October 8, 2011

Bikini Competition Diet: Carb Cycling For Bikini Competitors

Okay, looks like I’m finally fired up enough about something that I may have to write my first blog post in 5 months.  Every once in a while I like to pretend I’m a bikini competitor (this isn’t going where you think it is…get your head out of the gutter) looking for relevant contest prep info, and I google all the things I think a bikini competitor would want to know about (Bikini Competition Diet Carb Cyling this time).

I then go back to being Joe the coach and read/analyze what I find on the first couple pages of results.  If I don’t find what I consider quality information on the topic(s), I get mad and tell myself I’m going to write my own article on said topic(s).  Then I get busy training clients and never get around to doing it.

Well not this time!  Most of the information I found using the term “Carb Cycling” was so bad that there was no way I was going to procrastinate.  One popular site said to keep total fat intake to no more than 20% of total calories, but never bothered to explain how to determine total calories.  Soooo…20% of what???

Another VERY popular bodybuilding site said eat as much protein, fat and carbs as you want on high carb days, yet low day was still as high as 1g of carbs per pound of total bodyweight!

The worst one I found used a formula where no matter what bodyweight you plugged in, the high carb days had literally zero grams of fat!  How do you eat 150g of protein and zero fat???  And why would you want to?

The rationale for carb cycling, when to use it, and how to adjust the diet are also areas where I’m finding WAY too much misinformation, and basically, guessing.  So I’m going to tell you what I think about carb cycling for fat loss and how I think it should be done.  Or at least how I tend to do it most of the time.

I’ll keep explaining why I don’t like other common views on the topic throughout this article by the way…in case you were thinking I was going to switch 100% over to the more positive “here’s what to do” mode.  I need to help some of you unlearn some things, so I have to stay negative a while longer.  Sorry 🙁

Lets start with Carb Cycling myths!

Carb Cycling Myth #1: Carb cycling keeps your metabolic rate up higher than linear (aka calories/macros the same each day) dieting by upregulating the hormone Leptin”. This one bugs me the most out of all of them because its giving competitors/dieters a false sense of security, making them think its okay to go with a larger than normal caloric deficit because “carb cycling revs the metabolism”.

The idea of short term high carbohydrate overfeeds boosting metabolic rate has been thrown around a lot over the years.  While it is true that Leptin levels rise a little after a single high carb day, it doesn’t affect metabolic rate.  This is because there is a significant delay between leptin rising and thyroid output/metabolic rate rising.  I think this is yet another example of the body being very efficient at maintaining bodyfat levels to avoid starvation.

Regardless, you have to be in a caloric surplus for any of this to begin to facilitate, and most of the carb cycling for fat loss approaches I’ve seen don’t have the high days high enough to put you in a surplus.  The truth is, the only way to boost your basal metabolic rate while dieting (thyroid injections aside) is to stop dieting for at least a week or two, and make sure you eat a reasonable amount of carbs and fat.  Not exactly an option for someone nearing a bikini competition.

Carb Cycling Myth #2: “You can eat all the protein you want while carb cycling”. This may be true on low carb days, assuming you’re still in a deficit (I’d still want to know how much I’m eating so I can know how to adjust later).  But eat more protein than you need on high carb days, and your body will begin a process called gluconeogenesis, whereby it begins oxidizing excess protein for fuel.

Guess what happens when you overfeed carbs and allow protein to become a fuel source?  Your body burns off less of those carbs, which can lead to fat storage.  So your overly high protein intake is now sparing your carbs instead of the other way around.  Not what we want.

Carb Cycling Myth #3: “Fat intake needs to be kept extremely low on high carb days because eating high carbs and fat at the same time makes you store fat”. If we were talking about a large, more concentrated refeed after a few days or more of going very low carb, I would agree that fat should be kept relatively low.  But no properly set up carb cycle for fat loss (“for fat loss” meaning it all averages out to a deficit) is going to have you eating such massive amounts of carbs that you would need to keep fat intake to the ridiculously low 20g/day I see advised on some of these sites I’ve been examining.  And if you go too low with fat intake, your body starts what’s called de novo lipogenesis, whereby it starts converting carbohydrates directly to bodyfat.

How do you even go this low fat with some of the ultra high protein intakes being advised?  Do you live off of egg whites and whey protein all day?  Don’t answer that.  I will say that going too high on fat post workout would be a mistake, so do make sure to keep fat low in that meal.  But otherwise, a moderate intake is fine.

Carb Cycling Myth #4: “Carb Cycling prevents muscle loss while dieting”. I don’t necessarily consider this as much a myth as I do a HUGE assumption to make, especially considering how much harder it is to precisely adjust a cyclical diet (since water weight is usually up and down, making it harder to gauge fat loss).  I’d say carb cycling for sure does a better job maintaining muscle while dieting than a steady low carb diet.  But those low carb/calorie days on a cyclical diet are not keeping you anywhere near an anabolic state, yet your body is still trying to recover from previous workouts.    It is still those recovery periods where gains are made or lost…that hasn’t changed with the advent of the internet to my knowledge.

Okay, so we’ve more or less examined most of the flawed approaches and misconceptions regarding carb cycling for fat loss.  In part 2 (coming in a few days), I’ll get into what I actually like about carb cycling, and how I think you should set up a carb cycle.

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  1. Thanks for this, Joe! Perhaps it’s all “common knowledge” to most but for a newbie like me that’s still debating whether or not to compete, it’s really great information to have! I’ve been totally overwhelmed by all the different information out there! Can’t wait for part two.

  2. Thank you for the great article.This is a topic of interest to me and I am looking forward to part two.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I was also very confused with how and what a carb cycle looked like!! I can’t wait for part 2! Thanks Joe:)

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