Calorie and Carb Cycling – What does your body NEED?
I got into an interesting discussion last night with clients about diet and what they SHOULD be eating every day. Women especially seem to get very obsessed with restricting their calories when they are trying to lose weight.
My simple answer when they asked me what they should be eating and how many calories they needed was:
Your body’s needs change daily.
They of course rolled their eyes at me and shook their heads because they knew I loved giving that very vague answer.
Some days you are super active and require more fuel while other days you aren’t as active and don’t need as much. Some days you are super hungry while other days you aren’t.
Yet so many people restrict their calories (and their carbs) to the exact same level each and every day.
And that maybe why they aren’t getting the results they want.
You need to fuel your body’s needs. And those needs aren’t the same day-to-day.
If you do an intense workout, YOU ARE GOING TO NEED TO EAT MORE. If you deprive yourself of food when your body needs it, you are going to hinder your progress – be it weight loss or strength gains.
Just like if you eat too much on days when you aren’t active you are going to hinder your progress.
Eat when you are HUNGRY.
People are often shocked when I say this, but…IF YOU AREN’T HUNGRY DON’T EAT! And if you are…THEN EAT!
There is really no most important meal or the day. If you aren’t hungry for breakfast, then don’t eat it!
And if you are hungry at 10 p.m., EAT!
You aren’t going to get fat just because you ate after a certain time of night. If your body needs the fuel, it will use it no matter when you eat. It isn’t like your metabolism decides to just shut off because it is 8 p.m.
Your body is pretty good at telling you what it needs.
You just need to learn how to listen because most people don’t really pay attention. They mistake boredom for hunger or even thirst for a need for food. They can also get caught up in thinking they need to eat every few hours or their metabolism will just shut off so they force down food even when their body isn’t really asking for it.
So how do you learn to listen to your body? How do you know when to cycle your calories and carbs?
HOW TO LISTEN TO YOUR BODY:
Think before you eat. It’s really that simple. For example….If you just ate like an hour ago (and it was a filling healthy lunch) and you are sitting at your computer doing some boring work and are struck by a desire to just eat, ask yourself, “Am I hungry or am I bored?” I’m guessing more often than you know, your answer will be BORED. Maybe try drinking some water before you dive in. Dehydration is also another common trigger of “hunger pangs.” And so is stress. Think before you eat.
While I know many people may be shocked by what I will say next….Fasting can be a great way to get in tune with your body. I’m not suggesting you start starving yourself, but occasional intermittent fasts can be a great way to realize how often you eat for reasons unrelated to hunger. I found I became way more in tune with my body when I did intermittent fasting.
I no longer NEED to eat at certain times. And some days I don’t eat till late in the afternoon while other days I need to eat something the second I get up.
The point is though that I can RESPOND to my body’s NEEDS. I don’t just have to eat because I’m conditioned to mentally want something at a certain time of day.
Another great way to get in tune with your body is to keep track of your diet, activity level, emotions and lifestyle.
I know this sounds super annoying, but it can be super helpful if you are really struggling to make a healthy lifestyle stick. There are going to be common trends. Emotions may trigger eating binges. Or you may find out that on certain days when you were more active and ate more carbs you had better results than on days when you worked out intensely yet forced yourself to continue to restrict your carb intake.
Tracking reveals patterns so that we aren’t just guessing at what is going on. Guessing generally leads to frustration and failure.
WHEN/HOW TO CARB AND CALORIE CYCLE:
To put it simply as I stated above – eat when you are hungry and listen to what your body craves.
If you don’t workout, your body won’t need the carbs and calories that it does on days when you do workout. And more intense workouts, especially cardio workouts that really deplete your glycogen stores, are going to require more carbs and more calories.
Respond to your activity level and what your body is craving. (And just because your body is craving carbs doesn’t mean you have to give in and go eat a bunch of crap. There are lots of ways to do a carb re-feed without eating unhealthily.)
Plan days of low carb (around 50 grams) for days when you don’t workout or workout lightly. If you have a super hard intense workout, don’t be afraid to up your carbs to even 200-300 grams. Keep the carbs healthy, but fuel the workout.
While you don’t want your carbs to be up at 200g every day (because if you need that many every day you are probably OVERTRAINING), having a few days where you do get up over 150g is ok and even go.
Also, play around with carb timing. Have some carb refeed days and then have some days where maybe you just have carbs AFTER your workout when your body will quickly grab them up to rebuild.
Generally I break down my diet into three days.
Low day – Around 50 grams of carbs, high fat, high protein.
Medium day – Around 100-120 grams of carbs, medium/low-fat, high protein
High day – Around 200-300 grams of carbs, low-fat, medium protein
This basic plan works for me and I always feel energized.
But there are lots of ways to carb cycle – you can do whole day refeeds or just specific meal refeeds after your workouts.
I must say that there are times where I fast, workout and then basically just have carbs after my workouts and that is my refeed for the day.
The point is to listen to your body and not be stuck believing that the only way to get results is to restrict your diet completely.
While low carb can be a great way to kick-start your diet and may even have help you have great success, you may just find that carb and calorie cycling is what you need to get over that last little hurdle. Sometimes a little more can be better when it comes to weight or fat loss.
And while I have no problems running a half marathon fasted and after a week of low carb, you may just find that your body requires MORE carbs to fuel your activity level and help you reach the strength and performance gains you desire.
Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to eat more calories or carbs especially when your body is asking for them! You may just find your goals are easy to reach when you aren’t so militant about restriction.
Posted on August 20, 2013, in Conventional Wisdom - How I hate you, Diet and tagged calorie cycling, carb cycling, Fat Loss, healthy diet. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
“There is really no most important meal or the day. If you aren’t hungry for breakfast, then don’t eat it! And if you are hungry at 10 p.m., EAT!”
AMEN times a thousand!! I never believed or gave in or preached the whole “OMG don’t eat after 7pm/8pm etc.” What a crock! I hope people are finally realizing that that was all BS.
I will say I haven’t ever waited until like, noon to eat my first meal of the day. But I wouldn’t tell someone they are harming themselves by skipping bfast. It’s more about WHAT you’re eating than HOW and how often you’re eating these days, imo.
I like your carb cycling example. Thinking of going back/implementing that myself after the competition. I was kind of doing it before and it seemed to work so I hope I have the discipline to try it again.
GREAT, great post!
Good article… this weekend it was like I could NOT eat enough… I was a black hole of a bottomless pit of a stomach. Then Monday I was not nearly so hungry….so interesting how our bodies ebb and flow…. I’m hungry now but I run for my track workout at 6 and if I eat before running, I burp when I run or feel like there is a brick in my gut and I don’t like that! grin. tmi? heh. I will certainly dig in tonight when I get home….
This was a good read. It’s silly, but I kind of JUST figured it out on my own about not eating the same amount of calories every day. I can’t believe it took me years to actually figure out that I should eat more on high exercise days and when I’m really hungry. Wish I’d read your post two years ago!