When you've just started carb cycling and you're wondering if it will work, when it will start working, how long it will take to work and what kind of results you can expect, you should be looking for the same kind of results you normally would.
If you have the burn the fat ebook or have read any of my articles about weekly fat loss goals, you'll usually see me quote figures like this:
Average/Typical Fat Loss
1/2% body fat per week
1-2 lbs of body weight per week
Less Than Average/Typical Fat Loss (But it's Progress)
Less than 1/2% body fat lost per week is a bit slow, but you made progress. Good job, but you could crank things up a bit for the next week.
Less than 1 lb lost per week - is slow, but if kept up consistently, again, it's still progress. Tighten things up if you want faster results.
Better Than Average/Typical Fat Loss
More than 2 lbs per week - if it's all body fat - is better than average (great results)
0.6% to 1.0% body fat lost per week is faster than typical fat loss (keep up the good work)
No Progress (Needs Some Tweaking)
No weight/fat loss or no drop in body fat% lost after 7 days means no forward progress (assuming your weigh in and body fat test was correctly performed).
If you go 7 days with no progress, you must re-analyze your compliance for the last week (did you stick with it? Be brutally honest). Then tweak your approach - chapter 4 in BFFM gives guidelines on doing this - it's called our feedback loop system).
So basically we're not looking for any different kind of results with carb cycling. This isn't "magic." It's not necessarily going to give you better than average fat loss.
The carb cycling is probably most helpful at "end-stage" plateaus when your fat loss has started stalling due to metabolic slowdown. It also helps when you're experiencing poor compliance because you've been deprived of calories and or your favorite foods (carbs). In either case, carb cycling can "increase" your fat loss by getting your fat loss back up to normal.
Also remember that without a calorie deficit, carb cycling doesn't guarantee you will lose fat at all. In fact, think about what happens to your weekly deficit with carb cycling:
If you were on a deficit 4 out of every 4 days and then you go to deficit 3 out of every 4 days, then technically you have a smaller cumulative weekly deficit don't you? So you can see that carb cycling /zig zagging doesn't work by increasing a calorie deficit, it works by restoring metabolism-regulating, appetite-stimulating, satiety-inducing and anti-starvation hormones back to normal levels.
The problem with prolonged deficits, especially after you are already lean, is that your body really does slow down the metabolism a bit, and even tricks you by increasing appetite. Both of these effects can be controlled hormonally.
By raising calories (carbohydrate calories in particular) every 4th day or so, you stimulate hormones like leptin, which is an anti starvation hormone. This tells the body you are no longer "starving" and brings metabolism comes back to normal, at least temporarily.
What carb cycling is really doing is not accelerating fat loss, but allowing you to lose fat like you normally would (or, it helps to prevent those plateaus from happening in the first place).
Carb cycling also has psychological benefits.
When you're on low calories all the time, you get physiologically (hormonally) hungry. But you also get cravings, which can be different than physical hunger. You tend to crave what you cant have (carbs anyone?).
But if you use carb cycling, you know you get to eat more every several days and you get to eat carbs. So even if you do feel some hunger/cravings on the low days, it's easier to hold out. This is how carb cycling also helps most people with compliance.
The end result is you avoid plateaus and falls off the wagon (overeating, binges, "unauthorized" cheating, etc).
Carb cycling and body re-composition
A possible third benefit of carb cycling is that it may explain how some people add lean body mass while in a calorie deficit. That's because when you're raising calories every several days you're actually NOT always in a deficit, and your body is given more fuel on "high days", which could be directed into muscle tissue for growth.
The extra fuel also makes for more intense training, and if you can train harder, you can build more muscle and burn more fat.
What if carb cycling isn't working for you?
If you've been carb cycling and it doesn't seem to be working, it's sometimes for the same reason as if you weren't carb cycling - you didn't get your calories quite right and you weren't in a deficit.
That's one reason I'm partial to controlled refeeds or "high carb days" rather than (non-counting) free-for-all cheat days. While the latter approach works for some, it can backfire if you go overboard, and it's quite easy to cut into (or erase) a few days of deficit with one giant binge.
If you hit a plateau (no change for at least 7 days), it's helpful to count calories carefully and weigh/ measure foods. Any time you are struggling with results or simply just working on the last few pounds of fat in the stubborn areas, the attention to detail at that point is more important than ever.
Another thing you might want to do is start tracking a number that most people don't consider: your weekly deficit (or weekly average daily caloric intake). Add up your calories every day for the entire 7 day week and divide by 7 for a daily average. Then make sure you have an adequate weekly deficit to reach your weekly goal.
Getting better results out of carb cycling may require being more strict on the low carb days. When you're carb cycling, in general, the whole idea is that the low carb days ARE very strict "diet" days and sometimes with a fairly aggressive calorie deficit - 30% below maintenance (and sometimes people even push the envelope and go even lower on low days, knowing that they have a big refeed coming up.
Making Sure You've Got Your Calories Set Properly
When you think about setting your calories for both high and low days, I want to refer you to a recent article I wrote about customizing calories for your body size:
1 Reason For Slow Female Fat Loss and 5 Tips To Fix It
You may not like the message in this article because it doesn't seem "fair" (to smaller people), but it may also make a light bulb go off that will keep you consuming the right amount of calories for you: Smaller people don't need as many calories. Someone who is 5' 2" and 124, may still want to lose fat, even though she is not a big person.
This would apply to short/ small framed guys too, but it affects women the most, since they are on average, much smaller than men.
Keep in mind, this important point (small women can't eat very many calories or carbs compared to big people), applies whether you are carb cycling or not - you have to get the calories right for your body type / body size / activity level. And if you really want to eat more, the only way is to burn more.
Watch Out - The Scale Plays Tricks On You When Carb Cycling
One last thing to consider: Suppose you are trying to asses your results after day 4, wondering when it is going to start working.
One thing about carb cycling that many people don't account for is the swing in body weight due to glycogen and water. With 3 strict days of lower carb, lower calorie eating, you may actually have already accrued a pound of fat loss. But then you carb up on day 4. Your body composition has improved, but the carb up makes you gain total body weight (water and glycogen).
If you only judge your success by the scale and if you only look at short term (daily) numbers, you may be misled into thinking you were not successful when you really were.
For that reason, you must have patience, watch the trend over time and avoid obsessed with short term fluctuations in body weight especially on high carb day and or the day after high carb day.
Once you have an understanding of all the above factors, and you've been carb cycling without getting weekly results, then do the same things to break the plateau that you'd normally do - including increasing the calorie burn from training/ cardio and or decreasing the calories.
The one thing you'd do that's unique to carb cycling is on your low carb days, a tweak you might make to break a plateau is to simply make the low days even lower in carbs (that means lower in calories, but you are specifically lowering the calories from carbs... leaving the protein, healthy fats and fibrous carbs/veggies alone).
Then just repeat the process as per our burn the fat, feed the muscle progress charting and feedback loop system which is detailed in chapter 4 of the BFFM ebook.
To see the complete carb cycling system, get the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle ebook from: www.BurnTheFat.com/order.html . You'll find the cycling method first introduced in chapter 6 and you'll see the entire carb cycling system laid out for you in chapter 12.
- Tom Venuto
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Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, independent nutrition researcher, freelance writer and author of the #1 best selling diet e-book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle and the #1 Amazon best-seller, The Body Fat Solution (Avery/Penguin books). Tom's articles have been featured on hundreds of websites worldwide. Tom has also been featured in IRONMAN, Australian IRONMAN, Italian IRONMAN (Olympian's news), Muscle and Fitness, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Exercise for Men, Menís Exercise and Men's Fitness, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Martha Stewart Healthy Living (Sirius), WCBS-New York and ESPN-1250. Tom is also the founder and CEO of the Internet's premier fat loss support community, the: Burn The Fat Inner Circle. To get notified of updates to TomVenuto.Com, subscribe to the free newsletter at: www.TomVenuto.com/free_newsletter.