My Recipe for Macro Adherence: Carb Cycling and Intermittent Fasting

What is it that makes a person’s diet successful? Of course, I don’t mean diet in the vernacular “Jenny Craig/Weight Watchers/oh no, I’m on a diet,” sort of way, but the “this is what I eat,” way. I mean some people are successful in meeting their goals with Paleo, some with intermittent fasting, some with constant macros, some with keto, some by being any variety of -tarian. So what’s the answer, with so many options?

There is only one answer, here. Adherence.

Whatever works for you is what works. Whatever plan it is that makes you feel good, that you will stick to, is the most effective plan for you.

If this looks familiar, your diet might not be the most effective for you.

If I calculated out the most effective diet ever to exist, and it consisted of eating one banana covered in frog eyes and broccoli sprouts every morning for breakfast, my feeling is that diet adherence would be fairly low, regardless of the promises of such a diet. Low adherence would lead to low effectiveness, you see? You’ve got to be able to stick with something in order to gauge how well it works!

 

My own diet adherence rests on two things, mainly: intermittent fasting and carb cycling. I’ve touched on both previously, but never delved into them. I want to clarify this: this is what works best for me. I am NOT recommending you try either or both, nor saying either has magical powers or is scientifically better than anything else. These are simply what keep me on track towards my strength and aesthetic goals!

 

So let’s talk carb cycling.

Get it?

Carb cycling can be done in many, many ways. Some people eat varying amounts of carbs on a 3, 4, or 5 day cycle. Some keep carbs relatively low for a few days at a time and then utilize a high carb “refeed” once or twice a week. There are any number of ways to complicate things, you just need to choose your own adventure. Because I have far too many things in my brain at once, I keep mine simple, because it just plain works nicely for me. On lifting days I eat high carb and low fat. On non-lifting days, I eat low carb and high fat. I’ve tried to further complicate it, and it ended poorly.

 

Why?

 

Because I like it like that. And I’m the goddamn boss of me. That’s why.

 

I began cycling my carbs like this, and my calories too- on lifting days I eat higher calories as well, as set out by Leangains intermittent fasting protocol designer Martin Berkhan. I had decided to experiment with this form of intermittent fasting after joining Fitocracy and seeing it discussed there. It was fun, and, truly, it began my love for all things nutritional science, and launched the beginning of my time reading and researching and learning about macros and experimenting with my diet. I found that, once I adjusted to eating all of my meals within an 8 hour span, I really liked how it freed up the rest of my day to NOT think about food! It was easy to get things done and not worry about stopping for lunch or carrying food with me. When it wasn’t eating time, I simply didn’t think about it. For me, it made, and still makes, sense. There are a number of ways to implement intermittent fasting- Leangains utilizes a typically-8 hour eating window each day, while others utilize alternate day fasts, modified fasts, longer or shorter fasts… I’ll let you do your own research if that interests you.

 

But more than the hours, more than the convenience, it’s the carb cycling that hooked me. You see, at the end of the week, my weekly average intake of macros looks strikingly similar to that of someone who eats the same macros every day. Percentage-wise, my carbs and fats and proteins are pretty standard for someone who spends as much time in the gym as I do. It’s the daily fluctuations that are quite different.

 

My protein is kept the same each day, but I split the remainder of my calories after protein is accounted for 25/75, with the larger percentage being carbs on lifting days and fats on rest days. I know. That’s so many fats on rest days!

 

This means that every single day I’m looking forward to something. If it’s a rest day and all I can think about is frozen yogurt, obviously my very low carbs for the day do not fit that in, and I’m filling my carb macros with mostly veggies, not fro yo, for both fiber and satiety. BUT CHEESE! And tomorrow, if it’s a lifting day, fro yo it is. If I’m craving avocados, oh goodness you better believe my next rest day will see me eating a whole one.

 

Now some would argue that I could just split my macros more evenly throughout the week and eat carbs and fats together, all in one day.

 

But when I eat avocados, I eat avocados.  I want ALL of the avocados. Not a tiny sliver of avocados. And I want a plate of pasta, not a tiny scoop. Keeping my macros split like I have them is fun! Granted, it’s a pain when my husband and I lift on opposite days and I’m making two versions of dinner, a high fat and a high carb, but, I’ve gotten pretty good at that too.

It’s not true, but I like to fantasize that Gordon is yelling at me while I cook, and this is how I imagine it going down as I scramble around the kitchen cooking two wildly different versions of a meal.

 

The theory behind cycling carbs, like I do with a simple high/low format or in a more complicated multi-day manner (high carb/moderate carb/low carb days, high/low/no carb, etc.), is that you can more effectively lose fat AND gain muscle by increasing your body’s insulin sensitivity, allowing you to more effectively utilize nutrients. When your body needs the carbs for immediate energy during activity or for repair after activity, you’ve provided them. On rest days, fats are increased and carbs decreased to, in theory, shed body fat and further enhance the effects of that nutrient partitioning, increasing your insulin sensitivity. It also brings your leptin- that’s a hormone responsible for telling you when you’re hungry- levels in check. Keeping your carb intake consistently high results in continuously elevated leptin levels, and eventually your body stops responding to it, leading to overeating and feelings of insatiability. Interjecting these low carb/high fat days stave this off, and allow you to eat poached eggs with truffle oil and bacon.

 

The idea is that your body, now low on carbs to burn, will turn to burning fat for energy- both dietary and stored body fat. And while I can’t say for sure 100% that this is true, my research leads me to believe that it is, and my personal experience-  that is, my ability to maintain very low body fat- indicates to me that it just might be.

 

An additional bonus to this cycling methodology is that I’ve learned to read my body really well. I’ve tracked my intake so carefully and analyzed my body’s responses to macro changes that I can, at this point, pinpoint when I have one macro too high or too low. I can tell when I’m overloaded on carbs and need a high fat day to balance things out. If you listen carefully, your body is giving you constant messages, constant feedback based on what you put into it. Cycling carbs and paying close attention to how my body responds has really helped me to figure out how my body is affected by even slight changes in either macro, because there are such large variations in my intake day to day. If nothing else, this acquired knowledge of my body has been incredible, and is truly what allowed me to run my own diet during contest prep. By knowing, through experimentation and years of careful tracking and paying close attention, I was able to manipulate my intake to the gram to get the results I wanted, and continues to help me as I reverse diet- increasing both my fat and carb macros.

 

Beginning carb cycling can be a bit difficult- I remember asking my husband how on Earth I was meant to eat 70g fats in a day- just eat a stick of butter? But you get better at it. And your cheese drawer soon includes cheddar and feta and chèvre and mozzarella, and your nut shelf includes almonds and cashews and walnuts and pine nuts and pecans and pepitas… Soon, you’re looking at nutrition labels and separating your snack food cabinet by training day and rest day snacks. Obviously, Oreos, pretzels, Cheerios, and rice cakes sleep on one side and my extensive collection of nut butters and nuts on the other.

Why yes, that is really seven different varieties of Oreo in my cupboard. #pleasesponsormeOreo

 

The thing about both intermittent fasting and carb cycling is that when you try to research them, you find a lot of fanaticism. Layne Norton even jokes about the “Church of Intermittent Fasting” in a few of his podcasts- people get too serious. You are going to find huge variations in beliefs about both topics, and wading through all the opinions to find the facts is time consuming, but to me, it’s been well worth it. I will say that I’ve had a lot of fun and learned a lot about my body through experimenting with my diet, and these are the two things that I have stuck with after seeing the effects on my own body. I encourage you to do your own research and experimentation in these things to see if it fits with your lifestyle.

 

Again, the best diet for you is the one you will stick to- your diet should fit your life, not complicate it unnecessarily.

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19 thoughts on “My Recipe for Macro Adherence: Carb Cycling and Intermittent Fasting

  1. Entertain us and then leave this solid piece of wisdom at the end “the best diet for you is the one you will stick to- your diet should fit your life, not complicate it unnecessarily.” Well played. (and you win extra points for a Gordon Ramsay reference – because Scottish minor league footballer turned chef is awesome.

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  2. One of the only things turning me off to carb-cycling (and it’s a lame excuse) is constantly changing MFP to fit the low or high carb days. Do you use MFP and just deal with it? Do you have another way of tracking your macros and carbs? Great post! 🙂

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    1. I use LoseIt to track- I can’t stand MFP to be honest. That said, there are no customizable macros in LoseIt either. I simply keep the lock screen on my phone set to a photo of the spreadsheet I use to calculate my macros for the week, and then keep my LoseIt app on the nutrient pie chart tab. It doesn’t count down for me or keep a goal, but I don’t mind that, I just keep track of it on my own.

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  3. Thanks for posting this, it’s a really useful insight.

    As someone who’s shifting from losing to recomp (I’ve only got 7-10lbs of scale weight to shift, but a fair bit of body fat to get rid of) I’m starting to experiment more with what works for me diet-wise in terms of both adherence and gym performance. The latter is becoming more important to me because I’ve recently (like last week) started 5/3/1 and that combined with more focus on strength over cardio has reminded me that lifting helps my mental health especially when I have the energy to push myself….and that requires decent calories and that right macro split.

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  4. Question: Do you count protein that is present in mainly carb food (for example in bread – slice of bread according to the label has 5 g of protein ) or you ignore these ‘trace’ amounts and only take into consideration protein in mainly ‘protein’ food (chicken)? I hope I make sense…

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    1. I log every gram. I weigh my food whenever possible (exceptions being when eating out or something, but I’m frighteningly accurate in my estimates) but I track everything.

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  5. One thing I wonder about carb cycling, intermittent fasting and training is … how to combine it? I usually train late in the evening because that’s when my pole classes are at. if I do intermitten fasting I need my last meal by four or five so I’m not too full for training later. So should I then stuff myself full of carbs for 8 hours before training? Seems a bit, eh … mean to my insulin levels, I suppose?
    This is the biggest problem I have with these three things, so I hope you’ll respond 🙂 So far I’m doing very well with intermittent fasting.

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    1. So I train in the evening as well- I’m a high school teacher, and I rarely make it home/to the gym before 4pm. I break my fast at 12:45 though, during my 7th period prep time. I typically eat about 400 calories, 50% carb, 20-35% protein at this time on a lifting day. If I feel like I need it (if the previous day was a rest day/low carb) I might have 20-30g carbs on my way to the gym, a packet of Skittles with my preworkout or something. On the weekends, I train in the morning, fasted, which I do prefer, but it’s just not feasible during the work week. You just adjust as necessary. For a while, my eating window was mornings, actually, but it’s now shifted to evenings. There’s no one way to do it- whatever makes it the easiest for you. It should serve to simplify your life, not further complicate it!

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      1. I find myself to be much more snacky at night, so an afternoon eating window served dual purpose: simplicity fur my schedule and keeping adherence. I’m ALLOWED snacks in the evening this way, I just plan them into my macros!

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  6. Stephanie,
    Have you done IF and carb cycling like this while training for powerlifting or just for contest prep? While I’ve never experimented with IF, I have carb cycled. It worked very well for me when my focus was solely on losing body fat/body recomp, but I struggled to maintain strength. I’m at a place now where I’m powerlifting and need to maintain/gain strength, but also need to lean up (about 10 lbs) to stay in my more competitive weight class. I am a bit terrified to cycle like I did before because I’ve gained so much strength in the last year, and don’t want to lose it! Do you have any suggestions?

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    1. Yes, I do this all the time. All through figure contest prep, as well as while I’m training for numbers. I haven’t found that it’s affected my training any, personally. I would say that as long as your programming is strong, and you are eating enough and training with high enough intensity, cycling should only serve to benefit your lifts. For me, the increased carbs on lifting days give me the energy to get through tough training sessions, and the increased fats on rest days help with satiety, which I need because I also reduce my caloric intake on rest days. I don’t think that cycling is a magic bullet for getting lean, either, that’s going to come strictly from a calorie deficit, it’s just another tool to use to increase dietary adherence. I would argue that a lot of strength loss on a cut is mental- if you keep your training intensity up, stick to your programming, and just go in with a mindset that you are absolutely capable of keeping strength, you will find that it’s much easier. Even on a cut, I progress on my lifts, so long as my deficit is not so severe that it interferes with my overall energy- and again, those increased training day carbs help a lot with that!

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      1. Thanks, this is good information. About how much do you reduce calories on a rest day? I’ve reduced mine between 10-15% – is this a reasonable amount? Not counting extra cardio, I’ve calculated my food deficit such that I should drop about 0.5 lb/week.

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      2. Mine changes depending on my goals, as well as depending on how many days in a week I’m lifting, in tandem with my lifting day calories. In general, whether I’m bulking, cutting ,or maintaining, I have an average of a 10-15% difference between the two days. I typically calculate what my weekly total should be in order to be on track for my goals (deficit, surplus, maintenance), then split that in 7 to find my daily average, then add to lifting days and subtract from rest days until I find a balance that feels right based on experience, again, it’s typically a 10-15% difference between the two days for me. Much larger of a difference and I’m starving on rest days and stuffed on lifting days. It’s really the weekly deficit/surplus that matters, so that’s what I use as my starting point, when I’m calculating out a reverse, a cut, or a bulk.

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  7. I just started working out, doing body weight exercises (squats, push ups, planks, etc) and going to move on to lighter weights/bands and progress to heavier weights as I get more comfortable. Do you recommend carb cycling and intermittent fasting as I’m starting out now, although I’ve just begun resistance training? Or is this something I should wait to do when I start using heavier weights? THANKS!!

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    1. Just starting out, carb cycling is an unnecessary complication. I recommend starting with straight macros- the same each day- and meeting those goals. Carb cycling is largely used by competitive athletes to just get a tiny bit more of an edge, if possible, but for most people, it’s just one more thing to screw around with and stress about. So don’t stress! Keep on progressing in the gym, stick to your macros, get strong!

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  8. Stephanie……I love your blog….my favorite is : Why? Because I like it like that. And I’m the goddamn boss of me. That’s why…..I will hear this come outof my mouth a lot in the future!!

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