Low-Carb Blues

Angry cat in a sink

Carb cycling means eating different amounts of carbohydrate day to day — a common pattern is high-fat/low-carbs on rest days and high-carbs/low-fat on “training days.” Many people find it easier to eat fewer calories to support a fat-loss goal if they eat less carbohydrate, but tough workouts may feel too tough when they eat low carb all the time. The idea of carb cycling is to bunch up carbs close to the workouts for energy, but to otherwise eat a lower-carb food pattern. This eating pattern works well for some people — I’ve heard, “I love it because I always have a treat to look forward to.” That’s the key to sticking with the plan: having a pattern that supports your goals AND that you enjoy. Or at least don’t actively dislike.

In some ways, carb cycling mirrors how we already eat — it’s just planned out in advance. People often eat differently day to day, whether because they’re socializing here and there, celebrating with a special meal, attending an event, or just not getting to the grocery store. If you’re trying to eat fewer calories, it can be a struggle to accommodate social events or special-occasion meals in particular, and a carb-cycling approach can help by building in “eat more of this” days.

What Is Going on with That Cat?

This cat picture is a favorite of mine, and I have certainly had days like this, but I was a bit surprised to see this message added to it recently: “HOW I FEEL ON LOW-CARB DAY.” People have subtle to substantial differences in how they feel with different amounts of carbohydrate in their diets — for some people, there’s an adjustment period when cutting carbohydrate, and for others it just never feels good to go low. If that cat shows how you feel on “low-carb day,” then carb-cycling probably isn’t for you — after all, it would mean feeling this way around half the time. Changing your eating patterns can take time and require you to do some challenging work around your feelings and expectations about food, but being miserable is not sustainable.

You can also try a simpler form of “zig-zag food pattern,” varying your calories; eat the same basic proportions throughout the week, with more calories on more-active days and fewer on less-active days. This is a good way to practice associating eating more with being more active. Practicing that pattern can be a big help if disaster strikes and an injury knocks you off your routine, as well as accommodating different eating options during the normal run of things.

“OK, I’ll program zig-zag calories into my food tracker.” Unfortunately, few food trackers have this feature. A similar approach that is easier to do with a food tracker is eating carefully 6 days a week and having a “cheat day.” (I don’t love the “cheat” terminology, but that’s a common term for it. Why not “treat day,” “social day,” or “party day”?) Your food tracker may not support “treat day” (see how nice that looks?) gracefully, but it keeps the variation down to one day a week. Whatever pattern you choose, it needs to be something that that fits into your lifestyle, lets you do most things the way you like to do them, and supports your goals.

Here are some ideas for choosing a sustainable food pattern:
Where Do I Begin?
One Weird Trick?
Nine Simple Weight-Loss Tips
Does Active Logging Work?

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