Carb cycling programs set you up to fail. On the surface, cycling your carbs throughout the week can seem like mindful balance or even food freedom. But psychologically, it is still very much a diet that triggers the restrict-binge-restrict cycle. It requires eating behaviors that are disordered. And can negatively impact your overall wellness. Read on (or watch the video) for how carb cycling programs came to be, and why they fail you.
Where did carb cycling come from?
Carb Cycling originated on the bodybuilder scene as a fast way to lose fat in preparation for competition. Alternating low carb days with high carb days was a short-term method of eating for bodybuilders to continue increasing muscle while quickly trimming down. But, like all diets, carb cycling was warped into a long-term lifestyle. And became a disordered approach for intentional weight loss sold by diet culture.
As carb cycling programs grew in popularity, more variations of the cycle came out based on your fat loss goals. In other words, carb cycling has always been about your appearance—NOT improving your health.
I carb cycled for 4 years and coached a program for 2 years.
When I first started carb cycling, I was doing it on my own. I strung together too many low carb days and was inexplicably gaining weight. So when I found a more structured program, I signed on as a client. Within a few months, I had become a certified coach.
I ended up carb cycling for the better part of 4 years! Because of this, I deeply know the intricacies and mindset required. As both a long-term participant and as a nutritionist who profited off teaching others to carb cycle.
Read more here on Why I Stopped Tracking Macros
Reasons why carb cycling programs fail you
1. It requires you to meticulously track macros
The cornerstone of carb cycling is tracking your macros. You constantly need to stay vigilant about your food intake and “what day” in the cycle it is. If it’s low carb day, you can only eat foods that are low in carbs and high in fat and protein. If it’s high carb day (or regular macro day) you need to eat according to your pre-determined gram goals of carbs, protein and fat.
To do this, you weigh and measure all your food (even that teaspoon of creamer in your coffee.) You end up micromanaging your food intake to figure out the “correct” combination of foods you need to eat in order to hit that day’s macro goals.
To ensure you don’t exceed your carb intake you track every bite in a food tracking app, like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt. From previous diets, you may have experience measuring food and tracking it in an app. But did you know, this is a form of disordered eating? Trusting a computerized app causes you to ignore your intuition. Including your natural hunger cues and even your fullness cues.
Plus, for many of us who have overcome eating disorders, we know that tracking your food can cause obsession and an increase in food guilt. We also know how difficult it is to ween yourself off food tracking apps.
2. It causes you to further judge your food choices
One of the main reasons people feel so guilty and shameful around their food choices, is because diets label foods as either good/healthy or bad/unhealthy. This prevents us from enjoying foods for their general nourishment, taste, texture and satiety. It instead causes us to look at food as either a means to lose weight. Or gain weight.
Carb cycling programs kick your diet mentality up a notch by adding the category of “low carb” or “high carb.” This line of thinking can be particularly confusing to your brain. For example, on low carb days, you consider high-carb food to be bad and must stay away from them. But on other days in the cycle, all those high-in-carb foods are “allowed” and thus “good.”
Additionally, carb cyclers become hyper-aware of their protein and fat intake. Food becomes strictly about what it can do for your waistline and muscles. And the feelings of guilt, shame and lack of self-trust around food weigh heavily on your mental and emotional health.
3. Bribery is disguised as motivation for treat day
When you first begin a carb cycling program, it feels really exciting to have a built-in treat day or cheat day. This designated day (or meal) to eat whatever you want is typically paired with a really intense Leg Day workout. How fun! How rebellious! You’re literally saying I can have a donut and still lose fat?!
The thinking behind this approach is to trick the body out of the restrict-binge-restrict cycle by “allowing” it to have the freedom to eat what it wants. Unfortunately, that’s not how our body’s biology and physiology works. And those who follow carb cycling programs are still at significant risk for binge eating, overeating, feeling restricted, and frequently “falling off plan” due to the difficulties of maintaining this disordered approach to eating.
At first, treat days may even feel like positive motivation. The reason you get through a rough day midweek when you just want a cookie without guilt. “I’ll be good today, and then I can have cookies without guilt on Saturday…”
This false motivation quickly turns into a form of manipulative bribery though. It may start with an event or outing that falls on a different day of the week. Next thing you know, you’re making it Leg Day at the gym simply so you can justify eating whatever you want at the event. This is so flexible! No it’s not. It’s doubling down that food is either “bad” (treat, cheat, etc.) or “good.”
4. It pits food and exercise against each other
Many carb cycling programs pair each day with a specific workout style. For example, assigning HIIT or fasted cardio only on low carb days. And strength training with high carb days. Additionally, many programs recommend eating less if you skip your workout. And, as we just discussed, allow you to earn a treat if you do a particularly grueling workout.
All of these rules—and essentially, exercise cycling—emphasize the message that food needs to be earned through exercise. And that exercise is punishment for food. Yet another side effect of carb cycling that damages your relationship with food and fitness.
So what should you do instead of your carb cycling program?
Carb cycling programs really set you up for disordered eating and more opportunity to “fall off the wagon.” Ultimately, carb cycling programs set you up to fail.
The best approach to improving your health and overall wellness is to ditch ALL diets—including carb cycling! Stop letting food tracking apps, diet rules, food fear, and meal plans overrule your own body’s intuition. Once you say goodbye to diets for good, you will heal your relationship with food, fitness and body image. Which will allow you to achieve optimal wellness!
Interested in learning how?
Sign up for a free 15-minute consult with me to learn how you can get started today. Click here to sign up.
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