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Healthy or Hype: Is a Carb-Cycling Diet Worth Its Weight?

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The carb-cycling diet claims to be the new-and-improved version of their low-carb predecessors because they rotate carbohydrates in and out on a daily (or semidaily) basis. The logic behind carb cycling is that it allows us to reap the benefits of a low-carb regimen (fast weight lost, less bloating) without having to suffer through the pitfalls (crankiness, low energy, all those other reasons the Atkins diet went kaput). I couldn’t help but be a little skeptical. Is this legit, or is it just another fad that benefits diet-book publishers?

The Claim
According to carb-cycling proponents, our bodies are better able to maintain muscle mass while shedding fat when we reduce carbs on some days and eat more on others. Technically, the diet isn’t new—it’s been around informally for a few decades, used mostly in the bodybuilding community. Great for heavy lifters, but is there really a relevant takeaway for us noncompetitors who don’t want to calculate the nutritional breakdown of everything we eat? 

According to one of the trend’s biggest enthusiasts, Jay Robb, author of the book The Fat Burning Diet, carb cycling can be a powerful weight-loss tool for everyone. “Excessive consumption of carbohydrate foods stimulates the release of a hormone called insulin,” he writes on his Web site, and that’s a problem, because it causes us to store excess blood sugar (which we obtain from carbs) as fat. On the other hand, if we switch things up and give our bodies carbohydrates only every other day, Robb argues, the variety will keep our bodies guessing just enough for them to stop storing excess energy as fat. 

How It Works
Carb cycling touts glycogen management (not elimination) as the key to its success. By alternating between eating and not eating carbs, we break the fat-storing cycle without being totally carb deprived. (Glycogen is a broken-down form of carbohydrates that we store in our muscles and liver for energy.) We need to refuel our glycogen stores every time they run out, such as after a workout or just a day around town. We can store about fifteen grams for approximately every 2.2 pounds that we weigh, which means that when our stores are depleted, we should take in at least this many more grams of carbohydrates to refuel. Carb cycling tries to give our bodies exactly that amount to avoid storing any excess: “If levels exceed your glycogen storage capacity for energy,” writes Robb in his book, “they will get stored as fat.” Carb cycling means keeping these levels right where we need to them to maintain our energy—eating carbs only when we’ve used up our stores. 

“Compared to the traditional low-carb diets, which I also tried, this is a huge improvement,” says Britta Rizzo, who is currently on a carb-cycling plan. “I haven’t experienced the same low energy as I did with Atkins and have definitely lost some weight.” 

Trend or Truth?
All right, I’ll admit even I was starting to see how this whole system sounds appealing. But what does a real nutritionist—and one who doesn’t have a book to sell—think? “Our diets don’t need to be played with that much to lose weight,” says Jill Daniels, a nutrition counselor and coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

While carb cycling will probably leave us with a little less flab, the results are much less likely to stick. Depriving our bodies of carbs, even if it’s just every other day, will increase our cravings for other foods, especially sweets, says Daniels, and therefore make regaining weight much more likely. 

Many former Atkins enthusiasts claim carb cycling is like the holy grail of dieting because it gets us through tough weight-loss plateaus. True? Not exactly. “Plateaus often happen when we’re at a place where we’re eating too few calories,” Daniels says. “You need to show your body that it’s not in survival mode.” Switching to a carb-cycling plan may help do this by increasing caloric intake with more healthy fats, but the whole carbs-today-and-not-tomorrow thing really isn’t the secret to shedding excess pounds. By incorporating healthier caloric choices into our diets—like olive oil, nuts, and fish—our bodies will realize that they don’t need to hold on to every calorie as if it’s their last. 

So is it all phooey? Not entirely, Daniels says: “We can look to carbs to lose weight,” but they “don’t satisfy if you’re eating the wrong ones, or if they’re all you eat.” She suggests assessing the more processed carbohydrates in our diets, like white bread and sugary treats, as well as their portion sizes; by cutting back on these and pairing healthier, complex carbs, such as oatmeal, sprouted wheat bread, and beans, with lean protein, we can create combinations that leave us with lasting energy and satisfaction. 

What it comes down to is that if you feel like you’ve hit a weight-loss standstill, there’s no secret code you can uncover—just look back to the classic formula: calories in versus calories out, advises Daniels. “People are always looking to try something different,” she says. “But the tried-and-true thing is what works.”

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