Do you need carb cycling?
I can admit the title is a little "click-baity" but the questions still stands: do you need carb cycling? And moreover, do you need any approach besides linear calorie restriction?
The longer you've been around the block, the more you realize that there are no secrets and no shortcuts. So much of dietary success comes down to doing the same 'ol boring thing day in and day out. It's not specifically that your food combinations or flavors have to be boring (that is a misconception) but that the timing of meals and quantity of calories net the greatest results when they are held constant.
For some, this means chicken, sweet potatoes and broccoli at every meal. For others, this can mean trying to cram as much junk into every 400 calorie meal as they can. The two polar ends of the spectrum are bland monotony chewing unsalted boiled chicken breast in a cold, dark room or protein-waffle-zero carb-ice cream shakes that makes you crap your pants from the load of inulin and xylitol.
Consistency, in the nutrition world really means keeping your number and timing of meals relatively constant, with evenly spaced calorie servings divided among them (within reason of course). Like training, the details often don't matter quite as much as showing up and working hard. Whether you bench sets of 10 or sets of 12 doesn't impact general outcomes as long as you do enough sets and challenge yourself. Fat loss isn't concerned with glycemic load, index, white rice vs brown or any of the other details that can suck you in and derail you. Are you choosing appropriate foods that allow you to eat in a calorie deficit, feel relatively full and get enough protein, fiber and essential fats? Check that box and move on, seriously.
What is success?
My wheels starting turning when I hearing success stories that involved something like fasting, keto or clean eating, just to name a few. One of the reasons for this is because many dietary strategies that work for people don't work because they've mastered the basics and developed good habits. In fact, many dietary strategies allow you to circumvent building good habits and a relationship with food by forcing you to limit yourself in some way.
Is losing 30lbs on keto really success if it means you had to eliminate an entire food group? Can you live the rest of your life without starchy carbohydrates and what view do you have of them now, since avoiding them led to weight loss?
Does restricting your eating window to 12-6PM every day mean success? Is this the only way you've found to be able to control calories, by simply not eating for half of your waking hours?
Does success on cleaning eating mean that you've now relegated foods in your mind to good vs bad? Will eating white rice make you feel like you're cheating on your diet?
The truth is that all of the above strategies work but they only work when you rigidly adhere and lets be honest, no one will follow a diet forever. For every keto success story, there are 99 more clients who've gained and lost the same 60lbs repeatedly. Many of these strategies are aimed at people who cannot or will not develop the basic nutrition skills they need to make their success permanent. So, time and again, they fall back on flashy and exciting diets peddled at them by people who know exactly how to make them fall for it. And worse yet, they are peddled by people who DO believe in them so strongly that they cannot accept actual scientific fact that might contradict them.
I find it downright irresponsible to push strategies that vilify a food group, time of day to eat or hormone or general population folks who just need to lose body fat because it adds another level of complexity. Does carb cycling work? Sure it does! But does it work because insulin is bad? Haha....no. It works because it operates within the confines of basic energy regulation while giving a slight edge to trainees who might need more carbohydrates on very hard training days. In the right hands you can keep a trainee's productivity high while on a diet; in the wrong hands you convey to that trainee that restricting carbohydrates and manipulating insulin are the only ways to lean out.
Do it again
This phrase was uttered to me by a chef who had the greatest influence on my culinary career, Justin Walker. Leaving culinary school for one of my first cooking jobs, I assumed I knew everything and was ready to be a "chef". Unfortunately I was not. Fortunately, I had someone who saw some potential and decided to guide me. Like many college or trade school grads, my thought at receiving a diploma was "looks like I learned everything I need to know", but the reality is I still kinda sucked at everything.
I had some knowledge, I had a small amount of experience but to enter a kitchen and debone monkfish, make pasta from scratch, smoke bacon, simmer sauces and curdle some homemade cheese was far beyond my capabilities. While I wanted to do those things because they seemed exciting and challenging, I didn't have the skill or experience to execute them. In fact, on my very first 10 minutes in the kitchen, Justin asked me to chop chives very finely. I did what I thought was a good job and handed them back to him in a pint container when I was done. He took one look, dumped them in the trash and told me to do it again.
Most of us need a cold hard reality check that like when it comes to nutrition.
Instead of doing all the exciting "chef" jobs, I had to spend time proving myself. I toasted nuts, made dressings, broke down lobsters, washed dishes and repeated these tasks over and over until they became second nature. It wasn't until I was able to execute these basic kitchen tasks with precision and timeliness that I was given any additional responsibilities.
The backbone of any skilled cook or chef are the basics. Every task is built upon knife skills, cleanliness and organization. These are the tenets of any good cook and as much as you love Gordon Ramsay or Anthony Bourdain, if you had entered their kitchen they wouldn't give you a chance in hell at deboning salmon or making a Bearnaise until they saw you dice onions, wash dishes and sweep the floor for months on end.
One of the issues with sharing information online and through social media is that it only shows the highlights, it glorifies the end product while ignoring the decades of work it took to achieve the end product. This is entirely the case with nutrition and dietary strategies as we are bombarded with ads and accounts that glorify a complex system, diet or food elimination scheme that completely ignores the basics.
And while these advanced strategies can and often do work, they will not lead you to success if you don't have the basics down. As much as you want to be that chef, dazzling folks on the Food Network, in reality you're probably still butchering some chives.
So, do it again.
Stay tuned for Part II on how to Carb Cycle like a #boss