your fat burn. Lower-carb days are best applied to smaller body parts, such as biceps and triceps, when your body doesn’t need the extra surge in carbs to train as intensely.
While there are varying approaches to carb cycling, the most common is one day of high-carb intake followed by a three- to four-day period of lower carbs. This pattern is then repeated for eight to 12 weeks, or as long as it takes to reach your fat-loss goals.
The Diet Plan
Manipulate your carb intake to maximize fat loss
Maintaining a careful balance of your macronutrients—carbs, protein, and fat—will help you get the results you want. Each day, you’ll have four primary meals and two snacks. (See sample menus, opposite page.) Start with the high-carb day, then segue into the lower-carb days. Follow these other dietary guidelines throughout the plan:
➤ High-carb for energy (1 day) . To keep your metabolism humming, go high carb for one day, aiming to consume approximately 1.4–1.6 grams of carbs per pound of body weight (about 182–208 grams for a 130-pound woman). The extra carbs will recharge your muscle glycogen stores and speed up your metabolism, leading to even greater fat loss. They’ll also trigger the release of insulin, one of the body’s most important anabolic hormones. Taper your intake as the day progresses, consuming the majority of your carbs at breakfast and pre- and post-workout.
The bulk of your carbs should be low glycemic to prevent insulin surges, which could hamper fat loss. Choose slow-burning, complex carb sources such as sweet potato, oatmeal, whole- and sprouted-grain breads and bread products, fruits, and fibrous greens like broccoli, kale, collard greens, and spinach.
➤ Low carb for fat loss (3–4 days) . Start by limiting your carb intake to about 0.6 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day. For a 130-pound woman, that’s 78 grams. Your body will turn to fat stores for energy during this relatively short period. Ideally, you’ll taper your carb intake as the day progresses, consuming the majority of the macronutrients at breakfast and pre- and post-workout.
➤ Protein changes, too. On the days you’re following the high-carb guidelines, consume about 1.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. (That’s 182 grams total for a 130-pound woman.) You won’t need to increase protein by too much on higher-carb days, since the extra carbs generate more insulin, which helps you get more protein into your muscles. On your low-carb days, decrease protein intake slightly, to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (156 grams total using the example above). The slight drop in protein on low-carb days allows for an increase in fat intake, helping to keep your calorie intake stable while fueling your muscles during intense training sessions.
Choose from high-quality proteins like chicken breast, turkey breast, eggs, lean beef, and fish, as well as whey protein powder. Aim to consume about 20–40 grams of protein with every meal.
➤ Fight fat with fat. On the days you’re following the low-carb plan, eat more fats to maintain energy and satiety. That translates to about 0.5 grams per pound of body weight per day, or about 65 grams of fat. Alternatively, on higher-carb days, you’ll lower your fat intake to 0.2–0.3 grams per pound of body weight per day (27–39 grams). When choosing fats, pick healthier varieties from polyunsaturated- and monounsaturated-rich sources, such as avocado, natural nut butters, and nuts like walnuts.
HIGH CARB DAY *
*based on 130-pound woman
Total: 411 calories, 45g protein, 50g carbs, 5g fat
Total: 196 calories, 4g protein, 28g carbs, 8g fat
Total: 280 calories, 43g protein, 31g carbs, 2g fat
Total: 321 calories, 29g protein, 37g carbs, 8g fat
Total: 336 calories, 33g protein, 38g carbs, 20g fat
Total: 117 calories, 22g protein, 4g carbs, 0.4g fat
Daily totals: 1,661 calories, 176g protein, 188g carbs, 43g fat
LOW CARB DAY *
*based on 130-pound woman
Totals: 235 calories, 27g protein, 20g carbs, 5g fat
Totals: 338 calories, 26g protein, 5g carbs, 25g fat
Totals: 240 calories, 30g protein, 24g carbs, 3g fat
Totals: 148 calories, 9g protein, 10g carbs, 8g fat
Totals: 328 calories, 39g protein, 22g carbs, 11g fat
Totals: 235 calories, 29g protein, 6g carbs, 11g fat
Daily totals: 1,540 calories, 161g protein, 88g carbs, 63g fat
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