© Eaters Collective
You’re trying to lose weight and, although you got off to a Biggest Losers start, the lb-loss has stalled at a rather unsatisfying plateau. What do you do? Say “what’s the point?” and binge on biscuits and chocolate; strip back to zero carbs or, quite the opposite, fill up on baked potatoes and bowls of pasta?
Sadly, no amount of magic will make the first option ever the best decision – soz. But, the good news is that you don’t have to ditch carbs completely to optimise your slimming success. In fact, by combining high-carb days with lower-carb days each week – aka carb cycling – you can not only restart your weight-loss journey but speed it up, too. Got your attention? Read on.
WHY DO I NEED CARBS?
Let’s start with the basics. What do carbs do? Basically, they break down in the body to form glucose, which is what gives you – ie your muscles and organs – the energy needed to smash that gym class, tot up 10,000 steps and, simply, to breathe. There are two main types of carb: starches (that’s your bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, lentils and oats) and sugars (think fructose, found in fruit; lactose, from milk; and sucrose; hello, sugar, biscuits and cake). You don’t need us to tell you, then, that not all carbs are made equal.
“When picking which carbs to eat, it’s important to go for ones which will provide additional nutritional benefits,” says dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine (@nicsnutrition). “Starchy ones are a source of insoluble fibre, vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium and copper; fruits and vegetables are essential to a balanced diet; milk and yoghurt contain calcium and protein; while table sugar is, well, table sugar – it doesn’t do much more than rot your teeth.”
Carbs are also important to include in your weight-loss plan because they encourage the body to produce leptin, the hormone that keeps you from feeling hungry – and ultimately snacking.
HOW MANY CARBS DO I REALLY NEED?
According to national guidelines, women should be eating at least 260g of carbs a day. But, in reality, how many carbs you need, will be different from everyone else. Why? Because it all depends on how active you are.
The more active you are and the greater your BMI, the more carbs you will need to fuel it.
“As a general rule, a quarter of your plate should be made up of starchy carbs at every meal for weight maintenance; and a third for weight loss,” says Ludlam-Raine. “It is important to spread out your carb load throughout the day to maintain the balance of your blood sugar levels.” Because peaks and troughs will only lead to one thing: unwanted lbs going on.
SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS CARB CYCLING?
If you go back to why you need carbs – ie for energy – it makes sense that on the days when you are knocking out a HIIT sesh or racing around non-stop, you should eat more of them. It means your body doesn’t need to call on its protein stores to fuel itself and can, instead, leave them to do their muscle-building job. Then on the days when you’re pretty much desk-bound or have a date with Dancing on Ice on catch-up, you would have less – and your body will be forced to turn to its fat stores for energy.
Carb cycling is simply eating more carbs on cardio-heavy days and eating less on the others.
“Eating the right foods is as important as choosing the right trainers, when it comes to exercising at your best,” says Ludlam-Raine. “If you don’t, you may end up feeling sluggish during your workout – or not bother showing up at all.”
CARB CYCLING: WHERE DO I START?
On an average day, aim to get around 60% of your calories from complex carbs. On a high-carb day, add a couple of servings of carbs to that balance; on lower-carb days, take a couple off.
Because everyone’s needs are different, there is no one-size-fits-all plan; it’s a case of tweaking your own intake until you find what works best for your energy levels – and your waistline. And remember, to ensure your digestion keeps ticking along – constipation and bloating is not conducive for weight loss, don’t count fibre-rich vegetables in your carb count.
HOW CAN I FIT ALL THOSE CARBS INTO MY DAY?
The idea of having multiple jacket potatoes to eat in one sitting putting you off carb cycling? Fear not. Meeting the suggested intake of carbs on high-carb days is simply a question of timing. By tying them with your training, you can up the weight-loss benefits of carb cycling even more. Here’s what Ludlam-Raine recommends:
2-4 HOURS BEFORE YOUR WORKOUT
“Have a meal of slow-releasing (low GI) carbs,” says Ludlam-Raine. “Porridge with milk, tuna pasta in a tomato sauce, chicken with basmati rice and vegetables or a sweet potato with a cottage cheese salad.”
1-2 HOURS BEFORE YOUR WORKOUT
“A carb-rich snack such as a banana, jam sandwich or cereal bar, with a hydrating glass of water, milk or an isotonic sports drink, will ensure you’ve sufficient energy to complete your workout.”
DURING YOUR WORKOUT
If you’re planning a long-distance run or exercising for more than one hour, you’ll need to keep those energy levels topped up throughout to ensure you don’t call time on your workout? “Consume 30-60g of carbohydrates per hour,” says Ludlam-Raine. “This could be in the form of an isotonic sport drink, some diluted fruit juice, a banana or an energy gel.”
Find out more about fueling up with energy gels during a long-distance run.
AFTER YOUR WORKOUT
Even though the action is over, it’s key to eat a carb-heavy meal after you’ve finished training. Those glycogen stores won’t replenish themselves. “Carbs have been shown to reduce the stress hormone response to exercise and enhance the immune system,” says Ludlam-Raine. “Opt for those containing higher amounts of additional nutrients such as wholegrains, vegetables and milk – which also has the benefit of being a source of protein.”
Need inspiration? This is the high protein pasta you should be eating and, when you’ve tried that, here are 6 healthy pasta recipes that will boost your metabolism.
And if carb cycling still sounds too good to be true, check out these scientific findings that prove pasta makes you slimmer. Buon appetito.