Calorie and Carb Cycling: Breaking Through Your Diet Plateau
For most people, starting out on the road to dropping body fat and looking phenomenal with your shirt off, pants off, or naked (hey now) is simple. Well, at least from the waist up and the quads down. That nether region in between might also require a pair of fancy clippers and complex trimming methods.
Initial Fat Loss Is Easiest
My initial fat slashing game plan is simple my friends: emphasize high quality food choices (real, natural, satiating foods versus refined foods), get in the relative calorie deficit necessary for fat loss (10-12 cals/lb), train like a beast and take in adequate protein to maintain your lean muscle mass (1g/lb), adjust energy nutrients (carbs and fats) based on individual activity levels and metabolic factors, find the meal frequency and food distribution pattern that allows you to most consistently stick with your plan, and cheat once a week for long-term sustainability.
If you are over 20% body fat, the lesson is over. Stop analyzing. Start doing. Don't overcomplicate things or confuse yourself with more advanced protocols. Clean it up, be consistent, and start moving in the right direction.
The Linear Diet Problem
Reaching that final destination, however, can be a bit trickier. The leaner you become (under 15-20%), the more detailed you need to get. With less fat to lose, you have less leeway for mistakes, and the more in danger you are of losing muscle or sabotaging your metabolism with improper dieting methods.
A straight up linear method to dieting, where you just continue cutting calories until you reach your goals, rarely works. And if it does, it often leads to huge weight rebounds when the dieter returns to more normal calorie levels. You know, after they've suffered through some extreme dieting phase to get a photo to trick people on their dating website profile.
The human body is a highly adaptive organism and eventually adapts to any calorie deficit. The net effect is that the longer and more consistently you diet, the harder it becomes to continue getting results, and the more likely it is you will hit a plateau. This is related to a hormone called leptin, which down-regulates during caloric restriction. Reduced leptin levels increase hunger and cravings while slowing the metabolic rate and reducing energy expenditure - not a good combo.
In addition, leptin is a master control hormone, meaning its levels have an effect on other hormones. During prolonged calorie deficits the following can occur: testosterone, growth hormone, IGF-1, and thyroid levels can all drop.
What good is cutting out refined noodles from your diet if it means having a lifeless, limp noodle hanging between your legs (or whatever the equivalent female analogy would be)? No six-pack is worth that.
The Cycling Solution
Periodic overfeeding, or calorie surpluses, has the exact opposite effects of chronic caloric restriction. A day or two of refeeding can offset the metabolic downshift that occurs with dieting. It can boost leptin, and subsequently testosterone, growth hormone, and thyroid to normal, pre-diet levels.
So what's the answer if you want to trim some fat while maintaining all of that muscular goodness, and don't want to suffer some of the metabolic and hormonal drawbacks of more extreme dieting methods? Enter Sandman? Nope. Enter targeted calorie and carb cycling. You may just need some cyclical dieting strategies to re-sensitize the body to the fat burning process, bust through a plateau, and lose that last layer of flab that has been holding on for dear life.
There are many cyclical dieting strategies that can work well. Here are some of the plays I call when the game is on the line:
STRATEGY #1: The 5-2 Refeed
If you still have some body fat to lose, I recommend spending the majority of your week in a calorie deficit.
- 5-6 days a week eat your base fat loss diet (10-12 calories per/lb). This can include training and non-training days.
- 1-2 days a week spike calories to maintenance levels or higher (15+). This should fall on the days of your most intense training sessions.
- Since carbohydrates increase leptin levels more so than dietary fats or protein, I recommend increasing calories primarily via carbohydrates.
- In other words, protein and dietary fat remain relatively the same throughout the week. Carbs go up or down based on the day.
STRATEGY #2: The 3-4 Cycle
If you are interested in body re-composition (maintaining current weight while improving quality of that weight, simultaneous but subtle shifts in muscle gain and fat loss, etc.), cycle days of lower calories to optimally burn fat with days of higher calories to support systematic recovery and muscle growth.
- Over the course of the week, average eating at or near your maintenance calorie levels (15 cals/lb).
- On your 3-4 rest days a week, eat at calorie levels geared towards fat loss (12 calories/lb).
- On your 3-4 training days, eat at calorie levels geared towards building muscle mass (18 calories/lb). Increase calories primarily via carbohydrates.
How Low (Carb) Should You Go?
For those engaged in high-intensity, anaerobic training, I like to keep some starchy carbs in the diet even on rest days, and even in the most aggressive fat loss phases. I think carbs are just too important to support the unique physiological, metabolic, and hormonal demands of intense exercise. Glycogen restoration is more than just a three-hour post-workout process, but that's another story for another time.
I only mention it here because there are different versions of calorie and carb cycling. Technically, the above plans are carb cycling plans, because protein and fat remain constant, and calories go up or down via carbohydrates.
Some coaches recommend more extreme fluctuations in carbs, with an accompanying increase or decrease in dietary fat to compensate. This is what some would consider true carb cycling. Here's how that looks:
- On rest/lower calories days, eat a low carbohydrate diet with carbs coming primarily from vegetables and whole fruits. No starches. Make up the rest of your calorie requirements with dietary fat (fattier cuts of meat and/or added whole food fats).
- On training/higher calorie days, eat a lower fat, higher carbohydrate diet. Get your dietary fat as by-product of relatively lean protein sources, don't add fats, and get the rest of your calorie requirements from starchy carbohydrates.
Test and Assess - And Skip The Dogma
As you can see, I don't believe in dietary dogma or universal systems. All strategies are just starting points that must then be tested and assessed in the real world, in order to ultimately find out what works best FOR YOU.
Regardless, I hope one of the above plans helps you trim up and look awesome IN your board shorts or bikini. And please trim up BENEATH that beachwear, out of sheer common courtesy. Everyone likes a clean workspace.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.