Crawl Before You Walk
Before we get into calorie cycling I wanted to address some initial fat loss tips if you are getting started. Your initial fat loss plan should be simple.
Just because something is simple doesn't mean it is going to be easy though. Stay on course and be consistent with your fat loss efforts. The imperfect nutrition plan you follow is better than the perfect one you don't follow. Keep that in mind!
Focus on high quality whole foods that come from nature and avoid man made processed foods. Make sure you are eating enough protein (0.8-1g/lb) and train hard in the gym.
Also make sure you are getting at least 8-9 hours of solid sleep per night. Create a nutrition, gym and lifestyle game plan you can realistically stick to and use until it no longer works.
Squeeze every last ounce of fat loss you can out of this simple approach before you consider moving on to something new.
If you are above 20% body fat, stop reading this blog post and start doing the above steps. Don’t over complicate things and get paralyzed by trying to overhaul everything at once. Make a plan, be consistent and start seeing progress.
Nature Is smarter than us
When it comes to cycling whether it be nutrients or calories, we have instinctively done this since the beginning of time.
Calorie and nutrient cycling are not a new method, and has been done by our ancestors for many years without thinking about or giving it a name. Cyclical eating is what it is called these days.
From an evolutionary perspective when we ate before grocery stores, we had to eat what was provided by nature.
When eating with the seasons we would have times of greater caloric intake, and times where we would consume less calories because food was scarce.
When eating cyclically different foods and nutrients would be available, or not available depending on the time of year.
This dictated how we ate back then, and it just so happens nature is pretty good at giving us what we need.
With grocery stores on every corner and imported foods stocked on the shelves we have moved away from local and seasonal eating. We are now able to eat our favorite foods year round, regardless of the season.
Calorie Cycling Vs. Linear Dieting
For those who are are looking to achieve fat loss you can achieve it multiple different ways that all work. A common method used to achieve fat loss is a daily calorie deficit.
A person will find how many calories they need to maintain their weight and then eat below that every day.
If someone needs 1800 calories to maintain body weight, but eats 1500 calories seven days a week this is a 300 calorie daily deficit.
Another method is to have more calories or carbs on days when you're more active and work out, and less on days where you are not training or working out. This second method is calorie/ carb cycling.
Calorie and carb cycling are methods of raising and lowering calories and carbs on certain days to make sure you keep losing fat, but don’t let the metabolism slow from under eating for too long.
Problems With Linear Dieting
The closer someone gets to their ideal body composition the more detailed their plan will need to be to hit those specific goals.
With less body fat you have less room to make mistakes, and can compromise the lean muscle you have worked hard for while slowing down your metabolism.
Simply cutting calories until you reach your goal works for a short period of time, but can make you pretty miserable along the way.
Assuming you were able to starve yourself into an ideal body composition it rarely works long term, and generally causes extreme weight rebounds.
Our bodies are efficient machines, and very adaptable. When the body adapts to a calorie deficit it intelligently respond by burning fewer calories.
Because fewer calories are being consumed, the body slows the metabolic rate down to ensure fewer calories are burned. This keep you at an even energy balance and ensures that fat loss doesn't happen for a number of reasons.
During long periods of caloric restriction a master hormone named leptin is reduced. The reduction in leptin causes a slowed metabolic rate, increased hunger and reduced energy expenditure, a recipe for fat loss disaster and frustration.
Because leptin is such a big player in the hormonal game the reduction causes a lot of downstream impacts with other related hormones.
Leptin affects testosterone, thyroid and growth hormone which all regulate fat loss, muscle growth and many other mental and physical functions.
Advantages of Calorie Cycling
Calorie cycling promotes metabolic flexibility by causing the body to adapt a different amount of calories and carbs.
It keeps the body guessing when there is a caloric deficit one day, and then a caloric surplus the next. The different days of different calorie intake provides a different stimulus for the body to adapt to.
With days that differ in caloric intake it allows people to break the routine of dieting and avoid eating the exact same foods day in and day out.
You are able to switch up food choices and keep variety in the diet instead of eating the same foods daily it also allows a mental break from the grind of linear dieting.
As mentioned above both calorie and nutrient cycling are a natural way of eating for us as humans. Before grocery stores we naturally cycled both calories and nutrients depending on the season and what foods were available.
From a social standpoint calorie cycling allows more flexibility. You are able to go out and enjoy food and great company while not stressing about caloric intake or eating too many carbs.
Getting lean isn’t worth it if you can’t enjoy time with loved ones, and kick your heels up from time to time.
Hormonal and Metabolic Health
Maybe the largest benefit people get from calorie cycling is the positive impact it has on hormones. Specifically the hormones leptin, thyroid hormones , Growth hormone and testosterone.
By spiking calories on higher days you up regulate these hormones making sure to avoid the hormonal pitfalls that many people experience when they put themselves into a large calorie deficit for too long.
You also keep your metabolism from slowing down dramatically, which allows you to make greater long term fat loss happen and greater overall hormonal and social health.
Manipulating The Macros
On higher calorie days the extra calories should be coming predominantly form carbohydrates as they have the greatest effect on thyroid, leptin and metabolic function.
Protein and fats can be kept constant to make life easier, and if there is a small rise in fast it is not a huge cause for concern but carbohydrates need to take priority for this to be effective.
Keeping protein at a constant level is very useful for protecting lean muscle mass and remaining satiated on lower calorie days.
Protein is a very high satiety food that leaves us feeling fuller for longer. It also breaks down into the amino acids that make our neurotransmitters responsible for our moods and ability to focus.
The two macronutrients that will be manipulated on high and low calorie days are carbohydrates and fats.
On higher days when you are more active the majority of the extra calories should come from carbohydrates to build muscle,promote recovery and keep hormones healthy.
On less active days fats will be the main energy nutrient allowing you to keep insulin low and tap into dietary and body fat as fuel, while staying in a caloric deficit.
The constant protein and high fat intake on these days will keep people fuller for a longer period of time allowing for lower calories.
During lower days it is better to avoid the starchy carbohydrates, and go higher on fats and non starchy veggies while keeping protein constant.
How Many High and Low Days ?
The specifics of how many high and low days you have per week will come down to a few different factors. One of the biggest ones will be how much body fat you realistically have to lose.
For someone who is obese they should have more lower calorie days, as their body will be able to hand that deficit with slowing down the metabolic rate.
However someone who is already lean will likely need more high days to prevent metabolic slowdown as they have less fat to lose, and can likely handle carbohydrates very well.
Another consideration is your training style and how many days per week you train. Ideally your higher calorie and carbohydrate days would be on the same day that you hit the gym, and lower calorie days would be on rest or less active days.
There are definitely outlined strategies that work for people, but don’t forget the most important principle of nutrition is to experiment and see what works best for you.
If you are not losing any fat after three to four weeks, it could be that you need to exchange a high carb day for a lower carb day until fat loss resumes.
If your training is going poorly and you are having a hard time recovering you might require another higher carb or medium carb day. You’ll have to tinker a little to see what fits you best.
5 low days - 2 high days
If you have a lot of weight to lose and could be considered obese or very overweight, this is going to be the method for quicker fat loss.
By spending most of the week in a lower carb and calorie state it will allow for rapid fat loss, but the higher days will keep leptin high and your metabolism humming.
Because carbohydrates have a greater impact on leptin, the majority of your extra calories on the high days should come from carbs.
3 low days - 1 high day
This a very typical way to cycle for fat loss. You will do three days of low carb and then have a one day spike in calories coming mostly from carbohydrates to help with recovery and hormonal function.
This is a good strategy for someone who is in the 15-20% body fat range. For those who train really hard and do a decent amount of metabolic conditioning this may be difficult on lower carbs and the option below would be better to use.
1 low day - 2 high days
This is a good option for those who are below 15% body fat and are looking to preserve or build lean muscle as their priority, while dropping some fat is secondary.
Because there are more high calorie and high carb days compared to low days, fat loss may be slower. However as someone gets closer to their ideal level leanness it will be a slower process.
Because this person has less body fat they will be more insulin sensitive and able to handle more carbs without gaining much fat.
If you are performance driven and mainly concerned with gaining muscle, and willing to lose fat at a slower rate this is a good option.
If you are training four days a week lifting heavy combined with some metabolic conditioning or sprints this will be your ticket.
You will get in enough carbs and calories to promote muscle growth and recovery on training days, and be in a deficit on recovery days.
Use the basics first, and ride that train until it breaks down and stops working. Use carb/calorie cycling as a strategy once basic stops getting results.
Cycling calories and nutrients is an age old practice that our ancestors did by eating with the seasons.
Cyclical eating is an effective strategy for helping people to lose body fat, and achiever more specific body composition goals.
Pick a calorie/carb cycling strategy based on how you react to lower carbs, muscle mass, workout volume and intensity and the amount of body fat you have to lose.
Set your calories and macronutrient goals for the high and low days. There are carb cycling calculators online you can use.
Keep protein constant each day at .8-1g/lb of body weight
Keep fats lower on higher carb days
Keep carbs lower on low calorie days, increase fats a little for energy.
Ultimately you will need to do some self experimentation to see what works best for you personally based on your own needs. Be your own guru and go with what works best for you!